LIGHT AFTER DEATH – An exhibition reflecting on bereavement. First exhibited in London in 2005.

Light After Death

A summary of an exhibition featuring photographs and texts reflecting on various aspects of bereavement. First exhibited in London in 2005.

Introduction

Before my Mother’s death in 2000 I used to think about bereavement with a degree of fear and anxiety. Her death was the one I feared the most. It was indeed painful and perplexing at times, but choosing to explore and embrace what it brought up made it a surprisingly rich experience, as much about growth and peace as loss and pain.

In 2004 when Geoff Warburton, director of Southwark Bereavement Care, approached me to discuss the possibility of an exhibition exploring the light, life and joy possible after bereavement I was initially a bit taken aback. Light, life and joy are not things one normally associates with death but I was also excited, challenged, and above all curious about what could be created.

The collaboration with Southwark Bereavement Care was quite unlike any project I have ever taken on. This is partly to do with the highly sensitive nature of the subject, but it was mostly to do with the pleasure of working with Geoff. We had so many fascinating discussions at critical points of reflection and decision.

The images and texts created for the exhibition were part of an exploration. The exhibition was not intended to be either comprehensive or definitive. We merely hoped we could provide some illumination and food for thought.

Robert Taylor
Photographer
February July 2013

 

Postscript from Geoff Warburton

“The wonderful adventure of working with Robert on this exhibition strengthened my faith in the idea that grief can become an adventure of life. I went on to develop this idea in a TED talk about grief ” :
http://bit.ly/XTucJq

 

 

 

Sun

Detail from Sun, a cast glass sculpture by Angela Thwaites. The piece was originally inspired by a complex set of themes related to landscape but has become something of a celebration of light and warmth.

 Light: that which stimulates sight and make things visible.

 

 

 

 

A Sculpture in Memory of the Life of Damilola Taylor  – Created by Alex Brooke

Damilola Taylors death on the North Peckham Estate in South East London was one of 2000s biggest national news stories. At the time of his death Damilola had been attending the Oliver Goldsmith School for only three months and had yet to get the hang of things on the tough streets of Peckham. The senseless killing of a young black child with so much ahead of him had a big impact in the area, particularly amongst parents and families in the local African and Afro Caribbean communities. It was a powerful symbol, a point of focus for their anxieties about the many ways in which their children’s prospects seem threatened or compromised by complex hostile forces beyond their control.

Mark Parsons, the Head Teacher at the school, wanted to create a permanent memorial to Damilola. He contacted the nearby Camberwell College of Arts and it was agreed that a number of students would be invited to submit designs to the school governors. Three models were made and a single winner chosen. The sculpture by Alex Brooke funded by the Community Chest and endorsed by Damilola’s father – now stands just outside the school.

Alex, then a 19 year old art student, wanted the sculpture to incorporate symbols of hope, regeneration and new life whilst also making reference to the theme of birds which often crops up in the folktales and tribal art of Nigeria, Damilola’s birthplace. The phoenix-like rising bird set in a circle does this with an elegant economy of gesture.

There is a dilemma for Mark Parsons and his team at Oliver Goldsmith School. How to do enough in commemorating Damilola and what happened to him to satisfy the sensibilities and aspirations of his family and the local community, whilst not making so much of it that excessive fears, anxieties and concerns are generated amongst the children at the school.

 

 

 

Poppy on Kente Cloth*

Every November on Remembrance Sunday special services are held at war memorials and churches all over Britain. A national ceremony takes place at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, London, in memory of the men and women who were killed during the two World Wars and other conflicts.

I served in the British Royal Air Force in the 1970s. Over twenty years later, quite by chance, I met some West Indian World War ll Army veterans at a tiny exhibition at the Imperial War Museum about the African, Asian and West Indian contributions to the British war effort. One of the men had actually served in the British army during World War Two with my late Jamaican grandfather. When they found out about my military past they insisted that I join them at the Cenotaph in Whitehall at the next Remembrance Sunday ceremony. Before that time I had never given much thought to the sacrifices of those killed in conflict and had certainly never though of marching down Whitehall as part of a contingent of black ex-servicemen. I used to attend Quaker Meetings and tend towards pacifism. What on earth would I be doing there? I was finally persuaded when they made it clear that it was really important for them that there was the possibility of a continued black presence at these kinds of events after they had died. They were worried in case people forgot that the fight against Hitler and all that he stood for was won with the help of all sorts of people who dont fit the stereotype of the brave white war hero depicted in historical film, fiction and documentary.

To my great surprise and relief we got a very warm welcome from the crowds as we marched around the streets of Whitehall. I felt immensely proud, very emotional and powerfully present to the memory of my late grandfather and his distinguished war service.

Robert Taylor

* Kente is an Asante ceremonial hand-woven cloth from Ghana, West Africa.

 

 

 

 

Summoning Spirits

To most people in Britain a sance is seen as a rather quaint event in which a medium attempts to make contact with the dead. It has fallen out of favour, partly due to associations with fraud. The term still has great currency in certain cultures across the world. The spirit of the deceased person can be called in many ways including fasting, ecstatic dancing and drumming.

 

 

 

 

David Growing Amongst the Pansies

Richard Pantlin, the creator of these compositions, first encountered the original sculpture of Michelangelo’s David as a child during a family holiday in Italy. A scale model was purchased and was a prominent fixture in Richards domestic setting for many years. The models head is featured here. Richard came out as Gay in his 20s and the model took on a new meaning for him as a rather uncomfortable kind of gay icon. In more recent times Richards gayness has withered and he has moved on, although he has no wish to deny his past or break links with his gay network. He eventually destroyed the sculpture, but against all odds its head survived and he decided to keep it and let it evolve as a symbol. Planting it amongst the bright luxuriant and oddly protective environment of the petals of pansies in full bloom opens up a number of possible interpretations for a man looking back on a previous identity. He grew into manhood and first expressed his masculinity amongst gay men. It was amongst gay men in the 1980s that he witnessed illness and death on a massive scale in the wake of AIDS. It was also amongst gay men that he experienced the joys of sexual intimacy and a powerful sense of community for the first time.

 

 

 

 

Siam Kee Bereavement from a Buddhist perspective

Siam Key, A 34 (at the time of this photo) year old widow originally from China but now settled in London had been studying Buddhism for 15 years before she got married. When her Husband died after only five months of married life together she really got the meaning of the Buddhist tenet that nothing is permanent. She sees his life and unexpected death as offering her an opportunity to learn something. She believes that she can only get to the next level of Buddhism by learning not to be over attached to love or a love object. She still feels the loss of her husband, but she is clear that her Buddhist understanding and acceptance of the loss allows her to be truly peaceful.

 

 

 

 

Flower – A Glass Sculpture by Angela Thwaites

According to Angela the sort of flower that would stand up to a force 10 gale.

 

 

 

 

 

Butterflies

These creatures are part of the collection held at The Oxford University Natural History Museum. Long dead but still radiant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Garden at London Lighthouse

The London Lighthouse is very aptly named. From its creation in 1987 the project shone a bright light that helped many during the raging storms of the early days of HIV/AIDS.

The group responsible for creating the project included several counsellors who had been working with issues related to gay mens health, and gay mens ways of dealing with death. The emergence of HIV/AIDS brought these two crashing together. There were a great number of horrific HIV/AIDS related deaths in hospitals in a general atmosphere of fear and ignorance. Sick vulnerable people mostly from a fairly marginalised and misunderstood community – were being handled with gloves, kept in isolation and widely judged as partly or wholly responsible for their plight. Paradoxically, for many the nightmare was compounded by those same people often being kept alive much longer than they wanted to be, in ways that they would not have chosen in a more sympathetic and sensitive medical environment.

Back in the early 80s the prospects for those living with HIV/AIDS were very bleak. The Lighthouse was created as a place where amongst other things people could die with dignity and respect whatever their sexuality, race or drug usage. It was a safe non-judgmental place with an informal atmosphere. A home from home for medical treatment. The sick and dying got to exercise some control over the circumstances of their treatment. Where recovery was not possible many were taken safely and relatively peacefully to dignified deaths with the opportunity for their loved ones to be around them if that was desired.

The sense of light and refuge in a storm extended well beyond the medical regime to the many detailed aspects of the design and fabric of the building. It has attracted many awards. One award winning part of the site that remains as much a focal point today as it was from the start of the project in 1987 is the garden. It was created, and is still lovingly maintained by volunteers under the stewardship of Gary Eisenhower . Its key features include the sense of shelter, safety and calm that it generates for visitors. Its a place for people to come and enjoy themselves, whether in solitary contemplative mode or in company. Being in such a physically sheltered spot it can sustain an enormous variety of plants including bananas trees, kiwis and even some citrus trees. Now that the Lighthouse is no longer a hospice and much more of a drop in centre the garden in combination with the adjacent cafeteria – attracts a range visitors, many with no immediate connection with HIV/AIDS at all.

This is a brief summary of the reflections of three people closely associated with London Lighthouse. Geoff Warburton who was part of the original team setting up the London Lighthouse. Michael Edwards has had a long association with the project originally as part of the residential services team and currently as Head of Reception Services. Gary Eisenhower has been the Garden Coordinator at the Lighthouse since 1988.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scattering the Ashes …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rotimi Fani-Kayode Photographer 1955-1989 – A Continuing Inspiration

This exhibition makes me think about lots of special people Ive known who are no longer alive. The memory of one particular person sticks out in the context of photography. Rotimi was a beautiful man in many senses of the word. He was a friend and a great inspiration at a time when photography was merely a hobby. It was after meeting Rotimi and exploring his photography and ways of working that I saw something for myself and became a photographer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Memory Box

A memory box can be a means of creating precious memories of a loved one who has died. Theres no limit to the range of things one might collect basically anything that provides a tangible way to remember someone. An organisation that specialises in helping with the creation of memory boxes for bereaved parents of babies who have died is Joshuas Boxes. This glass container is my version for my mother. (http://www.joshuasboxes.co.uk)

 

 

 

 

 

Beauty

We seem to be becoming more and more gripped by an obsession with physical appearance and the maintenance of youthful beauty. Some regard life beyond particular milestone ages as a kind of living death. Tony Fields (74 at the time of this photo) is a delightful exception. He was featured in an article in GAY TIMES magazine exploring and celebrating real bodies. He and a number of other men of various ages posed naked for the camera and discussed their feelings about their bodies best and least loved parts. An interesting alternative to the more usual sights in contemporary magazines.

 

 

 

 

 

Bereavement Counselling

Bereavement Counselling is about creating a safe confidential non-judgmental space for people to talk about their greatest fears, the things they may not be able to say elsewhere. Its often the case that the relations and friends of a person who has died grieve differently. There may be tensions or problems related to a lack of understanding in the very networks where uncomplicated support is expected.

The counselling relationship is a very special one. It relies on trust. It is quite a one-sided relationship in the sense that the person being counselled knows very little about the counsellor, and the counsellor has had no relationship with the deceased person.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stepping Out

After the ending of a relationship whether by death or separation it takes courage to get out there again and engage with the world, particularly at an intimate level.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Om

This floral arrangement was created at an Asian owned North London florist to be part of the funeral arrangements for a Hindu funeral. It shows the Om (or Aum) sign, the main symbol of Hinduism. The Om sign signifies God, Creation, & the One-ness of all creation. Most religions indicate that creation began with sound. In the beginning was the word… For the Hindus and Buddhists, Om is the primordial sound, the first breath of creation, the vibration that ensures existence.

 

 

 

 

 

Floral Tribute

It is now relatively common for informal floral tributes to be used to commemorate the lives of those killed in road accidents and street crimes. The deceased person in this instance is still very much in someones thoughts. The bunch of flowers on this particular lamp-post on the Walworth road in south east London has been regularly replaced for the last four years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Crucifixion

For many millions of Christians the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ represent the ultimate example of light after death.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Massage

Massage can be good for both bodily and spiritual wellbeing. In bereavement we often collect and hold onto certain emotions in the body which manifest in certain places. Massage can help with the release of such tension. Another common phenomenon among the bereaved is the sudden loss of the comfort of intimate touch from the deceased. For others a really good massage can provide a much needed emotional release, or even a helpful meeting point for the host of physical and spiritual challenges they may be dealing with.

The technique used in contemporary Chavutti massage was first practiced in Karali in South India. Smooth powerful strokes with the foot are applied along the body. The practitioner balances by suspending himself from a large frame. Apart from the inherent benefits of a massage for the recipient, the practitioner avoids the kind of repetitive strain injury to which many conventional masseurs are so prone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Refugee – Shifting Identities

If youve been forced to leave your country in order to escape war, persecution or natural disaster your loss may be multi-faceted. This is often a devastating experience, particularly if you have lost loved ones in the process. For some in time – the new range of possibilities for identity, relationship and occupation can be as exciting as they are challenging.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bringing Light

The Jews light candles as a symbol of the light of the soul –as do so many other cultures. I remember when my father died that I could literally feel that his light had disappeared from the world and it seemed a darker place. To light a candle in memory of someone is to honour their flame, the way it illuminated our life, and the way it continues to do so even when it flickers and burns out.

Dr. Dina Glouberma

 

 

 

 

Transparent

Sufism is an eastern mystical tradition that has its roots in Islam. The spiritual path of the sufi involves raising awareness of the illusion that we are our bodies. It is believed that once we do this, we are able to see through to a universal light that we are all part of and the body becomes transparent to this light.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Determined

My brother, Christopher, died in an accident a few months before this exhibition. Christopher inspired me to embrace life fully and not take it too seriously.  I trained for the London Marathon in honour of him determined to align myself with life and living, determined that the pain of losing him inspire me to action not apathy. Geoff Warburton.

 

 

The images for the final three reflections belowcannot be posted now.

 

Neil Fiddler and Deefer

The image of Neil and his dog Deefer was taken in the mid 90s.  

Neil and Deefer were together for 15 years. They first met briefly in a pet shop. Neils ex-partner bought D-for for Neil shortly afterwards as a surprise birthday present. She ended up being called D-for (short for D for Dog) as the most likely dog names did not appeal. They spent many happy times together in Deptford Park where they got to know lots of other dogs and people. Neil does not have much reason to be there now but still enjoys it when he does. People still remember D-for. Neil keeps her remains in a wooden casket as he does not know what to do with them.

Neil wrote the poem below. 

The emptiness echoes as I walk through the door

because you are not there any more.

My soul feels a vibration and not that of the soft pad of your paw

as you roll around on your back on the floor

But I’ll not be sad

I cant do that

Because my soul feels the vibration of you not being there anymore

My heart warms and I begin to glow

as I know the memories in my soul and my heart will never go

I’m not sad

I’m really glad I had a dog called Deefer

 

Young Africans Hope For The Future

Children of the small Ghanaian Town of Kwahu-Tafota, taking time out from play to pose for a picture. The children featured here are amongst those who will benefit from the work of the charity Friends of Tafo. http://www.friendsoftafo.org/

Friends of Tafo is a UK registered charity that aids, inspires and facilitates sustainable development in education, health, employment and infrastructure in the town of Kwahu-Tafo. The charity’s work is a creative response to the death of Gyearbuor Asante, a close friend of the TV producer Humphrey Barclay (Gyearbuor Asante played ‘Matthew’ in Channel 4s sitcom Desmond’s). During the extended funeral observances marking Gyearbuors death his family formally adopted Humphrey Barclay as a mark of acknowledgment and respect for their great friendship. Gyearbuors family also happened to be part of the local royal family so the adoption became a kind of invitation to become a chief in the role that Gyearbuor might have taken up had he lived. Thus was Humphrey Barclay the white English old Harovian installed as the Nkosuohene (Development Chief) in the ancestral home town of his recently deceased friend. His formal and newly familial connection with the town enables him via his work with Friends of Tafo – to make a real difference there.

 

 

A Children’s Hospice

The Helen House Project has been running for 22 years. The seed was sewn when its founder, Sister Frances based at an Oxford convent, befriended the family of a local terminally ill child and looked after the child from time to time to give the parents some respite. This eventually developed into the creation of Helen House, the worlds first children’s hospice. Much more recently Douglas House has been established nearby as a hospice (or respice as they call it) to meet the special needs of young people too old for Helen house.

The staff team believe that in their work with the terminally ill, in addition to the many things they do to help enhance the quality of life of the residents, it is possible to help them prepare for as good a death as is possible. This manifests as a hope rather than a plan as it is obviously not possible to determine specific outcomes in relation to the quality of experience of bereavement.

It is left to families to set the pace and extent to which they can take on the significance and implications of a childs diagnosis. For some just crossing the threshold for the first time is a major step towards acknowledgement and acceptance.

Some children die at the hospice, others who’ve received care there may have to spend their last days in hospital. A standard and deliberately unremarkable part of the initial tour for potential residents and their families is a visit to a special room set aside from the rest of the building for use as the peaceful last place for the body of a dead child or young person.

The room is decorated very simply. The families who use it are free to temporarily personalise it with favourite toys, pictures and anything else practicable and meaningful to them. The only usually constant feature of the room is the presence of a burning candle which, once lit, will be kept alight until the childs body is taken away for burial or cremation up to a week later.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalization of same sex activity, and LGBT History Month 2017

Other Heroes

An exhibition celebrating the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalization of same sex activity, and LGBT History Month 2017

collage Trinsent

I was commissioned by Pinsent Masons, a large international law firm, to create a collection of portraits of 24 members of the LGBT community in the UK who have played an important part in LGBT history – in parliament, the law, the arts or more generally – but who do not always receive the recognition they deserve. Each portrait is accompanied by a short first person text.

 

 

The portraits and texts were displayed prominently in the foyer of their London HQ to mark

LGBT History Month, and the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality,

and Pinsent Masons’ recent ranking as the second highest employer in the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index

in England, Wales and Scotland.

You can sample the portraits and texts in the pdf by clicking the link here

(please note this document is a 7MB pdf)

Pinsent Mason LGBT History

 

 

 

 

 

Exhibition of Women at Trinity College, Oxford University

Feminae Trinitatis

An Exhibition at Trinity College, Oxford University, celebrating the outstanding achievements and wide variety of careers enjoyed by female Trinity graduates and Fellows.

click the link below to see a pdf of the accompanying booklet, featuring the portraits and first person texts of the subjects 

https://www.trinity.ox.ac.uk/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/TrinityCollege_FeminaeTrinitatis_Booklet_FINALVERSION_web.pdf

 

TRINITY HALL IMG_7738 - Version 2

 

 

 

Celebrating Black History Month.

As part of their ongoing diversity programme, Pinsent Mason*, a large international law firm, asked me to create an exhibition of portraits drawn from my portfolio of successful black people:

Portraits of Achievement – a selection of portraits created between 2000 – 2014, celebrating the achievements of people of African and Caribbean descent.

The portraits are displayed with extended captions listing some the key achievements of each of the subjects

To see the texts and the portraits click here Robert Taylor Black History Month Exhibition (pdf)

The Background

In 2001 Jacqui Macdonald, the then Head of Staff and Organisational Development at London University’s Institute of Education conducted a study that challenged stereotypes of black underachievement by telling the stories of 72 black men and women who have risen to the top in contemporary Britain. The study was published as a book called Portraits of Black Achievement: Composing Successful Careers (Published by Lifetime Careers). It was centred on a series of interviews with black professionals in fields including politics, medicine, law, education and the arts. The interviewees described their life experiences and talked about what it meant to be a successful black professional. Each interview was accompanied by a photo portrait by Robert Taylor.

I’ve been creating collections of portraits for over 25 years. Recent commissions include an extended collection of women celebrated for their excellence in the fields of science, engineering and technology, and most recently, two large collections for an Oxford University college. 14 of the 28 portraits in the Pinsent Mason display are drawn from Jacqui Macdonald’s project, the remainder are from a variety of commissions between 2002 and 2014.

* 30 Crown Place, Earl Street. London EC2A 4ES

New Exhibition launched in September 2015

The Tanner Collection at Hertford College, Oxford

Earlier this year I was commissioned by Hertford College to create a second collection of photo portraits to hang in their Great Hall. This time the men are allowed back in. There are 20 new portraits of men and women who applied to Hertford between 1965 and 1985, while the college was running a revolutionary scheme that sidestepped the traditional route into Oxford and set up a new system for students from state schools. It will be on display in the Great Hall for at least the next year.

You can sample the new Tanner Portraits here

You can still view the previous set of portraits of Hertford Women

 

 

A New Photo Exhibition at an Oxford University College Prompts Reflections on Progress for Women

KW2C5257 (1)

Left to Right: Charlotte Hogg/Banker, Theresa Moran/Teacher, Shahnaz Ahsan/Thouron scholar,
Stephanie West FBA/Emerita Fellow in Classics, Alison Woollard/ Fellow in Biochemistry

Did James Brown Get it Right?

I recently installed a portrait exhibition at Hertford College, Oxford University. The exhibition was commissioned to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first admission of women to that college. The women featured are remarkable in their very different ways, some of them prominent figures on the national scene. The collection of 20 images, together with texts – written by the women themselves – confirms the undoubted place and power of women in contemporary Britain. But there are still some real concerns.

The images and texts can be viewed here

[The booklet accompanying the exhibition can be down loaded at  Hertford Women Exhibition Booklet (pdf)]

How are we doing on gender equality these days? In many parts of the world, indeed even in parts of twenty first century Britain, being born male is still one of life’s great lottery wins. Just 50 years ago the legendary soul singer James Brown had a hit with his song “This is a Man’s World”. The song attributed the key manifestations of modern civilisation exclusively to the efforts of men, offering only a rather limp salute to the ‘little ladies’ by going on to claim that despite all the great things created by men, it would all ‘mean nothing, without a woman or a girl.’  Such chauvinism didn’t seem that outrageous in 1964.

As much as the old charmer obviously enjoyed women, the phenomenal rate at which he got through them, his criminal convictions for assaulting some of them when they stepped out of line, and the lack of impact this had on his star status suggest that all was not well on the gender equality front, back then. To heap irony on top of all that, the song was at least partly written by a woman, who it is claimed never received due credit, or all the royalties that were owed to her. Those were the days!

50 years on, things have certainly changed for the better, for lots of women – but by how much and for whom? There are no straightforward or easy answers.

Meanwhile, the University of Oxford has been making some interesting moves. Hertford College Oxford’s celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the first admission of women include commissioning me to create an exhibition of portraits of women connected to the college. Hertford College’s main hall had previously always been adorned with large painted portraits of men. The sort of chaps who have traditionally owned or controlled things. All suitably grand, gowned, stern and correct looking. My portraits of the women will replace all the men for a whole year. It’s not yet clear what will be hanging in the hall after the year is up.

The 20 women in my exhibition, nominated by Hertfordians past and present, represent a mix of ages, classes, cultural backgrounds, and a broad range of achievements. They include acknowledged leaders in their fields, as well as those less publicly recognized including: the first woman Home Secretary (Jaqui Smith), the current number two at the Bank of England (Charlotte Hogg), the first woman president of the CBI (Dame Helen Alexander), a leading scientific researcher (Professor Dame Kay Davies), a leading philosopher (Baroness Warnock), a QC, a champion rower, a broadcaster, and many more women, all flourishing in by no means typically female environments.

The collection gives a very reassuring nod to the place and power of women in British society today. And yet, even though their talents and achievements are undisputed, the way we relate to that success can be problematic.

In a recent UK government re-shuffle a number of women were promoted to some very senior jobs. Great news in itself, but it was disappointing to see the amount of media attention directed to things that had little relevance to their experience, skills and talents in the political and governmental sphere. There was much written about what the women wore, spurious discussion about their love lives, often in language tailored to sustain some pretty obnoxious ideas about the place of women in society. Even if the mass media manage to keep off the subject of women’s sex appeal and sartorial choices, they still harbour some pretty dodgy assumptions about a person’s capacity to be a parent as well as holding down a top job, if they happen to be a woman: “Mother of three poised to lead the BBC “was the recent headline in the Daily Telegraph, reporting the appointment of the new head of the BBC Trust. Successful male parents are rather less prone to this sort of nonsense!

Anticipation of these kinds of problems even infected parts of the process of deciding how to depict some of the Hertford College women in my portraits. Much as I would have loved to make more of the way some of the women looked, in celebration of their attractiveness and striking dress sense, there was a wariness of attracting too much of the ‘wrong’ kind of attention. Consequently, some of the picture options that I and my sitters might have favoured were passed over in the editing process in an attempt to maintain the very delicate balance between surface/cosmetic appeal and other factors such as character, charisma and presence.

There’s another tricky issue, perhaps as relevant to discussions of racial/cultural identity as gender – that of self exclusion. Whatever tangible and concrete barriers there may still be to equal opportunity, some members of disadvantaged groups self-exclude/stay back/don’t apply/ for things for which they are eligible and qualified, for fear of experiencing the humiliations of unfair exclusion, inappropriate enquiries into their private lives, or just straightforward discrimination on grounds that they don’t do women, or gays, or foreigners. Quite a few of the many very successful women I’ve photographed and interviewed over the years have admitted that they’d sometimes not applied for things they were undoubtedly supremely well qualified for, for fear of exclusion on ‘non relevant gender related grounds such as absence of other women or evidence of toxic ‘canteen cultures’.

Despite lots of equality legislation and much upbeat societal discussion, women are still at an unfair disadvantage in all sorts of ways including: often being paid less than men for work of identical or very similar value, still being subject to sexual harassment at work, still suffering our legal system’s patchy responses to domestic violence and rape, still suffering an unequal division of domestic labour and child care responsibilities (long after weaning has been completed). Some of the more subtle forms of discrimination and exclusion are harder to confront. There are still lots of informal men-only social networks that function as unofficial gateways to all sorts of information and opportunities, often at the highest levels!

For all that, it is undeniable that things have moved forward a great deal for some women over the last 50 years.

If things are going to continue to develop it’s likely that we’ll have to be creative and energetic as we try to change perceptions and practices, as well as continuing to legislate and allot places on the ‘naughty step’ for persistent male offenders. There are now many great female role models, in various fields, and amazing stories of the different strategies employed, by women, and men, to ensure that girls and young women plotting their futures see that anything (or at least much more) is possible. We can all help by doing our bit to share tales of things that have worked out really well, and not just sighing and complaining about the persistence of out of date attitudes and practices.

This will all make much more sense if there is a simultaneous conversation about new possibilities for what men choose, or are allowed to choose to do with their lives. There will need to be as much creativity with our perceptions and decisions about men’s roles at work, in the home and more generally if it’s going to be practicable for women to achieve more without having to be superhuman. Many women are now undoubtedly achieving great things in their education and careers, but many of them they are still facing nineteenth and twentieth century burdens at home and other informal spheres. This is hardly a fair or meaningful version of progress.

The Exhibition is in the Hall at Hertford College, Catte Street, Oxford OX1 3BW. It will be open to the public from Sunday 12 Oct 2-4pm, and then each Sunday 2-4 pm up to and including 30 November 2014. It will be open again in 2015 during university term, dates to be confirmed.

 

The booklet that accompanies the exhibition can be down loaded Hertford Women Exhibition Booklet (pdf) 

 

 

Selected Media Coverage

 

Guardian

http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/sep/21/oxford-hertford-college-portraits-women-co-ed

 

Daily Telegraph

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/11113961/Why-Im-proud-to-be-on-the-wall-of-my-Oxford-college.html

 

BBC News

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-oxfordshire-29311151

 

New York Times (Artsbeat)

http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/09/22/portraits-of-women-take-over-an-oxford-dining-hall/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

 

Cherwell

http://www.cherwell.org/news/college/2014/09/23/hertford-hall-now-decorated-solely-by-portraits-of-women

 

Oxford Mail

http://www.oxfordmail.co.uk/life/11496865.Hertford_College_puts_women_s_talent_in_the_picture/

 

Oxfordshire Guardian

http://oxfordshireguardian.co.uk/oxford-college-marks-40-years-of-coeducation/

 

USA Today

http://college.usatoday.com/2014/09/24/all-female-portrait-gallery-takes-over-oxford-dining-hall/

 

A Hertford College Post

http://www.hertford.ox.ac.uk/hertford-college-women-portrait-display

 

A University of Oxford Post

http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2014-09-25-hertford-hall-gets-gender-makeover-mark-coeducation-anniversary

 

Blogs

http://jamiecastell.wordpress.com/2014/09/22/hertford-college-portraits/

 

Remembrance, death, and belonging, from an Afro-Caribbean Perspective

On the 1st November The RAF Museum at Hendon will launch an exhibition about airmen of African and Caribbean Heritage who have served in the British Royal Air Force. I will be featured. For me information please see: http://tinyurl.com/qdtmtsh

(I’m interviewed in the film loop, and have one of the wall panels)

 

 

In 2005 I co-produced an exhibition of photographs and texts about Bereavement called LIGHT AFTER DEATH. One of the 28 items in the exhibition was a reflection on war memorials from a New Commonwealth Afro-Caribbean  perspective:

 

Poppy on Kente Cloth

(Kente is an Asante ceremonial hand-woven cloth from Ghana)

Every November on Remembrance Sunday special services are held at war memorials and churches all over Britain. A national ceremony takes place at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, London, in memory of the men and women who were killed during the two World Wars and other conflicts.

I served in the Royal Air Force in the 1970s. Over twenty years later, quite by chance, I met some West Indian World War ll Army veterans at a tiny exhibition at the Imperial War Museum about the African, Asian and West Indian contributions to the British war effort. One of the men had served in the British army during World War Two with my late Jamaican grandfather. When they found out about my military past they insisted that I join them at the Cenotaph in Whitehall at the next Remembrance Sunday ceremony.

Before that time I had never given much thought to the sacrifices of those killed in conflict and had certainly never thought of marching down Whitehall as part of a contingent of black ex-servicemen. I attended Quaker Meetings for many years, and now tend towards pacifism. What on earth would I be doing there? I was finally persuaded when they made it clear that it was really important for them that there was the possibility of a continued black presence at these kinds of events after they had died. They were worried in case people forgot that the fight against Hitler and all that he stood for was won with the help of all sorts of people who didn’t fit the stereotype of the brave white war hero depicted in film, fiction and documentary.

To my great surprise and relief we got a very warm welcome from massed the crowds as we marched around the streets of Whitehall. I felt immensely proud, very emotional and powerfully present to the memory of my late grandfather and his distinguished war service.

RAF Swinderby

Robert Taylor at his RAF passing out parade in 1975

 

 

Art, Science, and Ignorance

Nina edge

Nina edge

Nina Edge in her installation “Vitual Duality” (photo 1994, ICA commission)

I’m a photographer. I create portraits, and abstract/experimental images based on the human body. Some say I fit comfortably within the range of arty stereotypes. My partner of the last 19 years is an Oxford University academic who definitely conforms to some of the stereotypes of the geeky scientist.

People are often surprised that we’ve thrived as a couple for so long. To some, our relationship seems unlikely, reflecting the supposed gulf between scientists and the rest of society. Scientists are supposed to think, communicate and behave quite differently to the rest of us.

 

A recent experience forced me to question the extent and significance of this gulf. I’ve just returned from a trip to the old university town of Leuven in Belgium. My partner, a respected scientist specializing in pheromones, was invited to give a TEDx talk (TED stands for Technology, Education and Design. TEDx talks are organized under the auspices of the non-profit TED foundation which has the slogan “ideas worth spreading”.)

The challenge for speakers at the Leuven TEDx event  – all eminent research scientists – was to craft and deliver talks related to their areas of expertise, but with a largely civilian (non-specialists and non-scientists) audience in mind. Successful TED talks tend to be less about hard knowledge per se, and more about inspiring, challenging and entertaining an audience, by presenting fresh new ideas about the world and how we experience it.

I was very pleasantly surprised by the subject matter of some of the talks. In their different ways several of the speakers challenged my most basic assumptions about what science is, and what being a scientist is about.

The outstanding talk for me (apart from my partner’s of course) was given by Professor Stuart Firestein, intriguingly entitled “Celebrating Ignorance”. He is a Professor in Biological Sciences at Columbia University, New York.

His talk took a wry look at conventional notions of knowledge, fact and the scientific process. Generally we think of science as an orderly phenomenon – a collection of proven facts about the world. Professor Stuart does not see real science as like that at all. In his experience, few research scientists use a formal scientific method. He sees successful scientific research as often being as much about farting around in the dark as engaging in a rational definitive process.

This much fuzzier reality occurred to him as he reflected on his dual role as a professor (teacher), and investigator (research scientist). He teaches a lecture course based on a hugely comprehensive and highly respected text book that purports to impart a lot of knowledge about the human brain. He was concerned that some of his students might be left with a mistaken impression that mastering its text would amount to knowing all there is to know about the human brain.

At the same time, in his research lab, he, his students and colleagues often stumble around and come up with interesting questions, in an open ended process he often finds exhilarating. He also noticed that even when scientists were gathered more spontaneously, away from their labs etc. they tended to talk as much about what they didn’t know – about all the open questions and problems they were facing – as what they did.

He has seen this phenomenon as important enough to warrant a new university course and book, about ignorance. Of course, he’s not talking about the bad or negative model of ignorance that carries connotations of wilful denial of incontrovertible facts, rampant prejudice etc. He’s interested in the more fascinating kind of ignorance described by J.C. Maxwell, the distinguished 19th century theoretical physicist: “Thoroughly conscious ignorance is the prelude to every real advance in science.” George Bernard Shaw put it even more bluntly ”Science is always wrong. It never solves a problem without creating 10 more.

Science is much more than just an ever accumulating amount of clear and reliable facts or information. The purpose of knowing a lot of stuff isn’t just to know a lot of stuff, it’s to be able to frame ever more thoughtful, interesting questions. Knowledge leads us to higher-quality ignorance.

Returning to the great art/science divide, supposedly reflected in my relationship with my partner. It turns out that we have more in common than I’d previously considered.  In our respective working lives we’re both exploring, asking questions, never quite arriving, but enjoying a fascinating ride en route. Imagination and creativity are important to both of us. We are both wrestling with difficult questions that matter to us, and we both need to be creative in the ways we go about it, and communicate about it.

Perhaps I was not as brave in choosing to share my life with a scientist as it might seem. As I remember it, very early on, my partner appealed directly to my vanity by declaring that he’d already encountered and enjoyed my photography, long before we first met each. Does this prove that scientists can have impeccable artistic taste?