JOB Documentary photographer
PROJECT Our Lockdown Garden
Published by Mindful Editions, £40
Recently we’ve interviewed several photographers who although in their 50s might still be considered emerging talents: people like Wendy Aldiss, Rosie Barnes or Nick Hodgson who are continuing to develop their practice or devoting more time to it as the pressures of family life and work start to ease.
Sometimes the issue being explored is the end of life, particularly the imminent or recent death of a parent, or sometimes photographers are taking stock of their own lives and work. Either way it might make us stop and think about the potential for continuing to make new creative work or embark on a new phase of photography, even in later life.
“Initially I thought, I just can’t do this. I’m in my 50s now, how is this ever going to work?”
A new photobook of portraits
The work of Ruth Toda-Nation combines both of these themes: she’s returning to photography after a long gap, and she’s looking at aging and the possibility of death of a loved one. The photographs in her project, Our Lockdown Garden, are a meditation on the end of life, and in some ways a reflection on what we leave behind, both as an artist and a person.
Ruth’s new book, Our Lockdown Garden, is a series of black and white portraits of elderly people, photographed in the gardens of the sheltered accommodation where her father lives. Each portrait is paired with a picture of a flower or tree from the garden, and accompanied by a hand-written memory from each person.
Starting a personal photography project
The project had its beginnings in Ruth’s visits to her elderly father who is a resident of the home. During lockdown she became his only point of contact with the outside world and their visits took place in the garden, where she began to notice the other residents also exercising alone. “Everybody was walking in the garden because they couldn’t go anywhere else. It’s a beautiful, ancient garden and the gardeners had cut a path through the grass so that everybody could get around with their walking frames or sticks.”
Ruth began to photograph her father and then struck up conversations with other residents and with their permission, recording their stories, memories and thoughts about the lockdowns and isolation. “It was very spontaneous at first, just chatting and recording. Then I started asking, do you mind if I take your picture? As it progressed I realized this is actually going to be a body of work so I began to arrange sessions in the gardens, and that was really lovely as well because people wanted to make themselves smart, especially the women, who put on a nice dress or something.”
For Ruth, the garden and its changing seasons were a reminder of the transience of life. “It brought comfort to us as we focussed down on what was now a very small world. Photographically, I began to see the garden echoing back the thoughts and feelings of the people I was documenting, which is why the diptychs are an integral part of the work.
At this time the government had instructed hospitals to send untested patients back to care homes and the news was dominated by the rising numbers of fatalities amongst residents. “I wanted to respond to this by giving a voice to this cohort of people and on a personal level, I wanted to counteract the injustice that I felt that they were being talked about purely as a statistic, as if their lives didn’t matter.
Ruth found it ironic that during this time we were remembering the 75th anniversary of VE Day and yet the last generation of survivors were locked away. “They were unable to see family, and in many cases died alone, with their family watching them fade away, on the other side of a glass barrier.”
Photographing on film with a manual camera
Ruth had been an accomplished photographer in her earlier years but now, in her mid 50s she hadn’t photographed seriously for years. Encouraged by her children she dug out her old Nikon FM2 and began to photograph the residents and gardens, relishing the return to film and manual equipment, and finding in the process that her approach to photography has changed. “I think at this stage I’m not doing something for somebody else to like it. I’m doing it because I feel something really passionately or there’s something I want to say. And now I’m confident in what I want to say. So I think age does give you a different perspective.”
Ruth was struck not only by how many of the residents’ memories concerned the Second World War, but also by the parallels that she saw with the crisis of the pandemic. It’s a touching group portrait of a generation that gave so much and who lived through momentous events, coming to terms with another world-shaking event.
Combining photographs and text
As the project developed, she realised that she wanted to include the stories and memories of older people by including snippets of their interviews in their own handwriting. “I felt I wanted something a little bit more personal from them but some people said, I’ve got no idea what to say just decide for me. So for them I pulled out a couple of sentences from the interviews and typed it up really clearly for them to write. But some people were quite clear about what they wanted, and they were happy to write those bits.”
The combination of text and associated images creates the simple but powerful effect of being seen and being memorialised for a life lived, with all its traumas and events, achievements and memories. “One woman said to me, I haven’t been photographed for years. It’s like I’m being seen again. And it is like being unseen when you’re that old, isn’t it? People forget what you are like, they just see this old person but inside you’re exactly the same.” It’s an eloquent examination of aging and how we feel about it.
The work is also a strong statement of what a photographer can hope to achieve at a later age and how to use life experience to bring perspective and a new understanding to your work. “Towards the end of your life, you’re looking more deeply. At the beginning of your life, you’re thinking about what you’re going to make but at the end you’re looking about what you’re going to leave. What do you want to be left when you’re gone?”
The photbook as a lasting legacy
While working on the project Ruth became aware that some of the participants would not be alive to see the book come to fruition, something that also occured to her collaborators. “The residents started coming to me asking me to record their words, showing me their boxes of memories and photos and asking me to document them. They wanted something of themselves to be left for their families. They saw it as a way to bring comfort to their children once they had gone.”
Ruth has been able to contact the families of the participants in the book, presenting them with the book and also sharing the voice recordings and other photographs of their parents. “When I started the project my main objective was to give the work back to the people themselves, I wanted to make a book that was accessible and easily readable. A book that would stand the test of time and serve as a memory and reminder for future generations. My work is and always has been about the people themselves: their lives, their stories, their pain and their joy”
About Personal Work Journal
PWJ is a photo journal dedicated to showcasing new photography from emerging and established photographers.