Name of the Father
I am a member of a club I never wanted to join. I barely knew the club existed until I had become a member. I would love to pull out altogether, but the decision, unfortunately, isn’t mine. I see my fellow members as a breed of noble losers, though my self-image doesn’t permit me to see myself that way.
Griffin Stone. The Spectator 24 August 2002
SOMETIME in May 2003 I read an article in the London Evening Standard regarding a court of appeal ruling whereby a young girl was barred from seeing a photograph of her doting father. Although Lord Justice Thorpe said that he ‘had every sympathy’ with the man, nevertheless he relented - his ‘hands were tied’. This judgment threw a harsh spotlight on the impotency of a law where children are being systematically deprived of contact with one of the two most important people in their lives, their fathers. Like many people, I assumed that these were isolated instances. Surely there must be a valid reason: abuse or violence, for example? I found, from personal experience, this not to be the case. Rather, here a man seems to be guilty until proved innocent. You may miss several months of your children’s lives, probably on some minor, possibly fabricated pretext; you can never regain that time.
I decided to pursue portraits of those who subsequently have become infamous for standing up for the rights of the child: the right to see a positive picture of your father, the right to be seen in a photograph.
This is a personal exploration using photographs taken across England and Wales since 2004, pictures of people I have come to know as friends and with whom I have shared many memories. This collection of photographs and memorabilia is my attempt to highlight an inequality in the English legal and political system. Through these representations I seek to question the perception of ‘absent fathers’; portraits of people more used to being depicted in a harsher light. In London alone, there are 16,473 "male lone-parent households". In addition, there are 180,366 fathers who are ‘not living’ with their children and are therefore classified as "absent fathers", according to national statistics updated in 2006. These are one half of the parental equation; but single fathers are often invisible. These fathers, have not left their children, but are still treated as if they have. Figures from 2005 show there were 1.9 million single parents and 3.1 million dependent children in total. One in nine of the single parents is a father. Research suggests there are about 210,000 single fathers in the UK, with about 280,000 dependent children living with them.
In an age when divorce and separation could happen to anyone I became intrigued by the representations I saw in newspapers, on television, and adverting billboards. If you are a father, and have children, it is the great unknown: poorly reported, often mis-represented, and certainly pregnant with mis-conceptions and preconceived notions that go hand in hand with this unseen and hidden trauma. On marriage or relationship breakdown (whoever may be deemed at fault) normally loving fathers are forced to have a semi-detached relationship with their children. In the United Kingdom the state decrees that the default situation can only be one ‘resident’ ‘parent with care’ (PWC) and the other (almost always the father) the ‘non-resident’ parent, is left to scrabble for what ‘contact’ he can manage or is allowed. He becomes de-facto not present. Absent fathers and their (apparent) failure to pay ‘maintenance’, turn up for ‘access’ visits and answer to the whims of the state are not seen as real people with the needs, failings and frailties that this implies. No! We should be grateful to have our relationship with our children reduced to the language of the prison visit:
CUSTODY. VISITATION. NON-RESIDENT PARENT. CONTACT CENTRE. BED-SIT GHETTO, WALKING WALLET. IN THE BEST INTERESTS OF THE CHILD!
I became fascinated with the ways in which photographs have been used to affect public opinion, to either reaffirm or challenge the dominant ideas of the day. Meaning is a constant negotiation between the viewer and the image; between the subject and that which it represents. It was against this backdrop that I began to research the growing phenomena of mass fatherless-ness, in order to more authentically represent these men who, like myself, had become sick of being labeled as feckless and absent. I would visit these people in their homes and ask them to re-enact the scenario. Sometimes I would ask to borrow a family photograph, a newspaper clipping or a letter. Perhaps they could take me to the place which could provide ‘evidence’ of where they realized that the family law ‘industry’ was biased against them. Here are but a few of the men I have photographed:
Glen Poole is pictured ‘house sitting’ for his ex-wife in Islington London. Glen has legal Shared Residency which confers rights on the father which are automatically bestowed on the mother simply by virtue of gender. Glen has spoken from personal experience of how the law in nearly all circumstances granted primary control over children following divorce or separation to the mother, leading to imbalances which these fathers claim are not in the children’s interests - the main thesis being that children benefit from the love and care of their natural father in addition to that of their mother.
Johnathan 'Jolly' Stanesby, at home in Ivybridge, Devon. Jolly dressed as a woman for his residency hearing hoping that would being him equal treatment. On 21 October 2003 scaled the Royal Courts of Justice, with campaigner Eddie "Goldtooth" Gorecki and handcuffed himself to children’s minister Margaret Hodge in 2004. On 8 June 2008, after a protest on the roof of Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman's house wearing a superhero-style costume he was jailed for two months. Eventually after an eight-year campaign he was granted equal access to his daughter. “
Ron Davies, a father from Worthing sits in his windowless bed-sit looking at a picture of himself on the front page of the Daily Mail describing him as a terrorist for allegedly throwing condoms at former Prime Minister Tony Blair during question time in the House of Commons. Later his accomplice Gay Harrison admitted the actual act. Ron had spoken to the Prime Minister in a radio interview several weeks before in which the Prime Minister had promised to look at 'shared parenting' ensuring that children retained meaningful contact with their fathers. However in a recent letter to Mr Davies the Prime Minister reneged on his promise. Ron hasn't seen his two children in 10 years despite court orders granting him contact.
THE CONTEXT of this work is to place portraiture as a foil against the workings of the mainstream media. I have made choices deliberately contrary to journalistic images: square format portraits, vernacular and family photographs, passport pictures. Considered portrayals juxtaposed with reportage pictures taken off the cuff. In this way, the audience might recognize themselves as the potential subject of the pictures. The way our ‘view’ of these fathers is often built around assumptions, mediated by prejudice and vested interest. I picture these men, not as an outsider looking in but as a collaborator; holding up a mirror to a new civil community of men organized on the basis of social justice.
I hope that in these photographs we might see a reflection of a new agenda for the 21st century, against a machine, which recognizes no private sphere of life. THESE TESTIMONIES are investigated by portraying the private spaces of the subjects. Behind the public face there is also private grief. These portraits are, therefore, contrary to received perception: domestic images shaped by the subject’s memories. Asserting the priority of these recollections, which have been subjugated through denial of the object of that memory - their child. Loss and absence reveal themselves most evocatively through the material things we accumulate which provide clues to our personal tragedies: a family photo album, a creased, blunt-edged portrait, a faded drawing on a wall, a card from a loved one, a nondescript yet significant object, newspaper clippings and letters pages. These portraits, like that of the father who cannot send pictures to his loved one, hold ‘remaindered’ belongings and artefacts. Evidence of injustices carried as keepsakes for our children.