How does Briony Campbell’s The Dad Project compare with W. Eugene Smith’s Country Doctor? What do you think she means by ‘an ending without an ending’?
There are a number of things that these series have in common, and I found them both extremely moving. Both document the highest qualities of humanity – selfless devotion, unconditional love, compassion and empathy. But the two studies take quite different approaches to their subjects and have very different styles.
W. Eugene Smith’s photo essay, originally published in Time magazine in 1948 and republished by the same publication in 2012, follows tirelessly dedicated GP Dr Ernest Ceriani for 23 days as he goes about his work in a remote ranching area of Colorado, US. The images have a contemporaneous film noir aesthetic, and Dr Ceriani certainly fits the bill as leading man, his craggy handsomeness accentuated by W. Eugene Smith’s noir-style emphasis on light and shade, which also brings tension and drama into the images. That’s not to say that there isn’t tension and drama already present in the situations Smith shares with us – there certainly is, and we can read it in the expressions on people’s faces including that of our heroic doctor, who is generally calm and intensely serious, but occasionally reveals his exhaustion, and – in a particularly striking image that could easily pass for a still from a Hollywood classic – his sheer horror as he realises that, as the caption explains, “he must now find a way to tell the parents that [their two-year-old daughter’s] eye cannot be saved and they must take her to a specialist in Denver to have it removed”.
While the aesthetic style of the images refers to cinema, Smith’s essay is actually straight photojournalism and has the sense of detachment implied by that term. As we watch Ceriani tend to his patients we are outside of the frame of activity, observing events from a distance. We sometimes follow a single patient for two or even three images, but Smith’s overall intention is not to create a dramatic storyline but to document the way of life of a remote country doctor and his patients.
Briony Campbell’s The Dad Project offers a much more personal perspective. In her telling of the story of her father’s death from cancer, we are there in the frame with her. She is sharing with us not just her father’s illness but her feelings about it and about her relationship with him. This is why she describes it as “an ending without an ending”. The project’s raison d’être is her father’s impending death, and the project ends when his death occurs, but the emotional issues Campbell explores in her documentation of this process do not relate only to his death, or to any specific timeline. They are eternal features of her relationship with her father, which is arguably the real focus of the series – and, as the public response to the project demonstrates, has universal relevance. At some point in our lives we all experience love, loss and grief, and it is these themes that Campbell’s series and associated texts explore above all. The power of her work lies in the way she has been able to combine the intensely personal with the universal.
References and resources
Campbell, B. (2011) The Dad Project. Available at http://www.brionycampbell.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/The_Dad_Project_Briony_Campbell.pdf [accessed 08.05.18]
Cosgrove, B. (2012) “W. Eugene Smith’s Landmark Portrait: Country Doctor”. Time Life magazine. Available at http://time.com/3456085/w-eugene-smiths-landmark-photo-essay-country-doctor [accessed 08.05.18]