“It’s really nice to share these stories with people and try to encourage them to engage with loss and talk about it,” photographer Simon Bray tells me as we discuss his exhibition at Weston Park Museum.
Loved&Lost is the culmination of a photography project Simon has worked on over the last six years of his life. Inside the gallery nine sets of selected pictures are featured with accompanying text. Each set consists of an original photo, depicting a person with someone they’ve lost, and a new photograph taken by Simon restaging the old photograph in the same location.
It is a simple but moving concept. One participant recreates a childhood photo taken on a family walk, sitting on a bridge with his brother who looks nearly identical. Another returns to the prom in Penzance where they’d taken a selfie on holiday with their boyfriend, having met on Guardian Soulmates. While another goes back to Hillsborough’s Stadium to watch Sheffield Wednesday for the first time since his dad died, reliving a routine they’d kept for 20 years.
Simon’s mother, Anne, was the first person he photographed for the project. Her husband Peter (Simon’s father) died aged 51 of prostate cancer in December 2009. Simon describes the loss as wounding the deepest part of his being and shaping the following years of his life. But visiting St Giles Hill in Winchester, where his parents had a picture taken a few days after they got engaged in 1981, helped to change his perspective.
Talking over a cup of tea with his mum up on the hill after recreating the photo, Simon found it therapeutic to hear her share stories about his father. “It made me realise that the photographs are a really good way into this story and they represent the loss as there is a clear space in the recreated image, but it was in the conversation after that the real depth came out.”
Since then Simon has photographed a further 19 people for the project. After establishing his process, he opened it up to public participants who approached him via a website. He says they might have a phone call or Skype chat beforehand but for the most part he was meeting a stranger at a location they’d chosen for their photograph.
“This could be somewhere they know very well and go back to very regularly or it could be somewhere they haven’t been for 40 years and everything in between, so there is a real range of stories and breadth of experiences contained within these stories.”
He found the sensory experience of these places – their sights, smells and sounds – would evoke memories for his participants. They would engage in intimate conversations about their lost ones and “largely celebrate them through stories.”
“There is a level of trust because there is that inherent understanding that we’d both experienced significant loss so it meant that the conversations felt open and easy,” Simon explains. “I was amazed by the sentiments that people shared and the stories people were willing to offer for the project.”
One of these stories in the Loved&Lost exhibition was specially commissioned by the museum. Simon met Sheffield local Kyle and spent time in St Luke’s Hospice with him where they recreated a photograph in memory of Kyle’s grandfather who was cared for there, having moved to England from Jamaica as part of the Windrush generation.
Simon, 32, grew up in Winchester but lives in Manchester, where he went to university and his interest in photography began, using it as a medium to explore the city. He started the project at the beginning of his journey as a photographer, and so describes his method as “very instinctive.”
“I feel like there isn’t a very distinctive aesthetic – it was more about what do I need to adequately tell this story. And I’ve had to stay true to that. Obviously over six years my photographic style and my influences have changed a lot and so I’ve tried my best to maintain that fairly clean feel for the photographs.”
Simon believes the participants feel like they are given an opportunity to honour somebody no longer with them and so has crafted it into a positive experience.
“I don’t want to sound too presumptuous or even verging on arrogant but I think I knew when I was starting the project that it had a lot of power to engage people with a subject matter that is seemingly very difficult to talk about.
“Restaging an old photograph isn’t a new technique but I suppose it was that belief in it that has kept me working on it for so long – it’s rare to find a project that keeps giving back to you.”
However, there have been times when the project has been challenging. Simon admits the project can be emotionally tiring to make – spending a day with someone talking about their loss before going away to transcribe their interview means he has to spend long periods of time dwelling on their stories.
Then 18 months ago Simon’s family was shaken by tragedy when his sister, Jess, died from a brain tumour aged 29. Simon decided to take a break from the project to look after himself for a while, particularly as his wife gave birth to their daughter shortly afterwards.
For a while Simon thought he couldn’t work on any more stories, but when the opportunity came up for the exhibition at Weston Park he felt able to embrace it.
“I had a very strong idea of what I wanted the exhibition to look like and I’m delighted with it. I didn’t want it to look too formulaic or too busy – I wanted to make it look approachable and warm; to be inviting and a space you want to spend time in.”
Simon visited the exhibition with his mother and says it was really special if not slightly overwhelming for her to see her photo on display.
“I always wanted a lot of people to see the stories because there are a lot of people who have lost someone like I have but don’t know where to turn.
“I wanted these stories to translate to people to offer a bit of support and solace and I know they are doing that because I get messages from around the world telling me they have provided comfort.”
Loved&Lost is at Weston Park Museum until 19 April.
Featured Image: Museums Sheffield.