8th February 2014
As Chairman of OCASA, John Umney made a great arrangement with Fiona to come along and talk about her life as an artistic photographer. I say her life because her daughter has formed a large part in her portfolio and her husband is also a professional photographer, so I see her living the life of a photographer rather than as an adjunct to her other life as a family person.
Rather than reiterate the chronological sequence of her progress to where she is now, although very interesting, I’d rather write about her philosophy, as I interpret it, and what seems to make her work so accessible. Fiona was very sharing with her ideas and experience on the day she came and spent nearly three hours showing various parts of her work, discussing her outlook and philosophy, and providing a very uplifting and strongly motivating experience.
She herself says that her genre is difficult for the pundits to pigeon-hole, and I think she’s proud of that fact. Her explanation is that she initially considered herself a Social Documentarian, but found that this was better modified to Concerned Documentarian. The initial impetus for her taking up photography was as a sixth-form teenager who started a group with her school for Amnesty International. This group was selected by a television company to highlight the sort of groups being formed within schools and during a break in the day the company took them to see an exhibition by Don McCullin, which according to Fiona bowled her over as she hadn’t realised that photography could produce such moving images and tell such a strong story. Fiona has developed a way of projecting what the subject look likes where she recognises two perspectives of seeing them; the ‘normal’ view and ‘the other’, which tries to expose the hidden, the unseen, the subjects true self.
Her career has taken her to Israel where she lived for several years before returning to London due to her political feelings(?), but returned to make a series on Israeli and Palestinian men, ‘Beyond The Wall’, which depict the way that both sides see each other without really seeing them as they perhaps truly are, denying the others feelings, hopes and wishes, and as a result are afraid of each other and thus justify the violence and inhumanity they inflict on either side.
The mainstay of her work though is with the families and sufferers of Downs Syndrome. Having her own feelings and prejudices awakened to confront when her first daughter Ophia was born, Fiona has worked to try to break down the ostracism that generally follow these people throughout their lives, and frequently still has to work on conquering her own prejudices. Four bodies of work have flowed from this subject, ‘Safe Haven’, ‘Becoming’, ‘Shifting Perspective’ and ‘Up Close’. Starting with ‘Up Close’ this work has been an ongoing project Fiona has created in collaboration with her daughter Ophia. Fiona readily admits to having felt guilty about the large number of images she made in the early years of Ophia’s life, although many less than modern parents do with the advent of ‘phone cameras and social networks. The number of images has dropped dramatically in recent years as Ophia has become a teenager, with all the attendant issues of appearance , likes and dislikes associated with anyone that age. Fiona has shown that children who suffer from Downs Syndrome can, and do, lead very successful and inclusive lives, enjoying everything that a similar non-Downs Syndrome child would. Two other series follow-up ‘Up Close’ where Fiona has shown the progression of a group of Downs Syndrome children into teenage years and another group forming relationships and getting older. The final series ‘Safe Haven’ is the most heart-warming and shows fantastic bravery of mothers-to-be who are aware they’re going to be mothers of Downs Syndrome children and have continued the pregnancy to conclusion never-the-less. All these series are ongoing and have already taken many years to bring to the level they are now.
‘The Cabinet’ and ‘To Cut A Long Story Short’ are both personal expressions from Fiona of her darker person and of items that resonate with internal significance for her. Both these series fully exemplify what her philosophy is about. Questioning her about how she goes about her work it became clear that a title for the series comes first and the images that populate them come not from a pre-conceived idea of what she sees fulfilling the brief, but are a distillation of working around images that she sees as possibly being there in a subject and brings out as she progresses them to a conclusion. So a final image isn’t one that is initially seen within the view, but one that comes as she works with the material and looks for different views, perspectives, angles and poses. As such she says she finds it extremely difficult to work on commercial briefs where the client lays down what results are required and not for the look she brings to an image that has to come from within herself.
I found this approach and philosophy resonating to a certain extent within myself as I find it very difficult to work to a fixed brief when I can see a different outcome that expresses my view better, although I do feel that there isn’t a full synergy even with her approach but it gives me hope that my style, voice, approach, philosophy isn’t perhaps so wrong after all, even though it doesn’t fit with perhaps what’s expected for a degree course.