Abbie Trayler-Smith on intimacy in her work and her Panos print ‘Duck Devil’
It wasn’t really a project. I was working for a newspaper, doing five or six jobs a day, it was bang, bang, bang; take the pictures, and get it back to the picture desk. The diary work was the opposite of that. It was a very slow process, a way to find my voice. What am I drawn to when nobody’s telling me what to photograph?
I was using a Ricoh camera that I carried on me all the time. Shooting on film you can’t look at the back of the camera. You’re really engaged in the moment and you’re not thinking, what does the picture look like? After a few months I’d print out the images and lay them out on the floor and edit them into a book, a black bound book. Normally it’s square, so I can put two pictures on each page and you can have four pictures on a double page spread if you need, but that’s important, the object, the holding of that book, and then going through a journey in it. I’ve got 10 of those books.
What I’ve noticed through the work, is the mood can lift up and it can go down again. The process of shooting and then editing and putting the images together in a book is therapeutic somehow, it helps me to pack away and archive and sit with things that have happened to me. It gives me some kind of flow through my life. And that’s what it’s always done. That’s why I call it the diary project, because it’s about reflections, it helps me translate the world around me and process what’s going on.
This picture, I was living in a flat in Brick Lane with a lovely guy called Damon. It was a moment in my life where things felt very up in the air. And the little duck sat on the side of the bathroom, and just summed up where I felt I was, perched on the edge. Not quite knowing where I was going. That’s why I took that image, it represented something to me. It summed up my time in that flat, and a period of time where things felt quite transient.
I’d gone through like seven or eight Ricoh cameras by that point and broken them all. That camera would go everywhere with me. That included going to lots of parties where they ended up flying across the dance floor at 4am. That’s what happened to those cameras. They just partied too hard baby, they partied too hard.
I think all photographers are drawn to light, noticing what kind of qualities of light you really love. But this project and process helped me to realise that for me photography is about intimacy with the people I’m photographing. I’m a documentary and portrait photographer. I look at social issues, things that matter to human beings. I’m driven by people and a desire to get under the skin of people, to find out what really matters and what the human condition is all about. So whether I’m tackling a subject like obesity, which is something very personal to me, or whether I’m in a post conflict zone, it’s about finding out what makes people tick. And what drives us. What are those commonalities between humans? Where can we find common ground? I think the diary work underpins everything really, because it was the route into understanding mood and meaning and conveying a feeling rather than something literal.
The obesity work is probably the project I’m most proud of, which I’ve called the Big O. This year, I’m bringing out my book Kiss It, which is a chapter of that work, documenting the life of Shannon over the course of 10 years. I feel like I’ve put my heart and soul into that project and during making it I’ve learned what it means to be vulnerable, and what it means to be curious, and what it means to be available. And when you put all that into your work, I think something magical happens.