Person of Marvel: Simon Bray, Founder of the Loved&Lost Project
“Imagery allows for expression beyond what we can speak of.” - Simon Bray
Such is the nature of death that regardless of our background, upbringing and experience, the loss of a loved one will forever be one of the realities of life that binds us all.
While our cultural ties and familial traditions inform how we choose to commemorate and express our grief, the universal nature of this phenomenon continues to fuel the narrative around one the most painful strands of love and loss.
For many who have experienced grief, it can be exceedingly difficult to articulate the plethora of emotions which death evokes with words alone. In my personal experience, I have found huge comfort in trawling through old family photo albums, pouring over fixed moments in time, indulging in nostalgia and the raw portraiture of love.
And yet, the transactional admin that follows death and the enduring stigma around it means that very little time is granted for simply sitting with the elephant in the room.
Having experienced grief first-hand when his father passed away, Manchester-based photographer Simon Bray is all too aware of the importance of facing up to loss and the powerful effect of using images as a gateway to acknowledging and interacting with the topic.
In 2013 Simon created the documentary project, Loved&Lost, which explores the experience of death and loss through the medium of photography and audio. Participants are given the opportunity to select a favourite photograph of themselves with their loved one who has passed, before returning to the location where the image was taken for it to be recaptured by Simon.
“Grief is the price we pay for love,” may seem like a throwaway sentiment, offering little solace to those processing their loss however, the pain felt in the days, months and years afterwards speaks volumes about the strength and endurance of love. Simon’s curation of the Loved&Lost provides individuals a safe and communal outlet for these emotions while reminding us that we do not need to be defined by the negative connotations of grief. It was a pleasure to speak with Simon about how photography can be a powerful interlocutor, his own interpretations of loss and how this ignites his own creativity.
Can you tell us about how you came to create the Loved&Lost project?
I lost my dad to prostate cancer in 2009. As a photographer, I wanted to find a way to visualize the loss that so many of us have encountered, whilst also encouraging conversation about loss. Telling stories through Loved&Lost has allowed me to invite participants to share their experiences of grief, whilst also offering them a platform to celebrate somebody dear to them who is no longer with us.
A picture is worth a thousand words, how relevant is this sentiment to the work you create?
Certainly, there’s a truth in the notion that images can transmit a certain emotion and narrative in a way that would take a lot longer with words. In today’s culture, images are used to an increasing degree in order to portray stories and deliver information because we just don’t seem to have the patience to read any significant number of words any more.
In terms of Loved&Lost, the photography is a way to introduce the story, to represent the physical loss, the space left behind by that person, but the real depth of the project comes through the interview, in the talking and the words of the participants.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of creating the Loved&Lost project?
It’s been a huge privilege to meet every one of the participants and be allowed into their story in order to share it with an audience. It’s also very comforting to know that the stories are reaching people who find solace in them and gain strength, knowing that they’re not alone.
Why do you think the stigma around loss and grief persists even in times when the conversations around mental health and wellbeing are becoming normalized?
It is getting better, people do seem more willing to talk than 5 or 10 years ago, but there’ll always be a certain stigma around death, it’s just not something that most people feel the need to engage with on a day-to-day basis. In fact, until it lands on your doorstep, I don’t know why you’d really spend a significant amount of time thinking or talking about it, (unless you’re searching for your existential meaning in life!) and that means it’s just not something that most people have a context, reason or vocabulary to talk about it.
How important has your own creative process been for understanding how you acknowledge and deal with love and loss?
I was talking with my mum a couple of weeks ago and she was trying to understand how I might process my grief in a different way to her, and it became clear to her that we go about things in very different ways, mainly because I can work things out through my creative projects. There’s no right or wrong way to process things, but through Loved&Lost in particular, talking with others in a similar position has certainly helped me understand my own grief. It’s also comforting to know that in some small way, I’m helping others, which has grown out of something deeply painful in my life.
What has your field of work taught you about people in terms of loss, love and emotion?
That talking is the most helpful thing. That we’re all searching, but that we all need each other.
Your portfolio features the many different forms of love, what is it that draws you to this subject matter?
Often, subject matter is dictated by the narrative of the project. I want to make work that is democratic, that can be related to by anyone, without having to have a prior understanding of the medium, which compared to other art forms, photography has the power to do. I’m drawn to different subject matter depending on the idea. I’ll think carefully about how I want to transmit that idea to the audience and then there’s a long process of shooting, editing, curating and delivering the project to an audience.
What was it like to produce Martin Parr's 'Return to Manchester' exhibition this past year?
It was an honour. I mean, it was hard work, but a privilege to support the creation of Martin’s commission from Manchester Art Gallery. I was able to work closely with the curator and Martin to arrange a series of locations in which Martin could create new work. The reaction to the exhibition has been really encouraging, but these new images will take on new meaning as time passes, so it’ll be in 20 or 30 years time that their true value is revealed.
Who and where do you draw inspiration from?
All over the place, podcasts, magazines, conversations with friends and artists. Photographers like Alec Soth, Sian Davey and Raymond Meeks, who make environmental portraits with beautiful natural light.
The ideas that usually draw me in though are personal to me, they have sentiments that I want to explore for myself, but through other people and other means. It’s hard to escape myself in that sense, I don’t think I’ve ever really made work that I’ve removed myself from.
Can you tell us a bit more about your involvement with 'This is The Place' - Manchester’s Choose Love project?
James, who was running the project is a good friend of mine. He asked me to make a photograph for one of the lines of Tony’s poem, and of course I obliged. I was at the vigil (for the Manchester bombing attack of 2017), in the town square when Tony recited the poem. I couldn’t see anything, but I could hear him declaring these incredible sentiments. It gave me shivers. The atmosphere was so tangible, such sadness, but such strength and unity amidst a crowd of strangers united by our city.
I wanted to make an image that captured the tongue in cheek nature of the line, that commuting is of course something that so many of us have to grin and bear each day, so the guy looking slightly exasperated wiping his face seemed to sum that up nicely.
Can you describe you work in three words?
Meaning through beauty.
Complete the sentence, love is...
Putting others before yourself.