Our home was a static caravan, sat quietly in a field with walls entangled with ivy, on a small farm where my mother and father began to raise my sister and me. During this time my father struggled with a heroin addiction. However difficult it may have been for my mother and father, to my memory we had a charmed life growing up. As children, my father’s addiction was not discussed, and after he left, years passed with little contact. In 2016 I started meeting with my father regularly, offering support as he underwent a detox. When we were together we talked about nothing in particular.
Six years have now passed by and I still meet up with my father regularly, drinking coffee from the same two cups. After a long and difficult winter he is once again going through another detox programme, collecting methadone from the pharmacy up the street. It is hard to watch him grow older in this way, lighter in his pocket, looking for things to smoke. Living as if he insists upon fading away. When I dare to look at my own life in the same way, things are not so different. Two steps forward and one step back. Both my father and I have pebbles in our shoes.
Beginning to reconcile with his past in a way that is mischievous, yet sincere, my father uses the term ‘poppy promises’ to describe the empty promises that he reluctantly makes in order to score heroin. With a glimmer of humour in his eye, he relayed to me the story of a disagreement between himself and a dealer: ‘I know I said I’d pay, but that was just a poppy promise. I’d swap my grandma for some heroin if I needed it.’ He quickly reassured me that he wouldn’t trade in my great-grandma, but was using it to illustrate a point. He was proud of his lyricism, and so was I; his words stuck with me all afternoon. I thought about all the poppy promises made to my mother over the years my parents were together, as they began building a life with each other and raising children. It was these poppy promises that ultimately led them down different paths in life, and, while my sister and I were young, made it difficult for us to understand our father.
Now, as my father comes closer to retirement age, I have become an adult myself. Figuring out what it means to be a man in the north of England, I’ve questioned how many men have lost themselves through an inability to be vulnerable. How many of us would sooner turn to drink, drugs or destruction before admitting that we are scared and don’t know what to do about it. I asked my dad, ‘When you’re old enough to draw a pension, do you think you’ll spend your pension on a draw?’ He laughed a little, and rolled a spliff. He’s never offered me any drugs, but he has bought me a few pints in our time together.
When I first reached out to my father in 2016, I had expected to simply walk into his life and make a series of portraits that documented our relationship. I was unaware of how slow and challenging this project would be. I thought things would be easy, but instead they were hard. I wandered in circles, sometimes orbiting closer and other times retreating further away. Too nervous to open up to him about my ambitions for this project, and to ask to make his portrait, I spent four years listening to the stories he shared instead. Scared he would say no, and still unsure if the work was worthwhile, I thought that maybe it was foolish to try and give this experience a form to inhabit; as if it could live within pictures. How strange it is to leave home for university and to come back with a lens. To make a subject of the very same entity I am a part of, to be outside and within it.
I was frustrated at my inability to open up to my father, and would return to our old family home empty-handed, making still-life photographs instead. Blurring the lines between the staged and the observed, these images attempt to communicate the challenging emotional landscape that is present within families that experience addiction. The tensions that run beneath the surface, the highs, lows and occasional calamities. Moving back to the farm where I grew up, I began working with my mother who still lives there today. She was a single parent for many years, leaning on my grandparents from time to time. She found a job as a reprographics technician at our local school so she could finish at the same time we did. Keeping the house from falling apart and making sure she was around for us, she carried so much weight that my sister and I didn’t feel any upon our shoulders.
Unknowingly echoing patterns from the past, she was now once again standing in as a proxy for my father; participating in portraits between her formal employment and domestic chores. An ever-willing participant, present in his absence. At first, I thought of the photographs I made of her as expressions of gratitude, gifts to my mother. Naive, I failed to realise that she is the one gifting her presence to me; giving as though she hasn’t been generous enough already. When I look at the photographs now, I am reminded of how much I have yet to learn about love and sacrifice.
I’ve encountered my own flaws throughout the making of this work, and I’ve come to believe that we cannot outrun our human frailties. There is so much I want to say to my father, but I struggle to get the words out. Too many times I have tasted the truth on the tip of my tongue and swallowed it down with silence. I’ve tried to teach myself to walk this Earth like a man, but when I sit by his side I’m a boy again. Despite our shortcomings we still find time to see each other. Through the years I have gotten to know my father better. When I was younger, this was all I wanted, and I am happy that I’ve had the chance to know him. Over the past six years he has taught me more than I could have ever hoped.