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A few seconds holding hands

When I describe Michèle Pearson Clarke’s It’s Good to be Needed (Goodtobeneeded.com) project to women, they cringe.

Clarke photographs ex-partners—queer women who don’t maintain a friendship—holding hands with each other. Some women immediately conjure their worst breakup with their worst ex—hell, no!

But the photos’ many mysteries are a feast for viewers. Is there any visible historic intimacy underneath the obvious awkwardness? What went through the women’s minds when they decided to do this and what were they thinking the moment the photo was taken? Will this artsy ritual change their memory of the relationship? When three of Clarke’s photos were shown at the Gladstone Hotel’s Pride show, lesbian attendees who knew the subjects were abuzz about the backstories.

“People don’t want to do it, but they want to see it,” says Clarke, 40, who started her art practice in film before adding photography to the mix. Clarke got the idea for It’s Good to be Needed after her mother passed away in 2011, prompting her to contemplate unconditional love (her mother showered her with it) and how people carry loss. “That whole grieving process brought up a lot of older grief. I had begun a new relationship a few months before my mother passed away. My partner is close to her ex-husband and I’m not close to my ex-wife, and we were talking about the contrasts in our own lives. Because it’s the opposite of the conception that lesbians are always close to their exes and straight people are not.”

At first Clarke figured she’d do eight or 10 photos to be posted all at once on the online gallery No More Potlucks (nomorepotlucks.org). But the difficulty of finding willing subjects expanded and broadened the project, which will follow her into an MFA at Ryerson University this fall.

The negotiations required—and Clarke’s conducted more than 20 negotiations for the four photos she’s taken so far—are a performance the viewer can only guess at. Clarke presents herself as a neutral facilitator, forming an email relationship with both the volunteer and the ex, who might be confused and annoyed. “I realize I’m asking a lot of people. I try to make the photo shoot happen as fast as possible,” she says. “Like most things in life, when we struggle to imagine doing something, when we see somebody else do it, it makes it possible. If these people can do it, then I can.”

Although Clarke isn’t naïve enough to declare, “We should all be friends,” she is trying to tap into the tenderness she believes underlines the queer experience. “As people who have to come out, we know who we have to be to take care of each other,” says Clarke. “We all have stuff we want to heal, stuff we want to shift. It’s a small community. When two people break up and there are difficult feelings that are not resolved, it tends to have this ripple effect through other friendship groups. The more time that passes, the more these things become entrenched. Eight, nine years later, you can’t even remember why you don’t talk to this person or why, when these two people are in the room, it becomes uncomfortable.”

It might seem trite to try to get past a bad breakup with a few seconds of hand-holding. But Clarke has found that some candidates got something out of just imagining doing it. “One woman told me, ‘Just her saying she wanted to do this with me was important to me.’

“It’s a stereotype but it’s true. Lesbians do tend to process a lot. But sometimes it’s not enough.”

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