WRITERS PRIZE: 22 / FEB / 2021
LOOKING AT MY PARENTS
by Julia Tanner
"This is the last time you’ll see me in my twenties," I said to my father in the car. He turned around and stretched his face into a smile with dancing eyes. My father is a quiet man, and rarely makes eye contact. His affection is as genuine as it is awkwardly expressed: he makes a caricature of himself in order to show it.
His father was a photographer whose photographs rarely contained people. Those that did normally held faces turned away. When I think of portraits in photography — posed, the smiling gaze looking out — I think of the brief moments of eye contact between myself and my father before we hug goodbye. These are the rare times I look directly at him looking directly at me.
With my mother it is similar. Her mother painted landscapes, not people. When I take photographs of my mother it is intimacy I want to capture: her hands planting a seedling out in the allotment, her hair fallen over her face. But it is the intimacy of an ethnographer. The ethnographic film-maker Chick Strand spoke of the bond between mother and child being better represented not by the wide shot’s supposed objectivity but by the tactile intimacy of the close-up: the body caught in movement; the face partially obscured.
Perhaps few people look at each other directly, two eyes meeting two eyes, as long as they look at portraits, at photographs, at selfies. But with my family, shyness and eccentricity seem to make the intensity of a gaze held between us too intense. And so it is diffused by activity, or performed in awkward mime. "Love you very much," my mother would say in a funny voice when the situation called for it, pretending to baby us, getting past her embarrassment with a caricature of love.
The best photographs I have taken of my mother capture moments of movement, of the easier connection we feel when doing something with our hands, the tension that hovers close by briefly eased. Whereas my most treasured photographs of my father are of those brief moments of eye contact, the ease of a rare direct smile caught and preserved; the true warmth that our jokey awkward hugs perform.
Once captured, I can look at their faces in the photographs without embarrassment.
This is the second of the articles shortlisted for the Source prize for new writing about photography.