As a foreigner in the UK I get asked a lot where home is, how often I go home, whether I miss home. I often ask myself the first question too. With every passing year, home becomes more ambiguous, more distanced in space, in time and splintered within the self. There is a home before and after I left, before and after my sisters left, before and after members of our family started passing away. Home is a horn of plenty – plenty of joy and of grief.
When we talk about his book, I Just Want to Stay Home, the last question I ask Robbie Spotswood is what he means by home. He was born in the UK, but half his family has its origins in Ghana. He doesn’t speak Twi – the dialect spoken by his Ghanaian family members. Here he is Black, while in Ghana he is Obroni (white person). The title of his book came from a certain feeling of not wanting to leave the house during a darker period of his life; the home, in this case, was where his family was. The home was a safe space of ambivalent isolation – away from the rest of the world, but in communion with dear ones.
Robbie photographs his family from this place of in-between-ness. The book comprises images taken in the UK and Ghana in the years before, and on the days after his Ghanaian grandmother passed away. He wrote the short text at the end of the publication a couple of years after this event. The photographs capture the familial everyday, but after the disappearance of his grandmother, they also become something else; death here functions as a lens through which these images coalesce, becoming ‘small instances of significance’. Earlier in the text, Robbie writes that he has ‘a hard time remembering small beautiful moments’. I suspect we all do. Photography can somewhat alleviate this, provided the photographer has an eye for the fleeting second. The image’s potential for significance can be fulfilled later.
The photographer in search of small beautiful moments works in a perpetual state of anticipation.
The photographer in search of small beautiful moments works in a perpetual state of anticipation. On the one hand, he tries to single out from the images before him that one remarkable, decisive moment. The small, square picture on the cover of the book is a fragment of a full-body portrait of one of Robbie’s cousins, taken as he is being shown by his father how to wrap his body in kente cloth in preparation for their grandmother’s funeral. Shot only in partial movement, without any awareness of the camera, the body looks sculptural, its posture resembling Michelangelo’s David. Kente cloth is a fabric worn at special occasions, whose patterns hold particular meanings. To represent this emotionally charged moment, where the passing on of tradition becomes alive, Robbie followed his cousin as he dressed and intuited his moves in order to capture him in the process of learning how to put on the kente.
On the other hand, the photographer who makes images of his own family shoots what he thinks are pictures worthy of recollection; in a way, he is both operator of the camera and spectator at the same time, because he anticipates the future gaze of others. Robbie and other artists whose subjects are domestic life and the family are in the complicated position of being part of the familial group and also outside of it. This is a place where the boundaries between photographer and subject, between what can be photographed and what should only be seen within the family, become blurred. They are at ease to photograph their close ones and they have access to the most intimate moments; but they also have the responsibility of representing this intimacy with respect and dignity. Towards the end of the book, we encounter a portrait of Robbie’s mother sitting and looking with pain into the distance. Her figure is shrouded in darkness, only her earring and her face reflect the light. Taken shortly after returning from the funeral in Ghana, it is a powerful exercise to imagine Robbie there, pointing the camera at her. He is not just a photographer, he is a grieving grandson, too.
Robbie and other artists whose subjects are domestic life and the family are in the complicated position of being part of the familial group and also outside of it. This is a place where the boundaries between photographer and subject, between what can be photographed and what should only be seen within the family, become blurred.
The inky shadows are common throughout the book and are not necessarily indicative of the family’s loss. Robbie’s focus is rather on the highlights, on how they play on Black skin or how they create a homely, warm atmosphere. They infuse the space with a sense of drama, bringing together scenes like the joyful tickling play between boys with a certain uneasiness about life that the artist was feeling at the time of photographing. These high contrast, grainy photographs are beautifully rendered by the thick, matte, textured paper which allows the reader a sensory pleasure when flicking through.
The range of images, from close-up portraits to still lives and snaps of daily life, brings to mind Roy DeCarava’s The Sweet Flypaper of Life, the visual classic about the life of an ordinary Black family in 1950’s Harlem. The idea of an intimate, safe space is created by photographing mainly inside, with most of the windows covered, or outside, but still in the proximity of the domestic space. On a few occasions we notice naked skin, which suggests a comfortable, private environment, as well as a number of sleeping figures, who are at once peaceful and vulnerable. By the end of the book, I feel close to this family, welcome into their home. I have not been a voyeur, but a guest.
After his grandmother’s passing, Robbie’s subsequent photographs felt different; they didn’t belong with the ones before, which now make up this book. She was his connection to Ghana, and this relationship was now severed. Home and belonging shifted their meaning again, but at least this chapter came together and could be closed. By home, Robbie tells me, he meant where his family was at that time. This is ultimately a definition rooted in diasporic experience, one filled with the temporary fulfilment of togetherness and with the perpetual anxiety of separation and not belonging.