Artistic expression; or how I visualised a very personal experience.

ED: Christina Neill-Griffin is a photographer who explores the relationship between memory and photography. We were drawn in by her subtle use of colour and composition and just had to find out more…

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Written by Christina Neill-Griffin

My passion for photography began when I was recovering from complex illnesses, which for more than ten years left me with very little functioning memory. One day, being driven to an appointment, I stared out the window, watching the spring leaves against a blue sky, as if it were the first time I had ever seen such beauty; I knew I wanted to capture it, and share it.

At times I struggled with simple things, in particular, language, imagery was naturally important. My family showed me photo albums, and told me stories during my recovery, I was lucky enough to regain much which had seemed lost. The experience was one thing, but how to begin to make art about it?

Everyone understands the world around them through experience, but it is memory that teaches us. As adults the closest we come to that feeling, is in travelling to a different country, and not knowing the word for something. Describing something by it’s purpose is a very long-winded way of communicating, we really take for granted, that we can use the name of something to convey all the information we need about an object to another person. The alternative to language which is generally global, is the visual language.

For me photography is the perfect medium with which to explore memory, having a strong history of documenting ‘the everyday’ as photographic art, and traditionally acting as a ‘witness’ being a tool for the Police, legal profession and media. The recent advances in digital photographic manipulation has meant that it’s position of truth has been called into question, society as a whole is now distrustful of it’s authenticity, skeptical of the reality contained in the photograph. This questioning is central to my approach; expressing the surreal reality of everyday life.

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Losing all conceivable knowledge means that misunderstandings are inevitable, but the intense or humorous ones stayed with me. Confining the images to a domestic nature, partly because my clearest memories were recovering at home, also there is a clarity which comes from these ubiquitous items. I chose to express those moments, by recreating them with an increased discomfort, where reality is significant and yet somehow subverted. My aim was to express the relationship of objects and thoughts; to show that reality isn’t always what it seems, reminiscent of Freud’s theories of the subconscious.

There were plenty of struggles; sweat, tears and 7 inches of hair went into create the images. I never realised it would take nine weeks to source second hand Lego, or that I’d look at 15 eggcups to decide which had the best shape for the image. All these little considerations went into every image, even those I discarded early on as not fitting into the series. I chose to work on a large format film camera, I needed the images to be real, for when they are called into question as being untruthful. It was quickly obvious that the images that worked most successfully were those that elicited a physical response from the viewer.

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However, I had two variations of the story that I wanted to express, the first Morpheus, I have explored. The other is the whirlwind nature of life when you don’t have a sense of who you are, or what is happening. Deimos, is more process driven, I love the range photography gives us – Deimos is not visible through any other medium, the techniques of layering images and slow exposures are unique and unpredictable. I used that to capture the ephemeral feeling of the fear and confusion, of not knowing or understanding the world around me. The distortion of reality, the whirlwind of time and it’s occasional abruptness, which I experienced; whilst maintaining an edge of the softness, beauty and excitement with which children see the world, because they are still innocent and open-minded. I tried to produce contrasting elements of eeriness, serenity and otherworldliness.

The planet Mars has two moons, Phobos and Deimos,  which were named after the sons of the Greek god Mars, the god of war, during my illness my mind was at war with my body.  Phobos was the god of a fear of war, hence phobia, and Deimos was the god of flight and terror, which connected with my interpretation of the rush and confusion of it all.

The chose to use the name Deimos for two reasons, firstly my consideration that my experience is as close to an out-of-this-world feeling, in the sense that I could not understand the world around me, and secondly, even as a child I was passionate about the stars.

I always envisaged Deimos as a book, as the text was very important to me. Before I became ill and lost my memory, I loved language and poetry, the ability to play with words and create something beautiful, however speech became an ever frustrating battle for understanding. I needed to express my autobiographical experience, with enough detachment that I was not overtly melodramatic. I felt poetry was the perfect text for Deimos as it explained in a non linear, descriptive way, allowing room for personal interpretation, poetry is more abstract than a chapter of non-fiction, which reflects the soft abstract nature of the images, and contrasts with the intensity of my personal experience.

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It was actually a scanning accident that influenced the final look for some of the images, but I really loved the way that reflected this idea of an old movie film skipping so that you saw two parts of a picture at the same time. Deimos expresses the disconcerting nature of my condition, trying to explore the speed and confusion of life.

Whilst the projects explore my own experiences, I understand that other brain injuries, and medical conditions can cause similar reactions and frustrations, and that advances in medicine are discovering one of the last unknown depths, the human brain. I have been lucky to witness many people’s reactions to both projects, and I love how many different stories and interpretations people can relate to the projects. I continue to expand the theme of Morpheus, and am creating more images over time to include in the project, but ultimately I am thrilled with the the results of two different interpretations of such a personal experience.

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