Acclaimed photographer Tierney Gearon came to UCSB’s Campbell Hall last week to answer audience questions after a screening of The Mother Project, a film that documents her quest to photograph the complex beauty of her emotionally disturbed mother.

Gearon’s unconventional family portraits gained worldwide acclaim in 2001, stirring up controversy during her debut exhibit at the Saatchi Gallery in London, where they were hailed as stunning by some critics and manipulative and even perverse by others. London police went so far as to demand that the gallery take down photographs of Gearon’s young children, threatening to press child pornography charges because of their state of undress in some of the photos.

“After the press in London, I started to doubt myself as a mother,” Gearon said. “Sometimes I feel a little guilty because people may see my work as exploiting my mom and my kids. But it’s just a way of healing myself and I don’t think that it will harm them in any way.”

The photographs, strikingly unconventional family portraits, capture highly personal moments in Gearon’s life, from her children wearing cartoon masks on the beach in the summer, to her mother, wrapped in scarves and bathed in the light of car headlights on a snowy highway.

“I just photograph the things that are closest to me, what’s closest to my heart,” Gearon said of her images. “It’s like therapy, and at the same time, I’m sharing what I’m feeling with other people.”

Born in Atlanta, Gearon began her career as a dancer and model, shooting photographs backstage at fashion shows and on European runways. On the side, she began compiling photographs of her free-spirited children. The images were soon brought to the attention of Charles Saatchi, who featured her work in his gallery alongside legendary documentary photographers, such as Nan Goldin.

After the Saatchi show, Gearon rose to the rank of art celebrity in London, establishing herself as a top commercial photographer.

“I wasn’t planning to have any success in the art world,” Gearon said after the UCSB screening. “If someone told me 10 or 15 years ago that my pictures were going to be in a gallery or that I was going to have a book of photos in a bookstore, I never would have believed them.”

The documentary, directed by Jack Youngelson and Peter Sutherland, records Gearon’s return to the work that launched her public fame, the intimate portraits of her family.  The film follows Gearon and her children over the course of three years, as she assembles a body of portraits of her mother, who lives alone in upstate New York and suffers from manic-depressive disorder and schizophrenia.

The experience of being followed by the filmmakers was a challenging, yet rewarding one for Gearon.

“It’s very hard to have someone following you around, filming you 24 hours a day,” Gearon said. “I can’t even begin to tell you what it’s like.  It’s so invasive.”

But Gearon also explained the way that the film, like her own photographs, has helped her to understand where she came from and who she is as a person.

“These filmmakers had such a unique opportunity to get inside my head, to see what I was doing,” Gearon said.  “And for me, these images are like a diary of my soul.”

The film also highlights Gearon’s children’s reactions to being photographed.

“My mom doesn’t ask us to do something and we don’t really realize it,” said Emily, 8.  “We just have fun and play and she takes the pictures.

The Mother Project does much more than a document an artist at work.  It digs deeper, exploring both the pains and joys of family life, while exposing the raw emotion and eccentric details that make the images of Gearon’s loved ones so hard to forget.

UCSB junior Gina Pollack is a Noozhawk intern.