> Working with emotions in photography

Jessa Fairbrother / Working with emotions in photography

January 2018


There is a dilemma in making personal, autobiographical work using photography: one which involves choosing between mining the deeply felt lived experience for personal growth or exploring it to give away and share with an unknown audience.

My own investigations frequently draw on an interior archive, my relationship to a wished-for narrative as well as to that which is rooted in the past. I rely heavily on the realm of feelings and emotions as tools to get to the heart of what I am trying to say.

The value for me is in using this response to personal experience as a means of articulating what can go on to function beyond myself. I am concerned with how this expresses something which resonates with another, creating an emotional transaction between us.

This is central to why I shared Conversations with my mother: a collection which includes burned, perforated and embroidered photographic objects, made during the period in which my mother was terminally ill and the two years or so following her death.

I had taken a few pictures of her during her illness but it felt wrong somehow: amplifying the inadequacy of the photograph in filling the void she was going to leave. I was also sad about how cancer and the treatment was affecting her and I did not want to remember that. She was a very beautiful woman and chemotherapy isn’t kind – something I felt unnecessary to etch on my mind forever.

This period coincided with my own fertility investigations as I learned the path to becoming a mother myself was increasingly unlikely; a journey of medical investigations, ambivalence and despair. I inhabited my own state of intensely strange existence. The world was going on around me but there was a pane of glass between me and it. I would get up and stare at things, move them from one place to the next, and at the end of the day feel relief it was all over so I could simply go back to bed.

Towards the end of my mother’s life I began very tentatively intervening on the surface of prints made from the photographs I had taken of her, along with my self portraits. I was partly looking for something to occupy my hands, partly trying to cover up the effects of her cancer and its impact on our lives. People often ask me if she saw any of what I made. Sadly, she only encountered a couple of pieces I left floating in a wheelbarrow full of rainwater for a few days to soak off the back, which she did say felt a bit strange.

It wasn’t until after she had died that I really began to dig and scratch away at them, making the things that became part of the final body of work. I embroidered prints or burned them with candles, throwing them into water when I thought it was enough. I cut pieces out of them and grew things through the holes that were left until they disintegrated. I even buried some in the garden, which I have yet to dig up if I can remember where they are. I describe all this activity as urgent and necessary but the work was painful to make and painful to encounter… I think what finally emerged was my angry love letter to her. I was sad beyond measure, as well as furious that she had left me. Our story wasn’t finished yet: I had been trying to sew us together in print.

It was during this process I explored my role of being a daughter – one who would not become a mother – and what that meant when my primary anchor had died. Our bodies had failed in different ways at almost the same moment. We were both experiencing the end of a material maternal body, one that could be seen by the other… but the feelings around the experience of it were and are different to the physical: they oscillate and reverberate continually after the material has evaporated which makes photographic work an articulate vehicle for expressing and giving authority to them.

In the years since making Conversations with my mother I have thought a great deal about the purpose and value of sharing this intensely personal story; one which holds actual feelings at its core. Initially I was riddled with anxiety about whether or not anyone else would be interested. Yet when I started showing the final version of my hand-perforated book I was immediately touched by the numerous stories that returned. There was a string, stretching from me to the person receiving my story and back again. A cats-cradle of threads going this way and that. I have been hugged, told of parental deaths, of experiences of miscarriage, of substantial losses. This communal knowledge of feelings is almost tangible and I hold what has been shared back with utmost care. I realised it was not about catharsis for me, but about making a connection to the person I was sharing it with. It was putting it out there for someone else to make meaning with it.

In delivering talks about this story I have found myself choking as I begin to speak, even though I have gone through it many times. I can sense the materiality of the emotions and feelings which underpin the work. They flit backwards, forwards and sideways, entwined in the future as well as the past and the now. Phenomenologist Hermann Schmitz was an illuminating discovery for me, not confining emotions to the interior, but describing them as atmospheres that permeate the corporeal, as ‘half-entities’. With this approach, personal emotion – in the corporeal – can be harnessed for many purposes beyond the personal. Schmitz writes “….the subjective fact is richer than the neutral one”. [1]

So, emboldened, I continue to start with myself because it seems the most essential place from which to start. Sharing the personal has become central to my practice and using emotions is absolutely vital. Many years ago I undertook training as an actor, which included a physical movement class. One day the teacher said to us: “How can you move others if you can’t move yourself?” Now, over twenty years later, I think that’s one of the most significant questions I have ever been asked.

To return to Conversations with my mother. Once I had a bit of distance from making the individual pieces I could begin to be able to articulate why I wrote on the photographic body with thread: this new layer stretched the photographic gesture in both time and space. My work became more and more of an interrupted surface as I marked the prints with tiny needles. I was performing both in the work and on it. In other words the work began to incorporate gestures on the surface itself – a physical embodiment of experience. I could step past the corpus of Conversations with my mother and see it as elastic photograph, drawing and textile.

It is a sense of both the material and the maternal I was trying to solidify – describing the love for something that has lost its form. I found a method for doing so in the performed, perforated and embellished photographic object, sharing feelings that hark backwards while still yearning for a future that will never arrive.



[1] Schmitz, H., Müllan, R. O., Slaby, J. (2011). Emotions outside the box: The new phenomenology of feelings and corporeality. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 10, 241–259

Conversations with my mother is presented as Photomonitor’s portfolio for January 2018 here .