I only ever took one or two photographs of my Mum. Both of them, unknowingly, within the last months of her life.
I was born in 1986; the second son of English/Irish descent to two parents who were in their 12th year of marriage. I had a happy childhood in a well to do country town in the East Midlands and grew up in a happy home. My Father commuted daily to work in London which meant a lot of early mornings and late nights, leaving Mum to do the majority of weekday parenting for my older brother and I. As an adventurous child I spent most of my time outdoors, playing sports and out with friends exploring the countryside surrounding our town. Spending so much time outdoors I was in control of where I went, what I did and who I saw, leading me to be of a strongly independent nature, relishing the control I had over my extra curricular time.
I left secondary school with average grades, much to the frustration of my parents who had tried their hardest to compel me to spend my time revising during out of school hours. Unfortunately, at the point in my life where I should have been raising my efforts academically, I was more drawn to the enjoyment of socialising outside school.
During my teenage years my relationship with Mum became fractious, we fought over boundaries and rule enforcement - good parenting in hindsight - but we became distant and disconnected. A teenager trying to grasp increasing levels of independence and a parent reinforcing boundaries are rarely going to live harmoniously.
By the time I attended college and started to study photography formally, my parent's marriage had come to a laborious and jagged end and Mum had moved out. Looking back, I was very confused about what had caused the split - the pitfalls of not quite being able to see things with adult eyes. I found the change quite difficult to deal with and as I only saw Mum on irregular visits at her new house, our relationship became even more distant.
Over the next 15 years we rebuilt things slowly and managed to get back to a really comfortable place. I adapted to her being in a new relationship and began to appreciate that she might now be happier and lead a less stressful life. As an adult our relationship developed toa place where I was able to help her and even offer her advice, just as she continued to instill knowledge and wisdom into me. Our friendship levelled and we became able to have emotionally engaged conversation and supported each other in our times of need. We had become equals, and our tempestuous years were nothing more than a dot on the horizon.
During the last 5 years she lost her Father and two brothers. She was the last living member of her family as my grandmother died many years ago, and was left to organise her Father's complicated and badly disorganised estate. Her siblings had had no children and so her family name would one day die out with her. My Grandfather was a proud Yorkshireman, and this was something that will have undoubtedly played on his mind for decades. As the last surviving member, this also left my Mum, her partner, and my brother and I to clear my Grandfather's house.
The house was built on farming land and stood alone atop a hill outside an idyllic Yorkshire village, with money gained from my Grandfather's successes in the motor industry. He had bought the land, which included a section of forest that he used for his passion for game shooting and had retired early, living the playboy lifestyle. For decades, shooting days were followed by raucous parties, filling the house to the brim with people all enjoying food and plenty of drink.
During my childhood, the house had been the most magical place in the world. It was filled with glamourous furniture and decorated with swathes of glorious paintings of hunting scenes, Yorkshire landscapes and a few beautiful and enchanting stuffed game animals, all lit by delicate crystal chandeliers hung from high ceilings.
The garden was vast, and both my brother and I had learned to play cricket here at an early age with our Uncle. Every time we stayed, we'd enjoy taking Grandad's gun dog for a walk up the track behind his house across his land, wading through expansive puddles in the tractor tracks in the Winter and laughing at the dog leaping up and down in the golden Barley fields in the Summer. Her head would sporadically appear above the golden plateau of a million barley heads as she playfully navigated her way around the field.
We'd stroll past the stone barn, built by hand by my Grandfather and Uncle, stopping to see the initials they'd carved into one of the cornerstone blocks upon its completion in 1966. We'd purposefully walk the perimeter of the fields, passing the Oak tree Grandad had planted for Mum on the day she was born. In recent years she had asked me to carve her initial into the bark. We made sure we followed the edge of the fields noting the small mounds of limestone rocks, respectfully placed to mark the graves of previous gun dogs. In the forest we'd come across the chicken wired enclosures used for rearing the Pheasants, the bird feeders, the wheat they were fed on and the ponds they'd drink from.
It was a captivating place to spend weekends during school holidays.
The house was now outdated. Its wiring was archaic and its huge oil fuelled heating system was wildly uneconomic. It would have needed a lot of money to bring it into the 21st century, which Mum didn't have and so, it was to be sold. The house had been decorated in the 1970s and hadn't really changed since and looking back to it, it was a strange mix. The majority of the house was like a country manor; decadence, crystal and beautiful woodwork. Other elements were strongly 70s, the soft hued greens, pinks and yellows. As a child, all the touches of that era made the place more magical for me, the vivid pastel coloured bathroom suites, the wardrobes with scandinavian-esque detailing, the tassled trims running along the bottom of the sofas. In it's day, the house would have been the height of fashion, today it was dog-eared and behind the times.
The time came for clearing my Grandfather's house and Mum, her partner and my brother spent a day removing piles of belongings and furniture, and putting it on a fire. Mum had little or no emotional attachment to her late brothers' belongings and wanted to have the house into a saleable condition as soon as possible.
My brother and I had spoken on the phone later that day, and he'd told me that he'd found it pretty difficult. Being 7 years my senior, I suppose he had 7 years more of attachment to that part of our lives. A couple of weeks passed and Mum was ready for round two, to finish the clearance, and so it was my turn. Although I didn't exactly relish the idea having heard my brother's testimony, I wanted to support my Mum in getting over this hurdle in her life. Mum and her partner drove north on a crisp and bright Summer morning, and I made my way up on the train from London. We met in a nearby train station and drove straight to the house.
As we arrived, the grounds looked so bright and full of life, a complete contrast to the interior of the house. When we walked in I remember feeling how cold the house was; it had always been so warm before, the huge fireplace roaring almost constantly. The walls were bare, no paintings or adornments, just shadows of dust mimicking the frames of the paintings that had hung there before. I headed straight for the living room, the grand heart of the house, once filled with armchairs, tables, ornaments, pictures and paintings. It was completely empty, and for the first time I felt tall in there. I walked over to the fireplace and towered over it for the first time in my life. It was strange to feel that when the house had been full before, I had felt smaller, less dominating and like a part of the scene. The wonderment I had felt during my childhood had been ripped out of the house and now I felt like this wasn't even the same building.
We started clearing the house. Mum's partner dismantled furniture and threw it out through widows, crashing loudly onto the driveway. My role was to collect it and take it down the lane alongside the house, out onto the land, and put it on a fire. This meant I was able to sift through everything which allowed me to learn all sorts about the house that I didn't know before. Like opening a giant time capsule, I was able to look far back before my time.
I was looking back to a heyday before my Grandad's latter days, through piles of beautiful clothes, photographs, magazines, records and plenty of furniture. Mum was militarily efficient in times like these and had no want for taking things to auctions or charity shops, "It was more faff than it was worth.", so it all went on the fire. I'll never forget standing behind the house shielding my face from heat of the fire. Even at 20 feet away I could feel the flames burning my face, the plumes of smoke coating the trees a matte black and sending my heritage across the Yorkshire countryside.
There were times were I had to sift through things for my own safety. When we took wardrobes apart I took the drawers out, filled with their contents and put them on the fire. I looked through them in case there was any little mementos I might want to keep, a keyring, a coin, a photograph. When we took him for lunch on one visit, Grandad had told my brother and I with his deep and grizzly Yorkshire voice, "There'll be nothing in the Will for you two, but you'll get something through your Mother", a brutally honest comment in passing that meant I didn't possess a single memento of his life at this point. While sifting through one drawer I found a box of bullets and in another, a couple of shotgun cartridges. It was probably for the best that they didn't go on the fire as I stood next to it. Towards the end of the day I wasn't quite so vigilant and after tossing one drawer on the fire, an eruption of outstandingly loud bangs and cracks sent me hightailling off down the lane, arms around my head scampering for my life.
During the day I had also found an old Kodak Instant Camera stuffed into the back of my late Uncles wardrobe. Still in its box and protected from daylight for decades, it was as fresh as the day it had been bought, it even contained a unopened cartridge of film. The camera had never been used. I couldn't have wished for a more appropriate vessel with which to document the day. The batteries had long since expired, covering the back of the camera in dried out battery acid. After a wipe down and plundering some replacement batteries from some old TV remotes, I managed to get it going. The power light flickered on and when it kicked out the darkslide it was like the chugging of an old car starting up for the first time in years; all the wiring firing in uncomfortable grunts and creaks.
I hoped that the chemicals in the slides might still work but they too had failed many years ago. At lunch time we stopped the clearing to make use of the summer weather and had a picnic on the front lawn. I continued taking photos on the Kodak Instant Camera and on my transparency filled Canon and whilst walking around, I photographed Mum and her partner sat on the lawn.
Nothing came out on the instants except a large blue shape not too dissimilar to two silhouettes, although this was nothing but coincidence. A painful irony lies in the fact that one of the only photographs I took of Mum didn't come out. As I write this the Instant lies in front of me, as equally tantalising as it is cruel.
My Mum passed away suddenly in October 2015, just over a year after her late brother.
Six weeks after her passing, the dust had started to settle and my mind spied some sort of normality in the distance. I was still spending a lot of nights laying wide awake next to my girlfriend who had supported my faultlessly through that intensely turbulent time. While she slept next to me, an eternity of thoughts would pass through my mind. Wishes, what-ifs and a sea of regrets. Sometimes I'd sit up, thinking through things, searching for some sort of reasoning to Mum's death.
It was in the early hours one night that I realised I still had two undeveloped rolls of the 35mm transparency film I had used on the day we had spent clearing my Grandfathers house. I had used them photographing little mementos, remnants of the house and the little indicators of the life that had been lived there. I wanted to capture as much as I could to remind me of the house when I look back at the images in the future. I shot the house, the beautiful grounds and had photographed the hoards of belongings that went on the fire over the course of the day.
Before Mum passed away I had lost family members, but no one so close. I'd never felt loss like it. It was like I was on the receiving end of a knockout punch in slow motion. Grief like that grips your insides in a way that is deeply uncomfortable. At times it squeezes and hurts, at others it just holds. It's always applying a blunt, heavy pressure so you know it's there, always painful. It seemed to sit on my shoulders like a heavy black Carrion perching on a leafless branch that bowed and strained under its weight.
For a long while it persistently suppressed any return to happiness and mundane daily tasks would be punctured with deep thought and intermittent daydreams, contemplating why things couldn't be different.
At times my mood might return to some sort of form and level out, only for the smallest thought or realisation to cast me straight back down into the shadows. For a long time I'd continuously return to the thought that my Mum won't be there to see me get married. To this day that cut is still the deepest.
I began to think more and more about the two undeveloped films, and the momentary relief and elation of seeing Mum again. The possibility of having a frame containing her on the contact sheet for either of these films both excited me and petrified me. My primary feelings were that I'd see her and I'd feel for a second like I was with her and that none of this had happened. That everything was ok again, she was back just for a moment.
At the same time I was well aware of my fragile emotional state and I worried that seeing Mum could open a vault of feelings that I'd never experienced before. I was scared that with a single glance I could be cast into an uncontrolable spiral of depression.
As a Photographer, losing someone so close and having an unprocessed photograph of them was a difficult and thought provoking position to be in, which prompted me to write about the process. One of the largest components of grief is wanting someone back, and I desperately wanted the chance to share another moment with Mum. I felt that if a frame was there, that second of seeing would allow me toexperience an instance a moment of relief, a revival, a new shared moment with her just for a millisecond.
I imagined it to feel similar to the way an addict might feel; grasping at any small chance to get a feeling back, the photograph giving me gratification.
Upon finding some lost photos I had taken on a separate trip with my girlfriend, I'd said, "They're nothing special, but they're extra memories..."; maybe having this photograph of Mum would be the same. I knew that they wouldn't be the most aesthetically pleasing photograph I've ever seen or taken, but experiencing that second with her could make it the most powerful image I'd ever experienced.
I started to feel that having any photo of Mum on those rolls would help me to feel again but I needed to be aware that if she was there in a frame, that gaining that moment may just prolong the grieving period for me, torturing me more.
I also needed to consider the other extreme. Weeks had passed and at this point I couldn't be totally 100% sure that I'd taken the photograph even though I could imagine the frame and remember where I was when I took it. Doubt was setting in and worryingly, all these feelings and emotions sat on a foundation of memory and conjecture. What if there wasn't a photo of Mum at all?
My hopes were so heavily pinned on seeing Mum there, but In my head I could clearly picture the shot: she was there with her partner sat on the lawn with sandwiches, the hedges behind them, the grass glowing green, the sun shining brightly and the trees in full leaf.
But that doubt was still there, time had passed, and I knew that I'm not often a photographer of people. I couldn't be completely sure that I took the shot.
The process of writing about this undiscovered photo soon became torturous. My emotions dived and soared and I began to see similarities with Roland Barthes who, in Camera Lucida, spent the second half of the book writing about his "Winter Garden" photograph; an image containing his dearly missed mother. As Barthes wrote, I stood the chance of "losing her twice over". I started to tackle the possibility that this writing could well result in un-needed heartache if there wasn't a photo of her on either of the films.
Simultaneously, I started to feel the writing process to be cathartic; as they say, a photographer uses photography to help them understand, to explore and interpret. I was writing down my thoughts, breaking down grief and tackling it one thought at a time. I became able to slow down the grieving process and was able to step away from it, looking at it through photographic means.
I began thinking about my relationship with photography and how I utilised it's qualities. Putting this piece together made me explore the notion that, as a visual aid, a photograph, through it's mechanical nature of close representation, can allow us through sight to feel more definitely, accurately and directly than relying on just a memory alone. A memory can give us the sights, sounds, smells and emotions, but I started to contemplate whether having a visual aid can allow the eye to see, thus freeing up that part of the minds capability to focus on the other components of memory, strengthening that memory. If I was to take the concept a step further and was given a visual aid as well as the sounds within a memory, could it be possible for the remainder of the minds capacity to be utilised on the remaining components of the particular memory, enabling us to reconnect with the event more closely? A romantic proposition I admit.
I had to be realistic at this point and needed to consider the possibility for the photo of Mum not being there, and I needed to consider it thoroughly. If there was in fact no photograph, then would this whole process have been a pointless exercise?
On the surface it seemed so but after hours of contemplation, I started to realise the value of this whole episode:
This work has made me consider my relationship with the image and has helped me think further into the way in which the photograph can reopen a window in time in ones mind; not only showing a split second but re-presenting it to us so we can attempt to relive an experience in our mind. What a gift it is that the humble photograph, a graphic representation, can allow us simply to attempt reliving.
The process has also allowed me to explore my attachment to the image, how it is the visual representation that we look for first over any other representation of a time. I was also helped along through the grieving process by putting this work together and not only was I able to grieve in my own way, but I was able to slow the process down by stepping back, and consider the way I was grieving. Another merciful gift from Photography; as Bachelard wrote, "Passions simmer and resimmer in solitude".
This work also helped me re live the emotions felt at the time of taking the image I picture in my mind. The visual representation I could foresee helped me re-feel so many emotions: the sadness of clearing my Grandfather's belongings from a house I loved, knowing that it was to be lost from the family; the satisfaction of helping my Mother move on from from her Father's death and to help her work through a laborious event in her life; the happiness of being with my Mum for the day and the joy of being in a dear place on a hot Summer's day.
It also made me think fondly on the reconciliation and repair of our relationship in recent years, without it, I may have never come to appreciate the turnaround we made.
The idea of there not being an image of Mum on either film also helped me consider our separation in a new context: would this photograph have eased the separation? Could it have acted as a link between Mum and I? It felt like the image could have been a softener of the blow, a moment shared between us after her death, a link between the living and the dead.
As I swayed back and forth between practical and emotional states, I knew that deep down I wanted there to be just one photo of Mum. I sent off the films to be processed and was desperately clutching to the idea that I could experience a millisecond of having her back.
I returned home from work on a bitterly cold Friday night. As I stepped through my front door I was met with a package on the floor and I knew instantly what it was.
I didn't feel giddy or even daunted, and I felt no compulsion to tear it open right there in the doorway. Instead, I calmly picked it up and continued with my evening as usual, telling myself I'd open it over the weekend. My usual Friday night rituals took place as normal; a nice dinner with my girlfriend over a bottle of wine and relaxing after a week of work.
Late on, we went to bed and after hours of laying there, I was wide awake. I had tossed and turned for what seemed like days, unable to tear my mind away from the yet unopened package. Finally, enough was enough and I woke my girlfriend to tell her I was going to look at the films. She offered her support and compassionately suggested she should be there for me while I did, but this was something I needed to do alone. I stepped out, package in hand into another room.
I felt a combination of excitement and nervousness. All Photographers feel a tingle of both when you receive a batch of processed film, but these feelings were heightened as I considered the prospect of seeing Mum again. I sat alone, in my lounge, in the early hours wrapped in a blanket clutching the package. I paused before opening it to gain my composure and reconstruct my thoughts. Carefully, I opened the package and without looking at them, placed the individually sleeved sets of prints to my left. Taking the first batch, my eyes rolled speedily over each frame on the contact sheet on top. I scoured all four corner of each individual thumbnail to see if there was a glimmer of Mum and a glimmer of confirmation. My heart rose hastily at the sight of each frame, recognising parts of the house and moments in the day, only to sink at the instant I realised she wasn't there. Thirty-six times my heart stopped and started, all over the course of the few seconds it took me to digest the first contact sheet.
There was nothing. My heart sank deeply as I finished analysing the last frame only to rise again as I reached for the second set.
This moment presented me with one last chance, a redo, another life. I started to scan the second contact sheet, this time slowly, knowing the previous set was lost. I held the package pleading in my mind for something. Anything, I was desperate.
Staring at the second contact sheet I fell into each frame; shots of the day we'd spent at Grandad's, the house, the garden, the artefacts, the fire. Frame by frame, the day passed through my eyes and I was slowly running out of chances to have that new moment with Mum. I worked my way through them from top to bottom.
As I reached the last frame I found nothing. No Mum, no moment: nothing.
I sat there for a while. Silent. My mind bearing a torrent of emotions. All these feelings, sadness, anger, embarrassment, all reacting against each other.
Those dark few minutes felt like a reflection of Mum's death; so swift, so sudden, and over before I could do anything to stop it.
I quickly came to realise that this whole process was really about one thing: Me. It was wholly one way; I was hoping for a "moment" with my Mum, she wasn't getting a moment with me. It was completely selfish. Raging embarrassment consumed me and I began mentally punishing myself. My sense of selfishness exacerbated a brutal recognition of realism, my sheer stupidity. She wasn't actually going to be there. What was I thinking? There wasn't going to be a little section of time in her presence, it was just seeing. And what would seeing her actually do? Nothing.
For weeks before I'd sat there, in a quiet corner of my home to find out what was on or was not on those films, I'd told myself that if there wasn't a photo, then it's OK, this was all worth it. And yet I felt the most overwhelming sense of stupidity and shame. The image I'd taken was there in my head, I could see it, I could feel myself stood on the driveway, holding the camera, I knew the exact place I'd taken the photo. I could see the frame, the angles, the colours, even the position Mum was sat in, she was right there having the picnic. And yet it wasn't there. It had never existed.
I felt nothing for this piece of writing, it was all pointless now so why continue with it? The energy had gone. In those few moments I was again left without something that had meant so much to me and had given me so much positivity and hope.
It took me about a fortnight to get back into the right mind frame and decide to carry on with this, to not waste it all. I'd shunned it completely, but out of self embarrassment and shame. Things hadn't gone my way but I realised the process had opened my mind up to new ideas and feelings and new thoughts towards photography. I wouldn't have had these without doing this writing. My brother, for example; he didn't have this opportunity, and didn't have photography. Without photography, I wouldn't have even had the possibility of another moment with Mum.
He didn't have the chance to grieve in this way and have the chance to consider photography like this. He would have to make his own way through this and deal with things his own way.
And was it really a problem that the image wasn't there? In a way, although the visual aid wasn't there to heighten the memory, the memory is still there nonetheless. I can still picture the scene perfectly, I can feel the summer heat, the soft breeze on my skin, I can smell the smoke from the fire. Having that memory is certainly better than nothing; if I hadn't headed north to help Mum that day and hadn't taken any photos, then I wouldn't have had this exercise to help me grieve.
The process, although heart wrenching and at times incredibly difficult to get down on paper, had been hugely cathartic, but I still feel full of mixed emotions. I probably will for many years to come.
Now, at the point of writing this, my mind is in a real state of divergence. I feel that in a way, all that we leave behind as proof that we lived is photographs. When we are gone, all that is left is a space, a gap. We leave personal belongings to loved ones and our family line continues, but once we are gone there is no proof that we were really there, except in photographs. We are hopelessly reliant on visuals for confirmation and proof. Once someone dies, you can't feel them any more, you can't smell them, but you can see them. If you're really lucky, maybe you could hear them.
Considering this makes me want to photograph my loved ones endlessly, to give them a visual legacy and selfishly, to help me re-live moments with them; not only helping me to relive life, but the subject too. Photography could empower me to gain control over time itself.
In this time of psychological quarrel I've come to realise that deep down, the only reason I would photograph my loved ones endlessly is because it would make me feel like I'm able to slow time, to catalogue a life moment by moment, to preserve from death.
Undertaking this writing also made me reevaluate my relationship with photograph. Psychologically, I've always inextricably connected a photograph of someone as their being, without any consideration for the contrary. I always felt that that is the person, their soul, spirit and presence right there on the paper. The image contains their being.
But this experience has broken this bond between emotion and image, it's forced me to realise that this link isn't there. Photography isn't emotive, it's clinical. The process has heartlessly highlighted the fact that a photograph is nothing but a collection of chemicals on paper arranged in a way that represents someone's features. Frankly, this saddens me further and as the thoughts in my mind battle, I simultaneously consider that for me, if the photograph isn't being, it actually isn't proof we lived. Photography gives us no finality, no closure. Szarkowski was absolutely right when he wrote, "The subject and the picture were not the same thing, although they would afterwards seem so.". For me, this process has fractured, even separated the link between the photograph and being and I now find myself suspended in the middle, in a state of theoretical and emotional limbo.
As much as I might want to "photograph my loved ones endlessly", my realisation of the rift between the photograph and being (or life and the image) makes me want to put down my camera for good, to stop it from splitting me from the experience.