After Anjali Pinto’s husband died suddenly at age 30, the photographer didn’t turn inward. She turned to Instagram.
By Deborah Shapiro
Published Dec. 26, 2017, at 10:04 a.m.
anjalipinto Jacob is no longer with me, with all of us who love and admire him. The shock, pain and grief are immeasurable, but thank you to all who have reached out. We will be having a gathering tomorrow at The Ivy Room, 3pm-6pm and his funeral will be Saturday in Onawa, Iowa where he was raised.
jayzombie I’m at a loss for words. I’m sorry from a far away acquaintance isn’t even enough to make up for the pain and emptiness you must be experiencing. Hoping you are able to find strength while navigating such a devastating loss […]
On New Year’s Eve 2016, Anjali Pinto and her husband, Jacob Johnson, a furniture maker who’d grown up in Iowa and met Pinto in 2012, spent a quiet day in their Andersonville apartment. They wanted some time together before she flew to New York with her sister for a short getaway and he drove to Michigan to see a concert with friends. Around dusk, after waking from a nap, Pinto found her husband on the bathroom floor, his eyes closed, like he’d fainted. He looked peaceful, but he wasn’t breathing. Then came the call to 911, the EMTs, the hospital. It was Johnson’s heart. His aorta had ruptured, the result of a previously undetected flaw in the artery wall. Athletic, strong, and seemingly healthy, he died three weeks before his 31st birthday. He and Pinto had been married for 16 months.
How do you make sense of something that makes no sense? Pinto, a 28-year-old professional photographer, attempted to do so in the way that felt most natural to her: through images. At the hospital, before her husband was taken away, she held his hand one last time and, instinctively, took a picture of that. “It’s kind of like the camera acts as a shield—I can’t process this right now, but I need to come back to it,” she says of her decision to take that photo. “And if I don’t shoot it, I might not remember it.” On New Year’s Day, she posted that shot on Instagram to let people know about a memorial that was being planned. Sympathy and condolences streamed in, but she didn’t want pity, she says. She wanted “to remember how amazing he was.”
In the weeks that followed, she began posting pictures of her husband and their life together—including ones that Johnson, an avid photographer himself, had taken of her—as well as new self-portraits of her in grief. There were so many pictures to go through from the four and a half years they’d spent with each other, a photographic record of being young and in love, of working and making art, of seeing friends and family, of biking around the city and traveling the world. Pinto included with those photos of her recent past unvarnished descriptions of how she was feeling in the immediate present. “I had so much to say and so much pouring out of me,” she recalls.
Over the course of the past year, those Instagram posts—one a day, every day—have become a kind of documentary project: a tribute to Johnson and an unfolding of Pinto’s grief. Far from scrubbed clean, her Instagram feed is all the more moving for how human it is, for its intimate detail, for its willingness to acknowledge conflicted, nuanced emotions. “It’s been important to me to try to paint a picture of the real person that he was. Like, he had a stupid temper, we fought a lot about stupid shit.” Similarly, she doesn’t put an uplifting gloss on her own moods; despite striving to stay optimistic, she can just as easily “wake up with a dull ache,” as she wrote on August 14. “It doesn’t feel inspiring or revelatory, it just feels like nothing is enough.” Taken together, the posts accumulate a resonance, revealing the ways that sadness, hurt, and anger are inextricably bound up with gratitude, humor, pleasure, and joy.
Pinto is sensitive to the fact that she’s not the only one who lost Johnson. “The pain of his family is equally intense, and I want to respect the way that they grieve, which is not publicly,” she says. “I don’t ever want them to feel like I’m exploiting the situation or not honoring him in some way.”
She also recognizes the risks that go along with public self-presentation, the devolution of a flesh-and-blood person into a persona or, worse, a brand. “I am afraid of becoming an archetype,” she posted on September 27. “To some I am the Heal Through Your Art Widow, the Dance ’Til You Feel Better Widow, the So Sad and Vulnerable Right Now Widow, or the Desperate to Love Widow. I don’t want to be a widow with a capital W. I don’t want to be a widow at all.”
Pinto now has more than 50,000 followers, up from 8,000 or so when she started. She hears from strangers offering support, sharing their own experiences, letting her know how her story has helped them. “People have been wonderful,” she says. “I cry at my computer all the time.” She’s received hurtful comments, too, from people wanting to shame her for such things as posting photos of herself crying or for talking openly about dating after Johnson’s death. But, she says, they’re pushed aside in her mind by messages like one she received in September: “Please know that we’ll never get tired of hearing about Jacob.”
Though Pinto doesn’t put much stock in the well-worn adage that the first year of grieving is the hardest, she does see a day approaching when she’ll stop feeling compelled to post so frequently about her husband. It won’t be an ending so much as a culmination, which she’s planning to mark with a show of Johnson’s photographs and the creation of three artist grants in his honor that focus on documentary photography.
Pinto continues to live in the apartment she and Johnson shared, the home where he planted the clematis that came back again this year, where he put up the shelves she doesn’t want to take down.
“Loss is not felt in the absence of love,” writes poet and professor Elizabeth Alexander in her memoir of losing her husband, The Light of the World, a book that Pinto turned to in her grief. What Pinto has been doing on Instagram makes you feel both.
An exhibition of photographs by Jacob Johnson and Anjali Pinto runs January 20 to 22 at Low Res in Hubbard Street Lofts.