Just Couldn’t Get the Shoes to Fit

Award-winning photographer Thomas Duffield creates a series of performative portraits with his grandfather

Early this year, my grandad came down the stairs with a lively step. Looped around his finger a heavy wooden coat hanger swings, hanging from it, one of his old coats. “Forty years I’ve had this,” he exclaims as we both try it on, testing the fit. I button the jacket up as he lifts his chin and shuffles his neck into the collar. This was the first of a cupboard full garments, all of which were older than me. Some of them worn out, while others saved for “best”. In a playful process we begin to dress up in his old clothes. we record this performative exchange through self portraiture.

As he has grown older, so have I, and now our responsibility of care towards each other continues to shift and evolve. My grandad was a prominent father figure in the early life of my sister and I. We still look up to him as a strong guardian, however, for the first time he has showed use a vulnerable side. Now, he asks me to button up his shirt for him & open jars of pickled beetroot.

It is through these changes I begin to recognise my own insecurities as I grow into adult life, take on new responsibilities, and question my place as a young man in this world. Both the act of exchanging garments for the photographs, and the relinquishment of total representational control on my behalf, have resonance with our changing relationship to one another.

The culturally predefined family roles that influence the way we understand ourselves are challenged. The truly dynamic and uncertain nature of family life forces us to outgrow them. Myself, previously young and cared for, learns to give care. And the once seemingly infallible guardian which is my grandfather learns to receive it. Positioning ourselves in front of the camera situates us as subjects in a position of vulnerability. Subject to an un-returnable gaze, my grandfather and I become the observed. Although interestingly, the process of making the photographs ourselves incites a paradox where we have taken co-ownership of our representation, reconciled with our vulnerability, and presented it to an audience of viewers on our own terms.

Working as a photographer at home creates an interesting dynamic where I am both an active constituent within the family, whilst, simultaneously holding a second role as an artist representing the group that I am so personally and emotionally involved within. Therefore this process was particularly valuable for me as a practitioner.

Within these photographs I have traversed this uncertain boundary between myself and my family. This takes place through overtly appearing as a subject in the photographs through a process of collaboration and performance taking form in the series of self portraits.