I had feedback on my first assignment a few weeks ago. It’s taken me until now to sit down and write up my thoughts. I’m not going to go into a lot of what was written but suffice to say that what I produced was emotional and took a lot of courage to do.
The combination of images of Rhys, his environment and the hospice grounds helped make a strong body of work. The use of the ‘quieter’ images, particularly those with more oblique references help give ‘rest’ between the harder images, like the ones where Rhys’ one tumour is particularly visible.
Gina, my tutor, made the comment that “Disease too is part of/present in nature, yet too often hidden within our society, it is something that happens behind closed doors, in institutions, in private rooms.” I think this is very true and by doing this assignment in this way I hoped to be able to show that a life drawing to a close doesn’t have to be a sad, mournful experience but can be a joyful experience.
Terminal illness shouldn’t be something to be hidden away, it should be a time to try and do some of those things that you might not have got around to, and a time to share with family and friends, making memories that will last forever, and maybe inspiring others to strive towards their dreams.
I remember before Rhys went into hospital an occasion where we were out shopping. Rhys was in his wheelchair because he couldn’t walk long distances at that point. The mouth tumour was very obvious at that point. As I was pushing his wheelchair I noticed people staring at him. I found myself wanting to shout at them and ask them what they were staring at. If it hadn’t been for the fact that it would have drawn attention to Rhys and probably made him feel self-conscious about the tumour, I would have.
Part of what I wanted to achieve with the images was the sense of loss and I managed that with the use of the empty chair. A couple of images that I didn’t use but which also gave the feel of loss were of some toys at the end of his bed, a collection that grew throughout the course of our stay, although the last two (Grandad and Doctor Rabbit puppets) didn’t reach the hospital before Rhys passed away.
There is a some repetition within the edit and although this is OK, it doesn’t always use the most interesting images. The one of Rhys and the owl, although nicely observed could have been replaced with a more complicated and interesting image of the owl in flight.
I did consider the image but rejected it at the time because it I didn’t believe it was in focus enough. Since I submitted the assignment I’ve revisited that particular photo and edited it to try and make a much better image.
Another photo that was highlighted as being of potential use was one that was taken on my birthday when we visited SS Great Britain. Rhys was reading something and didn’t notice me taking his picture. The photo wasn’t posed and he looks thoughtful as he reads a plaque. I had considered using the image but having restricted myself to documenting the hospice, with the exception of the images I used to start and end the series, this didn’t really fit within the brief. However, it does fit within a wider body of work that I produced for his wake, a series that covers our from the point we discovered the lump in his mouth up until he’d passed away.
There were images that could have been improved by better technique. The photograph of the syringes and pill crusher was a little hot lighting-wise at the top, this was as Gina suspected due to the strip lighting about the bed and is something I need to be more aware of and take into account in future.
Another point that was highlighted was the fact that it’s surprising that pets can be taken into the hospice. In fact all sorts of animals have been in there. We saw cats (Patrick is the hospice cat and pretty much owns the place), dogs (Pebbles and a couple of dogs from pet charities came in), owls and eve goats.
The last point that was raised was whether Rhys could take photographs. At one point he would have taken photos himself. He had his first camera when he was very young and used to take photos all the time. Some of his images were quite good as well. Unfortunately by the time we were in the hospice doing a lot of things took effort and he never showed any interest in taking photos himself. He did see the images that I produced for the assignment and there were a number he liked. Some of which didn’t get included within the assignment.
Although Rhys took a number of photos of me over the years, not all very flattering, some are ones that I’m really proud to have and sums up how he saw me at the time.
There was also a selfie that I took on my phone of Rhys and I which is the last picture there is of us together.
Having seen the work of two different photographers now, Gray and Briony Campbell, who have addressed the same subject matter, and comparing it to my own work it is obvious that each photographer’s experience and approach will be intensely personal but will also relate to the person that they are photographing.
Gray and Campbell both photographed their parent after the point of death, although Gray went that one step further and photographed his Mum in her coffin. Although I photographed Rhys’ empty coffin and also the yellow rose that was placed on his pillow after the nurses had washed and dressed after he’d passed away, taking photographs of him once he’d died was a line I couldn’t cross.
The rose was particularly poignant as when my Mum passed away several years ago she left instructions that the only floral tribute that she wanted was 7 yellow roses. Seeing that rose on his pillow left me with a sense that Rhys was being looked after by his grandparents.
The coffin was spectacular and the design was something that Rhys chose just after he learned his cancer was terminal. What none of us expected was the interior. Again these are photos that wouldn’t have been included as part of the assignment because they are part of the story after the hospice. They may get included in a different project but that will be dependent on Rhys’ Mum’s agreement.
While researching for the assignment I also found a photograph who works with families who have a loved one in a hospice. The idea of helping a family to document their loved ones last days, or even helping families document a ill child’s time in hospital was one that sprung to mind. Something like that would be a challenge to me personally, not only from the point of taking photographs of people but also emotionally because it is so close to home. Whether that idea comes to fruition or not, one thing that I realised through my own work and also looking at Gray and Campbell’s work is that you can only do someone real justice in these situations if you actually know something about them and the type of person they are.
Other points that were raised about my coursework were to do with ways to improve the work for some of the exercises, thinking about the colour of backgrounds, not having so many eggs in the shots for Smash! so making the composition simpler.
Also I need to take the time to populate my learning log more with the results of my research and I need to show more that I’ve looked at the suggested photographers and made notes of what inspires me and why. I’ve tried to do that over the last few weeks by adding posts about the various photographers. I still have a few to do and I plan to get that out of the way before I get too deep into Part 2 of the course.
This first assignment was challenging, the exercises were fun and pushed me beyond my normal limits with regards to my photography, getting up beyond dawn was something I would never have considered before.
Looking at what other photographers have done with similar work, isn’t something I’ve done before, and the photographs I did for the assignment while at the hospice would never have seen the light of day if it hadn’t been for the course. In a similar way producing a body of photographs showing what we’ve done since April would never have crossed my mind if it hadn’t been for the course. It’s something that I found useful, and which also helped with reflecting who Rhys was and the life he’d managed to live both during the funeral service and afterwards at the wake.