Being Grateful: 1

Happy New Year to all you wonderful people. I hope your year is successful, however you define that word.

It’s tempting to launch into the usual resolutions – lose weight, get fitter, save money, find love, blah. I’ve previously used those tags as a launch pad for the new year, then used to them flagellate myself when the inevitable happens.

This year I’m experimenting with a year long project to Make Me Happy. A lot has been said about the power of gratitude, which has consistently washed over me as I’m the kind of guy who still sends cards to thank people. But, it’s much more than that – it’s about being presently grateful for what we have; a nurturing constant recognition that there’s usually something great, amazing or touching in our lives, no matter how much shit is sliding down our face.

I’ve battled throughout my life with introspective negative thinking: what’s wrong with me? if I had more money I’d be happy, if I had a boyfriend I’d be happy, if I lived in a nicer area I’d be happy, if I had an Abercrombie body I’d be happier. It’s been a constant, low level gurgling and it’s tiring. So I’ve decided to take a meta view – focus on what I have, not what I don’t – and hope that taking a photo each day of something for which I’m grateful will, theoretically and gradually, drown out the negativity with *gulp* happiness.  For more info on the idea, check out 365Grateful.

1 Jan 2014

My parents are my bedrock

2 Jan 2014

I’m grateful for the access to unusual theatre

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 Jan 2014

The way the sun streams into my living room

4 Jan 2014

Knowing my friends are there

 

 

 

 

 

5 Jan 2014

Having odd, creative friends

 

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Project Trevor: Part II

Wowsers, it’s been a long time since I’ve been on here – and a long time since I’ve been proactive on this project.

What fascinates me is that with whomever I speak, I get a different side. A multisided story building to reflect a multisided person. One person’s tale isn’t wrong, it’s absolutely correct – according to them. The more I delve, the more I find and – although I’ve talked a lot about Trevor to my family – a little more information is revealed each time.

Recently I spoke with Mum, Trevor’s sister, who still carries survivor’s guilt with her; intermingled is guilt relating to not standing up to her other brother, Terry – the oldest of the three and always the dominant one.

When I was a kid I remember Mum telling me that, one day, she had an awful burning sensation in her legs – only later to find out that Trevor had spilt hot oil on his legs at work; they seemed to have had an almost twin-like connection. On this occasion, though, Mum recounted a story I’d never heard: the day of Trevor’s death she felt a dreadful sense of foreboding. She asked her boss if she could use the phone to call Trevor’s neighbour to know whether she’d seen him before he left for his oil rig shift; the neighbour hadn’t, so Mum was determined to visit straight after work. Dad decided it wasn’t a good idea – obviously sensing the fear in his wife – so went with Terry instead.

What happened next I can’t be sure of. Mum doesn’t even know whether Trevor left a suicide note and Dad’s version of events is hazy. Terry cleared everything away – when I say ‘cleared’ I mean he threw away everything Mum couldn’t grab first. Seeing Terry hold Trevor’s cufflinks, Mum asked for them, but Terry didn’t see the point in keeping them so tossed them into the bin. Mum’s pride stopped her from getting on her hands and knees and rifling through the rubbish – I could sense the anger and impotence in her voice over twenty years later. Her anger wasn’t just about her own brother having such little respect, but I think it was also her raging at the patriarchal framework in which she found herself. It was either her husband or surviving brother who called the shots.

Trevor having fun with beer in hand.

What I found out next distressed me. Trevor was cremated at the same crematorium as his parents – my grandparents – but, because Terry was eldest, he took charge and decided that it wouldn’t be right for Trevor to be interred with his parents. So, the man who had felt so lonely and so isolated in the latter part of his life was buried at a distance from his parents. I couldn’t help feeling the painful symmetry of the situation. I rang the crematorium to find out more and, apparently, Terry hadn’t even ordered a marker for Trevor’s grave. So, Trevor was buried in an unmarked plot – as if Terry wanted to eradicate all trace of his own brother.

The wonderful lady at the crematorium explained that, although I could order a new marker to include the names of my grandparents and my uncle, they couldn’t exhume his ashes because too much time had passed. Although I don’t believe in life after death, I was upset to think that his ashes – my uncle – would always be separated from his family. I explained the situation to Mum, and said I would be willing to split the cost of a new marker, but the galling caveat was that we need Terry’s permission…

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Project Trevor

My Uncle Trevor killed himself when I was 18. He was in his late forties, gay, depressed and an alcoholic.

My parents chose to shield me from his funeral for reasons, I assumed, revolving around my ‘sensitivity’ and inability to cope with my first experience of death. As I got older, details slipped out (as they do in families) and I realised that it was more complicated.

I can’t even remember how I knew he was gay; it came as a shock when Dad let slip that Trevor (his brother in law) had actively chosen to kill himself. Trevor’s life, it seems, comes to me in slips and asides.

We gain personal acceptance by having our needs, behaviours and aspirations reflected back and affirmed by the media and those around us. But what happens when you don’t have that? How does your personal strength and sense of adequacy develop? Can it?

For those interested in how growing up gay in a straight world can internalise a well of shame, read Alan Down’s book, The Velvet Rage. It changed my life. Literally.

I was told Trevor had an exciting life as head chef on various prominent cruise liners, traveling the world and sending my brother and I postcards from places we had to find in the atlas. My family regaled me with exciting stories of him smuggling jewels in elaborate wedding cakes for my Nan – of Dad mysteriously having to look after a briefcase of cash for him one night – and seeing the few photos that now survive of him looking dapper or having fun with cruise ship friends.

1960s Trevor on the Crown and Anchor casino table on the SS Himalaya

He left that life and returned to Sittingbourne in the 70’s, a small town in big and little c conservative Kent. Kent was the last county to let go of Section 28, the infamous clause that prohibited schools from ‘promoting’ homosexuality; it is one of the few remaining counties that has grammar schools. It’s a nice place to grow up, but it isn’t progressive. Imagine what it was like in the 70’s.

His family didn’t talk about his sexuality – I can not emphasise enough how damaging this is. It makes people feel ignored, inadequate and shameful; these feelings grow and, if unchecked, can lead to suicide. Trevor’s background meant that he had little chance to grow into a well adjusted, self-accepting and self-loving person.

His friends deserted him as soon as his money did. He had few other confidantes and became reliant on drink, jumping from job to job until his alcoholism made them untenable.

I only became aware of this a few years back. Again, stories slip out and I have to continually adjust my understanding of this man who, if he was allowed to grow up with that self-love so many people take for granted, could have been my compass – the role model I so desperately needed.

There are similarities with Trevor’s life and my own; I don’t feel doomed to repeat his fate, but it does unnerve me. Just as his family’s generation denied and ignored his sexuality, so have parts of mine. Some things change, some don’t.

I’ve decided to work on a multimedia piece on Uncle Trevor, interviewing my family to build a 3d image of the man who could’ve taught me so much. It’s not just about wanting to recreate the person I never really knew, it’s about showing how we’re doomed to screw up a generation if we perpetuate the screw ups of the previous. If my family are willing to talk about it.

Trevor having fun with beer in hand.

Trevor having fun with beer in hand.

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The Wise Clown

One of my earliest memories is of being on a family holiday near Norfolk, I think.

We didn’t have much money growing up, but Mum and Dad had bought us front row seats at the circus. I remember the excitement of being in the biggest tent I’d ever ever seen and being so close to the action. So it was that me and my older brother, heads in hands, elbows on the ringside, eyes glued to the twitching curtains were scarred for life.

One moment we were wide eyed with excitement, the next wide eyed in terror. The curtains were yanked back with a flourish and a murder of clowns ran maniacally toward us. Me and my brother scrambled into the cheap seats and screamed the place down.

Ever since, I’ve hated clowns.

It’s not uncommon, but what I don’t understand is the way other people like them. Have they not seen ‘Clownhouse‘?! Image

On a recent trip to Vienna, I noticed clowns everywhere and I started to mull over how an event years before could still have power over me. We’re the sum of our parts. Everything that happened to us creates the us now – but we have the choice to alter what we don’t like.

It’s not the memory that makes me scared of clowns, it’s how I translate that event and how I chose to view the cause of my terror. Those men in big shoes, make up and flouncy blouses didn’t mean to scare us, they thought they were entertaining us.Image

I remember a particularly painful break up where the just-become-ex said that it wasn’t what he’d done that made me so upset, it was how I chose to deal with it. However much I wanted to get violent at the time, I now understood what he meant – we can choose how we feel because we can choose how we allow people’s behaviour to affect us.

As Eleanor Roosevelt said, ‘no one can make you feel inferior without your consent’.

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2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 5,400 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 9 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Recollect: book layout

This is the first edit of the book layout – any comments are appreciated…

 

Recollect


Recollect book layout

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Critical Report: Unit 3.0 Major Project

RECOLLECT

This project is about our relationship with death and the deceased – the search for understanding, succor and developing continuing bonds with our dead loved ones.

I personally chose this subject because death scares me; not my own, but that of my parents. This project was based on a deep-rooted desire to understand and to find a framework on which I could rely when they die. If I know how to behave, if I know what to expect, I might steel myself and the loss would be easier to bear.

When younger, I had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and, with it, came an irrational fear that if I did something ‘wrong’ I would hurt my family; it’s ridiculous to believe that turning off the light ‘incorrectly’ would cause trauma, but the internal voice was a 1950s sci fi movie monster controlling my behaviours.

The knowledge that I could be left with the guilt and blame was, at times, unbearable. As I’ve grown, understood and controlled the OCD, the fear subsided – until recently when I’ve become more aware of my parents’ mortality. Possibly it would be easier to avoid people – if you don’t interact with them, they can’t hurt you; but, as Frankl (2004) notes, an intrinsic fact of being human is the drive to connect. Grief, it would seem, is inevitable.

With that fear of loss came a fear of coping. How would I deal with the void? My curiosity into the ‘how’ drew me into the first project dealing with death, my Memorialisation series. This project looked at the rise in personal grieving – how, as we travel further from traditional confines of grief, we allow ourselves to chose the most appropriate, individual way to express our loss. Frankl (2004) calls grief, the ‘existential vacuum’ where one is consumed with an overwhelming feeling of emptiness and meaninglessness.

Through it, I wanted to understand how people cope, what kind of mechanisms were available to express those emotions and somehow come to a point of acceptance and assimilation. At times I felt voyeuristic interviewing people – trespassing on privacy but, I soon realised, those public displays were acts of grieving in their own right. They say ‘Look at this. My loved one died and I want you to understand the hell I’ve been through. Know they existed, know they were loved’. We crave understanding, but we also crave for their lives not to be in vain; we want to be able to say they made a difference and we want that to be recognised – we also want to be remembered so, by giving other people that care and acknowledgement, we hope to have the same in return.

As Thomas Lynch says, in his book ‘The Undertaking – Life Studies from the Dismal Trade’:

In even the best of caskets, it never all fits – all that we’d like to bury in them: the hurt and forgiveness, the anger and the pain, the praise and thanksgiving, the emptiness and exaltations, the untidy feelings when someone dies.
(Lynch, 1998, p.217)

Belinda Whiting’s book ‘Sophie’s Story’ succinctly expresses the sentiment of keeping the dead alive through communication:

I remember Sophie every day and hold her in my heart. When I go to the places that she knew and talk with other people about her I feel she is still alive with us and she is still showing me the things in life she loved. In this way she stays with me and although I can’t see her and touch her any more, I can feel her in my heart and in all my best thoughts. (Hobson, G. & Williams, V., 1996, p.67)

This project then led on to Memento, a series focusing on animism, the concept that a spirit can reside in inanimate or animate objects – in particular, objects belonging to a dead loved one. I was interested in understanding how a once functional ‘thing’ transmutes into a vessel of memory and can intrinsically represent that person.

When it came to deciding on the final project, it seemed natural to progress these themes of memorialisation and remembrance and focus on the next step: communicating with the dead.

My initial proposal was to focus on psychics and mediums (‘sensitives’) and their interaction with clients; psychics read what they see around their client, whereas mediums act as channels of communication for spirits. I’ve always been interested in the unusual, the other. Alan Downs (2006) posits in his book ‘The Velvet Rage’ that it’s due to growing up gay in a straight world; we’re constantly exposed to straight media so we look for the off-kilter, a mirror to the (un)conscious knowledge that we, too, are different.

After an initial search online, in local papers, spiritual listing sites, psychic fairs, I contacted a psychic artist called Roger Hanson. Roger draws from his unconscious – he unlocks the brain, allows images and words to filter through and draws what appears.

Next I met the transfigurative medium, Jay Love, who transforms into the person with whom you want to speak.  A transfigurative medium will be covered in ectoplasm (a viscous material said to aid in the materialisation of spirits), through which the spirits will push themselves – thereby rendering their likeness across the features of the medium.

Part of the value of this research was in how my own belief systems were questioned. I’d always been ‘open’, but to be faced with those believers was an altogether different experience. I had to put aside my own views and step into the minds of these people – my belief was immaterial, what was important was that they believed and gained comfort.

Thomas Lynch, a novelist and funeral director, has definite views on a funeral’s function:

But the sad and well-known fact of the matter is that most of us will stay in our caskets and be dead a long time, and that our urns and graves will never make a sound. Our reason and requiems, our headstones or High Masses, will neither get us in nor keep us out of heaven. The meaning of our lives, and the memories of them, belong to the living, just as our funerals do. Whatever being the dead have now, they have by the living’s faith alone.
(Lynch, 1998, p.14-15)

I subsequently contacted other mediums and psychics but, it became apparent, it would be difficult to access that personal sensitive/client space. It’s an intimate, vulnerable relationship, one which people are quite reasonably reticent about sharing.

Running concurrent with the spirit communication was a number of other projects. These ranged from ghost hunters; a collaborative project with a contact in America about injustice and HIV+ stigma; exhibitionism and body dismorphia; the celebration of the altruism of people killed attempting to save others; and one on change, whether that be pregnancy, transgender, relationship break up or a new job.

A simple exercise set by Peter Fraser became a game-changer. We were to sit with our eyes closed for 20 minutes and switch off from everything around us – we then opened our eyes and took photos of what attracted us. The idea was similar to Roger Hanson’s – shed preconceptions, forget form and aesthetics and go where our unconscious directs. The results, Peter suggested, would highlight our voice.

Initially, I had no comprehension of how the course would force me to confront fears: photographing strangers, sharing personal work in group tutorials, inviting criticism from people. The experiences were life lessons and instrumental in evolving my practice.

I chose to focus on one aspect of spirit communication – spiritualism, said to be the UK’s eighth largest religion by the Spiritualists National Union. On seeing the London Spiritual Mission (LSM) church, I felt a connection and knew I should concentrate on it; its combination of quirkiness and tradition appealed to my sense of otherness.

Their basic tenet informed my project – we are all energy and energy never breaks down, so a spirit never dies. I wanted to capture the impermanence of our physicality, to highlight our presence through our absence.

Spiritualism has it’s roots in 19th century USA (at a time of extreme social upheaval), stemming from two young sisters in Hydesville, upstate New York. In 1848, Kate and Maggie Smith heard curious rappings, which they interpreted as messages from a spirit whose murdered body lay in their cellar. Their ability to decipher these noises spread locally then, gradually, nationally. In a society with a high mortality rate, evidence of immortality was desperately needed.

It’s origins are also in hypnosis and ‘animal magnetism’, developed as healing in pre-Revolutionary France by Friedrich Mesmer. His theory was that an imbalance of electro-magnetic fluid caused illness. Before Mesmer, a Swedish mystic called Emanuel Swedenborg entered trances by holding his breath; by the 1740s he was using astral projection to travel into the spirit world. Spirits controlled the lives of Old Testament prophets and St. Augustine believed they could unveil the future to the living; even Queen Elizabeth I employed an astrologer who held conversations with angels with a medium called Edward Kelley.

Despite my enthusiasm, tutors Paul Lowe and Peter Fraser thought the project would be stronger if shown with my continuing bonds and memorialisation projects. At first I was reluctant, but soon realised it made sense to incorporate them as distinct but interconnecting chapters.

LSM provides one suggestion of an afterlife, but I hope the images portray a universalism. On a literal level they show that we leave marks and, on a metaphorical one, they read as continuing bonds – our dead are still present, whether in memories or in a communicable sense.

My Memorialisation project set out to examine a number of ways in which individuals memorialise their dead as our society becomes more secular and less reliant on traditional church edicts.

British church attendance has steadily fallen since the 1960’s; a number of factors have affected this, including greater awareness of alternative religions and philosophies, abuses of trust, increased consumerism and failure to keep time with the needs of a changing society. Attendance by 2020 is forecasted to fall by 55% of the 1980 level. The average age of churchgoers is increasing to the mid 50’s.

The site of death often becomes the focus point for memorialising rather than the site of interment; it becomes sacred and can help survivors make sense of the death – providing them with a space in which they feel close to their dead and where the continuing bond is most keenly felt.

‘Continuing bonds‘ formed part of a text edited by Dennis Klass, Phyllis R. Silverman, and Steven L. Nickman (1996), entitled Continuing Bonds: new understandings of grief. It challenged the traditional belief that we should ‘let go’ and acknowledged that we create a new relationship or ‘bond’ with our dead, suggesting that we should embrace the new connection instead of denying it.

Although we’re finding our own ways to remember, a lack of mourning guidelines have created a need for establishing our own framework. Rigid conventions provide mourners with a way to explore and work through their emotions – without those rules our grief could become limitless.

In his film ‘Nostalgia de la Luz’ (Nostalgia for the Light), Patrick Guzman compares two communities in the Atacama Desert: astronomers studying the universe for the world’s origins and grieving women sieving sand for remains of their loved ones murdered under Pinochet’s dictatorship. Given that the universe is believed to be ever expanding and Pinochet moved the remains, both quests seem limitless.

John W. Lewis and Russell Friedman (1998), authors of ‘The Grief Recovery Handbook’, disagree that a framework is necessary; they believe each person has a unique relationship with their deceased, so each person’s reaction will be unique – a standard framework is unable to provide the necessary comfort.

In his book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, Frankl (2004) writes that an abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal; subjugating emotions only serves to create additional strain. Until the twentieth century, it was considered normal to maintain a bond with our dead; Freud inadvertently helped shape the belief that we should cut these ties to enable us to form new, earthly relationships; his paper Mourning and Melancholia (Freud, 1917), posited that grief would ‘free’ the mourner, although he never actually suggested severing these bonds.

These memorials allow a continuing involvement with the deceased in an environment which is more appropriate to their dead; they help survivors assimilate their death and create a new narrative in which the dead are still present. As we continue to understand human development, we recognise the importance of interconnectivity and interdependence; our relationships with our living and dead frame our understanding of who we are and how we live – without a clear understanding of our past, it can be difficult to move on.  A continuing bond does not mean being trapped in the past; with psychological progress, we work through our desire to ‘stop the clocks’ and build a new, living relationship with our dead.

Ulrich Baer (2002) examined the convoluted interconnectivity between photography and remembrance in ‘Spectral Evidence’’; he discusses how photographs have an existence separate from the occurrence it mirrors and carry more significance than just that of reflection – just as an object, infused with sentimentality can become something greater than its functionality.

By necessity, all photographs become documents of the past; as Roland Barthes (1993) says, their testimony impacts on time, not on the specific object. Joel Sternfeld’s ‘On This Site’ continues the theme of temporality, of how an environment can hold the allusion of past events. This project had a profound impact; we might move on in our present lives, but the footprint remains as a reminder.

Robert Lanza, M.D. is a stem cell pioneer and proponent of biocentrism: quantum physics tells us that certain observations are impossible to predict and have a variety of possible outcomes, each with a different probability – each possible in its own distinct, simultaneously occurring ‘multiverse’. Whatever possible outcome could happen will happen, but in its own universe – therefore death never happens because there’s always an alternative version. Bodies age and fail, but the essence of ‘me’ doesn’t falter. If energy never dies, where does it go?

Here, Lanza recounts an experiment published in ‘Science’, that showed a past event could be altered:

Particles had to decide how to behave when they hit a beam splitter. Later on, the experimenter could turn a second switch on or off. It turns out that what the observer decided at that point, determined what the particle did in the past. Regardless of the choice you, the observer, make, it is you who will experience the outcomes that will result.
(Lanza, http://www.robertlanzabiocentrism.com/does-death-exist/)

Time and space, biocentrics would say, are merely concepts. Time is an artificial framework and space is nothingness; everything we experience is processed and felt in our minds. If that ‘processor’ is energy, then that never stops being.

Marine Hugonnier’s project, ‘Towards Tomorrow’, is a series of images of the future; by positioning herself in the Bering Strait of Alaska, she was able to photograph Siberia across the international time line. Siberia is 24 hours ahead of Alaska. Concepts and laws are fluid; it challenges Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’, the absolute position from which we can never deviate.

The photograph remains static but, as we orbit around it, our relation changes; Pedro Meyer’s ‘I Photograph To Remember’ illustrates this concept. Photographs help us process overwhelming information; images remain static, so we can return to them to make sense of the event and begin forging a new relationship with them:

I took all those photographs for myself as a way of dealing with death itself. Jean Cocteau commented once, “Photography is the only way to kill death”. After all, memory is precisely that, a way of making a moment permanent. I knew full well that my emotions at the time would not allow me to recall further on, the specifics of any given moment. The photographs have indeed allowed me to return many times to those captured slices of my experience, and flawed as those pictures inevitably are, due to the limitations inherent to the photographic medium, I do get a sense of the way it all happened.
(Meyer, 2010, http://www.pedromeyer.com/galleries/i-photograph/work.html)

Krass Clement goes one step further in his series ‘Ved Doden’ (About Death), by following his mother’s illness and death, but then documenting her autopsy and cremation. In some ways, it’s harder to view than Meyer’s because it shows the brutal realities of what loved ones go through. When our loved ones becomes ‘the body’ is up for debate; Thomas Lynch recounts this story:

I once saw an Episcopalian deacon nearly decked by the swift slap of the mother of a teenager, dead of leukemia, to whom he’d tendered this counsel. ‘I’ll tell you when it’s “just a shell”’, the woman said, ‘for now and until I tell you otherwise, she’s my daughter.’  (Lynch, 1998, p.23)

He goes on to discuss the different types of death; somatic death when, according to hospital equipment, our body fails; metabolic death, when our metabolism and nerve endings cease to function; and, finally, social death, when we die to the ones we love (Lynch, 1998).

Briony Campbell prefaces her ‘The Dad Project’ with:

This is the story of an ending without an ending. This is a work in progress and I hope it always will be. This is my attempt to say goodbye to my Dad with the help of my camera. (Campbell, http://www.brionycampbell.com/projects/the-dad-project)

Campbell shows the understanding that we share the same fate; she grieves the space he will leave, but also the knowledge that she, too, will die.

The rationale behind my ‘Memento’ project was to investigate the role our deceased loved ones’ possessions play in the memorialisation process. The survivor will often have a stronger emotional attachment to an object the deceased used regularly or valued; the fact that the deceased had regular tactile contact with the object creates the greatest meaning.

To the objective bystander, that thing serves no purpose other than their intended role and is difficult to comprehend worth in the mundane. For the survivor, the object transcends functionality and it becomes a conduit between them and the loved one; it can often play a significant role in the initial stages of bereavement. The object engenders in the living a sense of understanding and self sufficiency that enables them to place the physical being of their loved one in the past, but accept the memory of them as a still-present entity in the ‘now’.

When we no longer have our loved ones to cherish, so we cherish what they possessed. In Amelia Stein’s project ‘Loss and Memory’, Colm Toibin describes these every day objects, saying they were once nothing compared to the living person next to them but, after death, they become ‘brimful of ironic meaning’ (Toibin, http://ameliastein.com/loss-and-memory/amelia.html)

These objects are so much more than just memento mori; they are not merely physical reminders of our own mortality, they are intensely emotion-charged representations of the love and recollections we have of the people no longer physically in our lives. As Donigan Cumming reminds us in ‘The Dead’ (Hobson, G. & Williams, V. eds., 1996), death is no easy matter to understand – it remains the most puzzling conundrum of them all.

In ‘Waste Not’, Song Dong examines the need for security and the desire to retain the essence of the loved one – an accumulation of everyday objects that creates an intimate portrait of a life lost.

Song Dong’s ‘Waste Not’ exhibition at the MOMA, USA, 2012

Song Dong’s ‘Waste Not’ exhibition at the MOMA, USA, 2012

The memento project was sparked by a conversation with Alice Calcagno, a fellow student, who talked about how her dead grandfather’s glasses triggered her grief. I began to be fascinated how an ordinary, functional thing could turn, overnight, into something so powerful.

I decided to photograph each object uniformly, removing them from their context and giving them equal weight – I didn’t want the viewer to be distracted by extraneous information. I choose the white background to give a clean, clinical environment and to suggest traditional concepts of a white heaven.

Jake Sugden, a fellow student, lent me his pop up soft box in which to shoot the objects and I borrowed a friend’s flash for more control over light and environment. Some of the images were quite two dimensional, so I propped them up/open with a ball of Blu-Tac to give depth.

Marie’s father’s address book, Memento 2012

Tom’s father’s dictionary, Memento, 2012

Using the flash and box was challenging – I don’t have a natural technical proficiency, which has been a constant struggle; repetition and patience paid off, though. I’m pleased with the final object images and my ability to learn; the images are exactly what I was after and seem to be suspended in a spiritual whiteness.

The portraits were more taxing. I had always seen this particular project as a technical challenge, uniformly shooting the objects and employing specific lighting for a specific portrait mood. Initially, I used a blue flash filter as I wanted ethereality, post mortem coolness – but it was difficult to replicate the same blue in different environments and the results were too disparate. It gave a great effect, but didn’t match my intention.

Portrait of Mark, Memento 2012

Portrait of Barbara, Memento, 2012

I decided to create portraits that suggested introspection, in both the subject and viewer: the subject thinking about their loved one and encouraging the viewer to think about their own dead.  For this, I used a tripod and the torch on my mobile phone – I wanted directional light that my flash wouldn’t give. I found it hard to get focus on some of the portraits so some of the images are soft, but I’m happy that I chose the style as it conveys more ponderousness.

Portrait of Andy, Memento, 2012

Portrait of Barbara, Memento, 2012

This is the project I’m most happy with – of what I accomplished technically, how I pushed myself and the research into the concept. Although it’s technically flawed, the concept is strong; the decision to match the owner with the object as a diptych works because they are both taken out of their context – the viewer having to create their own background for the subjects.

Although I’m fond of my Memorialisation project, I know it’s not completely successful. Visually, it doesn’t have a defined style, but I think the triptychs work as they evoke religious iconography and give more information about the scene. That said, the individual images don’t always compliment the set or the project as a whole. The ghost bike images are too similar to provide additional depth to the subject; I found it difficult adding information and personality with the second and third images, which is why this triptych can look like a zoom. I wanted to reshoot the bikes but ran out of time.

Ghost bikes memorialise cyclists killed near to their location.
This example is at the junction of Clerkenwell Road and Goswell Road, London, United Kingdom. Memorialisation, 2011

The ghost bike is a memorial to Rebecca Goosen, who was knocked over and killed at this busy junction on Thursday, April 9, 2009. Rebecca was 29. Memorialisation, 2011

Councils will often remove flowers or other tributes from a public memorial site, so more people use ‘Remember Me’ signs in their place. These are orderable from the charity’s website, but run the risk of de-personalising a tribute. Memorialisation, 2011

There are successful images which show promise, though; I was most pleased with the natural burial ground – they evoke a spiritual pathway, a natural, fitting resting place and intimate Christ’s crown of thorns that we all wear at some point.

Natural burial grounds are an increasingly popular interment alternative to traditional Christian burials. They allow survivors a place to visit and remember, without the trappings of a religion their loved ones may not have shared. Memorialisation, 2011

Each plot is marked discreetly with a small, plain metal tube; other than this, any additional markers must be biodegradable. Each coffin must also be fully biodegradable. This ground in Deerton Street, Kent, UK is surrounded by countryside and paddocks; off in the distance, one may see the village church. Memorialisation, 2011

The burial ground will only allow native species to be planted on graves. This promotes the sense that the place of interment reflects the area in which they lived and died. Many survivors take solace from the cycle of life – seeing new life spring from the death of a loved one. Memorialisation, 2011

Joel Sternfeld’s work ‘On This Site’ had a major influence on my decision to focus on locations; his simple documentation of a place juxtaposed with the associated trauma and Baer’s discussion of the power of a photograph convinced me to follow this path.

Considering the sensitive nature of these projects, I was conscious that I could create a painful body of work; Nigel Spivey’s book ‘Enduring Creation’ (2004) discusses how art depicting pain and suffering has the power to console – this was my intention throughout, to show the ways in which people sought succor.

Part of my reticence to amalgamate these projects was because I felt my technique had progressed and the older work could bring down the overall standard; it was also about the energy invested in embedding myself in the church and opening myself to a challenging belief system. But I do recognise the LSM series lacks power of its own. I thought that if I took enough images, I’d have a body of work that said something. The images comment on temporality and our need to communicate with our dead, but it wasn’t the edgy piece I’d envisaged.

I’m proud of many of the images, illustrating presence through absence, especially the photographs below. I bought a 50mm lens, which broadened the scope for atmospheric images than my 24-105mm would allow.

Seated man shot through mirror on organ. LSM, 2012

Scuffed floor between pews in the spiritualist church. LSM, 2012

Open hymn book with thumb prints sitting on pew in spiritualist church. LSM, 2012

I had planned to incorporate portraits at the end of the project, but struggled with consistency; my lack of technical portrait experience hampered me, as did a lack of confidence in directing people – although I think these two have a soft, ethereal quality to them:

Jean, President of LSM. LSM, 2012

Greg, secretary of LSM. LSM, 2012

The portraits didn’t make the final edit because I thought the central conceit of temporality was stronger without distinguishable people, allowing the viewer to ‘inhabit’ the photo.

I recalled my Mum seeking the help of a spiritualist after the suicide of her gay brother years before; part of me wanted to receive a ‘message’ to prove their credibility, to know with certainty that my uncle was now in a place of acceptance. I have neither and it’s served to nudge me closer to disbelief.

Although I was given a warm welcome and made friends at LSM, I often felt conflicted; there was a line I understood I had to walk between gracious appreciation and personal distance. LSM’s church healer told me that he believed all diseases – including cancer – were due to spiritual misalignment. How deluded was this person? I took a step back and remembered why I was there – to get these people on side so that I could complete my project.

I was reminded of Janet Malcolm’s (2004) ‘The Journalist and The Murderer’, in which she discusses the relationship between interviewer and interviewee and how the subject has their own motivation to participate. I’ve not betrayed the church or abused their hospitality, but it did make me think about their motivations. What was their agenda for agreeing to give me access?

Although the spiritualist church is managed by an openly gay couple, it is still a Christian church; there is a tension there that I find problematic. Love the sinner, hate the sin – what happens when you don’t believe you’re sinning? I don’t want any part of a faith that believes I should be punished for who I love.

Looking back, I’ve questioned what kind of witness I’ve become. I’m certainly no Gary Knight ‘prosecutional witness’; however involving the church photos might be, they don’t gather evidence against criminals. Knight describes his approach to his work ‘Evidence. War Crimes in Kosovo’ as being a ‘curator of a crime, rather than as a journalist, photographing mass graves and scenes of crime and interpreting the charges of murder, persecution and deportation’ (Knight, http://www.viistories.com/books/evidence.aspx)

My photos also curate death, but in terms of people’s relationship to it, rather than the act itself. I’ve been drawn to the more direct references to death: Weegee is a favourite, his images show death in its lurid reality. Perhaps Weegee is the photographer I could be if I shed my inhibitions:

Weegee, Fire in Harlem – her kids are still in the burning building. 1942

Or I’ll move on to direct death images next, like Rudolf Schafer’s disturbing death portraits ‘Visages de Mort’ – an unsettling series of head shots of the recently deceased. Or, indeed, Franco Zecchin’s reportage work on Mafia killings:

Franco Zecchin, The murder of Paolo Amodeo, Palermo, 1983

Part of me believes I’m more ‘presentational witness’, leaving the viewer to interpret the images. Ron Haviv’s ‘Blood and Honey’, is an eye-witness, purportedly objective account of the Balkan war and a classic example of type. However, no image is ever objective. One has to decide how to frame, when to capture the action. I also share elements of the ‘participatory witness’ (in the vein of Gilles Peress’ ‘Farewell to Bosnia’) as I have more investment in the project; I wouldn’t have shot the church in that manner had I not had a point to discuss.

Although actual death is absent from my projects, the Beachy Head images made me wonder how people reached that point – a possible future project. The ‘post factum witness’ would be the final category, a prime example being Simon Norfolk’s In ‘Bosnia: Bleeds’, in which he investigates how perpetrators believed they could commit their crimes without repercussion.

And what type of photographer am I? An ‘Observer’? Someone who stepped back, didn’t get involved? No, I felt too much of a connection with my subjects.

Possibly an ‘Advocate’, then, taking an active role in Save the Children’s campaign like Marcus Bleasdale – but I was after ambiguity. Death and our reaction to it are unique; one’s stance alters when gaining new knowledge; being an advocate means representing the truth as seen by one side, but whose truth is more relevant? Sebastian Salgado has been called an advocate photographer with his epic images of drought in the Sahel region of Africa; however striking is work, Susan Sontag said that a beautiful photograph drains attention from the sobering subject.

The ‘Outsider’ is a tag I feel most comfortable with; my minority social status and attraction to otherness enables me to look in a different manner. Those outside a community are often best suited to hold up a mirror; Zhou Ming used reflections and differing perspectives to play with western linear perspectives – a recent immigrant will give a different set of pictures of an English fete than would an indigenous villager.

Roy Stryker’s Farm Security Association, created in 1930’s as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, illustrated to the American populous what their countrymen suffered – a prime example of a ‘Citizen’ photographer. These photographers can promote specific ethics and strengthen social mores – I was more interested in highlighting behaviours, rather than promoting them. But, by virtue of highlighting them, have I promoted them? I hope my summaries explain enough about the subjects to know that I am not proselytizing, but offering concepts for reflection.

Possibly at some point, all lines intersect and we become a blend of each.

At the start of this course, we were asked to grade ourselves from four levels of competence:

  • unconscious incompetence – you don’t know you’re crap
  • conscious incompetence – you do know you’re crap
  • conscious competence – you’re aware that you have some skill
  • unconscious competence – those skills become almost instinctive

I placed myself in the second level, understanding I had a lot to learn; throughout the course, my confidence grew, my technical understanding evolved and I understood how to develop and hone a project. Martin Parr’s ‘Last Parking Space’ simple conceit made me realise that I work better with a tight brief – extraneous information is removed so I can focus on what’s relevant. What also buoyed my struggling brain, when faced with impenetrable critical theory, was this lifesaver quote from ‘On Being a Photographer’:

Our conclusion is that critical theorists in photography cannot think clearly or write well. They have many excuses, we are sure, but the bottom line is that their essays are useless because they are unintelligible.
(Jay & Hurn, 2001, p.92)

I now see myself in the ‘conscious competence’ level – I’ve achieved so much on this course and have begun to develop a voice, but also understand that the journey continues.

Some images are flawed, I still struggle with technical aspects, but I’m getting there; many images are strong, they convey meaning and produce a cohesive story. I heeded the words of Donald Schon’s (1983) ‘The Reflective Practitioner’, by examining my daily routine – picking apart my fears, actions and periods of inactivity. It’s been taxing – the level at which I’ve questioned myself and my ability has almost been too much, but it’s been invaluable. I know myself better than ever – and I’m a better photographer for it.

At the start of these projects, I was unsure about my convictions on the afterlife.  Now I don’t believe there is one; we’re organic matter and we return to the earth. However much I’d like to believe my parents will still be present, I know it will only be psychologically – through animism, my recollections and through conversations with people who knew them. We’ll all be kept alive through the interaction of others.

These projects have convinced me to make amends, to address issues, to share, to communicate, to enjoy and cherish my relationships as much as possible. By trying to make their lives enjoyable and make them better understand me, I hope my parents will know how much they are loved and how proud they should be of what they’ve achieved – I’m saying: ‘I love you, you won’t be forgotten’.

Mum and Dad’s wedding day, 17 November 1964

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