/ ‘Great Interactions’ by Polly Braden
Great Interactions is not only the name of Polly Braden’s show at the National Media Museum, and her book, published by Dewi Lewis, but also a description of an ongoing collaborative experience between photographer and subject. For the past two years, Braden has immersed herself in the lives of adults with learning disabilities and autism, working with a long-established charity, MacIntyre, which supports independent living.
Braden’s two best-known projects to date are China Between and Square Mile. In each work she observes the symbiotic relationship between people and landscape. The hallmark of her imagery is the gracefulness with which she photographs people; the human figure is predominant in her work. One picture in particular from this exhibition, of Lucie, swimming, radiates this quality. Braden’s eye finds such beauty in a public swimming pool that the filter taps blossom like Japanese flowers; Lucie is cast of porcelain. It’s a remarkable image. ‘Lucie seemed quite unaware when I was at the pool with my camera. She was just playing about,’ says Braden. ‘Then I told her I’d like to take a picture, and she just swooped into the water, and I made this picture, using a very cheap underwater camera bag.’ Braden wanted to be certain Lucie was comfortable being pictured in a swimming costume, so she took it to the cafe where Lucie works, where it was received with great excitement.
It is between images and the written text in the book – and in extended captions on the museum wall – that important stories are revealed. Braden notices people’s achievements in environments not necessarily constructed for them, whether that’s catching a train, or having a job in a cafe. For some, built environments are difficult to negotiate and human relationships even harder. One young man who is supported by MacIntyre, Lewis, is 24, but has the developmental age of a one or two year old. Braden was able to spend a day with Lewis on holiday in Rockley Sands Park, in Poole, Dorset.
‘I took a lot of time photographing Lewis,’ she says. ‘It’s funny – saying you took a lot of time as a photographer – what does that mean? I went three times. I went on holiday with him for a day; I went to the place where he lives; but three days is no time to get to know someone. If you meet someone for three days, you will think something very different about them in a year’s time. it’s a judgment call to try to get it right.’
That Lewis looks like any other good-looking young man is either proof of the limits of photography or perhaps an indicator of its democracy. There is of course a visual clue, repeated in each image of Lewis, that something important is being communicated. Lewis has his fingers pressed into his ears, both as he stands outside a line of beach huts, and as he sits at the window of a static caravan. Braden’s form is the photo essay and within it, this doubling of images is used frequently, and intentionally, in the book. Sometimes the two shots are only moments apart, in a tacit acknowledgement of what is lost in removing an action from its context.
The act of looking is rewarded by insight into this under-discussed group of people, and at the same time reminds us how photography can bring about this kind of knowledge in surprising ways.
Lewis, who is autistic, often experiences sensory overload, and, at times when he feels stressed, or there is a lot going on visually, the onslaught of sound as well is too much. Lewis has learnt to speak some words, such as ‘train’, though more usually communicates through high-pitched sounds. I am reminded of what Helen Keller said, on witnessing the New York skyline from the Empire State Building in 1932: ‘I was so entranced seeing that I did not think about the sight.’ This expression of the overwhelming power of vision, from a blind person, seems to offer profound insight into a way of experiencing the world differently. The psychotherapist, Felix Guattari, was particularly interested in the ways in which the human body is, in at least one of its registers, without language, and, in his work with patients, paid close to attention to the non-verbal. These other modes of being and seeing and knowing seem pertinent to Braden’s work here, which dwells in the realm of the senses. Looking through the book, which must of course be held, it is the sense of touch, and the importance of gesture, that seem of paramount importance.
During the two years, Braden has had time to edit her imagery throughly. Many pictures didn’t make the cut, and she often had to photograph in institutional buildings. She made conscious decisions to make this work operate in a successful aesthetic register, including using a dark background in some visually chaotic situations, or by taking people out into the landscape, or asking them to pose in front of a particularly brightly coloured wall.
Another challenge was to make the work as collaborative as possible, even when some of the people she was photographing were not able to speak with her. One of the ways in which this was achieved was the introduction of ‘One thing you need to know about me’. For those who were able to write, this self-representation proves effective: ‘I work hard. I am kind’ or ‘That my lovely family and I sing a lot to Boyzone & Blue’. These insights go beyond the surface of the photograph. In the exhibition, this idea takes the form of a very vibrant – and funny – film.
If one single element of this work is to be praised above the rest, it is the commitment to story-telling. For example, Moira’s experience of being fostered, as an adult, by Tina, when her own formidable mother, Dorothy, could no longer provide the necessary level of care. Tina and Moira met through Tina’s Pink Ladies taxi service in 2005, and hit it off through their shared love of ballroom dancing. Three years later, Moira began to stay for a night each week with Tina, to give Dorothy a break. As Dorothy’s health deteriorated, Moira moved in with Tina and her husband Jeff. Shortly afterwards, Moira suffered a series of strokes and developed dementia. Yet the overwhelming emotional tenor of this story is love and deep friendship, and this is how Braden has photographed the two women: as friends and equals.
Braden also met a young woman called Taiye, who used to spend her school days strapped to her chair, because her complex needs – she used her physicality to express herself – could not be managed. The MacIntyre school at Wingrave, Buckinghamshire, has employed a wealth of strategies to help Taiye develop her communication strategies, such as occupational therapy, swimming and trampolining. Braden photographed her graduating prom, and the jubilation on Taiye’s face, which, we are suddenly acutely aware, is a moment made possible by the human act of caring.
The two modes of experience of this work – show and book – offer different opportunities for understanding for audiences. My experience of the exhibition was coloured – very brightly indeed – by the fact that it was the launch event. So many of the people in the photographs were present, and delighting in having their photographs taken next to the photographs made by their friend Polly. ‘I’m famous,” Tessa told me. ‘My husband can’t be here though. He’s ill today.’
The National Media Museum’s championing this work is significant. It is a very sociable body of work, and to see it in a public space invites conversation and inspires debate. The book, designed with great attention to detail by Duncan Whyte, certainly functions as a ‘photography’ book, as per the high quality books published by Dewi Lewis, but it is more than that. It is a record of people and encounters and life-changing interactions that might otherwise go unnoticed.
Says Braden: ‘If people could take a little bit more time to speak more clearly, to make space in our work environments, there would be lots more jobs that people could do. And that’s why i’m really happy that I’ve made this work. We see lots of stories in the press about the abuse of vulnerable people but this story is about achievement – what people can do. I have reconsidered what I think of as ‘achievement’ in my own life and my children’s lives because of spending time with people like Rose, who, with the help of MacIntyre, is fantastically independent. I want people to see this work, and know that, if they need to, they could have these possibilities too.’
– essay by Max Houghton