For her project My Father’s Legs, Croatian photographer Sara Perovic takes family photos of her dad playing tennis and recreates them with her partner, placing the old images side by side with the new. She tells Alex Kahl how a project that began as her attempt to settle her differences with her father gradually became a love letter to him.
A few years ago, Croatian photographer Sara Perovic’s teacher said she believed everyone has to kill their father, creatively speaking. The teacher said that every artist should, at some point, explore their relationship with their parents. This made Sara realize she too had some issues with her father she had to solve.
She began sifting through old family photo albums, and found hundreds of shots of her dad, who worked as a tennis coach, in his ‘70s short shorts, racquet in hand. His legs reminded her of all the times her mum had talked endlessly about how beautiful they were. “I fell in love with your father because of his legs,” she would say. Even now, still together after 50 years, her mum will still reminisce about them fondly: “oh my god, really, he did have beautiful legs.”
She started to compile the photos into a series which became [My Father’s Legs]. Almost every photo shows him in tennis gear of some kind, or standing on the court. Sara always knew how deep his obsession for tennis went, and looking back, she sees this as the reason why he wasn’t always so present in her life. “My mum wasn’t raising us alone, but he did seem to always be working,” she says. “Every time I say it he tells me it isn’t true, but even when he took time off from work, it would mostly be for something tennis-related.”
The project acted as a kind of therapy for her, to help her accept certain aspects of her upbringing. She’s adamant that her childhood was in no way traumatic but, like most people, she still had lingering complaints about some decisions her parents had made. “That’s the thing. I really love my father, and I had a happy childhood. He was just very single-minded,” she says. “I wanted to go and study art, and he wanted me to study something I was less passionate about that would pay the bills. I wasn’t even allowed posters on my bedroom walls.”
Sara says that she often felt misunderstood as a child, but never rebelled or went against her parents’ wishes. “In some ways, this project was my rebellion to all these pressures I felt as a child,” she explains. Compiling the photographs herself, being in control of these snapshots of her dad, she felt like she was in the position of power in their relationship for the first time.
She decided to take this sense of control further by recreating the photos, with her own partner as the model. She photographed her partner’s legs as he copied her dad’s poses around their house. He took up various positions wearing nothing but boxer shorts and a pair of sports socks as she took his picture. The camera’s powerful flash exposes all the tiny details, from the bumps and curves of his calf muscles to the dark hair carpeting his tanned skin. This is a project that has her dad as the focal point, but she remains in charge of its direction, and she enjoyed feeling like this was a match between them that only she could win.
Sara began to realize that she was looking at her own partner’s legs in the same intimate way her mother had looked at her father’s decades ago, and that the dynamic between her parents was repeating itself in her own life. “I hadn’t understood her comments before, but by the time I was going through these albums I was with the father of my daughter, who also has beautiful legs,” she says. “It’s funny how these stories repeat themselves.”
The fact that Sara’s partner is the subject in her photos is significant, as it’s almost an admission that things can be handed down through generations. While working on the project, it dawned on her that the love of legs she shared with her mum wasn’t the only thing that has been passed down to her from her parents. Gradually, she’s realized that she wasn’t so dissimilar to her father herself, even when it came to the small grudges she held against him. “No matter what I think of him as a father, he only raised me as he was raised,” she says. “I’ve started to see him in my own ways. I’m just mirroring him, his gestures and words and way of behaving, and it scares me.” It’s an epiphany that most of us have had at some point. That there will be things we take from our parents, and that this can’t be avoided. “All of us are bringing that baggage into our own lives. It’s imprinted on us from the start. In this project, I’m accepting that, and exploring our similarities and our differences,” she says.
“I always say I don’t think my photography will ever change the world; I just want to make people think. With My Father’s Legs, my private life is the starting point, but I hope it’ll encourage others to question their own relationships.”