Avalon DiBernard

Hard Times

Hard Times

Avalon DiBernard

Getting accepted into college is typically an exciting and celebrated achievement. Initially, I shared this sentiment. Throughout the years leading up to college, I had been repeatedly told how crucial it was, emphasizing the significance of good grades and encouraging me to be a catalyst for change within my family. Then I finally got accepted. 

I first moved to Massachusetts majoring in Journalism, driven by my passion for media and writing and an avid interest in current events. However, the events of 2016 proved the dying world of journalism, leading me to reevaluate my career choice. My family's sudden engagement in politics during that time further dampened my enthusiasm for the field. Consequently, I transferred and changed my major, first to film and then to photography.

I desired a field where I felt I could excel and readily acquire skills. I was never perceived as the smartest, but people assumed otherwise due to my anxiety driven quietness and my love for writing. So, was pursuing a degree in Photography financially wise? In all honesty, it wasn't, but I can't deny that I acquired valuable skills and forged a deep friendship that feels like family. The weight of student loans often makes me question my choices, particularly when I reminisce about the happier moments from college or the crazy experiences my friend and I went through.

While my family didn't explicitly disapprove of my major change, I sensed their reservations. It felt as though I went from being the family's golden child with good grades and a promising future to someone they considered an uninformed idiot, wasting her time. Various family members expressed concern and condescension.

As someone who has struggled with anxiety and depression throughout the entirety of my life, I tend to prepare emotionally for life's challenges. I steeled myself for college, for graduation, and for the inevitable disillusionment of the so-called "real world" I was deemed ignorant about. What I didn't anticipate was the immediate sense of abandonment by the very people who had encouraged me to attend college. It felt like a betrayal.

During my first two years at Ringling, I unexpectedly found myself missing home, despite knowing that my family harbored resentment toward me. I later realized that I had grown accustomed to a toxic environment. I wasn't at home, so I couldn't anticipate the next crisis, the bad news, or the looming catastrophe. Looking back, I wish I had embraced the college experience more fully and lived in the moment. It wasn't until my junior year that I finally stopped focusing so much on what was happening at home.

The summer before my junior year marked a difficult period, with my brother entering rehab. The last time I saw him, he was angry and didn't speak to my sister or I. As he walked down the stairs and into the car, I felt relief, not minding his anger. But then, junior year began.

I redirected my focus from home to school, my projects, and making new memories with my best friend. However, during my darkroom class, my sister sent me an article about a homeless man found dead near my brother's rehab. I knew he had been struggling, but I didn't realize how dire it was that night. I kept calling him, re-reading the article, and even contemplated calling the police for information. Deep down, I knew the truth. That evening, while I was in the studio working on a project, I saw my mother's call, but I chose to ignore it. I continued shooting until my friend received a call, and the yelling on the other end confirmed my anxiety. She handed me the phone, and the reality of the situation hit me.

My thesis centered around my mental health struggles and the dissociative state I had found myself in since that night. Time seemed to freeze in that studio, and to this day, I haven't moved on. In some ways, I still act as if my brother is in rehab. After that, I poured everything into my schoolwork, hardly thinking about home. By the time I started my thesis, I hardly thought about going home, always ready to return to Florida.

As I began my thesis, I knew I wanted to share my struggles, voice my inner thoughts, and be more vulnerable through my art. I'm not typically an emotionally open person, and I don't often share personal details. However, creating art based on my thoughts and emotions is the closest I can get to being open with myself and others.

I loved my thesis, but I would make one change: removing the two chapters, Mirrorball and Right Where You Left Me. Although I loved the images and their symbolic significance, the initial set of images I shot, Happiness, perfectly conveyed the emotions I wanted to express. I shot them quickly, fearing they wouldn't suffice. I cherished these images so much that I didn't want to subject them to endless critique or requests for reshoots, despite any technical imperfections.

Initially, my thesis was intended to be a visual letter to my family. Titled after Taylor Swift’s This is Me Trying, it represented my lifelong efforts to meet my family's expectations and be the change they sought. My entire life, I had strived to please them, especially by pursuing higher education. However, their response was underwhelming. They viewed the images and moved on. They didn't attend my show, and to be honest, I didn't want them to. They failed to comprehend or show interest in my work, and I reciprocated by not wanting their presence. My show felt like the closing chapter to that part of my life, resembling a funeral more than a celebration.

Fast forward 3.5 years, and the "real world" has unfolded as I anticipated. The comments that used to irritate me, like "you're not ready for the real world" or "welcome to the real world," are no longer a source of frustration. Growing up in a family facing numerous struggles, I gained early insight into what the real world entailed. I had strived in school to avoid those struggles in adulthood, but in today's world, marked by scarcity of jobs, even with the abundance of "we're hiring" signs online or outside, success primarily hinges on personal connections. Contrary to what I was told, my degree didn't make life any easier; it only piled on more debt. 

Not much has changed since graduation. I've been living on autopilot, shooting when inspiration strikes and grappling with my inner monologue when it doesn't. My refuge lies in the company of friends, media, music, and other distractions.

My series, Hard Times, follows my post-college journey. It comprises moments that I found beautiful or that resonate with my emotional struggles during this time, nothing too specific.

The video, Congratulations, serves as the introduction to this series. Following the style of my previous montage videos, it features clips from the past three years. Filmed using a toy camera, camcorder, and my cellphone, it captures endless driving, distractions, events, and moments with my closest friends, all set to the song Congratulations by MGMT.

The introduction to Congratulations includes clips from Ethel Cain's Preacher's Daughter visuals, intertwined with footage from the film Girl, Interrupted. Media and pop culture have always played a pivotal role in my work, as they served as a refuge in my upbringing. Characters like Winona Ryder's portrayal of Susanna in Girl, Interrupted resonated deeply with me at a young age, depicting depression, anxiety, and BPD in an authentic way.

Over the past year, I've been captivated by Ethel's concept album, Preacher's Daughter, and found a deeply personal connection to her words. While her album delves into themes of small-town religious conflicts, personal religious struggles, and trauma like SA and abuse, I interpreted her lyrics in a different light. Phrases such as "swinging by my neck from the family tree," "God loves you but not enough to save you," and "These crosses all over my body remind me of who I used to be" resonated with the family-related betrayal I felt in my own life. Although I've spent my life distracting myself from my past and trying not to dwell on it, there are lingering reminders that constantly haunt me.

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