After losing both grandparents in the space of a year, Nina Röder and her family were faced with the challenging task of sorting out and selling their house – and with it, the inescapable matter of letting go. Röder’s project, Wenn du gehen musst willst du doch auch bleiben, takes its name from a sage observation made by her nine-year-old nephew, Luis, while they were packing up the belongings. Roughly translated, it means: ‘When you have to leave but you still want to stay’.
The unresolvable question of how to grieve is one that follows every death. For many, the photographic act can be a way of thinking through and processing difficult times. During the two-week period before her grandparents’ house was sold, Röder photographed her family in it – sometimes posing in their clothes and with their belongings – archiving its distinct aesthetic before it disappeared forever. “I wanted to show a different way of dealing with grief and loss,” she explains. “By staging absurd scenes with my mum, cousin and brother, we found a strategy of how to say goodbye.”
In the early 1900s, Paul Thulin’s great-grandfather settled on the coast of Maine, reminded of his homeland of Sweden. Thulin’s family has returned to Gray’s Point each summer ever since, and Thulin has been working on a project there, called Pine Tree Ballads, for over a decade. Initially inspired by his grandfather’s photographs, he hopes it has “a subtext of struggle and hope that mirrors my narrative sense of self and heritage”.
BJP: How did you first get into photography?
PT: My journey into photography started as a way to rebel against my growing contempt and frustration with the limits of language to effectively communicate. In 1996, I returned from a stressful year of studying Philosophy in a Master’s program at Syracuse University and I remember wanting to escape into the mountains to possibly join a Zen monastery. I wanted to meditate and remain silent in an effort to really just experience the world.
This desire led me to discover the writings and images of photographers Minor White, Frederick Sommer, and Emmet Gowin, as their mystical and spiritual use of photography intrigued me. Before I knew it, I borrowed a 35mm camera to try to make meaningful images of my own and I was hooked.
2019 marks a quarter of a century since Val Williams’ curated her seminal exhibition, Who’s looking at the family? at the Barbican in London. In photography, a lot has changed over 25 years, including the introduction of new technologies that have reshaped the way in which we make and consume images, and the changing definitions of what constitutes a photographer.
“On the one hand I thought it might be interesting to speculatively chart that development, but also to rethink notions of the family at the same time,” says Tim Clark, editor of 1000 words magazine and curator of this year’s Photo50 exhibition at London Art Fair. “The idea seemed to chime with a lot of people. I think that’s the key point about family, it’s a great unifying subject. Everyone can relate to it.”
Originally from Andalucia, southern Spain, Rafa Raigón started out in the world of words – acting, and writing plays and poetry. Then he met his partner, a doctor from Berlin, and on moving to Germany, found himself without the necessary language skills to pick up again in theatre. The couple had a child and, staying at home to look after her, Raigón found himself taking photographs instead. “I discovered the creative power of photography,” he says. “The need to express myself led me to photography, finding a tool and a language that allowed me to tell my stories without needing to know German or having friends and people with whom to relate. Now my German is quite advanced and my circle of friends has grown but photography is here to stay and it has become a need in my day-to-day life.” Raigón now has three children, aged 3, 6, and 8, and he’s still the one in charge of looking after them and the house – and he’s also still taking photographs. Taking a one-year seminar …
New York in 1968, Alessandra Sanguinetti’s family moved to Argentina when she was two years old. She lived there until 2003, but is now based in San Francisco – for her, she says, home is two places. “I was in Buenos Aires when the project was proposed,” says Sanguinetti. “My parents still live in the same apartment where I grew up. It’s where I stay when I’m down there, so it felt natural to make work in my childhood home. “Where you grow up becomes a reference for what home should and shouldn’t be,” she observes. “Patterns and habits and a sense of personal space are probably embedded within you and defined by your personal home, so what might seem like just another apartment to an outsider was a goldmine for me.” A lock, a stash of hidden money, jars labelled ‘Never Open’ – Sanguinetti hones in on domestic details, as well as the people close to her, especially her mother and father. Under her lens, they’re shown up close in raw detail, and looking …
“When I returned to the work, the notion of place became the focus precisely because of what had not changed in their social landscape over 20 years”
“What I experienced and witnessed in most families was a really strong sense of well-being and love towards each other, because it’s tough out there,” says Sian Davey, whose latest photoseries, Together, is about to go on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London ahead of an international tour. The photographer, who is already known for photographing her own family, was compelled to start a project that celebrated modern, diverse families after separating from her partner and seeing first hand how it affected her own family.
“I have simply seen breastfeeding as an act of life and love that is not always an easy task, and that therefore is deserving of encouragement in its all dimensions, psychological, physical and social,” says Vincent Ferrané, whose photobook Milky Way is a testament to his wife and women everywhere as they begin their lives as mothers. The series focuses on breastfeeding, a natural act that can sometimes cause controversy when brought into the public sphere. Ferrané’s photobook hopes to move past that and reclaim the breast as an empowering part of the female body.
On one level, Looking for Alice is an illustration of family life, says Sian Davey, with “all the tensions, joys, ups and downs that go with the territory”. But on another, this photography series challenges perceptions of difference, because it focuses on images of her youngest daughter, who was born with Down’s syndrome. “The photographs explore the entwined narratives of my relationship with my daughter, and society’s prevailing attitudes towards people with Down’s syndrome,” she says. A trained psychotherapist, Davey speaks openly about her feelings – from her “deep shock” when her Alice was born, to the gradual acceptance that allowed her to “fall in love with my daughter”. “It was not what I had expected,” she continues. “I was fraught with anxiety that rippled through to every aspect of my relationship with her… I saw that Alice was feeling my rejection and that caused me further pain. The responsibility lay with me; I had to dig deep into my own prejudices and shine a light on them.” In Davey’s photographs, we see Alice smile, cry and …