Cameron Alexander / Born Free
October 2017 Interviewed by Ollie Gapper
It was in the second year of my BA that I made my first body of work with my father, a body of work that would go on to manifest as my final major project for my MA and impetus for starting a Ph.D. It may come as little surprise then, that when I hear of a student deciding to work with their father (or father figure) for a project, my interest is piqued.
Cameron Alexander and I first began discussing his project, Born Free, over lunch, during a workshop I was delivering to his cohort on the communicative abilities of the photobook. The book Born Free was about Alexander’s uncle, their paternal relationship, and his struggles with anxiety, depression, and OCD. I’d like to be able to say that this was when I took him under my wing to create the book we are talking about here, but in reality Alexander sat in that canteen with sharp ears and a conscientious tongue, taking copious notes on my various references, ideas and wafflings before neatly tucking his things back into his bag, sweeping back his hair and hurriedly moving on to the next item on his agenda. The next time I saw Born Free was a few months later, in completed form.
Born Free is one of the very few books I pick up without prior knowledge of any hype, that really plays on my mind; that excites me. I remember the same thing happening with Michael Schmidt’s Natur, and Bill Henson’s 1985. I don’t know that I’m drawing any connection between these books, but there is perhaps something uniting them in their pathos, their underlying sense of longing, that resonates with me; that affects me.
I have had the pleasure of speaking to Cameron Alexander, now graduate of UCA Rochester, about his book and the experience of working with close family.
Ollie Gapper: Yours is a project that utilises a personal relationship to access the life of someone with various mental health issues, making ethical considerations vital; what were these for you and how did you work around them?
Cameron Alexander: At the beginning of making this work I never really considered the ethical questions of the photographs. Alfie being my uncle and the close relationship that we shared made me feel comfortable in making the work and allowed me to take pictures without concern. It wasn’t really until I started to look through the contact sheets and make scans that I started to realise some of these images could be uncomfortable to look at for people who did not know Alfie personally. Then, gradually, some of the work became uncomfortable for me to look at. At that point I started to really think about the message in the work and how important it was to communicate that correctly.
I was conscious that this body of work looks into issues that are very topical, and therefore feared that I could mislead the representation of what these disorders are like to have and to be a part of. I wanted to make sure that it was clear from the beginning that this was a story about Alfie and his OCD and his depression, rather than generalising both issues in the work.
Getting around those fears really did just come through working with Alfie very closely, having him on board from the very beginning and always checking that I was never crossing the line.
OG: How did you define where this line lay?
CA: It changed many times throughout the process of shooting. At the start of making pictures, the line seemed very close, always two steps away. Then, as the work pressed on and Alfie began to open up, the line seemed to get further away.
It was never really a conversation about where the line lay and if and how to avoid crossing it. Instead it was more of a reactive thing. Alfie would let me in to almost every situation and every emotion, and if he needed to shut the door on me, he would.
I suppose the only time the line was ever in discussion was when working through an edit for the book. I started to think about the message and how important the book was in communicating this correctly. This is when I started to consider where I stood and when I may be over stepping the mark. The only way to solve this was to go directly to Alfie to get his feedback.
OG: Your uncle seems to have been very forthcoming with access for your work, but I wonder if there were any times when you censored yourself in his interest?
CA: He was! However, It wasn’t like that from the beginning, Alfie was more reserved towards the start of this project and understandably so. However as I started to make regular visits and spend more time with him, he opened up and let me into his life in ways that he hadn’t previously done. This was his choice to do so and it made me feel very comfortable in making the work with a looser approach. There were moments when I felt a need to step back and allow Alfie the time to come to me rather than push for a certain conversation to happen.
Alfie is incredibly emotional. His OCD is very heavily focussed on routine and structure and this at times meant that I needed to step back to allow him to feel comfortable and to go about his day as he needed to. However, Alfie always made sure that I felt comfortable and would always ask me if I was happy and that made me confident that regardless of the concerns we both had, we were in some respects on the same page.
At times I chose to give Alfie some space, maybe a day away from me. I know that he hoards everything both physically and emotionally and I wanted him to be able to process everything in his own time. Looking through his archive and ephemera was emotionally overwhelming for him and I knew that he would need some space after doing so, to come to terms with stepping back in time. Therefore, I purposely excluded myself for a day or two post looking into that side of this work with him.
OG: What does your uncle think of the work?
CA: He was really very moved by the work. I was very fearful of his reaction, as I know a lot of the work said things to him that he maybe hadn’t heard before and didn’t want to hear. I showed him some of the pictures in the process of making it but never sat with him and went through the edit. Part of the power in this work is that it became a conversation between me and Alfie, I wanted that conversation to continue beyond the work being ‘finished’ and in not showing him an edit, I felt the conversation would continue.
He agreed that some of the work was uncomfortable to look at, but surprisingly he said that those were his favourite pictures. He said that I had told his story in a way that he never could. I am so happy that he noticed the work as his story. Alfie also recognised that it was his story being narrated by me and therefore had a sense of myself in the work which he recognised through the pictures and ultimately the edit. He found himself crying at one moment in the book, hysterically laughing the next. He felt mixed emotions but overall was very proud of the the book and the effort that we each put in.
When I gave him the book, he wanted a pair of gloves and a box in a box in a box in a bag. This book is very important to him and he now has his copy in his flat, in multiple boxes, with kitchen paper wrapped around them and labelled accordingly. He has since taken the book to show some the people in his neighbourhood. That is a big step for Alfie as actually that means he is letting people in, he is showing them a deeper and more personal insight into his life behind the door. I am very moved that I have helped him to do that.
OG: Your book is a deeply intimate and connecting form, presenting masculinity and ‘machismo’ as a kind of thin façade for the shattering loneliness and isolation also present, could you speak a bit about this?
CA: Sure! I am glad that you noticed that quality in the book, I purposely went for a layout and design that had some ambiguity to it. I felt that being too literal with this work was not the right approach, instead I wanted to evoke more my readers’ apperception, I wanted them to bring their own stories to their reading. However, by choosing to do that, I also made a decision to tell the story in a certain way.
The ephemera and archive material is fragile yet a lot of it is very playful. It was important that the presentation of this mirrored that playfulness in the book.
Alfie is incredibly isolated, his depression and anxiety have put him in a position where he excludes any form of contact with anyone other than family, and at times that comes at a price. He spends the majority of his time at home in his flat, I think this is fairly evident when looking at the book. Growing up seeing my uncle as a leading male role in my life was how I learnt a sense of what it was to be a man. My dad had left my mum when I was fairly young and in circumstances that made me question what a man really was.
When making an edit it became clear to me just how incredibly masculine Alfie came across in these pictures. His house is decorated in such a way that he is forcing a vision of himself to anyone who sees it. Before making this work, I had rarely seen my uncle as this incredibly masculine person. Only through the photographs do you get that portrayal. Because of our close relationship, I see both sides to Alfie, I see his hard worn attitude of trying to put on a brave face, trying to ‘man up’. Then, I see his self sabotage and loneliness.
There are no other people with Alfie in the photographs I have taken in this book. That wasn’t because of a certain edit, its simply the reality. I never took a picture of Alfie with anyone else, he was always alone. Well, he always had me.
OG: Coming back to the archive material and ephemera, it strikes me that the physicality of these items is important, each reproduction life size and rich with texture. Why was this?
CA: I wanted to express the physicality of the archive material and ephemera. Each item had such a presence physically that I felt it needed to be the same in the book. Every sheet of paper had a dusty and muddy smell. The kind that only exists if its been kept away, hiding like a secret for years and years. I wanted the viewer to feel as though they could almost smell those materials in the book.
I chose to photograph all of the archive and ephemera rather than scan them. These items were very important to Alfie, some dating back to when he was in his early teens. Alfie keeps and stores everything so devotedly. I felt that by photographing them I was giving them the space and the attention they needed, as apposed to squashing them between the glass of a scanner, which felt very unsympathetic.
I also wanted to communicate the importance of these archive and ephemera items to Alfie within the book. Over the years, as his mental health has deteriorated he has slowly lost friends year by year. These items are the only things he keeps safe, he is permanently scared of misplacing or losing them. They outlive any relationship with a friend or partner that he ever has. He often reminds me that they will also outlive him, and most probably me. Photographing them and reproducing them in the book to scale lets you associate with them, communicate as though they are actually there. You want to reach out and touch them and try to hold them.
OG: What is your relationship with photography?
CA: I came to photography fairly early. As a kid I always had a fascination with pictures. I used to do this thing where I would walk around and pretend that every time I blinked I was taking a picture. At the time it seemed like nothing more than just a game, but looking at it now I see that I was making certain decisions about what to blink at and what not to blink at.
I remember around about 14 years old I had a switch in the way I saw photography. My mum had shown me a picture of myself and it completely altered the way in which I saw myself. At that point in my life I was in the middle of battling with body dysmorphia. Seeing that photograph that my mum had taken really helped me in the recovery process. Looking at that photograph was the same as me looking into a mirror, only this picture told me a different story to what the mirrors were saying. I remember at that point being fascinated with how photographs could portray reality and fantasy as well as the in-between.
I studied photography at college in my home town in the North West and after leaving college I went to UCA in 2009 to study Contemporary Photographic Practice. My photography from day one has always been more documentary than anything else. I have always been driven by the idea that I can show truth or at least my version of it through photography. In the middle of my studies, I saw a very important person in my family die right in front of me. Seeing their life just slip away like that really hit me hard. I had to defer my studies because I just wasn’t ready. Slowly after leaving UCA I began to work freelance as a photographer on editorial assignments. Soon enough I had an agent here in London and then an agent in New York and I was working regularly for clients like Dazed, i-D, Universal Music and many more. However, I stopped making personal work as a result of the busy schedule working on editorial photographs. I found it difficult to manage the balance between pictures that you do for money and pictures that you do for love. I’ve always been more of a heart than a head person and eventually I began to turn editorial work down. In the summer of 2016 I decided it was time that I went back to what I love and make personal work. I had always felt a sense of unfinished business with my degree at UCA so I applied to return and finish my third year and sure enough I was accepted.
Born Free was my final major project. After seeing death in ‘real life’ I had made it my mission to use my photography as a tool for preservation. This body of work was, I suppose, something I had been planning since I deferred my studies. Not only is this work preserving Alfie at this moment in his life, it is also a way of communicating certain feelings and untold emotions after witnessing a member of my family lose their life like that. I suppose one could call it a tribute.
OG: Has this relationship with photography changed since starting Born Free?
CA: It certainly has. It is hard to have made a body of work like this and not feel changed by it. I’ve learnt a lot personally through making this series. Some of the strongest pictures are ones where I wasn’t really thinking technically or thinking as a photographer. Maybe I was somewhere deep down working like a photographer, but actually just being there and feeling certainly produced stronger results. I think this reverts back to when I used to pretend as a kid that when I blinked I took a picture. Many of the photographs in this book are indeed from me pretty much blinking.
It’s also a nod to when I said that I am more of a heart than head person. Rather than taking these pictures with my head, I took them with the heart and it definitely helped to produce some of the pictures in that way.
I would say that I am more invested in my photography now than I have ever been. From doing this body of work I have learnt that now more than ever it is important to be honest with myself, to be truthful in my pursuit and to respect what I do.
I also feel that I was so out of date in terms of photography. It has taken such a leap in the last 5-6 years and it’s great. I am now more aware and I am very interested in alternative methods of discussion, whereas before I was very singular and one-sided. I’ve learnt to open up and try new things.
OG: At what point did you know you wanted to pursue this project? Was there a specific impetus for you?
CA: I’ve made a lot of work around my family so in the beginning I actually wanted to do something different. I originally set out with the idea of capturing a sense of “community” and what community meant in today’s climate. I began by going North like I usually do when starting a body of work; in the end I ended up focussing on my family and the results were heavily focussed on Alfie. At the time I started this project my mum had lost her house so was living with my grandad. This meant that I either had to stay at my grandad’s on the floor or at Alfie’s on the floor. I chose to stay with Alfie and I suppose that is where it really started to take shape.
From staying with Alfie on an overnight basis, I really got to see my uncle’s habits and his conditions. I suddenly became part of the routine and in actual fact part of his problems. Soon enough I was thrown in the middle of having to change certain ways about myself to allow for him to feel ok.
After heading back home to London and working through my negatives, I started to see that I was focussing on Alfie. I then realised that the sense of community I was originally looking to photograph was indeed now my own community, my family. The process of making this body of work was quite natural and slow at the beginning, I didn’t want to force Alfie or force any story with the photographs. I wanted to find it.
At the moment Alfie began to open up and share ephemera and archive with me I knew that this was the direction the work needed to take and was in fact naturally taking. So I suppose there was never really a point where I said to myself ‘Go out and get what you need for this project’. It was more of a natural process, which I struggled to understand and manage at first, but then realised that was actually the best and only way to make this type of work.
It was when Alfie started to share his drawings and poetry with me that I realised this was important for me, but also very important to him. That was a turning point. I wasn’t the only one invested anymore, Alfie was now invested in this and I felt a strong kick at that point to make sure I really followed this project through.
OG: You must have some other stories, people and relationships in your family that you are interesting in working with/preserving; what’s next for you?
CA: Well, I’ve made work on my brother and his departure into the army. I’ve documented the distant and vague relationship with my dad after he left and then I’ve made this body of work on Alfie. Going forwards, I think I’m happy to hold back on working directly with my family. I will always have my camera when I’m around them but I don’t aim to set out on making a new body of work on any of them just yet. Making work with people that close to you is quite an intense experience and I think it will be good to have a rest and work on other things.
I have been documenting my relationship with my partner Lewis for the last four years. I have a big collection of photographs, writing and ephemera that makes up that project and I’m starting to make an edit on that and potentially work on a book of the work or a show.
I suppose my immediate next step is to begin studying a part time Masters Degree at the University of Westminster. I will be joining the Documentary and Photojournalism course there which is led by David Moore. I’ve been a fan of Moore for many years and to be mentored by him will be a brilliant experience. David Campany will also lead my writing lessons there, so I am in good hands. I’m excited to see what direction my work might take with their guidance and support.
For further viewing / reading:
Cameron Alexander cameron-alexander.com
Ollie Gapper cargocollective.com/olliegapper