Quiet Songs of Memory
Gareth Phillips speaks to Tanvi Dhulia about his soulful imagery that is driven by instinct and held together by elegant narrations.
For Gareth Phillips, concluding a body of work sometimes means coming to grips with it. “We often—at least, I know I do—hold on to the end longer than we should,” he said at the launch of the first edition of Allegories of Adulation and Woolgathering in Mumbai last year, alongside Anurag Banerjee’s I’m Not Here. “What feels like a natural progression is when it’s made physical in the form of a book. And in no way does it mean that it can’t change or take on another form afterwards.”
What was curious about this event was that the photographers were showcasing “dummies” of their books, which were bound and pasted by hand. At the end of the evening, they simply gave the copies to those who had attended. The decision to give away their work, both of which are deeply personal in nature, was taken quite spontaneously. It was liberating, they said.
The most challenging aspect for Phillips was facing the pictures that would come together to form Allegories…, a delicate recollection of experiences he had over a span of six months. “There were three different experiences, and each involved a sense of love, loss, and solitude,” he elaborated. “They were all shot in between with no linear idea as such. They were just reactions to my environment at the time… There was no idea for a book, there was no compulsion to create.”
For him, the decision to work on the book was a way of being able to understand that chapter of his life. “In a way, the photographs found me when I was working on an incredibly challenging subject matter to do with my parents.” Due to the nature of it, the project about his family took a toll on him and he felt the need to take a step back. “I often have five pieces of work on the go at any point, so that whenever a project has somehow stalled or needs time, I can go to the next one.” Because one thing he doesn’t like at all, is to not have something to work on. “It’s just part of who I am.”
So, when in 2019 he found himself in Bombay, looking for a body of work to immerse himself in, he realised that the only photographs he could retreat to were the ones he’d been avoiding. In hindsight, even though it felt like the project forced itself upon him, he’s glad he was able to face it. “It’s a stepping stone to the creation of other work.”
Constructing a Narrative
While he doesn’t always envision a project in the form of a book at its conception, the process of making a book dummy is what allows him to understand the work that’s being created. “The actual task itself is relatively simple. It’s about finding a good Xerox machine and glue.”
What was different about working alongside Anurag Banerjee, however, was that they would be editing each other’s projects, which, for Phillips, meant complete surrender of his work. When asked whether he’s protective of his photographs, he says no. “If you’re collaborating with someone, you have to use the enormity of their creativity.”
“I make images based on instinct with little consideration to tools or technicalities. I spend most of my creative time actively seeking what one would otherwise think of as mistakes.”
“A thing I like about the book-making process is that once you start sharing the construction, you’re able to learn so much.” Knowing this, one might expect him to be fond of collecting, or even looking at a lot of photo books. However, his bias for the book form extends only to creating them. He admits, that if anything, he spends most of his time not looking at them at all. Instead, he devotes a great deal of energy looking at sculptures, artwork and the shape of the landscape. “I spend pretty much everyday in the outdoors, because that has the greatest influence on how I make photo books.”
Although he has only actively been making photo book dummies for the last five years, his experiments with the medium began nearly 12 years ago. Instead of limiting the way people might interact with his work, this practice of his has helped to expand the ways in which his photographs are showcased. The design of his most recent solo exhibition of NH5–An odyssey in fragility, beauty & danger at Cardiff, U.K., was based off a book dummy made two years prior. It incorporated a lot of cut outs and sequences that didn’t work very well as a book, but it allowed him to adapt it for a larger physical space. “I couldn’t think of shaping my work any other way now.”
A Distinct Voice
It was an injury that set Phillips on the path of becoming a photographer. “I was about 18, surfing and skating with friends in the South of France when it happened. Later, someone handed me a camera and suggested that I photograph everyone else.” He quickly discovered that he found the process enjoyable, and soon enough it took over his life.
He studied Documentary Photography at the University of Wales, Newport, where in his third year of graduate school, he spent several months making pictures of a terminal illness hospice. Halfway through the project, he discovered that the imagery that was becoming most significant in the narration of the story wasn’t descriptive at all. “It was the moments captured in between. What began to interest me was imagery that had ambiguity, the kind that allowed viewers to complete the picture.” Over the years, he has become less literal in his work. “Now, I spend most of my creative time actively seeking what one would perceive to be mistakes.”
“I care a lot about the work I make and aspire to make. But I care less about how society perceives, or what they expect. I don’t find myself influenced by that.”
Phillips’ work is often marked with a pronounced sense of vulnerability. In Watching Half of Me Disappear, he collaborated with his friend Hannah to make a photo series based on a short story she had written about the fear of losing her late identical twin, a few years before she passed away suddenly. “Although the circumstances surrounding Lucy’s death were vastly different from what Hannah had written, I was inspired by her bravery and openness to even dare imagine and write about what it might be like to lose her ‘other half’.”
Some of these pictures were made underwater, as he felt it would lend an ethereal atmosphere to the narrative of “memory, departure and continuation.” Made in darkness, it proved to be a challenging task without assistance, as he carefully balanced two iPhones in order to create a pocket of light in a vast body of water. In a way, these limitations became advantages. The resulting pictures that depict Hannah’s movements give the impression of a haunting and inescapable grief.
Close to Home
For Phillips, every project is intensely personal. “Making work like Watching Half of Me Disappear and Allegories of Adulation and Woolgathering is less about using one’s eyes, and more about seeing with one’s heart. I find that once I am immersed in such endeavours, I don’t question what I should photograph or how. It’s like a native language, you just speak. You don’t think about the words.”
The deftness with which he portrays human fragility is evident in works like Ligatures of Ivy, an ongoing series about the relationship between his parents. He began photographing them in 2009 when Phillips was struggling to create work that struck a chord with him. As he was embarking on the project, his father fell ill and suffered a breakdown. The impact of this is felt through the entire narrative of his photo essay. “There were times I couldn’t see this work because of the emotion attached to it.”
Over a three-year collaboration with photographer and book designer, Asmita Parelkar, they pieced together a story consisting of portraits and landscapes, interwoven with a poem written by Phillips. The partnership with Parelkar was an integral part of him being able to realise this body of work. “Without her dedication and influence, there would be no Ligatures of Ivy. She shaped a way for me to see this work for the first time”. The project is soon to be exhibited in the U.K. this year, and he intends to continue developing it for the foreseeable future.
“I think photography has allowed me to face the biggest fears in my life.” He might not consider himself to be a confrontational person, emphasising that he is perhaps the “quietest of photographers,” he has employed the medium to embrace difficult truths.
Distracted by an internal war
that had raged for decades.
It’s destructive vortex
enveloping both in an
odyssey of emotional oppression.
Fear was his adversary.
His dark isolated battles
bloomed flowers of frustration
she could not pollinate,
for his blossom
was always camouflaged
by the luminosity
of his foe.
– An excerpt from a poem by Gareth Phillips
In a 2014 interview for Photomonitor, Anna McNay observed, “He always tries to push himself beyond his physical and mental limits.” Phillips said to her, “Once pushed to these places, I tend to shoot a little differently. The experience, my eye and my heart seem to work more closely together.”
When he spoke about the task of actually completing Allegories of Adulation and Woolgathering and editing I’m Not Here by Anurag Banerjee, he said, “It’s about writing off work when you’ve held on to it so preciously, and when you’re trying to find a resolution, and let go of it, because you’ve worked on it for so long and there needs to come that point where it is finished. I think that’s important for work.”
But what he also recognises is the vital need to occasionally distance oneself from work, especially when it’s of such a personal nature, and to understand that it will continue to grow over time. Not so that they remain unfinished, but so that they may have new incarnations.
Gareth Phillips is an award-winning photographer of long-form documentary work, based in the U.K. When not actively making pictures, he can be found walking the mountains or the coast. He is represented by Le Space Gallery. You can find more of his work on www.garethphillipsphotography.com and @garethphillips_ on Instagram.
This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of Better Photography.