Research notes – The Dad Project

The following notes are made after looking at The Dad Project by Briony Campbell. Some images from this project, as well as a video edited for an article in The Guardian are available from her website, together with notes in connection with the project (1).

The Dad Project started as a project for Campbell while she was completing her masters studies, shortly after her father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. While various people cautiously encouraged her to document her father’s final days, she was initially anguished by the idea, doubting at various points whether to go ahead or not, and not knowing for a long time how to approach the project or when or what to photograph.

Campbell explains all of this in very extensive notes (2), providing not only details of her state of mind when approaching the subject, but also giving very interesting insights into what a photographic project of this type entails and how her feelings and thoughts ended up being inseparable from the shape the project would eventually take. There are various moments in which she seems to be taking pictures without a clear plan, and feeling unsure about whether she is repeating herself or not . There are three crucial points for me in her account of the events. The first one is the moment in which she realises that “The fact that I couldn’t shot everything was the story” (3) , rationalizing her hesitation about taking pictures when her father lost his balance and dropped a glass full of milkshake on the floor. This to me represents the insight process that is necessary in photography, but that is often elusive and can pass us by unless we make a conscious effort to be open to ideas and thoughts that may be unfamiliar. Campbell makes good use of this idea (ie not shooting everything) in some of the images, particularly towards the end, when she decides to focus on parts (like hands, throats, partially obscured headshots – see for instance here and here) in a way that deflects her grief. The second point I found particularly interesting is how she consulted with other practitioners (such as fellow photographer Leonie Hampton and her master’s tutor) as part of the project process. This may seem like an obvious point, but is one that I have personally overlooked too often, particularly out of fear that by sharing ideas the project may somehow be diluted or become less personal. The truth of the matter is that without an exchange of ideas the insight process that I alluded to in my previous point may never happen. I must make a mental note of this for the future.

The final point which I found interesting was the process of transformation of the project after shooting, to final selection and presentation. Campbell makes reference to her being unsure about how put the pictures together at first, agonising about the difficulty of presenting “…our story from every possible perspective” (4). She then finds inspiration from one of her late father’s ideas, that one has to take a position in order to understand others’, in order to move ahead. I quite liked the analogy she used for this, based on shoes:

we shouldn’t feel tied to one pair of shoes just because we have stepped into them. We shouldn’t worry that we’ll become know as someone who wears only that type of shoe, and have to wear them forever to maintain our identity. But we should choose a pair and walk around in them for a while. Once we’ve gained an understanding of what the world looks like with these shoes on, we’ll be better equipped to try on another pair, and to understand that what we see wearing the second pair is richer for having worn the first pair. Unfortunately, we can’t wear all the shoes at once, but if we chose one pair to start with, we can begin to see. (4)

Campbell initial presentation of the project, which she called “The First Edit” (5) was in the form of a book, but she subsequently adapted this to other means of presenting the material, including various exhibitions (as part of her master studies, and then subsequently in the Photographer’s Gallery in London together with other artists), magazine and newspaper features, both within the UK and internationally, and even through radio interviews. Through this process, Campbell has allowed part of the material to fall outside her control, with mixed results (at least from her perspective). She seemed to be particularly upset about Die Zeit’s editorial treatment in one of the magazine features, which added their own interpretations of Campbell’s views on the project (6), but at the same time she mentions that the supportive reaction of the public to the material has encouraged her to go further and eventually muster the courage to share the more painful pictures, which were initially excluded from “The First Edit”. The process of presenting, reshaping and presenting again the material that she describes is quite fluid and clearly illustrates the point that a photographic project can constantly be revisited and reinvented, and in reality never ends.

The photographs that Campbell includes in her website to illustrate The Dad Project are a mixture of portrait and landscape shots. All the images were shot in colour and they do not seem to have been heavily edited, with the colours and the lighting being relatively flat in many pictures, some of which have uncorrected colour casts. Campbell makes use of very shallow depth of field in some of the images, particularly towards the end of the series, and this, together with the use of flare and reflections, gives an aura of otherworldliness to some of the shots (see for instance here and here). Some of the shots are out of focus or appear to be misfocussed (for example, this and this other one), but I do not believe this deliberate in any way, but more the consequence of the uniqueness of the circumstances, which probably did not allow for second chances when taking a shot. I presume that the photographer prefered to include these pictures, even with their technical imperfections, because they serve the dual purpose of illustrating both a moment, and the difficulties the photographer faced on a personal level, confronted with very painful circumstances while also trying to capture such moment for posterity.

_____________________

(1) Briony Campbell. 2017. The Dad Project – Briony Campbell | Photography & Film. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.brionycampbell.com/projects/the-dad-project/?overview. [Accessed 08 August 2017].

(2) Campbell, B. (2011). The Dad Project. [online] Available at: http://www.brionycampbell.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/The_Dad_Project_Briony_Campbell.pdf [Accessed 16 Aug. 2017]

(3) Idem, p. 5

(4) Idem, p. 9

(5) Idem, p. 10

(6) Idem, p. 11

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