Grant Winner This project was awarded a special cash grant by juror Corey Keller. Each of the five jury members selected one photographer from the Top 50 Emerging Talents to be awarded special distinction with a cash grant.
“Sian Davey’s work stood out for me on each pass through the submissions. Though her subject is intensely personal, the photographs, to me, transcend that specificity and tell a more universal narrative about love, childhood, and family that any viewer could understand. Davey’s work has a rawness, a vulnerability that I responded to profoundly, and I appreciated the understatedness of her approach. In less capable hands, a similar project could have felt emotionally manipulative or even exploitative, but there is none of that here. Deeply felt without being sentimental, the work is at once tender and beautifully seen.”
— Corey Keller, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
This series is an illustration of family life — all the tensions, joys, ups and downs that go with the territory of being in a family. My family is a microcosm for the dynamics occurring in many other families. We are no different. As a psychotherapist I have listened to many stories and it is interesting that what has been revealed to me, after fifteen years of practice, is not how different we are to one another, but rather how alike we are as people. It is what we share that is significant. The stories vary but we all experience similar emotions. We are all vulnerable to feelings of anger, grief and depression. The list goes on…
My daughter Alice, born with Down’s Syndrome, is no different to any other human being. She feels what you and I feel. However, our society does not acknowledge this and her very existence is given little or no value. Alice has entered a world where routine genetic screening at twelve weeks gestation is thrust towards birth prevention rather than birth preparation. Whilst we make our selection and decisions in private, the effect on society is that 92 percent of Down’s Syndrome babies are terminated at the pre-natal screening stage. Indeed, prior to the introduction of screening, children such as Alice would have been severely marginalized and ultimately institutionalized and given little or limited medical care.
I was deeply shocked when Alice was born as an ‘imperfect’ baby. It was not what I had expected. Our first experiences in hospital did little to diffuse this. The pediatrician pulled back her legs, pushed her thumbs deep into Alice’s groin, and promptly announced that we should take Alice home and treat her like any other baby. But she didn’t feel like any other baby, and I was fraught with anxiety that rippled through to every aspect of my relationship with her. My anxieties penetrated my dreams. I dreamt that Alice was swaddled in a blanket and that I had forgotten all about her. I unwrapped the tight bundle that she was nestled in, to feed her, only to discover her body was covered in a white fluid — a fluid of neglect; and yet I was unable to feed her, unable to respond to her basic needs.
On reflection I saw that Alice was feeling my rejection of her and that caused me further pain. I saw that the responsibility lay with me; I had to dig deep into my own prejudices and shine a light on them. The result was that as my fear dissolved I fell in love with my daughter. We all did.
I wonder how it might be for Alice to be valued without distinction, without exception and without second glance.
This project is for her, for Alice.
Sian Davey’s photographs displays an unusual degree of emotional sensitivity and compassion (which is really saying something in the field of photography!). But this should come as no surprise—after studying painting, Davey became a professional, practicing psychotherapist. Her work centers on both domestic and psychological narratives, but in such a way as to make these personal stories feel universal. Assistant editor Alexander Strecker wrote to Davey to find out more.
SD: I began using photography four years ago but since I was a child, I have seen the world through a lens, framing moments as I saw them. In the act of taking a photograph, I am able to quickly harness both what I see and how I feel, in a way that is different from other artistic mediums. I am currently in the process of finishing an MA in photography and ending my work in psychotherapy. In short, I will soon be committed full time to my photography practice.
LC: What kind of impact does your psychotherapeutic background have on you and the subject you are shooting?
SD: My psychotherapy and photography work are intertwined. My psychotherapy work demands that I stay fully present to both my state and my clients. This attunement to process fully translates onto my photography. In both, I find myself responding instinctively to my external and internal worlds, doing a careful dance between the two.
My clinical work has also helped me achieve the quality of contact that I need when photographing people. The camera is often felt as invasive to the person being photographed, so forming intimate relationships quickly enables my subjects to feel at ease in the present moment.
LC: How did you approach Alice with the idea of this project? Did you direct her at any time or were you only documenting her life?
SD: I was neither directing nor documenting Alice’s life. To a certain extent the pictures flow from the life we lead together. By force of habit my camera is always there—important since I work intuitively, photographing life as it appears around me.
I’m highly attentive to certain moments and the effects of light and color. My inspirations are vast, but it is my immediate environment that is my inspiration, everything I need is where I am in the present moment.
—Sian Davey, interviewed by Alexander Strecker
Editors’ note: Since being named an Emerging Talent, Davey ran a successful crowdfunding campaign and then published her project as a beautiful book. The publication went on to garner several awards and was named to numerous “Book of the Year” shortlists. Congratulations Sian!
Looking for Alice
By Sian Davey
Published by Trolley Books