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Illness, health, and the place in between

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Due to ongoing illness, Robert Darch spent a majority of his twenties at home, surrounded and isolated by rural landscapes. In his new photobook Vale, the photographer reflects upon this time

Over the last year, illness has found a space in all of our lives. Through the Covid-19 pandemic, we have built new understandings and relationships with our bodies and surroundings. For some, this kind of life is not new at all. Illness can be thought of as a condition, a moment situated in time – something to get over, pass, and remit. For others, illness can be felt as space; a location that cannot be left, the place in which one lives, and the world they see around them.

In his second year at university, Robert Darch had a seizure. “I later found out that it was a minor stroke,”  he explains. “I then had a diagnosis of glandular fever, a couple of months later – I was unwell.”. Attending university in person became impossible, and Darch completed his degree from home. With the additional diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Darch lived independently for four years, but eventually, this too became impossible.

From the series Vale, 2020, © Robert Darch.

“It was too much. My parents had retired to Devon, so I made the decision to move in with them,” he explains. Darch began to feel better over these two years, eventually moving to Exeter to work as a volunteer, and return to photography. ‘‘I went back to university, and started what had stopped almost 10 years before.”

“I daydreamed a lot as a kid, I still do as an adult, and definitely in those years when I was isolated, I was inside, I was in my mind all the time.”

Vale is the latest photobook by the artist, which he has self-published. Images of  old trees, verdant valleys and hot summer hazes denote an archetypal British countryside and typify the narrative. Alongside this, disconcerting elements peek from behind; something can be felt amongst the trees. The beauty of nature faces a ghostlike, fractured, and melancholic stillness. There is more at play under the surface of this pastoral landscape.

From the series Vale, 2020, © Robert Darch.
From the series Vale, 2020, © Robert Darch.

The work draws from the lived experiences of ill-health. Darch found comfort in fictional worlds, domestic interiors, and the natural landscapes around him. Vale is a compilation of these multiple worlds, allowing the realities, dreams, fictions and memories to blend together in a space of escapism and meditation. Vale cannot be found on a map. It is not a topographical reality, but a semi-fictional one Darch has lived in for the last decade. “It’s hyperreal and dreamlike,” Darch says. “I daydreamed a lot as a kid, I still do as an adult, and definitely in those years when I was isolated, I was inside, I was in my mind all the time.”

The work is personal, confessional, and therapeutic. Darch utilises references from multiple sources, including childhood literature such as the work of Enid Blyton, as well as horror films by Dario Argento and Tobe Hooper. Portraits of friends and family sit uneasily, avoiding the viewer’s gaze and blurring into the dream. Working on Vale allowed  Darch to reimagine his youth, rewrite the years and reflect a life both lived and stolen. In this way Darch is able to process his past, forming a new world out of the old.

From the series Vale, 2020, © Robert Darch.
From the series Vale, 2020, © Robert Darch.

“My work is an expression of myself,” Darch explains. In Vale, illness is not just a condition, but a place. It can be visited, discovered, lost, and found. Darch is at peace with the years spent inside, in full communication with the beauty and stillness of his country home. When we imagine illness and health as spaces, it allows for a middle ground, a limbo in between. This is where Vale is placed  through the postcards sent to and from the world Darch found himself in.

From the series Vale, 2020, © Robert Darch.
Isaac Huxtable

Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.

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