Family ties: Capturing the experience of supporting loved ones through alcohol addiction

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All images from the series In Order to Bloom © Laura Foster

This article is part of the Education collection, a series of interviews highlighting student and early career photographers. 

Laura Foster’s collaboration with a florist friend is based on an unexpected and long-hidden bond: that they have grown up supporting mothers living with substance abuse

Photographer Laura Foster has known her friend G for years, but until recently the pair were unaware that their affinity ran deep into their personal and family lives. Both are the daughters of mothers living with alcohol addiction. But it was only after Foster gave an interview about her project Serenity that G shared her own experience, and the two began speaking openly about their respective situations.

Serenity is Foster’s series of social documentary photographs made in an all-male Christian-run rehabilitation centre in Reading, England. Her mother had heard about the centre through a church group, and suggested it to her daughter after her own rehabilitation centre had only permitted a days’ worth of access for the young photographer. The photographs show male companionship in shadowy focus, the hours in recovery marked by each cigarette, Bible reading or frame of pool.

“I love that idea of making something seem like a documentary image, but actually I’ve constructed and designed it”

Meeting the residents changed her life, Foster says, but she found herself wanting to make more emotive, abstracted work. “With Serenity, I felt like I was doing what I was expected to do,” says Foster, who adhered to the documentary mode that the setting required, without bringing her own vision into the images. “Now I love that idea of making something seem like a documentary image, but actually I’ve constructed and designed it.”

She entered the MA photography course at the University of the West of England looking to expand her fine-art practice. The tutors encouraged her to take self portraits, while weekly briefs encouraged her to experiment and make non-project work. She also began drawing widely from contemporary photographers, like Thomas Duffield and Kelly O’Brien, whose Are You There? series depicting her elusive father is a particular influence.

She began working with G on text from their transcribed conversations, while also thinking about the setting, staging and choreography of a new series. The result is In Order to Bloom, “a conversational body of work based on two young women and their experiences growing up with mums suffering with alcoholism and addiction,” Foster explains.

The photographs are quiet and considered, domestic and character close-ups shot mainly in the womens’ houses. Touch is important, a source of support or sign of apprehension, nervousness or moments of control. “Some of the images are quite staged, whereas others are abstract expressions of emotion,” Foster explains. Archival images are used in place of images of the mothers’ faces, their privacy protected by the fragmentary narrative. G’s work as a florist permeates the work: shrubs, petals and bushes signalling natural constancy, but also the chance of growth and renewal.

The darker moments are clustered in black-and-white sections, the project moving in “waves of emotion” rather than any strict chronology. Foster’s mother was diagnosed with liver cancer four months into the project. The photographer considered pausing or abandoning the work completely, but her mother noticed the healing effect imagemaking was having on her daughter. “Fucking go for it!” were her words of encouragement in the face of adversity, Foster remembers.

The pair want the project to be a source of strength for people supporting loved ones through alcohol addiction. To start conversations and enable viewers to see themselves in the narrative. Foster has been on her own journey, where the load of a private battle has been shared with peers through photography. “Making a project about me or mum was quite an exposing and vulnerable thing at first,” Foster remembers. “But as I matured as a person – and artist – I realised I could do it.”