Photography: Sian Davey
Text: Bridie Riley
PYLOT speaks to Sian about her work and her ongoing project, Martha.
BR: What first attracted you to photography as a tool for creativity and communication? You engaged with photography very late on after your training as a painter – why did you choose photography over painting?
Well I was steered into fine art painting on my foundation because I could draw well and had a strong sense of design and colour. But I was continually frustrated with the medium because of the lack of movement and immediacy. Photography enabled me to make stories and work wherever I am, I don’t have to compartmentalise the work in a studio.
SD: Do you feel shooting on analogue is integral to your practise?
Yes, completely. There is a strong case of aesthetics for example, digital cannot replicate the skin tones as analogue can. But importantly for me, analogue is such a ‘quiet’ process, a kind of meditation. I’m not constantly referring to what I’ve just shot, so that means that all my senses are entirely engaged with whatever I am photographing. Obviously the cost of film can feel prohibitive, but I think it also forces me to be disciplined in how I photograph. These tensions for me have strengthened my practise.
How much is the technology you use related to the way you progress through a project?
At the moment technology is not particularly relevant for me. What drives my work is the ideas and the photographs themselves and not technology. I don’t feel that digital or analogue is more or less valid at all, but right now adopting a relatively ‘low tech’ approach feels necessary to my practise. Digital allows me the sensitivity to shoot in much poorer light, but working without digital or even flash means that I have to make creative use of whatever light is available in the environment I’m working in. So, for example, recently at night I’ve used the light available to me in a kebab shop window, from a cash machine and glaring floodlights on an ice rink.
Another aspect is that I am photographing life as it occurs around me – I’m harnessing life’s moments and narratives in ‘real time’. If I had to think abut what equipment to use to capture that moment, then it would be lost and I would get into very different terrain – more constructed photography, and that’s just not what I do.
Do you ever feel your projects are fully resolved, and do you have a strong sense of direction when you begin a body of work?
Each project is different, but in many ways there is only one theme – I photograph life and my relationship to it. So, as I work I navigate the images into different works. With the Alice work I did have more clarity of direction from the onset but with my more recent work I’ve decided to not work within any strict parameters. Two years ago I knew I wanted to work with my step-daughter Martha and she also wanted to work with me. I felt this was indicative of something that needed to be explored. As the project has evolved and especially during the editing process, the more unconscious material has revealed itself; what I mean by this is the nuances of relationship between Martha and I, and also Martha’s relationship with her world. This can get complex – there are so many layers of meaning potentially revealed that you could go on forever, but at some point you have to make a decision about what’s important in terms of narrative. Sometimes I feel that working in a project ‘frame’ is so limiting and restrictive, but it does also have the benefit of forcing me to organise my thoughts.
You have described your latest project, Martha, as not only a study of your stepdaughter but also an opportunity to “think about my relationship with my own mother”. Where has this reflection upon both yourself and your subject led you?
I’ve always been drawn to psychological territories and to a large degree all my work is a tool to explore the past through current interpersonal dynamics and issues of identity and belonging. I asked myself questions early on in the making of this work about what Martha and I understood of each other, what was our common ground? What emerged was our mothers both loved us but were felt as absent, this understanding became the common ground to move forward from.
Your work is intensely personal, exploring the themes of family and love, particularly within your own family unit. Does publishing these personal images ever leave you feeling vulnerable?
Yes, it’s a very personal work – about my daughter, myself and my entire family. But it was an informed choice to present it to the public, in this way. Looking for Alice is actually Alice’s story as much as mine. It is also a political piece and part of my decision was made from thinking how best to honestly and powerfully communicate the issues which arose for me as a mother and as a photographer around Alice’s down syndrome, as well as society’s relationship to ‘difference’ – both historic and current.
But under all this, it was an inter-subjective process between Alice and I. Intuitively, I feel that Alice needed me to communicate her story and was guiding me at times toward the themes that need to be understood.
Photography © Sian Davey from the series Martha