The Unforgetting

  • Photography  Peter Watkins
  • Words  Abi Buller

An ordinary car journey, seated in the back seat as a young child, sets the scene for Peter Watkins’ recollection of a naive consideration of which of his parents would be the first to die. As an event occurring only months before his mother took her own life by walking into the North Sea, Watkins reminiscence of the time serves as a window for the series ‘The Unforgetting’.

We associate memories with language, objects, places and people; our strongest feelings captured through these fragments to withstand the test of time. When memories represent a loss, the significance of these attributes can become the structures through which we tell stories. Even without the clearest memories, we can build a narrative around the symbolism of a time to recreate untold events, and to represent our deepest evocations to ourselves and to others. While loss can exist in a number of forms, the nature of a loss is something which we can all resonate with through some vein in our lives.

Ancestry, 2012
With such a personal story behind The Unforgetting, did you create the series with an intention to share it? What made you share this story?

‘The Unforgetting’ represents a long-term exploration of the subject of trauma, loss, and the machinations of memory, all interwoven into familial history. At its core the project looks to reconcile the loss of my mother and examines our shared German ancestry. When I began thinking about how to go about this project in 2010, I started filming interviews with family members, visited the place in the Netherlands where she died, and filmed the village where she grew up. What I came to realise was that the recollections of my family followed a certain narrative thread that had been somehow unified over time, and by and large, they each had very similar recollections of this shared traumatic event. I decided at that point to drop the film and explore these ideas through the representational capacity of photography.

In terms of sharing the work and the very personal nature of the story connecting it, this is something that I’ve spent a long time considering. There is a fine balance between revealing too much and too little, and when I started showing the work, I was reluctant to include much biographical information. There is this push and pull between the universal and the highly personal in the work. That is something that I’ve spent a long time negotiating.

Taufe, 2014
In your statement for the series, you recall with detail the sweater your father was wearing on a memorable car journey, but state I forget what my mother was wearing. Is there any relation to this recollection with the way you have documented your mother’s baptismal dress?

The dress is a curious object. I saw a certain circularity, and spectral presence to the thing. I wanted to photograph it suspended, and in exhibitions glazed behind yellow glass, by which I was thinking about the associations of colour – how it’s a wash that floods the work, how it brings colour back into all the works that surround it, but also the associations of light, warmth and death and decay. The dress was yellow, so the glass is also about putting colour back into the black and white photograph, and in this sense I was thinking about the function of memory and the falsity of it connected with truth. In terms of the circularity, I was thinking about the baptismal act and about her ultimate suicide by drowning. So with that text I was attempting to create a narrative from a memory, but ultimately it fails in that my memory of this car journey has been somewhat skewed and morphed by the continual act of writing and rewriting. It’s true that I can’t remember what she was wearing, or that I don’t trust my memory with these details, but that’s probably as true as my trust in what I do remember of that journey. Certainly the fragmentary, or the absence of detail can be thought of as something that runs throughout the work.

Whilst the objects featured in the series hold a sense of nostalgia and memory, how have you been able to evoke other feelings and stories through the construction of these objects?

The still life photographs have a lot of hidden personal meaning for me, or hidden narratives and connections, but in presenting them in this way, as isolated from their context and from the greater whole, I hope they do more than merely speak of nostalgia for the past, and go beyond the personal. I like to think of them as object assemblages, as temporary monuments, that evoke the past. I also always think of the associations between the images, such as the cans of Super-8, withholding the images they contain, or the wine glasses of my Grandfather, emptied of liquid and human presence. There is a play between what is opaque and what is transparent, and I use this as a metaphor throughout the project in both the photographic sense and the physical sense in the exhibitions through choices of materials, installation, and framing. 

Studio Portrait, 2017

More Things That Matter, 2014
High Fidelity, 2014
Ute, 2014
As well as being the same age that you were when your mother died, what is the importance of the inclusion of three identical portraits of your mother at nine years old? 

I guess this image speaks about photography as a medium, its reproducibility, the aura of an individual image replicated, but also this image plays into ‘the rule of three’ or ‘the power of three’, in the sense of a story telling tradition, and of fairy tales. I guess more specifically I was implicating myself, as this work is as much about myself as it is about my mother. Picturing her as a child, the age I was when she died, puts me into some kind retrospective context.

Can you describe the message behind the self-portrait featured in this series?

Again, the self-portrait implicates me into the project, and is the only portrait that appears throughout. It was one of the earliest pictures in the series, and was made in 2011. I had been receiving cupping and acupuncture for back pain and for treating depression. My doctor told me that all the tension and anxiety I had been feeling was being held in my back, and that the dark circles left by the cupping were a direct imprint of my psychological state of mind. I liked that they were a physical representation of the interior life. 

Self Portrait, 2011

Opa and Axe, 2011
Lightness, 2014
Is there a symbolic meaning to the continued presence of wood throughout the series?

Wood is present throughout and points to the Germanic, the folkloric, of growth and of time itself, passing and splitting. My mother grew up in rural Germany, so wood is something that is all around. In the exhibitions I’ve been showing, I include a sculpture replicating a log three times. This was taken from the last time I chopped wood with my Grandfather.

Is there a purposeful narrative present in the various emotions and symbols in the photographs, for example the images of your youthful mother smiling, in contrast with a heavy image of an axe positioned alongside a photograph your grandfather? 

I’m currently working towards a book, which will include many new works and explores the idea of narrative a little further. It’s also a more forthcoming in terms of the access granted to the viewer, and I hope also covers new territory. I’m trying with the book to explore my mother as an adult, and she appears in the project for the first time as such.

Does the series, for you, act as a form of understanding or more as a collection of memories? 

I think I set out to make sense of a lot of things with this project, and it has become an archive of sorts whereby I can attribute memory and narratives to certain photographs. But it’s also been an intellectual occupation, and allowed me to explore what interests me in photography, while at the same time coming to terms with something quite traumatic in a sense. It’s certainly a coming-to-terms kind of project, and most likely the most personal I’ll ever attempt. 

Great Uncle Albert, 2012

Roemer Glasses, 2014
Super 8, 2014
Is there a single image in the series which is particularly poignant for you in the narrative of this nostalgic recollection?

The photograph of Super-8 was a turning point for me in my attempt to translate personal memory and narrative into a universal image. I had been agonizing with how to bring in the actual Super-8 imagery, and was concerned with the associations of nostalgia connected with doing so. By reducing all of these images – many of which contain the only moving images I have of my mother – down to a single image, I was somehow organising the chaos of all these images into a single frame, which spoke of the language of nostalgia without actually implementing it. It also struck the balance I wanted between the aestheticisation of the object, the personal, and the universal.

Was it important for you to embed hidden meanings into some of the images perhaps to retain your personal connection to the work? 

I’ve always been very careful about how much of the personal to attribute to the work, and how much I would reveal. The work itself is an abstraction of memory, of family, and most likely bares little relation to the actual machinations of my family history. It’s pieced together through fragments of my own memory, other people’s recollections, and a certain power between the associations of objects. I didn’t want to be definitive in my reading of my family history, and I think this is made clear by many of the images, nor did I want to make assumptions that I didn’t feel were mine to make. But I also didn’t want to be sentimental and I’ve always been very careful about how this plays out. The work is quietly melancholic, and I’ve certainly held back far more than I’ve revealed. I think this in one way protects me from nakedly revealing everything, but also retains a level of respect for my family, and indeed the memory of my mother.

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