Looking Back

Nina Katchadourian

May 4, 2017

Photo: Nina Katchadourian

We asked Nina Katchadourian to tell us about a picture that means something to her, and why. Katchadourian’s exhibition Curiouser is on view at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, TX, through June 11, after which it travels to the Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University.

There is a book called Survive the Savage Sea (Robertson, 1973) that I reread about once a year. It’s the true account of the Robertsons, a Scottish family of farmers, who sold their farm, bought a sailboat, and sailed around the world as a way of educating their children. Their sailboat was struck by killer whales off the Galapagos Islands and the six castaways spent 38 days adrift before being rescued.

This book has been in my whole family’s consciousness ever since I was a kid, too. There is a photo of my family that we keep tucked away in the family copy of the book (I make this distinction because I have several copies of my own), and it shows the Robertsons in the Ednamair, their tiny fiberglass dinghy, at the moment of rescue. In our family photo, the Katchadourians are in our family boat, Sallywalker, as we are approaching a dock. The body positions in the picture recall the rescue photo so closely that my mother has captioned the family picture the same way as in the book.

Several years ago I made a pilgrimage to visit the Ednamair at the National Maritime Museum in Cornwall, England, and touching her was like laying hands on a holy object for me. She was so tiny. How much can people survive, endure, imagine, and invent under great duress? I’ve been thinking about this for nearly 41 years now, and I find the lessons of this book particularly instructive at this point in time.