Lauren Forster lets us immerse ourselves in depth with her project “God Has No Favourites”. The project discusses what ignites us as humans, the intricate and yet vitally important relationship between subject and photographer, and the importance of cherishing the fragility within the strength in family relationships.
Poleta spoke with Lauren about the role of family in photography, and her experience of working collaboratively with her mum while bearing witness to her battle and decline with cancer.
How did your project God Has No Favourites begin, and what was your intention with it?
Mum was first diagnosed with cancer in 2006 and was only given 2 months to live, I can remember at the time knowing that I wanted to document our experience but for numerous reasons I did not feel able to. In 2016 mum went for a check-up and was diagnosed with secondary brain cancer; on our way home from the hospital she told me that she wanted me to document our experience as a family this time round.
It was an extraordinarily personal thing and to begin with I didn’t have a clear view in mind of what it would be about, from who’s perspective, what I wanted to communicate; it was a way of allowing me to spend time with her and at times it alleviated some of the pain because it gave us something else to focus on.
The project developed in a very organic manner; I slowly constructed a set of approaches in order to create a narrative emotionally grounded in my personal world that I felt a wider audience would be able to relate to. Working with the notion of family within photography enables the work to be both personal and universal.
How did your closeness to the main subject, your mother, affect the final photographs?
My mum and I were incredibly close and over time the project became collaborative, many of the final images in the series came from conversations that we had together and moments that she wanted me to capture so this close collaborative approach that we developed had a huge impact on the final images.
The fact that we were so close also made it extremely difficult to photograph her at times. My mum cared for her mother whilst she was dying and she asked me to do the same for her, it was very difficult to witness her suffering and at times still document it. There are hundreds of pictures that I took of her that I have never shown anyone and that I did not include in the final edit, they were created as a result of us being so close and are extremely intimate but I did not feel were appropriate to share out of respect for her and our relationship. Photographing your family is an intimate responsibility; I wanted to make sure that the images were honest yet tender. The photographer must consider the impact that the work will have on anyone involved and must take a sensitive approach when making the work, selecting the final images and sharing the work. You must reflect on how much to share…
Your photographs exude an interesting mix between fragility and intense strength. Was capturing both of these elements intentional?
It was never intentional, and I never set out to try and capture our family in any particular way as I wanted the work to be an honest reflection of how we were all feeling. You experience so many different emotions when going through something of this nature; my mum was an incredibly strong woman but there were days when she really struggled and wanted to give up and there were days when her fighting spirit shone through so this mix between strength and fragility was naturally captured in the work.
Why did you decide to vary between close up portraits and more environmental images? Was there a specific reason behind this?
Photographing your family is really difficult and I was concerned that the work would end up with cliches of sentimentality. The project started out as a series of portraits which for me are still the centre pieces, as the work developed my approach shifted from trying to make photographs in the moment to images and portraits that were more set up and considered, more direct and less spontaneous.
My approach throughout the project changed constantly, the work was led by what we as a family were feeling. I always kept my camera with me and although I was not always taking pictures the experiences were just as important, these experiences were later translated into visual metaphors for how we were feeling.
There were days when mum was too sick to be photographed and I found myself escaping to places of solitude and taking images within landscapes. I kept going back to a particular location in Dorset that my mum visited frequently in her childhood and continued to revisit throughout her illness. I kept revisiting the location, spending hours just wandering and taking pictures that ended up emulating how we were feeling. Towards the end of the project it became increasingly difficult to photograph mum and so I tried to find alternative ways to communicate the narrative; objects, still lifes and environments became important to try and help tell and punctuate the story.
In your description for “God has no favourites”, you talk about death and how it is a topic that is quite hard to talk about. Did you find that by creating this project, you were finding the topic easier to approach? What was the hardest thing about creating the project?
There are many questions that surround death and our obsession with wanting to capture death. Confronting death and thinking about our own mortality is something that the Western world struggle to do. Today, the practice of taking pictures of the dead has negative connotations, while during the Victorian age it represented a true homage to their memory.
It was difficult as my mum did not want to talk about dying, she believed that she was going to be healed by God and tried to avoid the topic at all costs. After mum died the project helped my brother, dad and myself talk more openly about death and our experiences. When making a project of this nature you feel incredibly vulnerable and when I was putting the work up in a gallery, I felt nervous, but it has been amazing to see people responding to the work, staying with the work and being really moved by it. I was lucky enough to spend the day in the gallery and was watching and listening to the people in the space, it opened up so many conversations and allowed people to reflect on their own experiences, strangers were talking and comforting each other. One woman started crying and told me that her sister had died and that up till this point she had not been able to cry. She felt such a strong connection to the work and thanked me for allowing her to share in the experience, to be in a space where she felt comfortable to cry and to talk about the death of her sister. There are many more stories like this, and I am so glad that the work has moved so many people and has genuinely got people talking.
The hardest part of making the work was seeing mum decline over time, seeing her upset and in immense pain, knowing that she was going to die and not being able to help and having a visual record of it all…
Thank you for your answers so far and for letting us experience the project on such a beautiful level. Story telling seems to be an important backbone of your work. In what ways do you believe photography has the power to story- tell?
Yes, storytelling has become an important part of my practice; I have always been fascinated by the power of storytelling. I admire that a story can be told in a single image or across a series of images. The still image stops time and allows the viewer time to think, reflect, to feel. This being said, I do sometimes struggle with the fact that photography is not always the best way to tell a story, photographs don’t always have the same flow that is achieved by cinema or some literature.
My style of storytelling is still evolving, and it leans more towards poetic documentary now leaving a place for the audience to fill in some of the gaps. The way I work best is undertaking a ‘project’ or ‘issue’ and then trying to find appropriate ways to tell the narrative.
Your work is centred around the “human condition”, which is a very vast topic to work with. What is your process of narrowing down that focus and what are the influences, inspirations behind the way you create?
Your right, the human condition is a very broad topic, too broad, and I almost don’t like using it anymore…I have always focused in on issues that are personal to me, that I can connect with, that I have an experience of and that I feel I have some kind of authority to speak about. Philip Toledano said that, ‘the power of art is indeed the ability to echo in a different way to different people and it is often the most intimate, personal and authentic works that strikes a deeper chord in people’s heart.’
Research is very important to my creative process and the making of the work. My main influences used to come solely from photographic research, but this is not the case anymore. I watch films and read extensively around my subject area, this introduces me to ways of thinking or seeing that aren’t just about photography- it helps me develop a conceptual and visual relationship to the work.
When did photography enter your life and how did it become your career?
I was not taught photography at school so after I left I enrolled on a Foundation course in Art and Design and out of that came a curiosity for photography which led me to do a degree. Studying photography introduced me to new ways of thinking, I was surrounded by great people and it was there that I started to discover what I was interested in. After graduating I did the typical thing of moving to London to assist and got offered some lecturing work at a university. Teaching has now become my career; I lecture part time allowing me more time to focus on my own work.
In this current situation of increasing tension and opportunities falling behind, what would be your advice for photographers to keep going? What are your creative plans for the near future?
Don’t give up! Creatives all over the world are feeling the impact of the pandemic. The most important thing is to keep making work! Keep pushing yourself – it’s at times like this that we really learn a lot about ourselves and produce our best work. This has been a great opportunity for people to pause, reflect, focus on making new work, refreshing portfolios and now that things are slowly moving again it’s about finding ways to adapt.
Currently I am developing a body of work around my dad and I have a few exhibitions coming up.
In this issue we feature photography and writing that explores belief through worship, mourning, loss of faith, superstitions and the possibility of other worlds.
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