My feelings and choices
I have been organising the photo-shoot for a long time and my anticipation was increasing as the day was growing nearer. On the day of the photo-shoot I was full of emotions, but, strangely, I was not feeling anxious. I knew that everyone involved was going to do the right thing at the right moment. Because my aim was to capture an unscripted representation of my family’s story, I strongly believed that everything would unfold as natural as possible. That was the reason why I chose to collaborate family members – people who, by virtue of sharing my familial memories, knew exactly the narrative I wanted to convey. For this reason, I felt that while they were not professional actors or model, there was no one more appropriate and qualified to perform in this particular video than my family. The emotions they displayed before, during and after the photo-shoot mirrored mine. Earlier, in the planning stages of the photo-shoot, I had explained to my family how I wanted to set up the story of the video around flowers and the passing of flowers. My parents immediately comprehended what I was trying to do – they knew very well my grandfather’s love of flowers. In my conversation with my parents they recounted that flowers were always there in my grandparents’ home and everyday life. Even though we all felt the sense of loss of my grandfather to some degree, the photo-shoot never felt like an act of mourning, or something sorrowful – it more resembled an event to commemorate a person we all loved and cherished.It was a work of art meant to pass on the idea of memories and nostalgia using flowers – and, in the context of the video, mine and my grandfather’s love of flowers – as a vehicle for conveying those feelings and memories. My view was that the video itself should illustrate flowers as an object that binds to get her three generations of my family.
Feelings and reactions of my family – before and during the photo-shoot
My family’s initial reaction to my idea of participating in my video was mixed. My father and my sister’s partner were very excited and they joked about being part of an acting troupe. My mother was more reserved; a reaction that I found normal because I know that my mother is a very shy person. My sister was also a bit reserved but not because she was shy. Rather, she seemed worried that I was risking too much by entrusting the job of performing in the video to a group of people that had no experience in doing anything similar. I explained to my sister that their participation in the video was precisely what would guarantee its quality. This was not just because of the physical resemblance between my mother and sister, which would work well for the time-lapse effect I wanted to create. It was also the fact that I saw in my father and mother as well as my sister and her partner two loving couples, just as I remembered my grandparents being two people who deeply loved each other. It was this love and affection – represented by the exchange of flowers – that I wanted to cement the continuum between the different generations. My thought was that having my family (instead of professional actors/models)in the video meant that the gestures and expressions exchanged between the couples would not have been artificial nor the result of pretence. They were authentic expressions of love, and familial bonds bound together each couple. After my explanation, I was certain that I convinced my sister that they were the ideal people to base my narrative video on.
On the day of the photo-shoot my family’s reactions were slightly different in that they were all a bit unsure about what they were to do during the shooting. We started very early in the morning as we had to finish before 1 pm; my mum had to go to work around that time. Everyone was there on time. I soon realised that it was a tall order to keep up with everything I needed to do. Because I was the art director and also responsible for the photography and styling, I had a substantial amount of work to do – there were times when I thought I would have coped better if I had an assistant with me. Despite the workload I faced, I was not the one who was stressed. My family were slightly stressed since the process was unfamiliar to them – I spend some time trying to make them feel more relaxed because I wanted them to be as calm and natural as possible for the video. They seemed to ease into their roles quite easily. This was especially the case with my dad, who seemed to enjoy the moment and was quite playful during the photo-shoot. My dad’s approach also helped my mum to relax, though she still had reservations about taking the video recording outside in the courtyard; she was conscious of the fact that neighbours might be watching and she did not want to expose herself to their gaze. My sister and her partner felt far more comfortable with the process of the photo-shoot and, therefore, my task of making my “actors” feel comfortable became gradually easier as the shooting progressed.
The locus of the photo-shoot – My grandfather’s house and flowers
Ever since its inception, I intended my video to take place in my grandfather’s house. I was convinced that his house was a very good location for the video, especially given the theme I sought to represent and develop. If the narrative of my video was to be atrans-generational story of my family – which would begin with my grandparent’s generation and continue with my parent’s and conclude with my generation of grandchildren – then it became impossible to imagine a location more appropriate than that house. For me, but also my family more generally, this house marked a space in the material world that hosted and nurtured all kind of loving memories that accompanied us growing up. Even though my memories of the house were a bit hazy – I was a small child when my grandparents last lived there – the sentiments it evoked when thinking of it were always warm and familiar. When I visited the house a few days before the photo-shoot to carry all the necessary equipment and to prepare the place by testing the lighting for the video, I had a peculiar experience. On the one hand, the house possessed nothing that often characterises a home: being uninhabited for the last years it was almost completely empty of people, sounds and material possessions. On the other hand, the “emptiness” of the house did nothing to eliminate the surge of feelings I got from being there.
Flowers were the catalyst in bringing those feelings forth. While my memories of the house were hazy, my lasting and most powerful impression was that of flowers always being present there, both outside in the yard and inside in the house. This memory of flowers in my grandfather’s home was so strong that the day before I went to prepare the place for the photo-shoot I asked my mother whether she thought I would find any flowers growing about on the day of the photo-shoot. She told me that there was little to no chance of that happening – no one had taken care of the house for a considerable amount of time and flowers would not survive abandonment. I was stunned to find out that the reverse was the truth: upon entering the house I saw flowers everywhere. The materiality of flowers in my grandfather’s house (a place I already metaphorically associated with flowers) assaulted me with colours, smells and, of course, memories. The presence of flowers was something that was at the same time incongruous and fitting: it both did not make sense pragmatically (how did they exist in such an abundance without careful care?) and made perfect sense emotionally and imaginatively (I had never ever imagined that house devoid of flowers). The emotional response I got from being in the presence of what I thought to be a paradox was immense. While I knew that no one was living in the house or taking care of the garden, in that moment I felt that the flowers that my grandfather used to cherish were still being cared for.This experience validated and cemented my artistic decision to shoot the video there: my grandfather’s house was not simply a good location but it was more so the only one that I could possibly create the visual story I wanted to express.
Ideas – Story – Narrative construction
My ideas for my narrative video and how it was to be developed were never static – I quickly discovered that what I thought and felt about flowers, my family and specifically my grandfather were shaped profoundly by the process of creating the video. When I first began engaging with the topic of flowers in my Creative Research in Fashion Communication module I thought that flowers reflected my memories of my grandfather simply in terms of a sense of loss. At the time I saw flowers as a representation of my grandfather’s love of them and, by extension, of his deep love for my grandmother and the rest of his family. I thought that thinking about flowers meant being confronted with the absence of my grandfather from mine and my family’s lives.
However, when I began talking about my project with my family – and when I started, more recently, to read on the subject of mourning and melancholia – I realised that my initial approach was not entirely representative of mine or my family’s disposition towards my grandfather’s passing. If, according Freud, mourning performs the internal work of freeing the ego from the inhibition and emotional pain that comes in the wake of the loss of a loved person, then it seemed to me that my family and I were in a post-mourning phase. Of course, that is not to say that I (we) did not have feelings about my grandfather’s passing. Rather, those feelings did not manifest just in the form of pain about the absence of my grandfather. Though I find it difficult to talk about this change in technical terms (since I realise I do not have the adequate background in the field of psychoanalysis) what I can say with certainty is that my discussions with my family about my grandfather had more to do about his presence in our lives instead of his absence.
My thoughts about the meaning of my project in relation to flowers and my grandfather began transforming. The story of my family no longer felt like a story of loss and discontinuity; it was a story of remembrance and continuity. Thus, I decided that my narrative would not focus on the concept (and feeling) of grief and pain but on that of my grandfather’s continued presence (now in the form of flowers and our memories of him) in mine and my family’s lives. The nostalgia that was to be a major part of the narrative was meant to do the work of showing the three generations of my family as one.
This conceptual shift to a more celebratory tone had a dramatic impact on the way I conducted myself as an art director, photographer and stylist in making my video. I decided to keep my grandfather’s house as starkly empty as I found it when I wanted to prepare for the photo-shoot. I did so because I wanted the material subjects and objects in the video to be only those that substantially contributed to bringing forth the presence of my grandparents in the house: primarily my family members and flowers. This artistic decision meant that I could focus exclusively on flowers as a material object that evokes my grandparent’s lived experience in that house. I tried to include flowers in as many diverse ways as possible: as jewellery worn by my mother and sister; as ornaments in a vase in the house; as a gift passed between loved ones; as a staple feature of my grandfather’s garden. Flowers thus continuously bound the different generations of my family together.
Another way I thought would consolidate the mingling of the generations was the use of the fade out technique in the video so that I would represent my sister and her partner as a younger version of my mum and dad (and by extension my grandmother and grandfather). As a stylist I also chose the clothes of my sister and her partner to reflect a previous age, in order to make the connection to my mum’s past more convincing. The movements and actions of my family in the video were inspired by the stories I learned – or remembered – about my grandparent’s life in that house. While I wanted my parents and my sister and her partner to perform similarly, I did not try to have each couple mirror the other exactly. After watching the video I did not think that this small inconsistency worked against merging my family’s generations together. On the contrary, I thought it made the transition from a younger age to an older one seem more believable as the expressions of love and affection can also be thought to be shaped by the passing of time. I saw my mum and dad reaching for each other as people who have loved each other for many years – with all the tenderness, comfort and familiarity that this long term commitment to each other implies. And I saw my sister and her partner approaching each other as a couple whose loving relationship is now forming; they were shy, impulsive and ready to embark on a life adventure together. I appreciated these slight differences and in turn I came to recognise the diversity of flowers as an object conveying emotions from one person to another. This was especially evident in the case of flowers being exchanged in the video; not only as gifts of courtship and helping establish a loving relationship, but also as tokens that reinforce and reaffirm that relationship during the passing of time.