Paul Roberts

University: University of Gloucestershire

Graduation: 2017

Genre: Memory

Websitewww.paulrobertsfoto.com

Artist Statement: Inspired by the death of my mother just 7 weeks after being diagnosed with cancer and the subsequent clearance of the family home, the work explores a literal definition of 'life after death'; and exposes life, or death, for what it should represent, according to various religions; namely rebirth and the hope that this might offer the bereaved at a time of grief.

The work takes the form of cultures of micro-organisms left behind on objects given to charity shops by the families of the deceased, and examines the possibility that these objects may hold organisms that are the last surviving remnants of a deceased loved one, transcending death.

From the series Reliquary

From the series Reliquary

Where did you attend university and what year did you graduate? I attended the University of Gloucestershire, completing a BA (Hons) in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography in 2010 and the a MA in Photography in January 2017 at the same university.

What are some standout moments from your time at university? Talking just about my MA I think the biggest highlight for me personally was the passionate nature of the lecturers that we were lucky enough to have, really drove me on to produce my strongest work, along with some of the visiting lecturers we had on the course, meeting and working with the likes of Richard Billingham (Ray’s A Laugh) really did inspire us all. Another highlight would be showing at Hastings Photofestival in 2016 which really opened my eyes to putting my work out there and getting it seen by an audience.

From the series Reliquary

From the series Reliquary

Which photographic genre do you consider your work to fall into? This is a difficult thing to quantify, after completing my undergraduate degree in 2010 I actually ended up in sports photography and now work for a number of agencies supplying images of sport for the national press. However my discipline, so to speak, has always been in documentary photography. More specifically, my work tends to deal in memory and reflection, which can, to some seem quite dark, but I don’t necessarily agree with that sentiment. I believe we can look back at the past, at our own and others lives, and draw a surprising amount of light.

What themes do you find yourself exploring? This is where I now contradict myself a little. Inevitably in dealing with memory and reflection, you end up dealing with subjects of death and mortality. I find the subject and the connotation fascinating, of course its not always a direct relationship with death, sometimes the subject can be very withdrawn from that, almost detached.

From the series Reliquary

From the series Reliquary

How did you decide to make this series of work? With Reliquary, I was harbouring a lot of repressed grief, following firstly the death of my Father in 2011 after a long illness, and then the rather shocking passing of my Mother just a year later in 2012, just 7 weeks after being diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer, then subsequently dealing with her burial and the clearance of the family home, where I grew up. I became aware very quickly that as a family we were throwing away, or ,more often, donating to charity shops, objects that to us as a family meant nothing at all, but I understood, that to my mother and father, these objects were priceless and hold some kind of memory. I was keen to document these objects that meant so much to, not only my parents, but to other deceased persons also, initially in a auction catalogue style, but later by swabbing the objects and culturing any microbes that may remain on the object, developing the project to examine, quite literally, the possibility of life transcending death.

From the series Reliquary

From the series Reliquary

Would you say the series has helped your healing process? Not immediately, it took some considerable time. Following my parents passing I was in a bit of a mess, my siblings didn't know it, even I didn’t know it because I had pushed my emotions so deep, but I wasn’t in the best shape mentally. The only person who could see it in fact was my wife. I don’t mind talking about the issues as Im now well again, but it was a dark time for me personally. What the series did give me was that I found the making of it enormously cathartic. I had been running at full steam for so long with so much on my mind that the series quietened my thoughts throughout the process. It was only later in the series that I did feel it was helping my healing process, seeing these amazing cultures growing in their petri dishes gave some kind of recognition that death is nothing but a full stop, the person goes on in some way.

When clearing out your family home, how did you decide which objects would be part of Reliquary? By the time I had decided to photograph these objects, it was rather too late to gather a large number of objects from my Parents home, I think I managed to collect 10 or 15 objects, ranging from a glass book knife to a silver fish knife with a bone handle, but for one reason or another, they didn’t really work with the series, what I was looking for was objects, not necessarily with emotional connections but almost insignificant objects that the owner may only touch once or twice a day. This meant that the only object from my parents house that made the edit was an old King George the 6th coronation mug that my father had received as a child. To expand the series I went looking at local second hand shops looking exclusively for small objects donated only from house clearances.

Suddenly it wasn’t simply about my own personal loss, but the loss of everyone that loses a loved one, and that desperate search for hope that they are still here in some small way.

From the series Reliquary

From the series Reliquary

Name some photographers who inspired this work. Because of the abstract nature of the work this is something not necessarily easy to pin down, but I did take great inspiration from Hiroshi Sugimoto’s, in particular his work with Lightning Fields, which really fed into the microbial elements of this particular series of work, I also drew inspiration from the 1977 film, Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames.

How are you hoping to complete Reliquary? The series has now moved away slightly from the personal objects in its first incarnation and has moved toward another element in order to tie the series together. I have been collecting letters, or more critically envelopes sent home from soldiers serving in Europe during the latter stages of WWII, these letters were in most part opened by letter opener and so the gum and sealed part of the envelope has not been opened since it was licked and sealed by the individual soldier over 70 years ago. I intend to again culture any microbes that remain on the letters and publish these images in a book, along with extracts of the letters.

From the series Reliquary

From the series Reliquary

Have you got any advice for graduates making work of a similar, very personal style? Very simply, allow the work to dictate to you its own direction a little, if its not working, don’t just put the work away, let it speak, let it show you why it isn’t working. Work of a very personal nature isn’t always the easiest thing for a viewer, (who may be seeing it without any context), to understand. When I say, ‘let the work speak’, it needs to affect both you and the viewer, make sure your emotional connection to the work comes through.

Reliquary installation at The Observer Building during Hastings Photofestival 2016

Reliquary installation at The Observer Building during Hastings Photofestival 2016

Your work has been selected for a number of awards and exhibitions. Would you say this has benefited your career? In terms of how exhibitions have benefited my career, I’d say in the main, the overriding benefit has been the exposure it has given me as a working professional that may not of come with out them. I really do believe that this exposure is critical.

What are your future plans as a creative? I am just starting work on a long term documentary project base in and around South Wales which explores mans relationship with the landscape and the scars both physical and imagined are shaping communities of Wales.