By Hamidah Glasgow | June 27, 2019
Michelle Rogers Pritzl was born and raised Southern Baptist in Washington DC area. Pritzl received a BFA from the Corcoran College of Art and Design in 2001, and an MA in Art Education from California State University in 2010, and an MFA in Photography from Lesley University College of Art, where she studied with Christopher James, in 2014. Her work explores the tension between past and present in our psychological lives as well as the photographic medium itself, often working in a digital/analogue hybrid and using historic alternative processes. Pritzl has been widely exhibited in the US as well as internationally. She was a Critical Mass Top 250 finalist in 2013, 2014, and 2017; she has been featured in Lenscratch, Diffusion Magazine, Lumen Magazine, Shots Magazine.
She lives on a farm in the Finger Lakes with her husband, John.
Not Waving But Drowning is a look inside an Evangelical marriage. These images show the truth of a life lived in the confines of oppressive gender roles, cult-like manipulation, and the isolation of Fundamentalism… I use self-portraiture to share my own experience within the Fundamentalist Lifestyle without being explicitly autobiographical; I unmask what is beneath the veneer of "perfect" marriages and families. My chosen medium of collodion used with contemporary digital media represents the outdated behaviors and rules imposed on women by Fundamentalism. _ Michelle Rogers Pritzl
HG: Tell me more about creating this body of work titled, Not Waving But Drowning?
MRP: Not Waving But Drowning is the third series in a what was my way of telling the story of what it was like growing up in that environment, as well as working through my feelings regarding what I'd been taught and eventually walking away from it all. I had started this work in grad school, and I was really going through the process of deconstructing what I believed, and as I worked through it, I came to the point that I knew I had to make some very big and scary changes in my life. I had really lived this stuff. Not perfectly but I had done my best- and I had found myself in my mid-thirties absolutely miserable. I had done my best to follow what was supposed to bless me and I had none of the things I wanted so badly- children and a home of my own and a different kind of life. I was letting another person dictate my life, and I had a moment one night where it hit me that I was miserable because I had chosen to follow this crazy stuff I'd been taught. I felt angry that I had wasted so many years of my life, and that was what gave me the courage to leave. I left my marriage, terrified because I did care what many of my former friends thought of me and my character, but I decided to make the life I wanted for myself anyway. Not Waving But Drowning is the story of what I had been living in and the journey to leave. Although it's very much about my own experience, it's also about other people's experiences as well. One thing I experienced a lot of was cognitive dissonance- I know that there are a lot of unhappy people out there pretending on Sundays and I don't think my own experience is that different from many other women's, except that I left.
HG: Each image signifies some aspect of how that culture affected you can you talk more about that?
MRP: Every image in this story tells some aspect of what I felt like. It's a window in, to see the truth rather than the smiling face I wore in public. I sequenced the titles and the images with the plot of The Awakening by Kate Chopin and the images show a slow burn, a slow progression of living through loneliness, wrestling with the feeling that my life was slipping away from me- the life I wanted, what it felt like to be a submissive wife who did what her husband wanted in all things. There's the surreal feeling of looking back at the years as they drag on and know I could have had so much more if I hadn't been afraid, that those years are gone. The Hum of Bees is what it was like to start to tell people the truth, to remove myself from the fog I lived in and reveal the truth of all the years. The image that is the most direct interpretation of a moment in my life is The Shore Was Far Behind, the image of the hand holding the cut hair. It's the exact moment that I made the choice and said I wanted a divorce. I had no idea how painful the experience would be; it was a literal severing of ties of my old life, many old friends, my beliefs. I lost people I genuinely loved and felt like I lost a part of my identity too. That image is the moment I jumped, I ran, and what was left behind in my old life.
HG: The process you use to create the images gives them a unique look, please elaborate on your process?
MRP: I use self-portraiture to share my own experience within the Fundamentalist Lifestyle without being explicitly autobiographical; I unmask what is beneath the veneer of "perfect" marriages and families. My chosen medium of collodion used with contemporary digital media represents the outdated behaviors and rules imposed on women by Fundamentalism.
HG: The title of the series and the individual works, tell me about the influences for those?
MRP: The title of the series is taken from the Stevie Smith poem by the same name. The title suggests a kind of frantic despair beneath the surface of a smiling, perfect demeanor. It represents the woman who smiles every Sunday while protecting her husband with silence and prayers for change.
The image titles come from The Awakening by Kate Chopin and are sequenced by their titles' place within the story. Unlike Mrs. Pontellier, I choose to thrive in my freedom. I seek to unmask, to reveal truth. Growing up in Fundamentalist Christianity, I endured the cognitive dissonance of wearing the smiling facade to mask the oppressive truth. By unmasking that truth, I set myself free from the burden of my silence. This is my protest. I will no longer be silent. I choose to live.
HG: How do you view that culture now?
MRP: I think it's a lie and I still feel sad that I wasted so many years of my life, robbed myself of normal and healthy life experiences.
HG: I hope you don't mind, but I would like to explore purity culture a little further. Are there several kinds? If so, how do they differ? What do people living this culture say about it as opposed to what you see as the truth behind their claims? What are the roots of purity culture?
MRP: It's tricky to separate purity culture. I use it to describe the culture that goes with the biblical mandate of sexual purity- the way churches and youth groups started events like the purity balls and rituals like purity rings, Bible studies on books written about teens renouncing dating. For me, the cultural phenomenon is its own monster that grew out of the biblical mandate of sexual purity. That is different depending on how literal a church believes the Bible to be. That said, I've never attended a church that didn't believe sex was something sacred to be saved for marriage.
Whether you're talking about the way youth are targeted or what the Bible says I think it's all the same- my own experiences have been the same- sex before marriage is bad, women are supposed to play a certain role deferring to the man, as women were supposed to be modest, not causing men to "stumble" by looking on a woman with desire. I have been told so many times that I had to be careful about what I wear- usually by a man in a leadership position staring at my breasts as if I'm making men sin just by existing.
The idea of sexual purity is that you'll save yourself for marriage and you and your husband will only share sex or any form of sexual expression with only each other, and it's somehow a foolproof way to have a perfect marriage that lasts forever. The Bible says that sexual sin is worse than anything else because you're sinning against your own body. Purity culture wraps the idea of sin up with consequences like STDs, goes heavy on the idea that if you share intimacy with anyone before you're married you'll be unloveable, and of course, all of this is about following the rules, doing what you're taught and committing to do the" right" thing. There's this shiny, beautiful future; you're promised if you do the right thing. And the guilt is overwhelming.
Of course, the truth is that none of this is true. God or whoever is not waiting to smite anyone; intimacy and sexuality is not something bad to experience with more than one person. I think a lot of the "perfect Christian marriages" have a lot of horrible hidden things going on, and I think that the way purity is taught it sets people up to be vulnerable in relationships and be trapped in abusive situations. Imagine feeling like something is wrong in your relationship because of one person's actions, and you try to talk to a friend or a pastor, but you're just told that you shouldn't be having sex, and that's the end of the conversation. And you've only been with the one person so you don't know what's normal and what's someone abusing you while saying they love you. You can't talk about something like that without judgment.
The truth is there's nothing wrong with anyone's sexuality, or with loving people without marrying them, and no one should feel ashamed or scared.
I think purity culture is something that has been with us all along. The Bible has always mandated certain behaviors. Society has always had this ingrained. I think the gains of the last few decades of sexual freedom, equality, etc. make churches more reactionary like they're fighting against "the world." I think that's really what modern purity culture is about and why it's more extreme.
HG: Where in the Bible are these behaviors supposedly mandated?
MRP: Here are a couple verses and then link is a pretty good example of how conservative churches put it all together to mean no sex before marriage.
But among you, there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God's holy people.
MRP: 1 Peter 3:1-4
Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct. Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious.
This is pretty exact to what I was taught growing up in a Southern Baptist Church.
HG: Ok, I've gone down the rabbit hole of purity culture on the internet. What I find interesting is that the religious leaders talking about the sin of sex before marriage say that it doesn't say that in the Bible but that it is inferred.
MRP: It is a rabbit hole, isn't it? And yes, it's not literally in the Bible, any of it. And really, if you take into context the time and culture that it was written, it seems crazy to me to use it literally to condemn people for any number of things that the Bible says is wrong but doesn't hurt anyone. A person's consensual sexual choices are theirs alone.
HG: I love the way you've made visual the cutting of the hair as the metaphor for severing your ties to this oppressive patriarchal culture. The image is a powerful reference to destructive issues of being controlled and choosing freedom.
HG: Will you continue making this work for a while? Are you still processing this, and how is the healing process?
MRP: Today, I am grateful every single day for my life. I'm so glad that I get to live the life I want and that I'm free of constraints. The first year was so hard, but my life is so full- with my husband and my son, our farm, I am healed, and I'm so lucky. I have thought where I'd be today if I hadn't left and that first year was so worth it to be where I am. I'm not entirely sure where I'll be going with new work, but I do feel strongly that it should reflect the truth that I did everything "wrong," and I have a joy and a bounty that I never knew I could have. No one smited me, there were no lightning bolts of judgment, and I wish I had believed that everything could be ok years before.
HG: I think this is an appropriate interview to bring up the idea of Strange Fire. As a collective, we came up with this term and then researched it and found that it was also a biblical reference. We are committed to equity and inclusion in the face of the white supremacist patriarchy, and I believe that a Strange Fire is just what is needed to build the world in which we want to live. Thoughts?
MRP: I love the name, and I had to look up the biblical reference there. I think for too long the white patriarchy has shut people out and hidden them, asked people to sacrifice love and their lives for this crazy idea of Biblical morals. I want to live in a world where people are free to live in a way that’s right for them, love whom they choose and where’s there’s a seat at the table for all of us. I want it for me; I want that world for my son. I agree that a strange fire is what’s needed. I think according to the story in the Bible that my life once I chose to live as I pleased is that- a strange fire offered to God, and unlike the story in the Bible no one struck me down. That’s the truth of it- your life is yours to live as you please and you don’t need to sacrifice any part of who you are to please a higher power or be blessed.
We will build a better world that way.
HG: Thank you for your work and for sharing your life stories. I believe that you will help many women by being so open and honest.
MRP: Thank you!