In the photograph, a spruced hedge wears a jubilant sign like a smile. The golden lettering is the type you would pick for a celebration. But while the sign is destined for a special person – the photographer’s father – it is a normal day. Hung in the suburban park he often walks, it serves as a reminder: ‘The Dog’s in the Car’. It forms the title of Tami Atfab’s series which uses comedic affection to explore her father’s short-term memory loss.
Photography, has continually been a tool in aiding the construction of familial image and memory. As Annette Kuhn observes, “stories of a past, shared (both stories and the past) by a group of people that in the moment of sharing produces itself as a family.” The Dogs in The Car is enmeshed with this intimate generational network; at times playing along, and at others, turning it inside out.
For my own Dad and I, playfulness was a buoyant float which we clung to. Adrift among an ocean of overwhelming emotion— brought on by an unpredictable, purpled rage of long-term depression—a playful humour would keep our heads above water until the swell had calmed. No apology was ever needed, instead, a simple joke sufficed. But when Dad developed a glioblastoma, to which he would soon lose his life, his capacity to recall years of family memories from which jokes sprung deflated. Once a hysterical aunt fell into our stale hospital room, the colour of powdered milk, only to stop abruptly and ask him why he hadn’t trimmed his toenails. The thin smile that appeared made all the difference.
In experiencing situations out of our control, humour becomes a form of resistance. Winnicott wrote that “playing is itself a therapy.” He thought of play as “the continuous evidence of creativity, which means aliveness.” Photography is all these things, but a portrait especially reveals the link between vulnerability and trust, for which family photographs are treasured for documenting this intimacy.
“What would you say to someone who wants to understand what it’s like living with short term memory loss?” Aftab had asked. “When you walk up the stairs and think what am I looking for?” Tony replied. Living with the condition must feel frustrating and absurd, but the pair re-frame his reality so others can understand it. In Up and Down the Stairs, on a low-lit stage while wearing a suit Tony strikes a pose. His hook-shaped scar, the result of an operation that inadvertently caused his memory loss, is clearly visible. But crucially, he’s the protagonist of his own show.
It’s this form of collaborative portraiture centred around trust, which makes Aftab’s work engaging. It has ties with re-enactment phototherapy, a radical form of photography practice developed by Rosy Martin and Jo Spence in the 1980s. In Martin’s photography performances she unpicks the “psychic and social construction of identities.” Aftab builds on this sentiment, exploring how outside of self-portraiture it can be used to explore complex relationships.
Stepping into vulnerability is difficult. “It’s brave of him to explore the fact that he is ill,” Aftab says, “he is confronting the fact he struggles with something that others do not.” In my own relationships, it felt insurmountable to confront illness, death and eventually grief. Dad and I never discussed how sick he was. Instead, we made obstacles as ridiculous as possible in order to process the sad reality. At one point, the tumour pressured the cerebellum, the ‘little’ brain, and he ceased walking, seemingly overnight. The combination of crutches and stairs became frightening, so instead we went down on our bottoms —resulting in a traffic jam.
These small acts are no cure, but they are powerful agents in regaining control over how we experience a situation. Not everyone has access to support or can find laughter during difficult periods, but for some families it serves as a shared language that is mutually sustaining. While I am just beginning to address what Jo Spence termed the ‘absences and silences’ around cancer, Aftab is continuing to take aim at the stigma and taboo attached to illness through making the personal public. “This is our lives,” she says, “don’t be embarrassed and don’t look away—you can learn.”
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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