My Sunday Interview with…Siani Warner

by Rebecca J Gerken

Over the last year or so, Siani Warner has been photographing her family closely and tenderly. Deciding to reveal all and continue with her series Returning Home, she kindly took the time to talk to me about all things familial and photographic.

RG: What inspired you to photograph your family?

SW: This photograph in particular *holds up a Polaroid image of herself lying on a sofa on her 10th birthday with ‘her new kitten Billy’* I’ve always had it with me and it’s a very special photograph to me because it’s something that I won’t ever forget. It’s something that marked an event in my life.

My mum was also my main inspiration for starting a project because when I was growing up she would always have a camera and film everything when we were younger. She has influenced my work. That picture pretty much started it because she stopped taking pictures after this photograph so I decided that I should take the role, take her role, and to view my family how I want other people to view it. They’re not really traditional family photographs either, just one’s that are fleeting and because my family aren’t the conventional, nuclear family either, they make quite an interesting subject. My family is quite unique in terms of structure.

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RG: When did your project start to form?

SW: It started in my second year of university and it’s called Returning Home and is ongoing, branching off this year in my Major Practical Project module from that first project. My dissertation is about family photographs and why they are important and in another module, Mixed Media, I am writing letters to my grandparents who live quite far away from me. I’m asking my granddad to send me photographs of him, my Nan and my father who I haven’t seen in childhood pictures before. I thought that would be interesting, as if to discover the boy he used to be.

Continuing on with Returning Home, I suppose it’s kind of in the style of Billingham’s Ray’s a Laugh, though I’m not trying to brand my work with saying it’s too similar because it’s not that kind of aesthetic. It’s the sense of truth in the photographs. I’m going to attempt to not hide things as much as I might have last year.

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RG: Is there an overriding reason to why you work solely with analogue?

SW: Simply because I love the whole texture and the quality it has to it. It’s nothing that a digital camera could outweigh for me. I’d like to use medium format at some point but you have to sort of plan what you’re going to photograph as you have less shots and I don’t think that that is my way of working. I like to photograph things that only happen once and you couldn’t ask to be repeated. In terms of film, I’m going to use footage as well to make it feel nostalgic, like home movies.

I know some of my images in the past I have staged because there has been something I want to remember though. For instance, there was a photograph I took of my brother, Henry, with my sister’s daughter, where I asked him to pick up my dad’s cat and put it round his neck, so it was like a cat scarf *we laugh*. It was something unusual, something untraditional as what I imagine as a tradition family photograph is quite Victorian – all standing together, very formal – whereas I’m trying to break that aesthetic.

RG: Without being able to check the images as you take them as you can with digital, do you know when you get a good shot?

SW: I always feel like something in my heart tells me, ‘That was good, that’s going to be a great picture.’ It’s the first time I’ve actually felt proud of my own work because this is something very personal to me and it’s relative to other people, to outsiders looking in.

RG: You exhibited two of the photographs of your brother in a group exhibition earlier this year. How do you feel about seeing your personal, family images on a gallery wall?

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SW: I find it quite amusing because those kinds of images are personal. They should be in the home but because I’m a photographer photographing my family, I feel they should be in a gallery exhibit as I don’t see enough of it. It’s a nice juxtaposition. I’ve got a lot of feedback from it as the pictures themselves were quite contrasting with my brother’s expressions. In one of them you see the typical, childish, boyish face-pulling but it the other he looks very serious and it’s haunting in a way. It makes me feel uneasy when I look at it but when I took the photograph I had a Eureka moment thinking, ‘Yes, this is exactly what I want!’ With his facial expression he looks older than five in that picture, like the man he is going to be.

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RG: With the project continuing, do you have any more plans for exhibiting?

SW: Well, I don’t necessarily have a structured plan but I would like to exhibit it in a book and framed in a gallery. Also I am going to be writing a journal about everything that is going on around me, observations.

I’ve asked my father to go through his pictures and tell me which are important and why as it interests me and it’s a way for me to get to know my dad. Our relationship is not strange, but I feel we could be even closer than we are and I think that by photographing him and looking back on previous photographs we can have a connection in that way. My parents don’t live together.

RG: Is it your mum’s house you call home?

SW: Yes, it is my childhood home. I’ve lived there since I was two years old. Whenever I go there I always feel nostalgic. I know that I’m going to have to leave it one day and that’s quite hard to deal with.

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RG: If you published your series in a book, will it be like returning the project to its origin, in the style of a family photo album?

SW: Yes. Yes, it will be like a photo album, designed like a traditional family book but with contrasting images in it. There’s a picture I have just taken of my niece that I really like and can imagine in the book. She’s lying on the sofa, just in her underwear, and the contrasting cushions and things like that…it’s really quite lovely to look at, natural, in a way. But also I’d like to have pictures in there that are quite shocking, things you wouldn’t expect to see. Something like a family argument and it could be one scale to the next, just I want people not to expect the expected. I’m excited by it and just want to get going with it all the time. It’s expensive travelling back home all the time, but it’ll be worth it.

RG: Do you see a clear end to this project?

SW: No. There’s no end to it. It will definitely continue to be ongoing because I’m going to try to capture the lives of each family member; my mum’s family, my dad’s family and people separately. Because we are all growing up, my older siblings have their own children now which I still find strange and I think it will be really great to be able to show my younger siblings my work in the future, especially photographs of themselves. It will be something to talk about every time I see them. Also, I want people to see that they shouldn’t be afraid and hide their family secrets. I try to reveal my own and I’m reflecting on myself too, by writing in this journal.

RG: Can you tell me a little more about what else you’re working on at the moment?

SW: I’m writing to my dad’s parents, adoptive but we see them as grandparents, as I mentioned, because they live in Birmingham and I don’t feel close to them at all in terms of distance and emotionally. It’s sad really. The only fond memories I have of them is when I used to go to their house in Wales and I have really happy memories from then. At the moment, though, my granddad is quite lonely and I relate to him with that because my Nan has Parkinson’s and Dementia which is tough. I guess writing to him…it’ll hopefully give him a sense of purpose as well. I feel good about that kind of contact because talking on the phone is always awkward.

RG: How often are you writing to them?

SW: I wrote a letter a couple of weeks ago but he hasn’t replied yet because I asked him to go through his albums and send me a photograph and write to me about it. He grew up in World War II so has some interesting stories. He laughs about it which I can’t understand but maybe that’s a kind of recovery from the trauma. He’s quite a humorous person to be around.

That’s one part of a project. The other part is to photograph my siblings. I have quite a lot of siblings; there are eight of us in total. I have five brothers and two sisters. There are some that I am closer to than others. For example, my brother, Lee, has the same biological parents as me so therefore we feel closer in general so I talk to him more about things I wouldn’t talk to my brother Danny about, as I haven’t spoken to him in two years because of a family feud. I’d like to photograph him and interview him as well though. I was also going to go through family albums, show them photographs and get them to talk about the images, if they even remember it being taken and so on. There are so many areas I could go into with this.

I suppose these projects are a different way of seeing the familial, with a different output to my Returning Home series.

RG: My topical question for you today, as you have mentioned nostalgia: How did you find the Nostalgias conference a few weeks ago?

SW: I found it really enlightening actually. I particularly liked Rosy Martin and Nancy Martha West. I found them both relevant to my research, for my practical projects rather than my dissertation. They were both my kind of Speakers, especially with Rosy Martin’s home videos about her mum involving asking questions to her and so on. I found it quite disturbing because you had to figure out what was going on. Her parent’s house is a bus ride away from my house which is amusing.

RG: Thank you so much for your time today. You’re such an interesting person and I love how passionate you are about all of your projects. I can’t wait to see what you produce and I wish you every success with it.

To see more of Siani’s work, go to www.sianiwarner.co.uk

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