The ‘Family Album’ will be familiar to most people as a collection, an archive of images, put together, usually by parents, for the benefit of the family as a whole. It serves to strengthen the bonds between family members, reinforcing the idea of the family unit by promoting a sense of belonging and recognition. While families themselves may vary in their make-up, the family album provides a constant in that they are often compiled to reflect our desires and expectations: high-days, holidays, celebrations, achievements and acquisitions feature in almost every family’s album, eliminating the mundane.
Often, the family photographer is also responsible for the final edit, determining which prints make the hallowed leaves of the album and which should languish in a shoebox under the bed. The archive exists in two formats; one treasured and sometimes shared with friends and family, and one which generally remains unexamined. Formally posed graduation photographs, birthday parties, foreign holidays, new cars, first days at school - these images are given pride of place. But like the painting in Dorian Gray’s attic, there is also often a box containing those shots we don’t wish to reveal; where heads are cut in half, someone refused to smile, the flash didn’t work or the mess in your kitchen is too obvious. These ‘duds’ are rarely thrown out. They are still precious because they still have something of ourselves in them, they’re just not for public consumption. The Family Album is reserved for those images which preserve our sense of pride and promulgate our own idealised sense of who we are.
What happens then when you’re no longer sure who you are? What should you share when your family struggles under the weight of multiple physical and mental health concerns? How do you record pleasures and successes while enduring years of unemployment? What is left to celebrate when circumstances dictate that you walk away from everything you ever worked for, and from everything that you believed represented who you are? What does your family album look like then?
When I was very small it was explained to me that I had been adopted. I was too young to fully understand the ramifications of this announcement so I accepted it without too many questions. In recent years I have come to understand how being adopted has left its mark.
Having a family of my own became of paramount importance to me. I do not wish to take away anything from my adoptive family, but our relationship was necessarily framed by overt differences and I longed for a sense of connection and recognition that simply did not, and could not exist. Growing up, the family album which in so many other families serves to highlight familiar genetic traits, only reminded me that I did not quite fit in.
There was also a desire for a home of my own. We moved house frequently while I was growing up, and I was conscious that I only ever had time to make quite superficial relationships, and never felt as if I belonged anywhere at all. What I wanted was a home, and a family to fill it with; an opportunity to make connections on a deeper level than had ever previously been possible, to have roots.
To an outsider, it would seem that this craving for family and stability had been satisfied. I married my husband in 1995 and over the next few years we added three children, several pets and what we believed would be our ‘forever home’ to our lives. Superficially, we must have appeared to be floating along in an idyllic state of domestic bliss. But of course, life, and families, are not really like that and so, along with every other family, we had our challenges to face. Sometimes it has seemed we had more than our fair share, if such a thing were to exist.
Early on, we knew that something was different about our son. Behaviours that we found cute and clever at home couldn’t quite so easily be brushed off as idiosyncratic once he entered the official school system. By the age of six he had been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, adding to his existing diagnosis of asthma. It sounds quite simple when you write it down like that, glib even; but it wasn’t. Anyone with a child on the autistic spectrum will recognise the worry, frustration, sleeplessness and helplessness that accompanies such a diagnosis. They will know what it is to come under the scrutiny of other parents with non-autistic children, whose stares run through a spectrum varying from pity at one end, to disgust or outrage at the other, with condescension somewhere in the middle. In addition to this, I have had to learn to live with the symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome and ongoing depressive episodes. Our middle child developed Scoliosis (a curvature of the spine) which wasn’t noticed until she had already stopped growing. It was too late for corrective surgery and so she continues to live with constant pain. We took our youngest daughter from specialist to specialist trying to work out why a bright child with 20/20 vision could not see to read. She has a processing issue which results in visual crowding, making reading far more of a challenge than for other children, and thus making it difficult for her to keep up with her peers at school. This list skims over the worry, exhaustion, frustration, confusion, embarrassment, tension and pain that we all live with on a daily basis, but perhaps that goes some way towards illustrating how all these strains were just our version of normal. We didn’t know anything else and so in spite of the difficulties, we simply got on with things. To compound matters, my husband lost his job and for three years we lived in a constant state of uncertainty. We hung on nervously, hoping that our situation would change and improve. Things did eventually change, but not for the better.
In August 2016, the five of us swapped what had been our family home on the edge of a village - the physical manifestation of the roots I had so sorely desired - for a two bedroomed flat above a Chinese takeaway in town. It involved shedding belongings, and tokens of memories via eBay and carboot sales, and added to the emotional burden that long-term unemployment had already dealt us. From five bedrooms, to two. From three bathrooms to one. From a comfortable middle class existence to … well I’m still working that out. I am aware that so very many people have it much worse than us and yet the shock of the change was profound, particularly once the initial flurry of house-moving subsided. We had to begin a process of acclimatising to this small space as we negotiated new territories and developed new routines.
It has always been my habit to map out my surroundings with the use of a camera, using the act of photography to help render the strange, familiar. It helps me feel a connection to a place, and exploring light, textures, and perspectives over a prolonged period of time allows me to show that I have history there; that I belong. Our new home was no different and I decided that the way forward was with a healthy dose of pragmatism. There was no point in mourning the past, or regretting what had been lost. This was our reality now. We had to learn to accept a new kind of life, and make something of it. In this, we are hardly alone. Countless families know and love someone on the autistic spectrum. Scoliosis is far more common than I had ever previously realised and the school that my youngest attends provides support for plenty of other children with visual problems. Families up and down the country are dealing with the emotional and financial devastation that unemployment brings. I recognised that I had an opportunity to use my camera in a therapeutic manner, to work through some of the difficulties that we were experiencing during this rather dramatic adjustment to our lives. I accepted early on that for it to resonate with anyone outside of the immediate family it would have to focus on more than the superficial celebratory shots we might normally expect to find in a family album, and it would have to be honest. That is not to say it needed to be grim. There are positives to our new situation; I love living so near to the Clyde river and make a point of pausing each day to take in the view from our new living room window. And I feel a great sense of gratitude and pride in the way our children have, largely, managed to adapt to sharing a room when previously they all had their own private space. It has not been an easy task and I feel they have accepted the changes better than I could have hoped for, especially when only very shortly after we moved in, I started to document their every move for this work. I have had to ask a great deal of my husband and children, who have not only put up with the constant intrusion but also accepted my use of their images.
The internet has changed our lives in numerous ways but potentially one of the most far reaching changes has been our ability to share photographs, with multitudes of people almost instantly. In asking my children to participate in this project, I could not tell them with any certainty where the images would go, nor who would see them. In order to offer an honest portrayal of my family, I could not allow the children to only pose for photographs once they were ready. I was not interested in setting up shots of harmony and success. My method was to have the camera almost permanently within reach and to photograph the most mundane moments as well as being there for when tempers flared, or when people were tired, hungry or frustrated. I was involved in an almost constant state of negotiation, reassuring them that I was not out to make them look bad, but equally not interested in flattery. We had several discussions about how I was going to use the work because they needed to understand my intentions if their permissions were to have any validity. Even though there were moments when the children were perhaps less comfortable being photographed, mid-argument, for instance, or in Jonathan’s case when I disrupted his precious routines, overall they were very supportive of the work.
Most days, when I had the camera on me, there would be an initial awareness of its presence which resulted stilted, unusable shots, but after a few minutes everyone would forget about me, and thus I was able to melt into the background and be ignored. As I was doing this, capturing fights, laughs, quiet moments, screaming matches, I had time to consider my own position. As a mother it is my duty to protect my children and yet here I was, giving myself the role of documenter for a project that would not remain hidden in a family album but which would be made public. This work would not exist without all of my family’s co-operation and so while they largely ignored me and let me get on with the business of photographing them, it is still very much a collaborative work for which I am very grateful.
When I started to study at the Glasgow School of Art, I attended a talk during which we were told of all the support that might be available to us as students should we need it. After all, we were told, a lot can happen in four years. I could not have anticipated just how much would happen to me and my family during my period of study. My husband and I almost entirely swapped roles, with him becoming the primary carer of our children, providing taxi service to netball matches, shopping, doing laundry and feeding us all, while I attended art school and commuted into the city each day. If it was difficult for me to give up the domestic side of my role as a mother and I did struggle to accept things not being done the way that I would do them, it was harder still for him to accept what I think he saw as a demotion to house-husband. But as with so many things, we have had to learn to let go and accept that things are different now. Our family is different now. For instance, we no longer have the space to regularly eat at the table together and as the children are growing and their activities become more disparate, we are more often apart than together. Even when we are all at home at the same time, we, like so many others, often find ourselves in a fragmented state of online connectivity. Taking these photographs allowed me to observe my family objectively. There are things I dislike about the way we are living our lives, but I am also reassured. When I look at the images, I see the discreet particularity of my own family but I also see the universality of 'The Family’. Ultimately though, this is my husband. These are my children. This, now, is my home and this is my family. This is our album.
I have known my husband for a long time but in spite of this, have never previously made him the focus of a photographic project. I have never subjected him to the scrutiny of the camera. His body has changed in the time that we've known each other; it has aged, grown softer, collected scars. Like a photographic negative, it bears witness to its own journey. It is a journey that has, until now, remained undocumented and so, while I consider that I know him well, I'm aware that in some sense at least he is uncharted territory.
In making these images, I am conscious that that there will one day come a moment when one or other of us will likely look back on these prints, and remember the time of their making. They took on their role as tokens of remembrance as soon as the shutter was released on the camera.
Contact Prints From Large Format (5x4) Negatives, Vandyke Processed on Fabriano V Cotton Paper.
Stories From The Studio
Crime & Punishment
A story of greed, corruption, entrapment and poetic justice.
Are You Sitting Comfortably?
Canon 5D Mk III
Memories and tales passed on through ownership of objects
Illusions Of Everything Being Just Fine
Canon 5D Mk III
Clinging To A Mask Of Domesticity In Moments Of Crisis
These images constitute new work as I begin to explore the small town of Helensburgh on the west coast of Scotland, with my camera. I have a conflicted relationship with this place. It is the nearest thing I have to a 'home town' and yet I am not from here. I have repeatedly moved away, only to respond to the town's siren call and return. The streets, shops and parks are the backdrop to a vast well of nostalgia, but the fragmented nature of my history here means I have no sense of belonging. There are few people here that I know well. In spite of having attended two local schools, been married in one of the local churches and having worked for several different local businesses, I still feel as though I have visitor status. I've never been here long enough to lay down roots.
I first came to live in Helensburgh when my adoptive parents brought me here from Sheffield at six weeks of age. Since then I have left and returned five times, most recently in August 2016. I spent much of the time between November of that year, and June of this year working on the project Album familia, photographing my family and the small flat we now occupy as the result of a seismic shift in economic status following four years of unemployment. I have also started to document the town itself. Inspired by both the Bleeding London project, and Ed Ruscha’s work, Every Building On The Sunset Strip, I initially set out to document the shops and other businesses which inhabit Helensburgh’s seafront as that is now where we are also living.
As part of the process, I became aware that I have connections to many of these shops; if not in their current incarnations, then with previous owners. This realisation was comforting during a difficult period of adjustment for me and my family. It is my intention to continue building on this small body of work, expanding my exploration and mapping of my new home, documenting the evolving history of the town and my place in it.
Helensburgh is a fascinating place. Originally built for the pleasure of wealthy Glasgow merchants, and sporting some fine examples of late 19th and early 20th century architecture, including the celebrated Hill House by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, it sits on a slope facing towards the river Clyde. There are grand sandstone houses, military accommodations, ex-council houses and areas of real deprivation. There are shops, restaurants and businesses which have been here for years. More than a hundred in one or two cases. There are also empty shops, charity shops, betting shops and vape shops, the classic signals perhaps of a depressed economy. There are possibly more coffee shops and restaurants than seem reasonable, and while the prevalence of opticians and pharmacies might suggest an ageing population, the town feeds a total of seven schools and there are a great number of organisations representing the interests of young people and their families. The nearby naval base is another source of contradiction; few people here can say they have no connection to it. Many have family members in the Royal Navy or who work for contractors supporting the Royal Navy. Others will know people whose livelihood depends on naval personnel and contractors spending their earnings in the town. Yet it is not necessarily a smooth relationship. There are still those who, in spite of the loss of the permanent peace camp, protest the existence of the Trident submarines at the heart of the base's existence. Matelots on a run ashore are a regular feature of the town's night life, and the friction created when drunken sailors rub up against drunken residents, can be explosive.
There is much to love about the town though. On a good day, the Clyde is a sight to behold. Train links make Glasgow an entirely feasible commute. Just a few short miles over the hill and you have Loch and Ben Lomond in your sights. There are stalwarts in local community groups who work incredibly hard to bring us Summer and Winter Festivals, firework displays, Christmas lights, New Year Swims and other regular calendar events which work to bring people together in celebratory moods. Other groups have taken responsibility for our parks, the planting in the town square and tree-lined streets which burst with blossom in the springtime. We have a cinema now, and Argyll College has a new learning centre providing further and higher education here for the first time.
Much of the work I’ve made to date has been that of an outsider, looking in. Almost the antithesis of the work I made for Album familia. I will be interested to see if that changes over time and if I can find a way to use my camera to forge not just familiarity with this place, but a sense of belonging here too.
Neither Here Nor There
"There is no easy way to say this. I have lost my job."
In November 2013, I returned from art school to find my husband on the back step of the home where we'd lived for the previous 13 years. He abruptly announced that he was now unemployed. Such a bombshell was never going to be good news, but it came at a time when I was already aware of the lurking presence of an annual bout of winter depression. The vague sense of dread that I had been carrying around within turned into full-on anxiety as I contemplated our now uncertain future.
The winter blues affect many people, and often the worst time of all is the supposedly jolly-sounding 'Twelve Days of Christmas'. It is a peculiarly difficult time of year when all the anticipation surrounding Christmas dissipates into a heavy feeling that combines ennui, lethargy, loneliness, negativity, fear, uncertainty, dissociation and isolation.
One way I attempt to combat such feelings is to get outside and walk. My usual route takes in a stretch of road that I find hard to explain to visitors, often resorting to calling it 'The bit before the village'. It apparently belongs to neither the village where we live, nor the next town along, being a no-man's land, a non-place, a liminal space sandwiched between river, railway and fields. It is a connection, but not a destination, not a beginning nor an end, neither here nor there.
Even though it forms part of my solution for dealing with depression, its untethered, ill-defined nature also embodies how I feel at this time of year.
At the time of making this work, two years have passed, and there is still no job for my husband. The limbo-like state that we've existed in is coming to an abrupt end; difficult decisions have to be made, especially as it is now evident that we will have to move away from the home we have made with our children. I still don't know what the future holds and the fear and uncertainty are as strong as ever. Yet, knowing that changes have to be made, has brought a sense of purpose to our lives that has been missing for so long. For the first time I'm thinking of this journey as an opportunity for a fresh start rather than merely the loss of what we had before. These last two years have been the 'bit before'. Now it's time to see what comes next.
You Don't Want This
When I was a child, beachcombing was something you did in hopes of finding treasures: shells, feathers, sea-smoothed stones and beachwood. Today you're as likely to find what remains of a used tampon, discarded syringes or a million plastic stalks from cotton buds that have been flushed down the toilet. I live close to the River Clyde and there is a small stretch of shore along which I used to walk on a fairly regular basis, always taking my camera with me. Seeking out the beautiful, natural elements, and using focus and framing to eliminate the signs of litter and other pollution washed up with the tide, it eventually dawned on me that this was incredibly dishonest. To pretend that we all live in some kind of idyll when actually the variety and volume of debris that litters the beach is sometimes quite overwhelming didn't sit well with me. I decided to document the area more honestly and determined that for every photograph of something beautiful, there should also be one of something that shouldn't have been there. The intention was to make these photographs with the same approach to aesthetics that I would have done for something natural. This way, perhaps, when people saw the images of rubbish, framed alongside the precious natural things, they might question our acceptance of this state of affairs. After only a short time, it became increasingly difficult to find beautiful, natural scenes of beauty on this particular patch of the river. The council had cut back all the undergrowth and so where before there might have been glistening cobwebs or jewel-like raindrops, leaves or flowers, there was very little to photograph that wasn't rubbish. The 1:1 ratio of natural versus pollutant was no longer working and it occurred to me that in any case, perhaps I should be trying to reflect the true magnitude of the problem. Of course, this was not entirely possible. There was far more rubbish on the beach and the path that ran alongside it than I could photograph in a lifetime, and it never stops coming. Additionally, photography is a selective exercise and not every piece of rubbish will make an aesthetically pleasing image. I had to make choices about what to include, what to photograph in situ and what to move and re-frame. Every item photographed was found on the beach in Cardross near the Bainfield Crossing. I properly disposed of every piece once I was finished with it. The exception being the thousands of little s-shaped polystyrene 'peanuts' which burst out of their casing and made the entire beach look like it was covered in snow. I took what I could but it was too much and the wind spread it all too far. It does mean that there are over five hundred fewer pieces of rubbish on that beach than there might otherwise have been though. But of course, it was simply replaced with more, the very next day, the very next tide, the very next hour, the very next careless flush of a toilet. It was my hope that this work, inadequate as it is, might make us pause to consider the damage we do to our natural environment whenever we fail to properly dispose of the things we no longer want. The sad fact is that we live in a throwaway society. We buy things that we know will eventually fail, and it will be cheaper to replace with new than to mend them. We eat food wrapped in materials that will never decompose. We are lazy. We flush cotton buds down the toilet not caring where they will finish up nor what harm they will do on their travels. We can't be bothered to take our litter home and bin it, much less recycle the things that might have a second life if they were only given the chance. Stuff we no longer like or need or care about gets chucked - not always in a bin. We don't want it, so we ditch it. But do we really want it on our beaches?
Wherever we go, we carry around a kind of aura with us: our backstory if you like. When we travel by car, the metal bubble we're travelling in isolates us from others and we move along without making any meaningful connections. When you travel by train though, the carriage contains everyone's back stories, and for varying amounts of time and with greater or lesser degrees of intensity we share space; our stories, our histories, mingle and connect. Even at the station, we find that we become part of a shared moment, or we seek familiarity with which to connect in a strange and sometimes overwhelming environment. These images were taken from a four month period of documenting train travel and looking for signs of connections - between passengers, staff, environment and indeed with my camera.
Scott Kelby Worldwide Photowalks
In 2012, a photographer friend asked if I fancied joining in with that year's Scott Kelby Worldwide Photowalk. I had no idea what he was talking about but it sounded like it might be fun so I said yes. Fun is good. The walk takes place in October and although it is a fundraiser, there's no fee and no obligation to donate. Walks are organised at a local level, all over the world. Each walk consists of up to 50 photographers, spending a couple of hours exploring a pre-determined route and there's invariably a meeting place where food, drink and chat can take up a little more of your day as you wish. I have attended each year since that first expedition, sometimes remembering to enter a photograph into the local competition element of the day and even providing a winning shot once.