Wendy Aldiss is a fine art and social documentary photographer who has a particular interest in environmental portraiture, and has she produced a body of work that explores the key stages in people’s lives. She’s recently self-published My Father’s Things, a portrait of the writer Brian Aldiss, and her work includes wide ranging studies of Second World War Veterans, dementia and the bond between women and horses.
My Father’s Things is available from £35 from Pannoval Press.
“My photographs say something about human behaviour or the human condition. So My Father’s Things was a portrait of him but because he’d passed away, he wasn’t in it.”
One of the great fascinations of photography, and in particular photographers who work in series rather than single images, is to see how projects relate to each other. They often reveal a photographer’s central preoccupation or a problem they’re trying to work their way through.
This is certainly the case with My Father’s Things by Wendy Aldiss. It’s a portrait of her father in pictures of his belongings, photographed after his death, but it has thematic connections with an earlier work, Burma Veterans, which itself was informed by memories of her father. Together they are an extended exploration of the challenge of encapsulating identity within a single frame.
Photographing WW2 Veterans
Wendy makes the link herself, explaining that her father was in Burma during the Second World War, part of what became known as the Forgotten Army. “He had talked and written about it, so it was always in my consciousness.” So after a visit to Tate Britain to see Time, Conflict, Photography, Wendy realised that although the exhibition was superb, there were no images from Burma.
“Once again it was the Forgotten Army and that got under my skin, it really hit a nerve. So I decided to go and find all the surviving veterans of the Burma campaign and photograph as many as I could. The hope was that if there was ever another exhibition like that, they’ll be part of it.”
Wendy’s project coincided with the 70th anniversary of VJ Day and she found that the veterans were for the most part, only too willing to be photographed. “Some of them were quite lonely and were pleased to have someone there to talk to. Often nobody else had shown any interest in Burma for a very long time.” Wendy also travelled to Myanmar to photograph veterans and managed to also include some of the Karens who’d fought on the Allied side.
A key part of Wendy’s process was to spend as much time with her sitters as possible, chatting and learning more about them before working with them to choose a location to shoot. “It’s a process of building up trust and I think the fact I was interested in their story, who they are and what they’ve done was an essential part of it.”
Exploring identity in photographic portraits
Even so, Wendy’s keenly aware of the difficulty of capturing identity with a single image, especially with subjects who’d had such intense experiences many decades previously. “To some extent, you can only show who they were on the day of the shoot. And most people are pretty multifaceted, aren’t they? I think that’s why I’m drawn to environmental portraiture because to have these people in their environments just says quite a lot about them.”
When it came to producing a posthumous portrait of her father, the science fiction writer Brian Aldiss, Wendy was able to take a different approach: rather than relying on a single image she choose to create an archive of more than 9,000 images, none of which are actually of her father. Although Wendy didn’t grow up with her father, in later life she lived quite close to him in Oxford, where she often photographed him while he was alive. “After his death of course I was missing him so much but I realised that I was also missing photographing him very much. So I decided to start photographing his things.”
Photographing a life
Wendy’s approach to the process of photographing the accumulation of a lifetime’s possessions was, as she says, random and driven by her gut instinct: if she felt like photographing his books, she’d just take them as they appeared on the shelf. As you might imagine it was an intense experience. “It was a bit of a roller coaster of emotion. Sometimes it was an absolute delight, and at other times I was photographing with tears streaming down my face, thinking it’s probably not even in focus.” The project eventually grew to be a complete catalogue of everything that Brian Aldiss owned, more than 9000 images of everything from a collection of passes to sci-fi conferences to family photo albums.
Self-publishing a photo book
About half-way through the process it became clear to Wendy that she really needed to do something with the pictures, and not just because she knew there’d be a good deal of public interested in a very personal, private project about her father. “I didn’t start out to wanting to make wonderful images for people to look at but actually some of them turned out to be very beautiful.” She decided to self-publish a selection of the images as a book, setting up the Pannoval Press, creating a very successful crowd funding campaign and producing a monograph that is selling well. Pannoval Press has also recently published work by Naomi James.