The way they look

The Unforgetting – Peter Watkins

I’ve read much about this book The Unforgetting by Peter Watkins, from Tim Clark at 1000 Words and Brad Feuerhelm at ASX to being mentioned by a few as top favourites of photobooks 2019, to be honest, I didn’t quite get it at first other than the captivating cold black and white images of object assemblages and memorabilia. As Tim Clark mentioned, “the work is spared of sentimentality: objects are catalogued and composed in a manner that evokes early scientific photography or evidence gathered at a crime scene.”

The work is based on the history of his own family marked by the suicide of his mother when he was nine years old. The heart of the artist’s project is his reconciliation to that loss, through an examination of their shared German heritage.

“This is a work that explores the machinations of memory in relation to the experience of trauma,” says Watkins. “The culmination of several years work, The Unforgetting is a series made up of remnants, as well as the associated notions of time, recollection and impermanence, all bound up in the objects, places, photographs, and narrative structures circulated within the family.”


Self Portrait (2011), an image that pictures the artist stripped from the waist up and seated on a hard wooden chair. His face is cast down, fist clenched, shoulders hunched. Numerous large circles scar his smooth skin: the legacy of cupping, a well-known Chinese treatment for depression. Source @ 1000 Words

© Peter Watkins, from the book ‘The Unforgetting’; Source @ Peter Watkins

What really inspired me about this work was that the work has taken several different iterations since he began in 2010. He started out quite differently, with more of a documentary approach, visited the place where his mother had died, and filmed the village where she grew up, and interviews with family members. “What I came to realise was that everything seemed too literal to me, it was too sad and too sentimental and obvious somehow. I noticed from the filmed interviews that my family’s recollections had somehow blurred and merged into a kind of unified narrative as if the passage of time had stripped away any sense of complexity and subjectivity from each individual’s experience.”

“I didn’t want the project to feel sentimental in the way that projects about this subject so often tend to feel. It was about finding a balance between thinking and feeling. e.g. the Super 8 canisters contain home movies of my mother and her family on holiday. Instead of using those kind of seductive Super 8 images, which carry an unavoidable nostalgia, I came to think of that one picture as a way of conflating all [of the others] into one single, mysterious image that resists that kind of sentimentality. It’s an important part of the work, that resistance to the obvious or the overtly emotive.” he says.


The way they look

Mama – Serey Siv

Cambodian-Canadian photographer Serey Siv, also the director of Mirage which is a contemporary art space based in Cambodia did a personal project about his mother during 2017’s Angkor Photo Festival workshop. Diving into his family roots, the work investigated the dual identity of his mother, and showcased how she feels pride in being both a Cambodian and a Canadian. Using both memorabilia and archival images, he also for the very first time bathe his mother as a Khmer ritual to thank his mother for everything.

© Serey Siv, from the series ‘Mama’ ; Source @ Serey Siv

I love the soft and tenderness throughout these pictures, the care he puts into when making these images can be felt immediately through his choices of light and angles of shooting. The work stamps from a simple idea yet at the same time speaks to audience who also have similar experiences, hence his expanded project “Language Barrier” which is about mixed-race Cambodian children.

Earlier at the 15th Edition of Angkor Photo Festival he shared his viewpoint when making images,

“Often before I start a piece of work, I ask myself – who is the audience? Is it just for your family or is it for a wider audience? Who are they? The other question I constantly ask myself is why I want to do this work, what motivates me deeply in the core that drives me to continue or to work on this project. Only you know best what is right for you.”

He also spoke about his respect for the timeline of a photography project, relating it to how he creates music as a song-writer. He mentioned that some projects are small and some are big and need more time. He disagrees with the myth of documentary projects that needs to be long-term and keep on going.

“What it is is what it is.”

The way they look

Buttons for Eyes – Priya Kambli

Recently, I’ve been looking a lot into theories of photography for sure, and also photomontage works. I used to have this narrow vision of photography of Bresson’s decisive moment, praising Magnumphotos as God, and that was it for me for photography. Blindly ignoring what a big world is out there for making work with images. Maybe it was a good thing, so to just focus on one type of photography or maybe it was a bad thing, because there are so so so much more other possibilities with photography.

What changed me was, I got tired and bored of decisive moments. They are yes, decisive moments, of what claims to be moment of “truths”. Yet theories of photography opened up the question of photography as a medium. I mean, really opened up how I view and understand this medium. And photomontage, is one way of working with images that I feel I’d like to have a taste on. Similarly to decisive moments, there are already materials to work with (former, with what’s happening around the world; latter, with archival images and other materials).

Most immigrants exist in two worlds, the world of memories and visual connections of their growing up and the new realities of living in a culture where all is not familiar. This search for what is home, for the roots of that connect them to the most primal self is the main theme of Priya Kambli’s work.

“Buttons for Eyes” talks about loss, memory and identity (I guess I have a subconscious love for identity and loss, because of the work I’m drawn to). Kambli physically manipulates old family photographs and then rephotographs the altered artefacts. She uses light and flour as manipulative elements to add layers for starting a dialogue about cultural differences and global similarities.

© Priya Kambli, from the series ‘Buttons for Eyes, 2017- ; Source @ Lenscratch

She works with archival images which allows her to connect the past with the present, to bring forward memories, and to reimagine them adorned with tokens of the everyday – in a sense, making these memories physical. The way in which she maintains the photographs is akin to how Indian housewives tend to their kitchen deities – hence the use of flour. The meticulous patterns crafted on it symbolises the “Indianity” of her past identity (literally these patterns of flour can be blown away in seconds) – imprinted onto a physical form that she is re-creating for the present.

Much of the work talks about the separation and the exchange of cultural differences and similarities between herself and her sister, whom chose to stay in India whereas she immigrated to the US after their parents passed away.

There’s a final layer of narrative to this work which comes from the title “Button for Eyes.” It comes from a question her mother used to ask, “Do you have eyes or buttons for eyes?” Her mother’s concern was about Kambli’s inability to see trivial objects right in front of her, but also about our collective inability to see well enough to navigate the world. “It is a question laced with parental fear,” she says. Which goes back to, are we ignorant to these cultural differences and global similarities in the world? The laced patterns on the images may also symbolises not only the ignorant we ourselves may have, but those that derives from the parental fear in order to protect their children.


The way they look

Corbeau – Anne Golaz

I don’t know much about this book. Actually I shouldn’t really write about it until I’ve read this book. But what intrigues me so much about this work is that it’s talking about family (which is a topic of my interest) and that it uses playwright and other forms of medium to weave into the narrative, talking about one’s struggle in life being pulled by different directions. References and talks about this book has lifted my interest higher. Especially it is shortlisted for Aperture and Paris Photo photobook award 2017. I can’t wait to get my hands on this book.


The way they look

Sian Davey

Something about Sian’s images intrigue me deeply and leaves me a punch in my stomach that is subtle and long-lasting. Maybe it’s because her work is about family, community and self which is also the topics that I love to investigate on.

Didn’t learn that she was a psychotherapist before, the first work I was exposed to was “Looking for Alice”, a documentary series about her Down Syndrome daughter, Alice. Her images of Alice are intimate, honest, proud, and with lots of love. The light on these images are phenomenal, showcasing the daily lives of Alice and the family. There are a range of emotions displayed by Alice which touches me as these are also what we as humans and individuals would go through. The work reminds me of my childhood somehow, and those glimpse of moments somewhat match with my own versions of my memories.  The tenderness in these photographs make my heart aches in a loving way. I’m also particularly drawn to this work because of my background with SEN children. Maybe my understanding of them leads me to have a deeper understanding of these images. But even without such knowledge in a professional way, one would feel the sentimental touches in this work. My favourite image by far is the image of Alice sticking her tongue out (I’m guessing involuntarily) and touching grandma’s face, while grandpa is holding her and stroking her hair with tenderness. There is so much love in this image.

“Martha” was another piece of work that I was exposed to, which talks about her elder sister and her transitions during puberty. This is also a piece of stunning work which I relate it with Claudine Doury’s “Sasha” (I’ll write about this next 🙂 ).

Now the work “Together” which isn’t as well-recognised as the two above strikes me as well. It’s about family and what family means. People say if you want to learn about someone, see what books they read. I say, if you want to learn about a family, look at their homes and their dining etiquette. I’ve always love to see image of family eating together. In Chinese, dining etiquette is very important and it represents a lot about the Chinese culture and its association with the importance of family. Here, this series of work show so much about British families and its culture. How families are together, what sort of races there are, how each ethnic group come together as a family etc. The images show so much about freedom and roles in each family, the nature of Britain plays an important part of the family culture, TVs and food is also a trend in UK, mums are no longer the only care takers, there’s a mix culture of other ethnicities e.g. Indians, South Africans?, Italians? etc. The work for me is breathtaking and it makes me reminisce the time when I was living in the UK.

The way they look

Ray’s a Laugh – Richard Billingham

I don’t own this book. When this book was first introduced to me, I didn’t like it at all. I felt the work was very snappy and in my mind, I felt like this can be done by anyone. But then, few months passed by and I re-read it again while studying for photographers who shoots about family. Actually, the work is amusing! It’s sort of like a picture comic book about this man, Ray.

And Ray happens to be the artist’s father, who is an alcoholic. These pictures are the daily encounters with his family Ray, his mother Liz and his brother Jason. Pictures of Ray are mostly when at his drunk state, you see him falling off, throwing cats and getting hit by a tennis ball without any acknowledgement at all. Billingham was able to capture something hilarious during the drunk state of his dad. Ray’s almost always with a drink in his hand, or with a bottle around nearby; while there are also repetitive cats, dogs and dolls around indicating the life of chaos in this house. Work was intermissioned by greenery nature of birds and ducks, showing their lives still goes on even there are birds chirping and ducking swimming in the ponds. I must applause to Billingham for being able to turn something that can be so negative to something light and laughable.

In an interview with Billingham, he told the editor that this project, these photographs, was his way of making order in this chaos. It was his way of filtering through the negatives and trying to survive during this manic status. But then again, question is raised, what is the moral grounds here for publishing this work? When we are releasing something very private to a public audience, where is the line of ethics? This is not the end of the story between Ray and Liz. Richard Billingham directed a movie “Ray and Liz” which was released in Winter 2018 composed of even more moments of the lives between Ray and Liz. Has this gone too far? Or if something is so intertwined with ourselves, can we call it our own?

The way they look

Sally Mann

I’ve always loved her work – Immediate Family. Before knowing any news about the controversy of this work, I find this book very sensual, intimate and shows very primitive lives of children and family. I looked at the work and I felt like I was transported back to the primitive age, during the time when societal beliefs were different. I felt a great sense of innocence from looking at these photographs. Children that were photographed felt genuine and Mann was in my view point capturing the true essence of childhood. I actually admired that this is how they chose to live their lives. And through these photographs, I understood the essence of childhood if children were brought up that way. To me she was just documenting and displaying lives as how it was lived. Rather than just picking those that looked “great”, she also picked those that doesn’t seem so appealing e.g. bruises, wet beds, bloody noses to show that life isn’t just about the great stuff, there are also these imperfects and “wrongs”.

In my mind I never doubted anything about this piece of work other than whether the children consented to put their photographs on display, in the public. But Mann’s work was crucified by criticising her morals as a mother and as a photographer.

Then while I was studying this work in more depth, I found lots of discussion about whether this work is art or abuse. The main article came from NY Times “The Disturbing Photographs of Sally Mann” where it questioned whether some of the photographs, the way they were posed and made were art or children molestation. Some even said that if the subjects were adults, they could be pornography. Sally Mann replied and gave her side of the story, stating her position and how this work has started and ended. She actually went through tough times and was also worried about paedophiles too of the area.

For me this work can raise so many questions.

Standing on the viewpoint of an artist, I can’t agree more with what Mann said about her role as a mother should not be confused with her role as a photographer. And that her children’s roles were different too when they were in front of the camera. This doesn’t, in my point of view, change at all because they are children, and specifically her children.

Standing on the viewpoint of a critic, yes I do see some photographs that are borderline inappropriate, meaning, they can easily be misinterpreted based on most’s knowledge of culture and societal beliefs at modern days. And yes – that can lead to people questioning her motives, her morals and she as a person. And who knows? They may really do in fact attract paedophiles.

I guess my question is, whether Mann was putting her role as a mother above her role as a photographer. Everything is okay up until the point where these photographs are published. If she knew society was likely to think that way, would she have given up publishing the work to protect her children? Or would she think that there’s nothing wrong with this work (in her point of view) and that she did every possible moral and ethnical thing she could with her children for the work to be published?

I don’t know. It could be either way. She could have a strong belief that she needs to put this out just to make a statement that this is the way families should be documented and memorised. Or it could be that, even this statement isn’t as important as to protect her children. You know but then, she’s a photographer.

This work actually led me to learn, as viewers, how are we really judging and analysing photographs? And how should we? Do we take into account of the photographers’ personal life with the work they make? Or do we leave that out and just critique the photographs made by the artist objectively?