Ashley Markle captures a reunion with her father after his 10 year absence

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The pair reconnected when Markle graduated from college, and began to rebuild broken ties through photography

In the early days of the pandemic, Ashley Markle packed up her studio in New York and returned home to Ohio. She began photographing the relationship between her mother and her stepfather, and considering her place within it. Taking what she describes as “a very psychological approach” to photography, she lays bare her vulnerabilities and scrutinises the influences of upbringing.

Her latest project, Do you know how beautiful you are?, homes in on an even more delicate experience: a reunion with her biological father after his ten-year absence. Markle, an only child, was four when her parents divorced. She went from seeing her father every other weekend, to every once in a while, to not seeing him at all around the age of 10. The pair reconnected when Markle graduated from college, but it wasn’t until she was home in 2020 that they began to rebuild their relationship in front of the camera.

“Things were still kind of awkward with my dad. I was afraid to show him who I was in case he’d disappear again,” she explains over Zoom, dressed in an oversized Black Sabbath t-shirt that belonged to him. “But then I thought, if I’m going to have a relationship with him, he needs to know who I am and what I’m about. So I just brought my camera to his place one day and was like, ‘We’re gonna shoot.’”

Two years in the making, their ongoing collaborative project forms “a complete view of an incomplete relationship”, and is as much a process of healing as it is a process of artistry. “We were both nervous at first, but he was very open to it,” Markle recalls. “I’d tell him what to do, and he’d kind of chuckle or make a joke and then start doing it. I think he felt some guilt for not being around, and knew how important it was to me.”

The multi-layered series oscillates in scope. “Parts of it are me observing my dad to get a better sense of who he is, like looking at his body, his space, his routine,” she explains, referring to close-ups of her father in his underwear with his birthmark on show; his grinders and lighters; the tell-tale sight of a toilet with the seat up – intimate intrusions into his daily life, shot in 35mm film.

Then there are “constructed scenes of fantasy-like memories and real moments we’ve shared”, taken with a medium format camera. In these choreographed photographs, adult Markle makes up for lost time by playing the role of the child, falling asleep mid-piggyback in an image sarcastically titled It was only a decade [above]’, or climbing a tree as her father gazes up at her. Her too-big form gives way to awkwardness and a sense of pathos, but these tender shots pave the way for reconciliation, too.

© Ashley Markle.
© Ashley Markle.

“The camera is a portal to this space I’m creating where my dad and I can get to know each other without barriers, where we’re free to play and finally be open and intimate with each other”

© Ashley Markle.

“I feel like I’m creating images as gifts for my younger self,” she says. “I’d always climb the tree in his front yard, hoping he’d come out and play with me or tell me to come down. So that image is me saying, ‘Here you go Ashley, this is your opportunity to be with your dad now.’”

While photography might seem like a very public medium through which to piece together a private relationship, Markle doesn’t feel self-aware in front of the lens. “The camera is a portal to this space I’m creating where my dad and I can get to know each other without barriers, where we’re free to play and finally be open and intimate with each other,” she reflects.

The project continues to bring the two of them closer. “It’s helped me not be angry. When I observe him living his life, I realise he’s really not a bad guy, he’s just a loner, who truly was not meant to have kids. I feel safer to be myself with him, now we have this beautiful thing we’ve created.”