Old Friends

My visits to my aunt are not about photography; it’s just that I usually happen to have a camera in a bag or a pocket.  There’s no posing, no arranging – not even time to dial in settings.  Images are grabbed in the course of conversation – me on the opposite sofa, or squashed right up against the window, or street-style on a dog walk.  

Oh, you and your camera!  You can photograph Kali.  She’s a good girl.  She always knows when I’m feeling down.

Admittedly, in the back of my mind, there’s a growing awareness that the dog can’t have much longer.  It’s part of the reason I make the images.  I know how much photographs mean after a death.  They’re one of the first things we look for – albums and prints, probably, more than snaps on a phone.  And I know that the dog’s demise, when it comes, will be devastating.  So I travel with my littlest camera, planning ahead, seizing my moments, anticipating reminiscence. 

Townspeople help keep the world a little wider when dementia starts to shrink it.  A short stroll is punctuated by stops and chats and brief exchanges.  Dogs and walkers, friends and neighbours, strangers, shop-keepers, lock-keepers, the recognised and the forgotten – nobody minds repetition, and everybody seems to care. “What a beautiful dog!” is enough to make a day: the pride and the joy brighten an afternoon’s mood long after the words have been forgotten.

Inside, we drink tea, sing old songs, look at photographs, mementos, newspaper clippings; she asks for news of the kids, talks to the dog.  The two of them watch the world from her first-floor window.  As unobtrusively as I can, I snap some shots. There’s often a slipper or a squeaky toy in the frame. I find I’ve cut the top off the racehorse painting on the wall above the sofa; that seems apt, says my father.  It’s all about the dog now. 

I’m beginning to build up a collection.  Christmas brings my aunt a cheery framed photograph of dog, owner, tennis ball.  It’s a bit blurry because I was taken by surprise when the moment unfolded.   But nobody cares about that.  Early spring blossom gives me a birthday photo for her too.  

Later in the year, I get to tell her that a portrait of the two of them – Watching the World Go By – is to be exhibited at a new photography gallery in Glasgow. She is surprised and delighted and proud.  Five minutes later, she’s forgotten all about it, and when I mention it for a second time, she’s surprised and delighted and proud all over again.  

Dementia makes the world shrink in time as well as space: the past pin-sharp even as the present starts to blur.  Reminiscence is good but memories are double-edged.  What happened in Wales during the war?  How old was Granny Williams when she put herself in the river?  And Ruby, when she ended up under the train?  A rediscovered photo prompts tales of my grandmother’s dottier exploits and a rendition of her favourite old tunes.  Maizy Doats and Dozy Doats.  My Meatless Day.  John, John, John, Won’t You Go and Put Your Trousers On.

A bored dog brings us back to the here and now, the necessity of a walk in the drizzle.  Facts fade, but a mood lingers.  Leave on a happy note.

March 2020, and in the space of two short weeks the following happens.  My father, fourteen days after routine surgery, drops dead in the street with a pulmonary embolism and a DVT.  A week later, my mother’s beloved, creaky old cat joins him.  And, not a week after that, the dog goes too.  Vet’s best efforts, but time was up.

My brother buries the dog in my mother’s garden.  He digs a grave in the dark behind a yew hedge, rigs up lights and music, we make an occasion of it. We drink my mother’s sherry and for some reason end up singing My Way along with the Alexa in the kitchen.  My aunt moves in with my mother, and the country settles in to lockdown.  It’s not easy.  But they are brilliant, resilient.

Not much opportunity for photography, though the rules permit me to visit.  As the weeks pass, we venture the occasional snap in the garden, and Dog-Time is filled instead with Pigeon-watch and I-Spy-Tadpoles.  ‘Pat and Kali’, in hardback, lives by the bedside.  She was a lovely, lovely dog.  A good friend.

Dementia is the red thread that runs through the family fabric.  My stories, my photographs, are shot through with reminiscence, remembrance, memory.  It strikes me that this is what my work is about.  From Pat and Kali, to the memorial on the hill at Runnymede, to the people who sit at my kitchen table telling me their stories as I train my lens on their faces. 

It’s about the shadows that are cast down the generations.  But maybe, also, it’s about the light that shines from the past.

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The Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede

Like Quiet Ghosts

I love the way this memorial is drenched in light whenever I visit; I love the stone and the windows and the curves and the geometry of the place; l love the views over Runnymede all the way to London.  

I often stop to read some of the notes and tributes left here too.  They are fragments of family histories from all over the world:  letters to brothers and sisters, daughters and sons lost over seven decades ago; to lovers, husbands, fathers whose planes went down in the night; letters from great grandchildren who never knew their relatives; pale facsimiles of dreaded telegrams; fresh flowers, fake flowers, and expressions of gratitude.  An unsettling mixture of grief and peace.

With the permission of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, who maintain the memorial so beautifully, I’m working on a photographic project about this place.  I photograph it often, in different lights and different seasons.  The building always gives me something new to look at.  But I’d like to depict people too.  

If you have a connection to this building, and would be happy to talk to me and perhaps have your picture taken there, I would love to hear from you.

January 2021 update: I’ve been so touched by all the people who’ve written, from all over the world, to say these pictures have moved them. In particular, my thoughts are with those who’ve always wanted to visit, but whose circumstances have always prevented it. It’s been my pleasure to visit on their behalf, to find their relative’s name inscribed on its panel, and to photograph it for them with a bunch of rosemary, for remembrance, from my garden.

To get in touch, click here or:

Email: kate@katecarpenter.com

Telephone: 07818 407772

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Villers Hill

This is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Villers Hill, near the village of Villers-Guislain in northern France.

On April 14th 1917, alongside thousands of others, a soldier was killed at the Battle of Arras. One hundred years on, to the day, two of his great great grandchildren laid a wreath on his grave.

The card on the wreath reads, “from your grandson, great grandsons and great great grandchildren. One hundred years; we still remember.”

Like all CWGC cemeteries and memorials, there’s a stillness, a calm and a peace about this place, despite the horror that unfolded here a century ago. Even on the bleakest of days, there’s a warmth in that stone that catches the light and glows.

 

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Red Light

 

How I came (back) to photography

As a daughter, granddaughter and niece of photographers, I have early memories of dark rooms with red lights and chemical smells. Slightly later, I’m sitting on a wobbly blue stool at the enlarger composing photograms. I learnt to count in f-stops, and by the age of ten I had a working knowledge of semiotics. I loved watching out for north light falling on a face, and learnt to wait patiently on wintry riverbanks to catch the sunset in the smoke.

At the time, it never occurred to me to learn the craft properly, or that this might be something I could do. My career took a different path. Paths, in fact – I couldn’t stop studying. I’ve taught language and literature in schools and colleges in the UK and abroad; I’ve studied law and worked as an adviser for a local Citizens Advice Bureau. Much as I loved these things, I never could quite settle to any of it permanently.

Having children got me started with the camera again, as it does for many people, I think. It became more compulsive for me and I wanted to produce better work than a half-decent snap. A couple of years ago I took a four-day workshop in portrait photography, and I’ve hardly put the camera down since. More than anything, I love to photograph people’s faces as they tell their stories, act parts or play music, and the best thing of all is that people will let me do it.

I have no red lights any more, and the smell of fixer is gone, but I feel as though I’ve come home.

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Written on the Face

Written on the Face is a photographic portrait project about memory, reminiscence and nostalgia. It came about because of my fascination with watching people’s faces as they tell their stories.

People bring along an object, for example, a photograph, a book, a piece of jewellery – anything that provokes strong memories.  They then talk to me about the memories evoked by the item, and we chat for an hour or two (over a coffee perhaps) as I take pictures.  It’s informal and relaxed and people quickly get used to the camera.

What’s left, after I delete any pictures where people are actually speaking, is a set of expressive portraits.  The stories really are ‘written on the face’. The tales remain private; those who wish to can give me a sentence or two to publish alongside the finished images.

Several things have inspired me to begin this project. It’s partly in memory of my grandmother, Ruby, who loved to tell a good story, even when she didn’t remember very much at all any more.  I still know most of those stories off by heart and can picture her face at each key moment of her tales.  (And it wasn’t even his china!)

For a number of years I worked as an adviser at a Citizens Advice Bureau. I loved hearing people’s stories, although some of them were distressing; and I often seemed to get people talking for much longer than I was technically supposed to. They often needed it and they liked to open up. Everyone’s story is important to them; I saw stories in people’s eyes and on their faces.   Obviously, I did not take photographs of my clients! But I decided to go looking for stories in order to take pictures of the storytellers. Kind friends were my early volunteers.

I also wanted to tie this project in to ideas of memory and reminiscence.  I love the song ‘The Summerhouse’ by the Divine Comedy – a perfect song about nostalgia. For me it’s about revisiting the past, with sadness for its passing, but not necessarily with regret.  About remembering our own versions of our own stories, a time perhaps when it ‘never ever rained’  – or maybe a time when it never seemed to stop raining.  How there’s a shift in key when you think about what’s changed, unsettling; how strange it can be to be reminded of past times, and how we don’t remember things in the same way as those who shared the times with us.

Maybe these portraits will capture a version of you that you recognize, a version that fits in your story, describes your ‘summerhouse.’  Or maybe they will show you something you’d written out of your story, or something you didn’t know was there.

I hope that hasn’t scared you off!   It’s true I’m not aiming for the sort of ‘happy’ portraits you might have done commercially.  The pictures might look happy; they might not.  Most likely we’ll get a mixture. But I think all the people I’ve photographed so far for this project look genuinely beautiful.

I’m always looking for more sitters. In return for a couple of hours, your story, and permission to publish your portrait I can offer you a full set of digital images, plus some high quality prints of your favourites.  Click here to contact me if you are interested in taking part.

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