Everybody’s life is touched by the overwhelming experience of grief when a loved one dies – but too often, thinks Simon Bray, the prospect of losing those closest to us isn’t confronted until the final moment.
“It’s not something we talk about until we absolutely have to – that makes it harder when it does come to your doorstep and invades your very being,” says the artist and photographer, looking around the gallery at Weston Park Museum, in Sheffield where his exhibition, Loved&Lost, deals with the reality of bereavement and the importance of honouring people’s memories.
“I look back at photographs of a few days before my dad died – which was just after Christmas (in 2009) – and he looked so ill and frail, he’d had cancer for a long time. Anyone looking at that now would think ‘He’s only got moments to live’. Sitting in the front room opening presents as a family, even when it feels inevitable and the medication’s stopped working, you still don’t think ‘He’s going to die’, even when it’s right in front of you. I suppose it’s a mechanism to protect yourself. On a cultural and wider societal level, there’s more we could do to understand grief. We’re all going to die at some point.”
The gallery at Weston Park has been turned into a quiet, contemplative space. There are comfortable sofas, and boxes of tissues are placed on tables – a gesture that recognises visitors’ emotions may still be raw beneath the surface, sometimes years after a death.
On the walls, nine sets of pictures are displayed with accompanying text. Each set consists of an original image, depicting a person with someone dear to them who has died, and new photographs taken by Simon which involve those still alive restaging their old picture.
It is a simple but powerful concept, and a highly effective means of representing physical loss. One participant shares the story of saying goodbye to her dad, restaging a photograph in a hotel in Scarborough, while a man goes back to Hillsborough’s South Stand to watch Sheffield Wednesday for the first time since his dad died.
Simon’s mother, Anne, was the first person to be photographed and interviewed. Her husband – Simon’s father – Peter died aged 51 of prostate cancer; Anne went back to St Giles Hill in Winchester, where she and Peter had a picture taken a few days after they got engaged in 1981.
“It was quite poignant for me to sit there and hear my mum reflecting on her life with my dad, which is different from my life with my dad – how they met, the fact he asked her whether he could propose three times before she said yes,” says Simon.
Simon’s family was shaken by tragedy again when his sister, Jess, died 18 months ago from a brain tumour aged 29, leaving a husband and their young daughter.
It was, he says, ‘really tough’, especially so coming after the death of their father. “For a while I thought I couldn’t work on any more stories, and then this opportunity came up in Sheffield and it felt like the right space. I knew they’d do a beautiful job of presenting it.”
Sadness does not permeate his photographs – they possess an air of poignancy instead. In many of the images the subjects are smiling.
“Everybody’s said what a positive experience it’s been to go back to the place and celebrate that person, to say ‘This is what they were, and what they meant to me’. People have maybe been surprised about getting a bit emotional, particularly some of the guys. Talking about it isn’t always easy. You have to find a way to let it out. Other cultures would have a period of lamenting, or there’s more structure around acknowledging a death. That’s something we’ve lost.”
Loved&Lost is at Weston Park Museum until April 19. Admission is free.