A 5: submission to tutor: ‘It’s not alright’
Brief: Look back at the themes we’ve examined relating to place and our presence within it. What areas inspired you most?
The culmination of this course is a self-directed assignment where you have free rein to choose a subject that relates to any of the material discussed in the course. You may have gathered skills and insights through the projects that you want to revisit or you may have been inspired by other ideas.
The only stipulation is that the final outcome must represent a notion of identity and place that you are personally inspired by. Make sure that your work is visually consistent, relevant to the subject matter you choose and holds together well as a set, both visually and conceptually.
Think carefully about your editing decisions.
- Which images need to be there?
- Which ones repeat other images?
- Are you holding on to a favourite that is no longer required?
Do you need to re-shoot anything?
Aim for a coherent set of no more than 15 pictures, accompanied by a reflective commentary of no more than 500 words.
There are two linked items; a photo book and a small note-book inside the front cover pocket. Both are hand-made.
There are more than 15 images (see brief) but given the context of their conception (personal, memory and diaristic), production (indexical and handmade using new skills) and the story (grief, sadness, time and remembrance) I think that more images have produced a better creative whole.
2. Reflective commentary
This work is about my identity, and my reactions to my daughter’s illness and death. It is also about grief, memory and time. It is a constructed story that explores my external and internal places. Some photographs “authenticate” my experiences and environment, but many suggest less tangible ideas, “something beyond resemblance” (Barthes, 1982, Page 109).
My work lies within the personal, diarist and documentary tradition of photography. “I am making this work because I must. I am compelled to do it,” says Rosy Martin speaking about her series ‘Too close to home,’ which was a response to the death of her father (Martin, 1999). I have had a similar drive to form this work which, like Martin’s, began as a pre-bereavement project.
My work can be viewed within a theoretical framework of ‘PhotoTherapy’ which “allow access to their repressed unconscious anxieties and desires, aiding the therapeutic process” (Bull, 2010; Page 94). Rosy Martin and Jo Spence have extended this process (re-enactment ‘phototherapy’) to create photographs about repressed and present memories (Martin, 2001; 2009). A key outcome of this approach is the pictorialisation of the psyche, which benefits the person engaged in therapy (me) and provokes the viewer. In the process of re-connecting with my memories it was my intention that this work should “speak to a collective memory” and not simply to my own (Martin, 2009).
In ‘Camera Lucida’ Roland Bathes refers to a photograph of his departed mother as an “emanation of the referent,” by which he means that “This has been” as an objective truthful reality “which has been placed before the lens” (Barthes, 1982). He takes this further, “From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here, the duration of the transmission is insignificant … a sort of umbilical cord links the body of the photographed thing to my gaze: light, through impalpable, is here a carnal medium, a skin I share with anyone who has been photographed” (Barthes, 2000:81). These are powerful ideas and images.
Rosy Martin in her work ‘Too close to home’ has this indexical link to her past, as I have: we both construct a story to illustrate what I we want to say. Barthes’ metaphor of the umbilical cord is a ‘punctum’ (cut) for me; I remember cutting my daughter’s umbilical cord at birth, and I am re-connecting to her in making this work. Maria Hirsch, talking about family photographs, is helpful, “And he (Barthes) defines loss – the cutting of that cord, and its reparation through photographic imagetext – as central to the experience of family and photography ” (Hirsch, 1997).
Much of my work is structured around absences; “the referent is both present (implied in the photograph) and absent…it haunts the picture like a ghost: it is a revenant; a return of the lost and dead other” (Hirsch, 1997). Rosy Martin’s work exemplifies this when she describes her series ‘Too close to home’ as “an enquiry into the texture of place and memory through the notion of absent presence” (Martin, 1999).
An additional theme in Barthes description of the photograph of his mother is the passage of time and death – “the mother’s death and the son’s mourning, his anticipation of his own death…” (Hirsch, 1997). Barthes himself put it more starkly “I read at the same time This will be and This has been; I observe with horror and anterior future of which death is the stake (Barthes, 1982). I often think about my own future death now.
One of the themes in this reflection is the uncertain or ‘slippery’ nature of familial texts. This selection of images ‘idealise’ my feelings and relationship with my daughter and her illness as I have left out images that would ‘spoil’ my presentation. Nevertheless, I think that there is something ‘real,’ ‘truthful’ and indexical about this story and my photo book.
Sophie Calle’s work ,’Take Care of Yourself’ and ‘Rachel. Monique..,’ are influences in combining family images, written memorabilia and text (Calle, 2009; Calle, 2012). ‘Redhead Peckerwood’ also plays and re-presents archived material, “mixing fact and fiction, past and present, myth and reality” (Patterson, 2011; Patterson, 2012); I found that including family archive images added contrast and depth to my series. I also realised that it was legitimate for me to fabricate images to convey my experience, something I would not have done at the start of my project. Uta Barth was another influence in showing me that a little could say a lot; previously many of my images were cluttered with objects that distracted from the story (Barth, 2016). Increasingly I photographed or selected ambiguous and absence images that conveyed ideas and feelings that I thought other could relate to.
The three volumes of photo books by Parr and Badger helped me to see that I could express my work as a photo book (Parr, Badger, 2004; 2006; 2014). I used their criteria for making good photobooks in forming my selection of images and additions. Their criteria include ‘ambiguity,’ ‘nuance,’ creating a ‘concise world’ and not necessarily as an ‘objective reality’ – (quotes from John Gossage in Parr and Badger, 2014). Parr and Badger also insist that ‘the design (of the photobook) should complement what is being dealt with, that it is ‘layered,’ and is ‘about something.’ My photobook reflects my identity as a doctor and father and complements the ‘medical’ content which is about our relationship with illness and cancer.
My most difficult task was selecting the series. I wanted to create ambiguity about who was ill early on in the series, indeed hospital scenes of my daughter (in part) do not appear until several pages into the book. My cover and early images raise the question of ‘What is not right?’ and engender feelings associated with ‘bad news.’ I like the simple ‘absence’ images such as the motorway walk-way and window, the barbed wire, ‘Monkey’ sitting on his own and the garden images. I think people will relate to these metaphors for pain, decay and loss and they benefit from lack of specificity in frame content.
I had the idea of creating a ‘grief record’ within a set of NHS hospital records with some extra notes to allow people to explore my story and the images. I researched old copies of medical records and made a physical mock-up. This was a worthwhile exercise. I also produced a film, with the aid of a film student, talking about my mockup. Both of these activities were rewarding.
I liked the order in my mock-up and it changed little after review, a few additional pictures were included and a pause. The images of childhood and growth and the immunisation records add contrast to the ‘medical’ images. I thought that the A4 size images were too large in my mock-up and that more white space would help some of them to stand out. The folds of the pages also hid many images. After construction I felt unsettled by the contrast between the NHS folder format and its personal content. As a doctor for 38 years this felt like a subversion the medical notes format and content that I am familiar with.
I decided to fabricate the final photo book to my own design from scratch. This included making a NHS-like cover with some real and mock details about myself. The title is in my own hand which is a deliberate indexical touch. I also decided to hand make and bind a separate ‘notes’ book to place inside the photobook with information, diary extracts, new photographs and opinions.
Finally, my reflections would not be complete without a brief comment about my feelings about this work. I have not been detached from this work in any way. It has been a labour of love. And I continue to grieve.
Bull, S. (2010). Photography. London, Routledge.
Barthes, R. (1982). Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. London, Jonathan Cape.
Martin, R. (1999). “Too close to home? http://www.rosymartin.co.uk/too_close.html.” Retrieved 19th July, 2017.
Martin, R. (1999) ‘Too close to home? Tracing a familiar place. http://www.rosymartin.co.uk/tooclose_essay.html.
Martin, R. (2009). “Inhabiting the Image: Phototherapy and re-enactment phototherapy http://rosymartin.info/inhabiting_image.html.” European Journal of Psychotherapy and Counselling 11(1): 35-49.
Martin, R. (2001). “The Performative Body: Phototherapy and re-enactment in Afterimage Nov – Dec. http://rosymartin.info/inhabiting_image.html.” Retrieved 19th July, 2017.
Hirsch, M., (1997) Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory. Harvard
Calle, S. (2009). Take Care of Yourself. https://www.paulacoopergallery.com/exhibitions/sophie-calle-take-care-of-yourself/installation-views, Paul Cooper Gallery.
Calle, S. (2012). Rachel. Monique… Paris, Xavier Barral.
Patterson, C. (2011). Redheaded Peckerwood. https://www.lensculture.com/articles/christian-patterson-redheaded-peckerwood#slideshow.
Patterson, C. (2012). Redheaded Peckerwood. London, MACK.
Barth, U. (2016). “Uta Barth: artists website.” Retrieved 9th January, 2016, from Utabarth.net.
Parr, M, Badger G (2004). The Photobook: A History Volume I. London, Phaidon.
Parr, M, Badger G (2006). The Photobook: A History Volume II. London, Phaidon.
Parr, M, Badger G (2014). The Photobook: A History Volume III. . London, Phaidon.