Wish you were here: Love and loss in photography

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Image © Deanna Dikeman.

Through the work of Jess T Dugan, Paul Guilmoth and Deanna Dikeman, the precariousness of life is unpacked

When I was a child, I was obsessed with death. Not because I’d lost anything or anyone, but simply because I couldn’t reconcile why we live, if we all end up dying. I’d ask my mother questions about it repeatedly, but nothing she said could soothe me. These thoughts would wash over me from time to time, consuming me, and then I’d go back to my geography homework or to watching TV. I can’t remember how I ever overcame these thoughts, only the hold they had over me.

When I was 14, my best friend’s mum died after a gruelling battle with breast cancer. It was the first time I came close to the experience of life-altering loss. As I got older and lost more friends and loved ones, death became more familiar. The poet Ocean Vuong describes grief as “the last translation of love – the final act that will never end.” This limitlessness, and the relentless, all-consuming feelings that push us beyond our pain threshold, recalibrate who we are and our relationship with the world. 

Photography’s permanence, both as an object and a portal, gives materiality to this entanglement of love and loss. It offers us a bridge to the unimaginable. It lays bare what it costs us to love by describing the unspoken vulnerability born from passing through each other’s lives. Deanna Dikeman, Paul Guilmoth and Jess T Dugan all use their recent photobooks as a platform to examine these defining relationships, while illuminating the urgency to live.

© Deanna Dikeman.

Using gesture and repetition, Deanna Dikeman’s project Leaving and Waving describes the butterfly effect of our primary relationships. The book, published last year by Chose Commune and nominated for Aperture / Paris Photo’s First Photobook award, contains 90 goodbyes . Each one is snapped from the driver’s seat of Dikeman’s car as her parents, Pat and Jerry, waved goodbye to her after a visit. “I was so close to my parents,” explains Dikeman. “But I lived 400 miles away. It was always so hard to leave.” Throughout the book, we witness life unfold. Seasons change, children are born, style evolves and everyone ages. This waving continues for years until suddenly, Jerry is no longer there – he passed away a few days before his 91st birthday. A haunting sense of grief lingers in the space where he once stood. We continue to see Dikeman’s mother, Pat, for just under a decade. First at home and then in an assisted living facility. The last image in the book is an empty driveway. Everything is still. There is no one left to perform the ritual.

Leaving and Waving is a love story that photographically spans 27 years. While each image is candid and spontaneous, they offer something more transcendent and emotionally deft as a collection. In spotlighting a ritual that is so ordinary and universal, Dikeman creates a space to think about love and its precarity in a way that is accessible and open – an invitation to feel.

© Deanna Dikeman.

At Night Gardens Grow by Paul Guilmoth is also driven by the precarious connections. “Every image is a portrait of someone I am very close with or love in some way,” they share. “Whether it’s a neighbourly thing, my friends or my parents. I have a hard time internalising how I feel emotionally about these people, but being around dying people made me want to memorialise things. To make pictures that are a tribute to them.”

The American photographer has been a carer for the elderly for almost a decade. In 2018 they began taking care of Trula, who lived in a remote mansion in the mountains of New England. “I spent two years with her,” says Guilmoth. “I got to see her whole life, which was very routine because everything is routine when you get to that age. Life gets more complicated when you can’t get around on your own and have to rely on someone else.” Guilmoth couldn’t make art during this time. Looking after someone for 50 hours a week was tough and emotionally draining. “But now, I see it shaped a lot of my work,” they explain. “It was the driving force of this book – which I’m grateful for.”

At Night Gardens Grow abandons a linear narrative insisting on something more haptic. Majestic spiderwebs resemble connective tissue. Natural forms feel like complex metaphors for relationships. Shot mostly at night, the photographs ruminate on the bonds that hold us together. Guilmoth takes apart the idea of loss, and the fear entrenched within it and reassembles it into contemplative landscapes and portraits that are mesmerising and provocative. Every frame is a desire to hold on. To pull each other closer. To linger in our deepest vulnerabilities.

© Paul Guilmoth.
© Paul Guilmoth.

The tension between presence and absence is a through line in Jess T Dugan’s latest book, Look at me like you love me, published by Mack this year. “For a long time, my work has grappled with this idea of living authentically,” Dugan shares. “For many queer folks, we have to go against society and lose certain things, whether that’s family or acceptance, or just an easy existence in the world.”

Through tender portraits, still life and personal texts, the American portraitist opens up new lines of questioning about personhood, intimacy and relationships. Together they illuminate the interconnectedness of things and how love and loss merge to build resilience and deepen our consciousness. “In the book, I write about losing the kinship with my father because of my identity and the idea that you sometimes have to let things go to pursue something authentic or true.”

Look at me like you love me is rooted in stillness. Dugan cultivates an almost meditative pace, slowing down the chaos of everyday life to reveal the sacred distance between us. In this lyrical reflection, they remind us to witness each other. To marvel at the power of relationships. “I’ve always had this heightened awareness that you can lose things or things could change,” Dugan shares. “Getting older and having a child has made this even clearer for me – the stakes are now higher. In the most positive sense, I think that leads us to feel more alive, embracing ourselves more fully.”

© Jess T Dugan

What defines and unites these divergent practices is the labour of feeling. Their work leaves us vulnerable to the experiences and questions at play. It’s not easy and it requires work, but this confrontation is vital. It forces us to reckon with the unspeakable – the precarity of life. While loss leaves many of us with wounds that will never heal – these photographs offer us a way to re-engage with the world – reminding us of what is at stake and the urgency to live.

Gem Fletcher

Creative director, writer, podcaster and photo director, Gem Fletcher works across visual-cultural fields, focusing on emerging talent in contemporary photography and art. She is the photo director of Riposte Magazine, and hosts a photography podcast, The Messy Truth.