Untitled (with funeral flowers)
A few years ago my mother was diagnosed with cancer and I dropped everything to go and look after her. My instinct was to try to photograph her “more than normal” - but I felt really mean asking. I didn’t want to make it seem like I was trying to record images of her just because she was about to die. Her illness coincided with my own fertility unravelling and I sought ways of connecting myself to a maternal narrative which was being abruptly severed in two directions; both our bodies failing in different ways. I struggled with the process of losing such a significant figurehead - the source of all I had learned about how to be a woman - and how I had little possibility of it going ahead for me as a mother myself.
A few times we photographed each other, taking it in turns to point the camera. This picture was from one such occasion. She had just washed her hair - such a poignant thing because she was having chemotherapy and it very quickly fell out: photographs are toxic reminders as well as nostalgic ones. I don’t remember what possessed me to start intervening with the prints themselves. Not long before she died I began soaking photographs I had made of her by leaving them outside in the wheelbarrow for several days, peeling off the emulsion before burning or sewing into them. There was something very urgent and necessary about picking up this object and destroying it in some way. I started to embroider them, or cut into them. The image here is a C-type print incorporating the funeral flowers which I kept, using the dried seed-heads inserted straight into the surface. It’s a three dimensional and very delicate object - as are many of the pieces in the series as a whole. Her face is obscured because I felt I didn’t want to show too much of how the illness affected her.
Eventually all of this work developed into Conversations with my mother which I have produced as a limited edition artist book. The purpose of thread, mark-making and stitch became central to my practice about this time, as I physically started to pierce and extend the image-object beyond a single time and space. There is something very important about that for me - a photograph that can be stretched beyond one moment.
A few months after my mother died I took what I had made so far to Format Festival in Derby, early in 2013. I shouldn’t have done it really - I was still in a terrible state of shock. I just had this feeling I needed to get on with something and maybe I would get useful feedback - which I did. I had taken all these fragments in boxes, packed up in a huge bulky portfolio… And then Mark Foxwell awarded me a prize from Genesis based on what I had taken to the festival. That support made me realise it must be of interest and I kept going. Eventually several trusted friends nudged me to make the artist book, copies of which are now in the Hirsch Library at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and the National Art Library at the V&A Museum, London.
See more work by Jessa Fairbrother