Even in 2013, it’s common to feel pressure to settle down (read: get married and have children). Photographer Suzanne Heintz found herself in this predicament when she moved to Denver in her 30s. Never-married and without children, Heintz was tired of raised eyebrows, protests from friends (“But you’re pretty Suzie!”), and pestering from her Mormon mother to settle down. Rather than succumbing to the notion that something was wrong with her, Heintz decided to prove a point.

She started Life Once Removed, a satirical photography project fueled by her artistic skills and sense of humor. (See a slideshow of Heintz’ work here.) For 13 years, Heintz has taken family photos with two mannequins—a daughter and a husband —whom she refers to as her “familyquins.” They take road trips and celebrate the holidays together just like any other picture perfect family would. 5280 sat down with Heintz to find out about her familyquins, people’s reactions, and dating.

5280: How did the idea to take family pictures with mannequins come about?

Suzanne Heintz: It kind of came to me when I was at my mom’s for Christmas and she was giving me a lot of heat about, “Suzie, when you are going to get married? I mean you’re getting older! Nobody is perfect. You just got to pick somebody!” And I just kind of snapped at her, “Mom! What do you expect? It’s not like I can just make it happen. Its not like I can go out and buy a family!”

That kind of stuck with me and when I got back to Denver, I happened to be walking by a retail liquidation outlet. They had an entire mannequin family in the window. I just had a lightbulb moment. I thought, “I’m going to buy a family! And I’m going to take pictures of little Kodak moments of us doing things that families do, and I’m going to send them to my mother.”

5280: What was your first photo shoot with your familyquins like?

SH: It was for Christmas. I had previously done a little experimentation work with the mannequins that I guess was done in a little more artsy way. …It was a little heavy handed and it really didn’t have a a lot of impact. So I started being funny with it, in order to really get the message across. And that’s when I staged a Christmas shoot in my own home. …Where I had a full Xmas tree set up with presents and everyone was in their pajamas. …You know, just the image of a perfect Christmas morning.

5280: How has this project developed over the last 13 years?

SH: The project has evolved over time from doing it sort of privately into sort of a performance piece. I’m trying to make it a public spectacle.

5280: What kind of reactions do people have when you’re setting up for a public shoot?

SH: It’s so bizarre looking that people almost always approach and ask what the heck I’m doing. And in that way I can explain and they get the concept right away, and then they walk away with a totally different perspective. I feel that’s the most successful way to promote this project and to get the idea across. This last shoot, people were laughing and one guy was like, “I think its creepy! Yep, I think it’s pretty creepy!”

5280: Who are your familyquins?

SH: The daughter, Mary Margaret, she is perpetually eight years old. The husband is named Chauncey, and I actually have a standing version and a seated version of Chauncey, so I call them Chauncey A and Chauncey B. He is perpetually 35.

5280: What do Chauncey and Mary Margaret do when you’re not taking pictures with them?

SH: Well, they usually sit in a chair in the house. Depending on who is coming over, they go down to the basement. It depends on how open minded the guest is. I don’t want to scare people but often times even when I’m walking through the house and they’re just, you know, seated in the den, I get taken aback, like “Oh, who’s here?” I don’t really treat my familyquins, as I call them, as genuine living objects. I mean, they’re props; they’re a metaphor. And they represent the image of a happy and successful life.

5280: How did the name of the project, Life Once Removed, come about?

SH: I was having a conversation with family members. We were trying to figure out, “Okay, what is once removed? Are they really family? Are they related by marriage and they’re not really truly connected to you?” When you live your life not truly connected to who you really are and you try to conform to what the image of a successful life is, you are removing yourself from a true connection to your life as it is.

5280: Are you in a relationship?

SH: Yeah I am, ironically enough. We’re not married and we’ve been together about six years and he totally accepts the mannequins, which is great. I think he met Chauncey the first night he came to my house. He helps me on the shoots and it’s really funny because, ironically, he looks just like Chauncey. I mean, they could be related. It’s kind of creepy. He is very tolerant of the effort it takes and that goes into the shots. He is just really good with it and understands that the “familyquins” are really a metaphor and doesn’t take it personally. And doesn’t think I’m crazy. Well, maybe a little.

—Images courtesy of Suzanne Heintz

Jerilyn Forsythe
Jerilyn Forsythe
Jerilyn Forsythe is a freelance writer and editor, and 5280's former digital associate editor. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter @jlforsyt.