Jo Blackwell

Writer & Photographer - Inspiration Station

The Dad Project

Briony Campbell,

Photographer

Inspiration comes from many places, sometimes the most unexpected. For photographer, Briony Campbell, inspiration grew from something so painful, so personal that to view the result is both breathtaking and heart breaking.

The Dad Project, Briony Campbell

Looking at the end  David Campbell © Briony Campbell

As a photographer I am constantly seeking visual inspiration beyond the genres in which I am currently working. Recently,  I stumbled upon The Dad Project by Briony Campbell whilst browsing the excellent blog, lifelovestories

Briony’s father, psychologist David Campbell, died in 2009. The Dad Project documents, in photographs and film, his last six months. It is a loving elegy from a daughter searching for meaning amidst grief.

A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed – Ansel Adams

Having lost my own father to cancer, viewing the project brought back so many memories, both painful and profound. I am often moved by images, but it is rare that I feel truly touched by them. The personal resonance will no doubt play a part in that, but there is also something so affecting in Briony’s thoughtful, carefully curated document of her father’s decline that draws me back to it. The project was a collaborative effort with her father, who said:

“When you first asked me about doing this project, I thought about what it would mean for me to share my feelings with you, and whether it was going to make you feel sad or upset, or whether it was going to make me feel sad or upset. And then I thought more about what it would mean to you, and I thought, this is an opportunity for me to learn a little bit more about you as my daughter, and more about what it will mean for you to be without a dad someday, sooner or later. And the upper-most thing in my mind is to try to be a good dad to you for as long as possible, and to understand what it means to be a good dad to you”.

Still, doubts remained – about upsetting her mother, having to think like an artist rather than a daughter, about the ethics of documenting something so personal and profound. Gradually, she realised that by photographing her dad and sharing their story, she might be able to open up a dialogue that would help others. Finally:

Purely as a daughter, this was my first and last chance to work with my dad. I had to take it.

Below is the film Briony made in conjunction with the Guardian as part of her project, reproduced here with her kind permission.

I believe part of the power of Briony and David’s film is the honesty with which they explore his feelings about dying, especially about leaving his family. At one point in the film he says:

It would be reassuring for me to hear people say that we can cope… 

As a mother, I know that when my time comes, that is something I would want to hear.

There is nothing voyeuristic or exploitative about Briony’s photographs. Essentially, she has succeeded in photographing love.

I knew I wanted to make gentle, quiet photographs, and for their message to be open and un self-conscious. I knew I [did] not want to make gloomy pictures that highlighted suffering.

The result is that she has created a lasting memorial to her father that has meaning not only to those he left behind, but to the thousands of people who have seen the project and contacted her to share their stories.

I spoke to Briony about her career and inspirations recently, five years after the creation of The Dad Project. I wanted to know if she felt the camera created a barrier between her and the raw emotions of the events as they unfolded. On the contrary, she told me, it enabled her to ask difficult questions and talk about subjects that she might never have broached without the project as a “hook”.

Whilst she has been a professional photographer all her working life, what she learned from the project has informed her subsequent work.

I know now the power of putting yourself into the story… People look for resonance.

I find this an interesting position. I am always uncomfortable with “appearing” in my own work, as if by putting oneself in the heart of a story is somehow narcissistic, almost distasteful. But Briony points out that people respond to honesty. I know that my most popular blog posts have always been those that are personal.  What are we making art for if not to connect with others on some level?

She has taken this knowledge into subsequent projects and her search for connection and meaning results in work that is both thoughtful and empathetic. Currently, she is three years into what she describes as a project that is also a personal story. Britain Loves Africa explores issues of race, gender, privilege and assimilation through capturing relationships between Britons and Africans on the continent.

The Dad Project remains as complete a project as Briony feels she will ever make. She is still asked to speak on the issues raised within it and the video and photographs keep her father alive in a very public way that continues to bring comfort to her and her family.

On the day before he died, David Campbell told Briony to think about the next day’s photographs.

By tomorrow his shine was gone and just his shape remained…

If you have ever kept vigil over someone you love as they slip away, those sparse words will no doubt resonate as they did with me. Heart wrenching, poignant, but, ultimately, beautiful.

 

You can read Briony’s own eloquent account of the making of The Dad Project here

See more of her thoughtful and empathetic work on her website here

Like this? Go ahead and Share! Have something to add? Comment below.

Leave a Reply