Inside this issue
Faith in action
Simon Bray is a Manchester based artist and creative producer, currently utilising photography, audio, installation and text to explore the notions of loss, identity and place. His work has been shown at Manchester International Festival, The Whitworth, Southbank Centre, Brighton Photo Biennial, The Guardian, Telegraph Magazine, BBC In Pictures and BBC Breakfast TV. In 2018, Simon worked with British documentary photographer Martin Parr, as producer for his commission for Manchester Art Gallery.
On 30th December 2009, three days before his 52 birthday, my dad passed away. After over fours years of trying to stop cancer from altering his life, it got the better of him. He left us with the words, ‘faith in action’, to act on that which we believe, not a sentiment that I had heard him mention before, but one that I will never forget.
Taking photographs suddenly became difficult, for months, nothing seemed significant enough to be worthy of capturing in an image, it seemed trivial. What could I photograph that was worthy of my dad, his life, his legacy through me? Those were the subconscious questions holding me back as if I was going to restore something of my dad through the photographs I was taking. In hindsight, that was far too grand an expectation.
Each year, as 30th December comes around, we spend time as a family, return to a place that was significant to dad and just be together. It feels strange to acknowledge it, but losing someone at that time of year is almost a blessing. As a family, we are always together around the Christmas period, and those few days between Christmas and New Year are almost like lost time. Away from the demands of routine, you become responsible to nobody but yourself and those who are very closest to you.
That space, both physically and mentally, has created this annual window for reflection in my life. Amongst all the festive celebrations, it can often feel sombre, but it is has allowed me to venture out, as a means of ritual, recognition, but more importantly my greatest means of expressing that which is within me, to go and make photographs. Sometimes they are bleak, cold or empty, sometimes they are hopeful, amusing or feel more complete. Being a prescribed day, I am not at liberty to select my scenes according to the season or weather, and the limitation of time, and more often, also place (according to who we are with for Christmas), I have found have actually aided my creative process over the years. Those restrictions give me a framework from which I cannot stray and I am able to allow myself to walk and search without the often burdensome weight on landscape shoots of having to make decisions about time, light, locations, angles and probably having to come back tomorrow.
This set of images was taken at dawn in Winchester, Hampshire, the place he had called home for the majority of his life. They are a study on a frost covered morning of a walk up St. Catherine’s Hill, a popular walk just outside the city. As I reached the summit, the sun rose from the opposite side, seeping through the trees and warming the otherwise blue tinted scenes. One of the final photographs in the set features St. Cross church in the valley, somewhere that Dad would regularly sing as part of a choir and always evokes the memory of his voice in me.
Regardless of what they look like, it is the practice of making the photographs that are therapeutic for me. The physical act of making something out of a feeling of loss is encouraging and even leaving the house, having time alone and proactively and intentionally searching for that space feels positive. Over the years, the emotions have changed. This year, it will be 9 years since he passed away. 9 years is nearly a third of my lifetime. 9 years is a long time, and it hurts even now to acknowledge the amount of time I’ve missed out on sharing with my dad. I don’t feel as angry anymore, that only lasted a few months really. The confusion and the questions that were never going to be answered have also faded away. The want to maintain his memory will always be there, and the feeling of being able to look back, reflect and be thankful is more prevalent than ever and something I anticipate will grow with time, especially as I bring children into the world and I want them to know about their Grandad. The thing most fervent in me though is my desire to create, to reflect back upon the world my view of it and to be industrious in my endeavours. Perhaps I am still trying to prove something to someone who will never be able to acknowledge it.
My journey with photographs in the resulting years of grief also leads me to create the Loved&Lost project. Like many people who lose someone close to them, I wanted something good to come from something deeply painful. Loved&Lost is a documentary project that gives participants the opportunity to engage with and share their unique experience of loss through the re-staging a family photography and a recorded interview. It’s a simple notion, but over the years, has revealed to me the importance of photographs within loss. Their permanence becomes invaluable, your memory of that person becomes consistent in the emptiness, and it is something people hold on to dearly.
The most powerful notion, however, is returning to a physical place, often for the first time without their lost loved one. The sounds, smells and sights evoke a flood of memories to return and it becomes tangible again, their presence in that place and that person becomes ‘unforgotton’, remembered through more than memory, but a physical experience, albeit, without them. This is what I am practising, this year, and every year as long as I am able, I shall do the same. Wherever I am in the world, on 30th December, I shall go out and make photographs and remember my dad.