IAP 1 exercise 1.4 archival intervention

A chronotype series documenting the relationship between me and my sisters from 1962 to 2017, curated from my family archive.

When we were growing up I never thought about whether my sisters and I were close or whether we cared much for each other. I was two and a half years older than Jane and nearly four years older than Sarah, and was very much the older sister, left in charge while our parents were out at parties or the officers’ mess. Parties were a big part of army life in the 1960s, and my father was repeatedly elected PMC (President of the Mess Committee), which effectively made him the host of mess events. There were also a lot of parties in our cellar, which my father converted into a party den with a fully stocked bar and wallpaper made from pages of Playboy magazine.

I recall feeling protective towards and responsible for my siblings, but I also considered them a bit of a nuisance at times, and don’t know how I’d have responded if anyone had asked me at the time whether I loved them. It’s not a question anyone ever asked, nor one I recall ever asking myself. But now when I look at these pictures I see that our relationship was actually very special, with an unquestioning mutual acceptance. Perhaps that’s what love really is.

My father was a keen photographer and took the first six of these photos, and possibly also the seventh. He died of leukaemia in 2015, but I only saw him a handful of times after my parents split up in the early 1980s and he started a new family. When he was dying, Jane scanned hundreds of his old slides and prints, and would show him a few every time she visited him in hospital. Towards the end he was permanently unresponsive, but Jane reported that he sometimes made a small sign of acknowledgement when she showed him one of the images. After he died she forwarded the scans she’d made to myself, Sarah and our brother Mark, and this is the archive from which I’ve curated this selection. It was a deeply moving experience to encounter my personal history in this form, even though I already had clear and strong memories of the places and people in the images, and even of many of the images themselves, as we’d seen them as slideshows at home.

There’s a big gap in the sequence between the seventh photo, taken in 1976 or 1977, and the eighth, taken in 2017. We did see each other from time to time in that 40-year period, but not very often. These were the years when we dispersed to go to university and ended up living a long way away from each other. While Jane and Sarah got married and had children, I lived in squats and co-ops in London and partied extensively. We met up occasionally but increasingly rarely. Often a year or two would go by without me making contact with or hearing from either of them.

The decades slipped by, their children grew up and left home and my partying eventually gave way to a healthier lifestyle. Then out of the blue on the last day of 2016 my partner of 25 years dumped me, and I found myself alone in a town I had no connection with. I emailed my sisters to tell them of my change in circumstance, and the three of us set up a whatsapp group. We’ve been in close contact ever since, and I don’t know how I would have got through 2017 without them. The final photo in this series was taken by one of my nieces when we all got together in August 2017.

When I look back at these photos now, I see the thread of continuity running through our lives. Although the series doesn’t have the consistent format and unbroken continuity of Nicholas Nixon’s study of the Brown sisters, the impact is not dissimilar in the way it tracks the relationship between us. I also see how much the three of us have made each other the people that we still are today. And I see what a blessing it is to have sisters.