Sian Davey has more reason than most to be tired. Her latest photoseries, Together, which is about to launch as part of a popup exhibition, We Are Family, at the National Portrait Gallery, has seen the photographer shoot 35 families across the UK in the space of just 21 days.
From the south of England to islands of the Outer Hebrides, the series considers the meaning of the word family, showing the diversity of the modern family unit. Contextualised by dinnertimes, Davey’s series shows how sharing meals creates occasions for support and togetherness, wherever they appear.
“There’s no longer a traditional family, for many reasons. ‘Family’ has changed meaning. It’s been disrupted by what’s going on in the labour market, new technology, people doing split shifts, and not eating together,” explains Davey as she reflects on the new series.
Even so Davey, who is renown for her photographs of her own family, tried to find a unifying thread as she worked. “Actually, what I experienced and witnessed in most families was a really strong sense of well-being and love towards each other, because it’s tough out there,” she says.
Unconventional families are part of Davey’s make-up. She left her own family when she was still a teenager and is a mother to four children between the ages of six and 30. Her youngest child, Alice, the inspiration for her series Looking for Alice, has Down’s Syndrome. Consequently, she has found that her process of photographing families helps her to “metabolise life”. Ultimately, Davey wanted to create a project that celebrates family life in its unpredictable complexity.
Together brings the private and often intimate experience of sharing a family meal into the public sphere: this is usually a time reserved for conversations and relationships away from prying eyes. Training and working as a psychotherapist before turning her hand to photography, says she is used to navigating family lives, and spent three to four hours in each home.
“I’m very fearless when I’m in there. Nothing really phases me. There was no one to be nervous or anxious about. That was my attitude when I went in. It only occurred to me half way through the project. I thought ‘Oh my god, I never know anyone who I’m working with and I throw myself in the middle of it all and by the time I left I was a member of their family.’”
The series captures a wide variety of family mealtimes, some in which the traditional dining table still features but others in which eschewed in favour of other environments. One family with a young baby tends to eat in the bedroom, as it’s easier to hold the newborn and eat that way; another has meals on the grass in front of the family caravan every evening; a third family sits on the floor of their living room, as is part of their cultural heritage.
The photographs feature teenage families, asylum seekers, single mothers and fathers and multicultural families, each accompanied by a small interview extract from writer and producer, Tom Seymour, who toured the country with Davey.
“I didn’t want people to position themselves around ideas of good or bad, or ethnicity, or gender. I just wanted people to get a sense of the whole,” adds Davey, who wanted the project to feel as inclusive as possible.
Still adjusting to the latest change in her family life, Davey explains how it was her own daughter Alice who sparked this exploration as she learnt to cope with the separation of her mother and father. “When my partner and I separated last year, [Alice] would just name each one of us and embrace us and incant the word ‘together’.
“That kind of got me thinking about how that feels. As a psychotherapist, the key issue that drives people into therapy is loneliness and separation. So what she articulated very coherently is that when we’re together, we’re at peace.”
The photographer now hopes to explore more family relationships across different cultures, as she travels to display her exhibitions. At the end of the year, she will be in Budapest and aims to shoot more family meals in the Hungarian capital.
“In that moment [of photographing] you’re creating a microcosm for their histories that have come together. That tells you everything you need to know about who they are and how they relate to each other. We’re seeing a psychological moment, these moments of psychological dynamics being negotiated in each family.”
https://www.siandavey.com/ Together is on display at the National Portrait Gallery from 20 September-04 October, before starting an international tour. The series features as a pop-up exhibition as part of the McCain ‘We Are Family’ series which celebrates British families in all their shapes and sizes. For more information, head to the McCain Facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/