In the Shadow of Things explores attempts by Léonie’s family to clear her mother's house, which had become overwhelmed by objects. To challenge the clichés and stigmas of mental health at the level of society begins with the possibility of change. Some of what needs to be looked at is ones own misguided understanding.
In 2007, a deal was struck: Léonie would help her mother unpack the boxes and attempt to deal with the past, with the tacit understanding that she be allowed to document that process. She combined photography, film and sound to navigate the tide of emotions that erupted when this landscape of possessions was disturbed. The work is a personal study of the emotional impact that OCD can have on both the sufferer and their immediate family. It explores the delicate, troubled and loving relationship between mother and daughter, and a mother and her possessions.
The work attempts not to describe or narrate, but to visually transcribe the emotional terrain and bring the viewer in to the feeling of the space of a familiar yet peculiar home.
Léonie Hampton – In the Shadow of Things.
Written by Christian Caujolle.
Published in Ojo de Pez in March 2009
Christian Caujolle studies under Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes and Pierre Bourdieu in Paris. During the 80s he was photography editor for ‘Liberation’, a time when the newspaper was acclaimed for its bold use of photography and design. He then went on to found the French photography agency Agence VU, which he continues to run as an artistic director. He is an internationally respected writer and critic on photography.
In the course of the last ten years we have witnessed a proliferation of works in which artists, most of them women, have sought to construct self-portraits around often trivial details of their everyday lives. There have been so many works of this kind that they have begun to lose interest. The approach they adopt is self-centred, narcissistic even, the worlds they describe of interest only to the artists who produced them. As time has gone on, these works have become repetitive, their iteration of ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘I’ merely stylistic, an increasingly hollow fashion, betraying only the feeblest understanding, if any, of the work of Nan Goldin. Although she appears in a good many of her pictures, Nan Goldin did not consider the ups and downs of her daily life as works of art: she was giving an account of the particular life which was hers and especially that of her friends of both sexes, people on the margins, drug addicts, homosexuals, transvestites. Her ‘family album’ contrived to cast a direct and sensitive light on a part of society which up until then had been covered up, judged or treated in a pitying way by photojournalists who found in it ‘subjects’ often not without sensational appeal. It was a far cry, in other words, from the smug repetition of scenes featuring heaps of messy underwear alongside sinks overflowing with dirty dishes to which we have been increasingly treated.
From this convention of over-valuing the banal Léonie Hampton breaks away entirely, and her work comes as a welcome breath of fresh air. It is a slow study of her family, and it is still in progress. Her family’s situation is very particular: her mother suffers from a rare and almost incomprehensible condition which leads her compulsively and alternately to arrange things in as perfect an order as possible and then quite suddenly to reverse this and return them to a chaotic disorder whose logic she alone understands and governs.
Léonie Hampton follows her family in their daily lives as she visits them, but reveals in an extraordinary freshness of approach, working in a flexible and natural way, using colour and ambient light, and no artificial effects. This lets her garner moments of tenderness, children’s games, instants of anguish and pain, things in a mess and then things neatly stacked. She does all this with a subtlety of colour which makes each instant unique, whether shot inside or outside; she does all this without creating any sort of show, displaying instead an elegant and simple capacity to change the distance from which she photographs, free from all dogmatism and always finding the right tone and angles. Her work presents us with neither a carefully constructed ‘project’ didactic in intent, nor a sketchbook of impressions. It simply invites us to share emotions, instants, scraps of life articulated in a natural fashion within the framework of the family, which is the only constraint Léonie Hampton seems to impose on herself. This is not a narrative or a story, strictly speaking. Rather, it follows life and its threads as they weave together; taking us far beyond mere demonstration and making us each look into the real world.
In its documentary approach, pursued with humility, Léonie Hampton’s work could be said to be reminiscent of Nick Waplington’s early work on his parents’ neighbourhoods (effectively a way of talking about his own family, but her manner is less jarring. Again, while it may be similar thematically, it has nothing of the direct and disturbing quality of Richard Billingham’s depiction of his fathers decline. Léonie Hampton’s treatment is unique, truly personal. This is perhaps because by immersing herself in families in Rome, London, Cuba, Los Angeles and France, she has already confronted the need to make herself forgotten as the photographer in order to disturb the course of everyday life as little as possible and therefore successfully capture those ‘little nothings’, which take us back into the depth of actual life.
This time, her work is about her own family. This changes nothing in the subtlety of her treatment or her attention to light. But it changes a great deal for her.
Interview for Foam Magazine Autumn 2009 edition
Q: The largest section of work in your portfolio is dedicated to portrayals of families in various cities. How did you get interested in this?
A: I don’t know if I was ever interested in portraying ‘whole families’ more that I felt ex- cited to work within four walls and closely with the same group of people. I saw the work of Richard Billingham and Nick Wapplington, and I felt inspired to follow their lead by work- ing within the family. I looked at a lot of photography at this time, and this approach woke me up and got me excited to take pictures and start to find my own language. I wanted to cherish this approach and use it to explore and find my own questions. ‘Family’ is a fairly universal subject of interest. As a child I used to love looking through old family albums building narratives around the pictures. I’d stare at the pictures pretending that I knew the people that were now dead, and I’d imagine their lives. I think photographing within the family unit was an instinctive choice, a way that I felt comfortable to photograph strangers that then became friends.
Q: “Access” seems to be the magic word for photographers. How did you find those fami- lies and how did you convince them to let you be a spectator of their life?
A: I’m always asked this question. It’s very simple. I just show people my work. They like it and want to be a part of it, or they don’t. I find this first approach terrifying. But as of yet, no one has ever said no. You must give people pictures of themselves. This is really impor- tant to build trust, and as a result further doors normally open. I also take time to be more than just a passive spectator. I’ll do my best to pick up the family rules and quirks and, where appropriate, offer what I can to contribute. Reading with the kids, teaching English. Whatever is appreciated. I try to share myself with them, to give a little back in return for all the generosity and openness given to me. I also try to pay attention to when I am not wanted around. For a brief while I try to become a part of the family, and far more time is spent just being with them and getting to know one another than actually taking pictures. But when I do take pictures I am not trying to be invisible. I am the photographer, that is my role. Do my subjects ever ‘perform’ for me? Some perhaps do, others carry on as nor- mal. But I notice that by taking the role as the witness, people seem to become themselves. People are often genuinely surprised that I’m interested in them and their lives, and they realise they’re actually quite proud of what they have. That’s certainly the bit I’m interested in.
Q: With “In the Shadow of Things”, you’ve now turned your camera on your own family. What made you do this?
A: Because I believe that this is not a dress rehearsal. This is it. It’s my family that I care most about. I came to a point when I wanted to face things that needed to be faced. I needed to see if I was able to make sense of some of the unsaid problems that seemed to be holding us all back. I see the process like walking into a house and going from room to room, opening all the windows and doors to let fresh air flow again. It was never a con- scious intention to photograph other people’s families and then my own. But I think that working with other people slowly reassured me that ‘love’ in a family is by no means the one dimensional love we witness time and time again in mainstream blockbuster movies. I feel privileged to have glimpsed some of the odder facets of love in other people’s lives. This ultimately gave me the courage to look at my own little nest.
Q: With other people’s families, as an outsider the photographer might be shut out from a lot of what is going on. But inside one’s own family, one might know too much. Doesn’t this make portraying one’s own family hard?
A: You take that knowledge with you wherever you are, and it influences the way you see your own family or other people’s. I aim to overcome this, and I hope to photograph in a more instinctive and less informed way. I think this challenge applies to whatever I am pho- tographing- to empty one’s mind and respond in a simple and open way to what is in front of me. When I was photographing other people’s families I felt like I was trying to crack an egg, to get inside, while photographing my own family feels quite the opposite, trying to get out of the egg. I understand that sensation less in terms of knowledge, but more in terms of the intricate emotional terrain one steps into when photographing one’s own family. It con- sumes me emotionally, and I am trying to articulate those emotions, to make sense of them and then look to other horizons.
It has been interesting for me to realise that I’m not trying to ‘portray’ my family in the same way I did with previous families. This project is much more about coming to under- stand myself and my relationship with my mother who I have always been extremely close to. I am so much more invested in every image than I have ever been before. I think I might have ventured outside the ‘safety’ of the photojournalistic approach to photography, where the subject is ‘the other’, regardless of the photographer’s compassion. Yes, I have used my camera as a kind of shield to protect me during some almost unbearably intense times, but when I look over the images it has taken, it’s like looking into a very revealing mirror!