“I started to photograph around the time of the death of my father,” says Sian Davey. “Many things were happening at that time, including losing a baby. I knew I had to process my world and what was going on through photography – I felt the need to create something, to make a sense of it.”
When I speak with Davey she’s on assignment in Kolkata, but she’s charming and composed. A psychotherapist for 15 years, she switched careers to photography in 2014 and has made a success of it – she’s now represented by Michael Hoppen Gallery, for example, and her book Looking for Alice, published by Trolley Books, was nominated for the Aperture Best Book Award at Paris Photo 2016, and the Kraszna-Krausz Foundation Book Awards 2017.
But, she says, when she made the move into image-making, it felt instinctive more than anything else. “When I picked up the camera I said to myself, this is what I am now and what I want to do,” she says. “I knew that I was no longer a psychotherapist, suddenly I ended my practice because I knew that I couldn’t commit to two practices.
“When I ask myself how I made this transition, I have no idea,” she continues. “I guess it just happened from one day to the next. But I am very fortunate because I love what I do, and when I took this decision my family got on board.”
Davey’s work is also intimate and personal – Looking for Alice, for example, is a tender look at her daughter, who has Down’s Syndrome. Told early on that the baby she was carrying would probably have Down’s, Davey discovered that 92% of Down’s Syndrome babies are terminated at the prenatal screening stage in the UK. As she writes in the moving introduction to the book, “Alice entered in a world where routine and genetic screenings at 12th-week gestation are oriented towards birth prevention instead than birth preparation.”
“Alice was born with Down’s Syndrome but is no different to any other girl or indeed a human being,” she adds. “She feels what we all feel. She needs what you and I need.”
I ask why she wanted to show her daughter in this context, and she talks of the “political, social” narratives at work in the West around Down’s Syndrome, as well as the intimacy of her images and the way in which they could help her communicate a different story. “Could you imagine Alice understanding how her condition is perceived by the rest of the world’? she says. “I found that photography enabled me to process that and communicate this struggle.”
“I have no doubt that Alice and I worked together, that she was guiding the material found in this series and that we were working intuitively together,” she continues. “Here I am referencing the unspoken relationship, the spirit connection we have with one another. I can see and feel her input in the images. I know she was fully there with me and I felt her presence throughout the making of the series. It’s important to remember that Alice has a voice and has come into this world with a history of trauma.”While Davey was working on Looking for Alice, she found her step-daughter, Martha, was always willing to be involved: eventually she realised Martha also wanted to be photographed and, as she neared the end of Alice, she started a new series on the older girl. Shooting Martha at age 16, as her childhood came to an end, this series was also a collaboration – and will also by published by Trolley next year.
”Whilst there was a more formed collaboration in the work with Martha, for example in the way we negotiated boundaries and made practical arrangements throughout the project, it certainly wasn’t only that which was passing between us,” she explains.
“There was this kind of natural anxiety about how her friends would respond me to taking part in their party till 5 o’clock in the morning,” she continues. “Like any relationship we had to check out what was ok or not, there were incremental steps until I became fully accepted into her group. Gradually my presence wasn’t an issue anymore, I was regarded as non-threatening.”
For me, Davey’s work is reminiscent of Sally Mann’s – with all the potential pitfalls Mann found of exposing young children and adults to the gaze of strangers. Davey is well aware of the territory, but says she has “very few concerns about sharing this work with others”.
“I would never hurt my children or put them in a vulnerable situation – that is always on my mind,” she explains. “This work is held within an authentic, integrity-conscious context. And while I have no control over what the viewer projects upon this these images, that cannot get in the way of making them.”