Simon Bray explores the notion of place and our connection to it. His work Siblings portrays sets of brothers and sisters in locations meaningful to their childhood. The visual investigation of the unique relationship between siblings began after the loss of Simon’s younger sister.
Why don’t you start by telling me how you got into photography?
I originally studied music, and I always thought I was going to make music. For quite a while I did, and then 15 years ago I moved to Manchester. It was a significant shift from the relatively rural town where I had grown up. Taking pictures became my way to explore my new surroundings. I had no special equipment, no training. I would go on walks and take photographs.
With time I decided to focus more on my practice. I started developing projects and taking small commissions, and it slowly grew from there. I feel very fortunate to be in charge of my own time and work on what matters to me while exploring myself in an artistic sense.
I’ve used photography to explore what has happened throughout my life. It has been completely invaluable in that sense.
In your work, you explore the relationship we have as individuals with specific places and how memory turns space into place. How did you become curious about this topic?
When I started taking photography seriously, I would go and shoot landscapes to work out how I could represent a place in my own way.
Generally, I like to be on my feet and keep moving and exploring. I suppose that stems from spending a lot of time outdoors as a kid on my uncle’s farm. I get a sense of excitement when I am in a different place. I try, through photography, to understand and document what that feeling is about. I ask myself, what are the aspects that make it different? What is unique about being in this place now?
It’s a fragment in time. I suppose it is a connection between that sense of place and how photography distils it as a unique moment in time.
Why do you think photography is an appropriate tool to portray this sense of attachment to a place?
Personally, probably because I was horrible at painting. I am joking! Photography is an excellent tool for it. It has a magical element, but it’s just science and light, but sometimes I feel I can express things I didn’t even know about myself thanks to the camera. An aspect I may not have been able to put into words which is then represented and documented. The camera reveals something to me. It’s then about learning from that and understanding what led me to take that picture. What the picture evokes? How do I try and recreate it in a different place, a different time, and a different location?
When I started, I wanted to capture the entire view in front of me in a single shot. It’s not really about that for me anymore. I look for a sort of sensibility, that view or scene, which evokes something.
I worked with the painter Thomas Musgrove on a project titled The Edges of These Isles a few years ago.
We travelled to renowned locations in the UK. Seeing how Tom approached his work as a painter taught me a lot about my own practice. He sketches a few notes, but mainly he soaks the view up. Tom uses his eyes, his ears, his sense of smell and touch to understand what it’s like to be in that place at that moment. Then he goes to his studio to distill that sense in a piece of art. As a photographer, you are trying to do that in a split second.
Ultimately, working with Tom taught me how to photograph artistically instead of instinctively, and learning how to listen to and trust my instinct.
I am guessing you have gone on to apply this to your work. Did you approach Siblings this way too?
Siblings was probably more heavily curated than anything else I have done. Most of my projects have involved a degree of collaboration. For Siblings, I knew how I wanted the images to look. I took the role of director. I had a say in the poses and gestures while working with the subjects to represent their relationships.
I took notes and had conversations with the various siblings to construct a clear idea of how to represent them. The aim was to capture some of the essences of what it means to be a sibling.
The starting point for the project was the fact that I lost my sister. She passed away in 2018. Everybody who took part in the project knew her and had an understanding of what had happened.
Ultimately, this project has developed my understanding of what it means to be a sibling. Like any relationship we have in our lives, you think yours is the sort of standard, and you do not necessarily think to ask about somebody else’s. My sister and I had an incredibly strong relationship. There was an inherent connection, and it felt easy.
In the project, there are a few photos of two brothers. I have known them my whole life. One of them moved to New York and works in a high-flying job. The other moved a few miles from home, married the girl he met when he was 17, and is working as a teacher. They have gone about life in different ways, but there’s still that inherent connection alongside a level of competition. One of them wrote an essay in the book. In the text, he mentions the expectations of being the youngest sibling and trying to be like his older brother growing up. They have a strong bond and rely on each other when needed, but there is also slight friction.
The project for me was a way to engage with that world of emotions and my own: the ongoing frustration, sadness and grief. I tried to shape the work into something that I could use to help me understand what I had with my sister and what that relationship meant to me.
I think and hope this can work for the viewer too. The incredible power of photography is how it allows us into other people’s worlds. This book is an insight into those experiences.
From our conversation and seeing the images, the shoots seem like energetic joyful moments. They evoke feelings of love, happiness, tenderness. Which you could relate to portraying with punchy colours. Why did you decide to use black and white?
I’m a bit of a sucker for black and white, but I think it was mostly a practical decision. The photographs were shot at very different times of the year, in different locations at different times of day, depending on people’s availability. I wanted to tie the project together as a series aesthetically.
Mike Mills’ short film I am Easy to Find was also an inspiration, particularly the gentle, beautiful, soft black and white look. When I started the project, I knew that approach suited what I was trying to convey.
How did you approach the editing process for such a personal project?
Over a lot of time. I shot everything in 2019. At one point, I wanted to mix these images with others I had shot around the time after losing my sister, Jess. But that became a different project, and this became Siblings.
I went through lots of different iterations and versions. I had to tell myself not to include just my favourite images, and be brutal with the selection process to make sure I cut out images that weren’t helping the overall narrative.
I’ve learnt it’s important to come back to a project at different times in my life in terms of how I am feeling. My mood, confidence level, and the music I am listening, all affect the edit’s outcome.
I knew I wanted to add a few lines about Jess, but I did not want the book to be about loss. This is a book about siblings. That is why the publication includes essays by Simon and Ralph, two of the participants. It strengthened the context of the images.
Each location relates to the participants’ childhood. You mentioned how you took the time to explore these places to discover them yourself, which has resulted in environmental images included in the series. What was your reasoning behind including these, and what did you base your selection on?
That was quite an instinctive thing; it didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the subject matter. I didn’t want to approach it as though ‘here are the shots of the people, and here is the place we went to’. To me, it was important to consider the broader sense of identity.
In the shots, nature somehow mirrors the siblings’ photos. When roaming around, I was looking for specific shapes and structures that resonated with the work. I suppose these quieter images represent my own nature in a sense. I’m a relatively quiet person unless I am with certain friends. It is in my nature to take relatively quiet images.
We talked earlier about having lots of energy and lots of colours. These images were a way to translate that energy and my experience in a more sombre, quiet way. Focusing this way on the dynamic between the people as opposed to letting it leap off the page.
Do you see this as a finished project, or are you thinking about continuing to create images?
I have parked it for now, but I think there is potential to continue it in different ways, through people from different demographics and different scenarios. It could be interesting to evolve the idea into something bigger. For now, it is nice to share it as it is at this stage. But I would like to think that I can do more.
What are you currently working on?
I have been shooting a lot, and I am working on a series reflecting on the loss of my sister, Jess, in a different way. But I am not sure if I will want to edit that for an audience or whether it is something just for me.
I am also collaborating with photographer Jim Marsden to explore our connection to faith. I am looking at older church buildings and Christian iconography to help me establish what it means to have rituals and what the Christian faith looks like to people today.
In this issue we feature photography and writing that explores Play through playful processes of photography, play therapy, nightlife, performance and identity, collaboration, virtual realities, and war play.
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