How do you make a house a home? And can you ever really make it your own? For Jan McCullough, the process of homemaking follows a remarkably similar, even formulaic, pattern, often dictated by self- appointed experts online.
She found a cache of chatrooms offering suggestions on how to position everything from kettles to sofas to family snaps, and when she stumbled on a 1950s manual titled How To Make The Home You Want in a second-hand bookshop in Ireland, she realised that, across the generations, we’ve been told how to live. We think we’re individuals, but in fact we’re merely copying others.
“In complying with instructions for making the perfect home, I contemplated the construction of an identity from scratch.” In her series, Home Instruction Manual, McCullough tries on some of these different lives for size. She rented an ordinary, empty suburban house for two months, gathering her materials, and followed the interior design advice posted in an online forum.
“The house I rented slowly came together… but the moment it felt like it became ‘something other’ was when family photographs – a mixture of images I had found or constructed for the occasion – went up on the walls. In the hallway, as suggested, I placed four photographs up the stairs – two travel photos, an infant family photo, and one from my hometown: ‘not so many that it feels like your Facebook page, and not so few that it looks like you have no life.’
“At this stage it felt like someone might have turned the key and come through their front door to find me in their house,” she continues. “It was strange to suddenly experience this sensation of a singular personality, as it was all completely constructed – a mish-mash of the personalities in that one chatroom.”
Photographing the result, the Belfast School of Art graduate went on to make a book maquette, which has just won the Dummy Award at the Fotobookfestival Kassel. Home Instruction Manual is, as judge Erik Kessels observes, a study of “a home with a forced personality”. Her win means her series will be published by Kassel’s German production partner, K-Books, and the exhibition of all the shortlisted dummies will tour photo events and festivals in Gothenburg, Dublin, Madrid, Oslo, Paris and Rome.
“Jan was a very intelligent, driven student who knew her own mind, producing work out of deep, independent research and with a strong conceptual direction,” says Clare Gallagher, her lecturer at the Belfast School of Art. “Her research books were always fascinating to look at, with layers of images, thoughts and literature. I’m so pleased to see her develop her practice so confidently, and I’m over the moon that she’s won the prize at Kassel.”
“Photography has such a rich history as an instructive medium,” McCullough says. “We use photographs on a practical level to figure out how to do things, and as references for what things look like. Using photography in the age of the internet makes this function particularly interesting – we all edit our portrayed identity for different purposes, according to the information we present online.”
UPDATE: Home Instruction Manual is being exhibited at Peckham’s Seen Fifteen from 12 – 28 February 2016. Find out more here.
First published in the August 2015 issue of British Journal of Photography. Find out about our latest subscription offers and get the best of contemporary photography delivered to you every month.