With her photographic essays detailing her father’s dementia, 46-year-old Sandra Harper evidently embarked on a project that was always going to beemotionally difficult. The part-time photographer skillfully balances this project, so we gain a window into Hestelle’s Story (her mother) without losing her father’s story and the essence of her father who she describes as an “avid reader”.Through intimate black and white images, we are drawn into a world where the power of devotion and love is starkly evident.
Can you fill us in on your formative years-how did that directly or indirectly have an impact on you eventually taking acareer in photography?
Although I do not work in the photography industry, I have always been creative since I was child, drawing, painting or writing. After my GCSE’s I wanted to go to art college unfortunately my dad said ‘no’. He did not feel you could find a ‘proper job’ with art. I have had various jobs from finance to other office-based jobs, shops canteens even cruise ships in the Caribbean! And now I work in IT. Not very creative right? Saying that having such variety in jobs over the decades have been of great value to me in some way. People, places, funny, happy, sad, angry and weird experiences. These work journeys have led me to become a photographer – I just work in IT to fund my projects (and keep the roof over my head!)
Can you talk to us about a moment or image or person who helped your passion for photography grow?
Back in 2006 while I was living Brussels for work an opportunity came up to take a photography course in black and white photography. You see? The work journey has led me to photography! So, I bought a second-hand Pentax k1000 learnt the basics and darkroom techniques. I was part of a collective group, so we had an exhibition of our newly learnt skills. All my images were about the Brighton seafront. I even managed sell one of my prints on that first viewing. From then on photography stayed with me.
How does your character lend itself to photography?
Well I am not an introvert, but I am not an extrovert. I guess I’m somewhere in between. I expect that helps in photography. It helps to have confidence in what I am doing, explaining to individuals the aim of a photographic project. Sometimes it’s nice to be in the background quietly observing the surroundings taking in the atmosphere, go with the flow, feelings and finding the right moment to take the image but not in some voyeuristic way.
I don’t like the idea of hiding behind the camera to be ‘invisible’. Naively in the early days of photography I thought I had to be ‘invisible’ when taking images. Of course, that is ridiculous. People are so much camera-aware these days.
I am also a curious person and I like learning. This means being attentive, observant and a good listener. What people have to say is important to forming the story visually.
Can you name an image by another photographer that encapsulates all you wish to achieve in your images?
I don’t think it is possible to pin a single photo or a single photographer who can do that and more for my images. I don’t like the whole hero worshipping of photographers or attempts to replicate a photographer. If you came to my home,you would see a lot of photography books. Vast amounts of photography books covering travel, portrait, photo-journalism, documentary and more. I get inspirations from them and I try to shape my own path. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not. At times, it fails on an epic scale. I reflect on those mistakes and learn. You cannot let the failures consume you.
We were interested in Hestelle’s story a deeply personal story for you-tell us about the reasons behind this project?
Hestelle’s Story was one of my first attempt at telling stories in a set of images. I have not seen many documentary photography of Dementia or Alzheimer’s within the Caribbean community. My parents are the Windrush Generation and they have lived in the UK for over 50 years. But my father’s memories living here quickly deteriorated and reverted to his younger days in the West Indies. My mother was the primary carer and provided an important role in maintaining those memories (they are both from St Vincent and the Grenadines). Choosing such a personal story was a very big step and filled me with anxiety. But at the same time it was an important story to tell.
You worked with black and white in this series why?
I guess it was because I started out in black and white photography and went with what I with that. The documentary work I have seen at that point in time were mostly black and white. However, photography is a never-ending learning curve and now my current work is in colour because life is in colour.
How difficult was it to broach the subject perhaps with your father and with your mother to photograph his decline?
When I visited my priority was always my parents’ welfare. My mother was great believer of speaking her mind – it’s her stress reliever. Originally, I was going to do my story about my father’s decline – that was the idea in my head. However, on one visit while talking to my mum, she mentioned her frustrations with the health professionals who came to visit my father frequently. She said, ‘They never ask me how I am or how I am feeling, and I am the one who is here looking after him!’ From that I decided to change my project and focus the project on my mum. I asked her about doing a story about her and she said yes.
How difficult was it to watch a man who you may have seen as this tower of strength decline and of course how did you want to capture that decline?
My father was an avid reader. He was never into fiction it was always factual books. History was his favourite subject, particularly American history. His family background was academic. His mother and elder sister were both teachers and I think he wanted to live in USA. When he was living in the Caribbean, he had the opportunity to work there as a cotton picker in North Carolina. But I guess dad knew that such prospects would not be good for him.
So, he came to England and worked as an assembler at Ford’s car production. It was hard work, but he always made time to read. He could read way into the early hours. And he could absorb a substantial amount off facts and recite them to me. He had such a good memory he could remember every single president from George Washington onwards. The history my father knew was more interesting than the history I learnt at school. I remember when I was 6 or 7 waking up one morning to find a book about Vikings at the end of my bed. My dad left it for me as a present before he went to work.
When his health declined, he lost the interest to read. He also had glaucoma which made it hard to see the words in front of him. That was sad and upsetting to watch. In the last few weeks of his life on one my visits, my mum was having a difficult time looking after him as he was getting agitated about something on this day.
I grabbed a couple of his old books- two autobiographies and one of them was about Muhammed Ali. I started to show him the Ali book as there were some photos in it. He said quietly “His name used to be called Cassius Clay” and then he started talking about Ali. The fog of dementia temporarily lifted and the father I knew came back. So, I wanted to capture the father I knew reciting historical facts from when I was little. So, I took a picture of him with the book on his lap.
Of course, this story is also about the strength of your mother how did you try and capture her strength?
My mother has such amazing inner strength no matter what challenges are thrown at her. She always speaks her mind and does not back down. I remember the story of racism she faced when she first came to the UK. A bus conductor ordered her to put the money down on the chair next to her because he thought touching black skin meant he would turn black and she refused and kept the fare in her hand. She refuses to be intimidated. The teachers at my infant and junior school gave me a hard time being the only black kid in class. She always defended me.
Her own mother was illiterate, but she was a strong woman. She wanted to make sure her children had education so ‘nobody could make a fool of you’. Thus, that strength just beneath the surface was nurtured.
She also provided a vital memory link when my father had moments when he thought he was still living in the Caribbean. It was easier for mum rather than me to talk about the places and people they knew back then.
The camera can allow for a bit of detachment but that must have been difficult in this situation?
I don’t believe the camera detached me from what was going on around me. These were my parents, what they were experiencing around these times myself and my siblings were experiencing as well. I would not want the camera to detach myself from what was going on- I would not allow that it would just feel so wrong. Watching my mum struggling to get up the stairs to tend to my father, gently holding my father’s arm as I helped him to bed, feeling his fragility each time-I couldn’t detach from that. I try to let my feelings guide the images.Whether that showed or not is subjective, I guess.
The image of your father’s empty bed was a hugely powerful image-but photography is a type of immortality-how did it also help?
I would say our memories are immortal. They can live beyond our lives. Choosing the vessel to keep those memories are key. In my case I chose photography. When I see this photo of an empty bed there is hint of sadness of someone close to me no longer here, but that bed is in the same house I grew up in since the 70’s. It holds many happy childhood memories.
What new projects are on the horizon and what can you tell us?
Currently working on a story about a church group called Made for a Mission Church (MFMC) based near London/Surrey. It was chance meeting with them last year on a bright beach where they were baptising members in the sea. I asked them if I could take photos. I emailed them to them – they said yes, and I have been following them for over a year. At the moment it is called On A Missionbut that could change.
I am still trying to decide which direction to take the story. Still trying to edit the story, still learning how to do that. It does not get any easier.