A woman’s body contorted to fit inside an empty television set. That same woman dragging a ball and chain, with money wrapped around the ball. She is nude and curled into a fetal position in an old trunk. She is prostrate beneath a mattress with a dog collar wrapped around her throat. Look again, and her face is wrapped in chains.
These are just a few of the images from Marsha Lane Foster’s Hostage Project. The twelve-piece project is jaw-dropping, moving from one scene to the next in still moments from a dark dream, with its accompanying text illuminating each moment captured. There is a brutality to the exquisite beauty of the photographs—an honesty and vulnerability to them that dares the viewer to come into the moment with the photographer and her model. An honesty that dares the viewer not to look away, a vulnerability that begs engagement without ego or reprieve.
The question that began the project was deeply personal, but one that most adults could probably answer if they thought about it long enough. Marsha Lane Foster asked it first on social media, “What in your life do you feel holds you hostage or keeps you from prospering?” The response on the thread, and in her personal inbox, was overwhelming. Women began to tell her their most personal stories.
The weight of those stories and the responsibility inherent in the burden was not lost on Foster, but she says she never felt stuck or overburdened. She said, “It wasn’t light. It was fun, but it wasn’t fun in the sense of going to an amusement park or something. I felt the burden of the women’s stories. I felt the burden of my own experiences. I felt the burden of my model’s experiences.”
Foster never scheduled anything else on the days when the Hostage Project was shot. She said, “It would be so physically and emotionally exhausting.” Part of that exhaustion was owed to the fact that she and her model were channeling experiences, creating an atmosphere. “Whether I’m shooting boudoir or maternity boudoir, or whatever I’m shooting—fine art—I know that the feelings we create in that space come through the photographs.”
The feelings captured in the moments Foster curates during her shoots do come through her photographs. The work isn’t heavy-handed, however. Foster’s philosophy on the role of the artist is simple. She says, “Art is subjective, it speaks to our personal experiences. It’s my job to put it out there—it’s not my job to tell you what to think or feel about it.”
Though Foster isn’t one to tell the viewer how to interpret her work, the work of the Hostage Project was deeply personal. She says it was part of “cleaning out [her] closet.” The process took a year, and the way she viewed the work began to change along the journey. From the specificity of her own experience came a broader view.
Foster said, “In the beginning, it was about domestic violence. Then it was about everything that holds women back and prevents them from prospering. And then, toward the end of the project, when I was further along on the path of healing, it became about what holds people back in general. I realized it was part of the human condition, whether it was about a man or a woman or a child . . . it didn’t matter.”
The work in the Hostage Project is above all human and humane, full of a vulnerability that is at once engaging and almost too much to bear. There is something about Marsha Lane Foster’s work that crosses boundaries of gender and personal experience. It isn’t just about the woman in the television set in the photo called “Conformity” or the woman who seems to be in danger of being crushed beneath a mattress in “Perpetrated.” The woman with the chain around her head in “Servitude,” the woman holding a heart in her hand in “Extracted,” all portrayed by model Layla Fields Dyke, that woman might be any one of us.
There is universality in Foster’s work—for who hasn’t felt contorted into some kind of conformity or chained by expectations? The central question resounds in each image: “What in your life do you feel holds you hostage or keeps you from prospering?” The average person probably wouldn’t envision a woman in a trunk when the answer to that question is debasement, but then, that is the role of the artist—to envision what others would not.
Marsha Lane Foster envisions what others would not, and she brings her vision to life in stunning photographs that beg to be explored with the fullness of the viewer’s self. The Hostage Project is one that catches the eye, that holds the attention of the viewer. It is hauntingly beautiful, yes, but there is more to it than that—the project is hauntingly resonant as well.
You can find out more about Marsha Lane Foster’s work by visiting lanefosterfineart.com