Guy Bolongaro captures the chaotic delights of family playtime

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This article is printed in the latest issue of British Journal of Photography magazine, themed Home, delivered direct to you with an 1854 Subscription, or available to purchase on the BJP shop

Bolongaro collaborates with his wife and two children on his first book, Gravity Begins at Home

Traditionally, the nuclear family has been taken to consist of two married parents of opposite genders and their biological child or children. However, this structure has been challenged for decades – many consider it to be limiting and outdated. In the 1970s, for example, radical feminists argued that idealising the traditional family perpetuates patriarchal thought by enforcing sexist roles. “The shift from bigger and interconnected extended families to smaller and detached nuclear families ultimately led to a familial system that liberates the rich and ravages the working class and the poor,” David Brooks wrote in The Atlantic last year. And yet, it is still upheld.

Guy Bolongaro moved to London in 2014 to become a social worker. The job was exhausting, but outside of work he found respite in photography. For him too, the idea of family was complicated. “My social work really compounded my deep ambivalence about the family,” he says from his home in Hastings. “I don’t think [the family structure] works. The last century has shown that the family is in breakdown – it’s very brittle, unsafe really, it perpetuates inequalities and oppression and is a hothouse for neuroses and dysfunction.” 

Gravity Begins at Home © Guy Bolongaro.
Gravity Begins at Home © Guy Bolongaro.
Gravity Begins at Home © Guy Bolongaro.

“There are some humorously ambiguous images, a little bit of flatness in energy, or less happy undercurrents. But we removed some of the consciously negative images because those moments felt more private somehow.”

 

Just before the Covid-19 pandemic, Bolongaro started to photograph his wife Charlotte, daughter Rudy and son Ivor, and occasionally his mother-in-law. As he observed, he realised that the very family structure he was sceptical about was wonderful under his own roof. “I still have doubts about it, but the lockdown reinforced to me that my family can work. It was a process of thinking, aren‘t I lucky, of being grateful that we had the conditions for our unit to function,” he recalls. The images became an ongoing project; in them we see kids jumping on beds and shadow puppet silhouettes, forts, costumes, dance routines, loo-roll constructions, all emblazoned in bright colours and textures. It is the joyful chaos of daily play. However, conscious that his economic, social and class conditions have an important part to play, Bolongaro adds: “This is not something I take for granted.” 

The lockdown period intensified the home environment. Nevertheless, for Bolongaro it was more important to reflect the positive atmosphere in the household at the time. “There are some humorously ambiguous images, a little bit of flatness in energy, or less happy undercurrents,” he says. “But we removed some of the consciously negative images because those moments felt more private somehow.”

Gravity Begins at Home © Guy Bolongaro.
Gravity Begins at Home © Guy Bolongaro.
Gravity Begins at Home © Guy Bolongaro.

There are other reasons for this too. Practically, during difficult moments, Bolongaro had to “engage and participate” in the situation as a father. Also, he wanted to make sure that the children were comfortable with the images as well. “Rudy is of the generation that‘s grown up with Snapchat and TikTok, so she’s starting to get interested in the vagaries of [image-sharing]. We talked about it, and wanted to include things that represented this time, while being comfortable with it being seen publicly. Now that she’s older, she is rightly becoming protective of her privacy and body.”

The images are collated in an experimental book: Gravity Begins at Home. Designed by Ben Weaver and published by Here Press, the publication reflects the project’s unpredictable narrative with its grey cardboard slipcase covered in stickers, which houses four concertina fold-outs. The structure allows viewers to flip, expand, and fold the images. “The emotional dynamics and the dynamics of play are constantly moving,” Bolongaro says. “Finding a way to represent that through the edit felt totally necessary.” 

The title is from a song by the late poet and musician Ivor Cutler. His introductory words, printed on the back of the slipcase, aptly illustrate the images’ quirky complexity: “Firstly, I try to stress the importance of home and the family. I feel they are terribly important. And secondly, I try to stress the fact that the theory of gravity is a lot of nonsense.” 

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Gravity Begins at Home is published by Here Press and available now

Gravity Begins at Home © Guy Bolongaro.
Izabela Radwanska Zhang

Starting out as an intern back in 2016, Izabela Radwanska Zhang is now the Editorial Director of British Journal of Photography in print and online. Her words have appeared in Disegno and Press Association. Prior to this, she completed a MA in Magazine Journalism at City University, London, and most recently, a Postgrad Certificate in Graphic Design at London College of Communication.