Léonie Hampton: Family photos

Léonie Hampton: Family photos

By Tim Burrows 13/07/11

Photographer Léonie Hampton (pictured below) has made a career out of capturing the uncanny in domestic settings. Her latest book and exhibition project, In The Shadow of Things, focuses on her own family – specifically her mother, Bron, whose obsessive compulsive disorder had reached a debilitating degree. She spoke to Tim Burrows about what it is like working on such a raw and personal project...

My mother’s OCD came on quite slowly and first manifested itself with her compulsively washing her hands when I was around eight or nine.

It then progressed to things being put into boxes, culminating in leaving boxes and boxes of her stuff unpacked for years after she moved house. Four years ago we went to go and see a counsellor and some fairly traumatic memories came up – something that happened to her when I was around five or six that she didn’t share with any of us, not even my father. I really think that that was the root of the problem: she suffered a trauma and buried it rather than dealt with it. She built a wall of boxes around her to keep the world out.

I wanted to put my time into trying to help Mum and sort the house out. I came there as a photographer as well as a daughter, which was a positive aspect as it meant that she has never felt guilty that I spent so much time helping her clear her house because I didn’t give up my life. I focused my life and my job on clearing the house, which was quite a privileged situation to be in.

Marco Delogu, the curator of FotoGrafia, Rome’s international festival of photography, convinced me to show the work to the public in 2008, which eventually led to the book being published by Contrasto. I was quite intimidated by committing to a book, especially as we hadn’t cleared a lot of the house and everything was quite raw and difficult, but I spoke to my mum about it, and she said she thought we could do it.

The book gave us a goal to get everything done by a certain time. There are still a couple of rooms in the house that we still need to do, but now the book is out we are working at about 100 times the pace that we were before. I think it froze this moment in time and this part of her personality, giving us a foundation from which to then go forwards.

Sometimes Mum is content with it but sometimes it is really difficult for her. I believe that ultimately it is positive – otherwise I wouldn’t have done it – but to be positive with this type of thing is often quite painful as well: it rips up things that one covers up. In the future it will be interesting to see how we look at the project as we are now still in the middle of it. The book is having such an effect on us, it is out there and it is not really ours any more.

In the book there are eight pages of old family photographs. It was really interesting going through them all, as my family – my grandmother and my father especially – photographed our life daily. There were pictures of Granny washing up or hoovering: very banal stuff.

In some ways it is a nice idea that I am just continuing what they were always doing, but taking it to an area that they didn’t obviously go – into a more psychological dimension. I think I was taught by them to not just photograph everyone standing and smiling into the camera, but to try to catch the activity of life. Some of the best photography is in family albums, naturally and unconsciously made.


Léonie was talking to Tim Burrows.

Join Léonie at Roof Unit, London, on 21 July for a presentation of In the Shadow of Things. Visit Léonie’s website

If you’re working on a creative project about mental health – or any other health issues – take a look at our Wellbeing Fund.

Plus, we’re offering bursaries for 10 photographers to attend Magnum's latest Professional Practice seminar in London. Apply now.

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