As a photographer I’ve got used to not being in photos. Nowadays with social media and the rise of the selfie that’s less often the case for some photographers and a good deal of Instagram feeds don’t show you much beyond the face of the person who wields the camera. But I’ve been obsessively taking pictures for my entire adult life and often I’ve tried to capture the mundane as much as the events I want to remember.
As a child I remember my Dad showing us the slides he had taken which he would project on a big screen in our living room. I was as excited at seeing unfamiliar or forgotten wallpaper and furniture in the background of old photographs as much as the family moments which he had captured so carefully — and I wanted to make sure I had pictures like that too.
Virtually all of my archive is online on Flickr with around two thirds of the photographs open without restriction and most images tagged with enough metadata that I can find specific photos by searching for them using keywords. If images can’t be found then they’re browsed for until they emerge and then the metadata is enhanced so they can be rediscovered again. My ex husband once complained that he couldn’t find a specific image on my site and I was simultaneously irritated at his high expectations of my cataloguing and also pleased that he assumed my archive was so well indexed he could find anything he wanted.
A close friend of mine marvels at my ability to find anything in seconds, which only makes me want to tag my images more. Our WhatsApp conversations are peppered with photos I’ve sent to quite literally illustrate the anecdote I’ve just been talking about. Recently I told him about the old beer labels stuck onto the front of the boiler in my first house which had been done by the previous owner. They’d puckered up and welded to metal with the heat and I couldn’t remove them. I couldn’t find a photo of it though. This morning I spotted the boiler in the background of an image from 2002. It’s now tagged with “beer labels” and “boiler”.
The tags can be surprisingly good at connecting people too. My wrestling photographs get viewed on a daily basis despite being taken years ago but they all have a good amount of information including the names of all the people grappling. I also once got texted by a friend of mine who had been searching for pictures of The Wannadies playing Manchester and had found my photos of the gig. He told me that he had been in the audience that night in the front row. He would have been in his mid teens and I in my early twenties. We would have been stood very near each other when I was in the pit which I now found strange. It was more than a decade later when we met but I was disappointed with myself that I had not photographed the front row that night.
That thing of being in the same room as someone but not meeting them until years later is something I find endlessly fascinating. In December 2009 and 2010 I photographed two Christmas radio shows for Marc Riley on 6 Music. His studio was crammed with musicians who joined in with carols throughout the show and to be quite honest I had no idea who most of them were. I shot with abandon throughout the broadcast and stood on a stool to take high angle pictures of the entire studio full of people once the show ended. Years later when I looked at those photos I started to recognise people. The first time it happened it felt like rubbing my glasses when they steam up on a cold day and being able to see again. Now when I look at those pictures I know a lot of the people in them but I didn’t actually meet them socially until years later. It’s odd seeing them in a photo I took years before I actually knew them.
For a long time I’ve tried to make as many of my images as findable as possible. This has meant putting pictures out there which aren’t technically great and which I would in no way hold as examples of good photography. I do however recognise that often people are happy to find something rather than nothing. That doesn’t mean to say I don’t try to get good pictures but I put my best work on my website and use my Flickr stream as an archive rather than a curated exhibition.
Part of the reason I’ve become so fixated with capturing my life is because I once found an excellent image online of High Street in Staple Hill, Bristol taken on 21st December 1981. I knew the street very well and it was shot a week or so after my 5th birthday. I spent ages looking at that photo knowing that I would have been about a mile away in my house in Mangotsfield. I wondered what I was doing at the moment the photo was taken and how I was feeling. I’m guessing I would have been excited about Christmas. That photo was incredibly powerful to me and I wanted to take images which mapped out where I was and what I was doing at certain times.
This approach hasn’t always gone down well. My ex husband once accused me of having no quality control and a former partner once tried to censor me (for his own particular reasons) from putting images online of places I had visited even though he wasn’t in the photographs and sometimes wasn’t even there. For me I want to capture as much as possible within reason. There are momentous days I’ve not taken any images at all and sometimes I wish I had. I’ve attended three funerals of family and friends who died in their late thirties and early forties and on those days I took no pictures at all. Only my diaries illustrate how I was feeling but sometimes I wish I had at least taken a picture of the landscape so I have a record of what the day was like. One last image before that person was gone forever.
In the last five years I’ve taken far more photos of myself than before. This isn’t entirely down to the selfie, more because I got divorced so I have less people to photograph now and if I want to experiment with backgrounds or light my options are often limited to me and my teenage daughter, who has less patience with being photographed now. Before that, the people I photographed were mainly my husband, his family and our daughter but I also made a conscious effort to get photos of myself every now and then because my logic was that “If I die now you’ll have no pictures of me”. Usually it entailed me handing my DSLR over to my husband on a trip out and instructing him to take a few photos of me. Often he would just point the camera and continuously shoot until I hid my face, and a big chunk of the sequence would get deleted immediately.
Recently my ex husband won a literary competition which included having his manuscript of his memoirs published as part of the prize. His book is a series of essays about time spent living in a northern seaside town with his family and the visits he made back there after he moved to Manchester to be with me. I told him I was assuming I’d been airbrushed from history and said I was ok with that. He confirmed that he had indeed not mentioned me aside from one sentence to say he was divorced in order to explain the existence of our daughter. He then went on to tell me about one essay he had written which describes a bizarre (and unintentionally hilarious) event we attended which was during my first visit to his parents’ home. He said he had rewritten it as if I was never there. I said it was fine because largely it was, but the more I reflected on it the more uneasy and deeply hurt I felt. I remembered we had laughed together a lot that night and now I wasn’t there at all and it felt like that memory had been taken from me. It felt really peculiar that 19 years of my life which had been spent with another person didn’t count anymore and the unconditional love, support and contribution I had made towards the life of someone else could be erased so easily.
This made me turn to my archive. I pondered curating a project around the theme of ‘I Was Married’ and thought about developing a body of work where I was never present in the photos but showed an entire relationship through the photographs I had taken at the time. Images of those I loved and of the things I had done for my family; of meals cooked and wider family occasions, days out, DIY, the bursts of energy and the moments of tiredness. A love letter to a life lost beyond my control. But that would require the consent of others who appeared in the images. And of me explaining the project to them by saying “I feel like I don’t exist in those memories anymore and I want to prove that I did.”
So instead, for now, I have my archive. While it’s being added to all the time with new stories and creative projects I also have a fairly large amount of photographs taken over the years I spent as someone’s other half. The collection of images I created in that time shows aspects of that story, from the day we met to the last photograph I ever took of the man I was married to. The period of life I spent with the father of my child is played out across 12,941 digitised images. That in itself seems extraordinary, to have a complete chapter of a life photographed from beginning to end.
Here are some links if you want to have a look at some of what I’ve been talking about:
Online Portfolio: missemmagibbs.com
Full Archive: flickr.com/emmafarrer