Last week, the one question that inevitably dominated casual conversations among McGill students was where everyone spent their reading weeks. A lucky few had the opportunity to travel south and enjoy warmer weather, staying in the West Indies or even Florida, a traditional destination for March break. While we’re all back at school now, the sun-soaked retirees for which Florida is perhaps even more known remain on extended vacation, and they’re the subject of Concordia photography graduate Mika Goodfriend’s exhibit Snowbirds.
Goodfriend’s photographs are on display in the exterior of Concordia’s FOFA Gallery, behind glass that adds to the voyeuristic nature of the shots of the elderly and their vacation homes. Ninety-eight per cent of the residents are from Quebec, and together they form the community of Breezy Hill RV Resort in Pompano Beach. Their heritage is an integral part of Goodfriend’s project, and he claims his Anglophone identity prevented him from becoming fully immersed in this community, despite his own upbringing in Quebec. Consequently, the series appears to be taken from an outsider’s perspective; an anthropological study of a lost culture. The photographs focus on the imported knick-knacks and tanned faces that create the Breezy Hill residents’ home away from home, a fabrication of which they certainly seem proud in their portraits.
The series and its motivations appear, however, to be at odds with each other—why travel to Florida to study Quebec culture? At first glance, Goodfriend’s stated goal of an introspective identity search seems suspicious. Florida has always been the subject of jokes about its elderly residents, and it is easy to interpret the humour in these photographs as condescending.
When I asked Goodfriend about what made his photos funny, he brought up this possibility himself, saying, “I’m not trying to make fun of them in any way. People, I suppose, could read into it as they like, but clearly through my artist statement and my whole raison d’être … I have a deep respect for snowbirds, and for these people who I became friends with.”
While his images are carefully arranged, Goodfriend’s explanation of his project is candid, and lends credence to its sincerity, even if the images themselves don’t communicate it transparently. In preparation for his portraits, he spent a little over a month building relationships with the community in order to gain their trust, and despite the kitsch that surrounds them, the expressions of Breezy Hill’s snowbirds are both natural and acute. Their portraits reveal a certain kind of wisdom, the result of a simple happiness that has found its way into a community that leaves its worries behind by migrating to the Sunshine State.
Success seems to have taken Goodfriend by surprise. His exhibit won the national prize of the Bank of Montreal student contest “1st Art!” last August, a competition he entered on the suggestion of one of his photography professors. During my interview, friends approached him to congratulate him on his gallery opening, and he sheepishly excused himself to speak to “the media.” Snowbirds is certainly an indication of promise for Goodfriend’s career now that he’s graduated with a second bachelor’s degree, and hopefully the $10,000 BMO award will encourage him to keep traveling.
Snowbirds is on display at Concordia’s FOFA gallery until Apr. 4. Free admission.