Photographs, says Annette Kuhn in Family Secrets, are “evidence”.
“Not that they are to be taken only at face value,” says Kuhn, “nor that they mirror the real, nor even that a photograph offers any self-evident relationship between itself and what it shows.
“Simply that a photograph can be material for interpretation – evidence in that sense: to be solved, like a riddle; read and decoded, like clues left behind the scene of a crime.
“Evidence of this sort, though, can conceal, even as it purports to reveal, what it is evidence of.”
As I cross that rubicon between thinking and feeling on the one hand and ‘doing’ on the other, Kuhn spurs me to question not just my ‘raw materials’ – the various amassed images of my ‘Other Mothers’, but exactly what they will be enjoined to reveal and/or conceal.
I am on shifting sands here. Working with these images has unearthed ‘fresh’ memories and relationships between memories. This is highly rewarding on a personal level, but what might it mean, if anything, for the viewer?
Kuhn also raises a vital challenge to me in my work – the egoism that is inherently front and centre in the very act of tying what meaning might be found in such images to oneself.
And yet how can these women write about themselves on their own lives without setting up those lives, those selves, as in someway unique, special, or exemplary? How, in other words, do they can try to negotiate the formal conventions of autobiography, of writing about oneself?Annette Kuhn, Family Secrets
My own experiences are unique to me, yes. But they are no less fascinating or full of emotional charge than the myriad of other people’s childhoods. Must my own memory work here transcend in some way myself towards a resonance with potential viewers, to be a series of “clues” that inspires their own memory-stories?
Kuhn’s question has also opened a second and extremely fruitful avenue of consideration. I am not to just consider what my Other Mothers meant to me, but must also consider what I meant to my Other Mothers.
For example, Julie, a school student of my father’s with whom I spent much of my time with between the ages of about five and seven (a relationship that extended ostensibly from babysitting duties).
She was, and is, one of the most fabulous women I have ever met. But what I took to be her unerring kindness throughout my childhood was not merely what it seemed.
As Julie revealed later in life, she was throughout our period of intense togetherness suffering with a severe eating disorder and our ‘pairing’ (she was a teenager, I a young boy) was actually an intervention brought about by her mother and my father.
We needed each other.
Or my Aunty Liz, my God Mother, always my confidante as a child, a woman whose love I always took to be unconditional (and remains so to this day), her embraces always feeling as though they reached somehow inside of me, comforting that immense wound inside.
Again, I learned only later in life that my dear Aunt Liz could not make children of her own. At one point after my mother’s departure, I have since learned, talk of her adopting me – an idea refused by my father.
So the dynamic was yet again not one way. On the one hand was a child who lost his mother. On the other a woman who desperately wanted a child but could not conceive her own.
We needed each other.
And in neither case do I mean here to diminish the extraordinary qualities of the love that exists between the boy Laurence and his Other Mothers. Quite the opposite, in fact. I am, I think, seeking to understand the complex contexts that existed behind these relationships with fresh eyes.
I am, in Kuhn’s words, attempting to “solve, like a riddle” to “read and decode” my own life and loves.
Kuhn, A., 2002. Family Secrets. Verso.