Briony Campbell “The Dad Project” and W Eugene Smith “The Country Doctor”

Both are intimate works made possible only by trust. W Eugene Smith had to gain the trust not just of the doctor, but also of the community and patients involved. Briony Campbell needed to have the trust of her dad and her family, be comfortable herself with making the work whilst still being there for her dad and addressing her own grief. We learn from the PDF that she found it particularly difficult to talk to her mum about the work and that it inhibited the work that she could make in the early stages.

Country Doctor has a different dynamic – it was made by a photographer with no personal link to the subject, the relationship was comparatively short and carefully nurtured to allow trust. I don’t know if it was a commissioned shoot or if the work was sold to Life after it was made. The Dad Project however has a far more personal view – it was made by Briony, of her dad, who had raised and nurtured her through life. I think the emotional investment and feeling of risk must have been enormous, and you get some idea of this from the Guardian video on the showreel when they both talk about the thought involved in deciding to make the work together. There must also have been discussions in ambulances, in hospitals, at the hospice, and I don’t believe those are easy conversations to have even in palliative care settings.  In Country Doctor Dr Cernier is a constant through the images with a large set of patients, nurses and others passing through the work. We see the occasional mini-series that follows one patient for a sequence of photographs. The Dad Project has a much smaller, tighter, “cast” and that made it more powerful for me. The image with the paramedic with the tear in his eye somehow increases the circle of intimacy rather than decreases it – we see how Briony’s dad touched the lives of those who encountered him. We also see images of Briony too, where she becomes subject as well as photographer. By contrast Country Doctor is rather less about the photographer, showing the relationship between the photographer and the doctor is less important than showing the relationships between the doctor and those around him in each photograph.

Scope and scale were different too. Dr Cernier covered 400 square miles. We see him at surgery, at hospital, in patients’ homes, fishing (very briefly), spending time with his family. The shoot is over 23 days.  Even so it’s something of a snapshot compared to The Dad Project. We learn how Briony made images of herself, then her parents’ home, over seven months between the diagnosis of terminal cancer and starting to make work including her dad. The geographic scope is much smaller and tighter – their home, the hospital, the hospice, the ambulance interior.

Although both stories are intimate, the W Eugene Smith work is far more documentary in its approach. The Dad Project is on a different scale of intimacy and feels far more personal, as if we are sharing emotions with Briony, rather than facts with W Eugene Smith. I found both works very engaging in very different ways and I’m happy that I put the time into this work today. I had previously looked at Phil Toledano’s work about his father, and that had some resonance with Briony’s work in terms of its highly personal nature, yet still almost universally engaging.

“What does she mean by ‘an ending without an ending’?

I think she’s saying that even though her dad physically died, he’s still there with her in the form of memories and the judgement and values that they shared. “In realizing The Dad Project I made a lot of tough decisions. Without my dad, but very much with him.” I think also, because the work has had such a strong identity and presence and now exists in its right, almost independently of both Briony and her dad. He lives on through her work and she can see the relevance that the work has to others.

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