O’Neill brothers (1977-2017)
“A photograph is only a fragment and with the passage of time it’s moorings come unstuck. It drifts away into a soft abstract pastness, open to any kind of reading (or matching to other photographs).” (Sontag, S. 1977: p71)
I felt that this quotation hints at the interesting yet potentially problematic aspects of intervening with archived or found photographs; either way the thought of finding new information, reflections or perspectives which could possibly alter our reading of the past is highly attractive.
To undertake this exercise I have identified 5 photographs of my brothers and myself from 1977 to 2017.
Some families are organised in their family network and regular reunions, we get together for weddings and funerals. Mum and Dad separated 30 years ago; Frank did n’t like to put himself on show and he did n’t deliver the father’s speech at our sister’s wedding.
Figure 1: In the backyard of Garden Street (1977) (L-R), Michael 13, Kieran 7, Allan 10)
Kieran and myself were always friendly to each other and probably closest. Michael was the oldest and would be closer to Kieran if anybody at all. Michael and myself were never really close – we were more like when people come together within a group who if outside of the group would never have been friends. As children we were happy, we were brothers and we generally rubbed along pretty well.
Figure 2: 1988 – Burnley fans outside Wembley stadium (foreground L-R) Michael 24, Allan 21)
Kieran is missing from this photograph as by now he was an apprentice with Burnley FC and was therefore part of the official club party.
Figure 3: Michael’s wedding reception (1990) (L-R) Kieran 20, Michael 26, Allan 23)
Michael is central to this photograph and of course to the day, I am his best man – he motions for me to speed to the end of the speech after I get into my stride and jokingly embarrass his new mother-in-law. He is a painter and decorator but no longer working for our Dad, I am at University.
Figure 4: My house in Worcester (1997) (L-R) Michael 33, Allan 30, Dad 63, Kieran 27)
I have now left University, moved away and started a career with an international insurance company. Kieran is visiting England having moved to the USA to take up a soccer scholarship at an American University. Michael is still painting and decorating but has left Burnley and moved down to Birmingham.
Figure 5: Dad’s funeral (2017) (L-R) Kieran 46, Allan 49, Michael 52)
I brought Dad down to live in Worcestershire so that he could be closer for care and support 6 years ago after his long-term partner died. I organised Dad’s funeral and dealt with his possessions and final arrangements.
Of the three of us Kieran being the youngest probably shaded Dad’s interest due mainly to his ability as a footballer as he went onto become an apprentice with Burnley FC. Carol our older sister was bright and very sociable, she passed the 11+ to get into Grammar school and was always Dad’s favourite, fathers and daughters etc. I was always considered the most like Frank as I seemed to possess his sense of humour – so we always got on well but because I was effectively the middle boy and had an easy going nature I probably received less attention as we grew up but more when I went to University. Michael was often in the spotlight for being considered by Dad as difficult in general. He and Dad never really got on that well, they clashed and the relationship was always a little tense and difficult especially when Michael worked for dad straight from school at 16. Where was Mum? Always in the kitchen, our house was like a cafe and she ran it.
Very much the usual family stuff with 6 people living in a terraced house, we just got on with things and were generally a normal, happy, cheerful and cohesive working class family in the 1970s and 80s.
I initially expected these photographs to be an exploration of the changing relationship and dynamic between Michael and myself. I thought this would be a story of myself and my brother and dealing with long-standing deeper underlying resentments. The relationship between my older brother and myself is actually normally quite good natured if not a little distant – or rather we just don’t really talk – although we are very very different people – I am as open as he is closed.
However after deeper reflections I have come to recognise that there were more significant and wider ranging factors to recognise and that our family was dominated and organised according to a fading working class patriarchal structure and hierarchy.
I have felt for sometime that our (very) well-meaning Dad being as he was as well as being an alcoholic placed restrictions on what the family could ever actually achieve – but I had n’t quite recognised the full impact that this might have had on individual relationships or the family dynamics. Again I think much of this commentary would be very common to most families living within this social and economic environment and generation.
The final photograph (2017) (figure 5) was taken at Dad’s funeral and alongside this passing away of the head of the family I feel that, maybe for myself at least, our family dynamic allows a more modern almost meritocratic mode based on individual relationships, common interests, and mutual benefits.
Of course to a degree families exist within their historical context but it now feels more fluid, less structured – as if old rules no longer apply. We may well as a result see less or more of different members of the family but it does n’t seem to matter anymore.
Hopefully I have reflected in an open, transparent and objective manner over this subject – perhaps more so than I have previously done before and my analysis has reached well beyond purely looking for simple clues within the frame of the photograph.
There are examples of punctum especially in the first and last photographs for myself – In the first photograph there is my closeness to Kieran – I love this photograph and it reminds me of a very happy childhood.
In the last photograph I have found myself in a more central position in the image but I have always but not knowingly challenged if not disrupted the notion of family hierarchy so I am adamant that I have not risen within one now.
I see myself as a fair-minded individual who is increasingly challenging in their thinking and I do not religiously nor nostalgically believe or trust in such structures which can often be both claustrophobic and controlling; I do not wish to be above or below anybody else so for me the thought of a hierarchy or traditional order in our family – if it ever actually existed – has died along with Frank.
A really interesting and enjoyable exercise that became very therapeutic! I have seen how Photographs can seem to create a sense of authenticity and of documentary factual evidence which can be made to facilitate or substantiate debate or opinion.
I recognise that this has not necessarily been entirely a nostalgic trip but by bringing these images together for the first time I have really exposed and laid bare some initial reflections about how I feel my family past has been constructed.
Whilst this project would be very early work in progress I am pleased with this starting point but I also realise that this is my story and so I will finish with another interesting quote from Susan Sontag,
“the arbitrariness of photographic evidence indicates that reality is fundamentally unclassifiable. Reality is summed up in an array of casual fragments – an endlessly alluring, poignantly reductive way of dealing with the world.” (Sontag, S. 1977.80)
Sontag, S (1977) On Photography (re-issued 2008) London: Penguin Classics