sian davey photographs teens' first loves
The award-winning British photographer makes luminous portraits of young people in their first relationships. She talks to i-D about shooting kids in love and kids behaving badly.
Sian Davey is fascinated by that very small window of time between realizing you're no longer effectively your parents' possession, and deciding that you need to get your shit together. "There's that quality of being untethered," she says. "You're not accountable for much. You can get pissed and throw up in the street if you want." Those late teenage years are when she captures most of her subjects.
In her latest series, "Martha," she documents her step-daughter — streaking through fields, made up to go out, bathed in morning sunshine — in pictures that feel both magically, mundanely British but also like a universal portrait of that confusing in-between time. Two photographs from the series have just been selected for the prestigious Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize exhibition in England, and will go on display at London's National Gallery this November. The year before, an image from Davey's earlier project "Looking for Alice" also made the shortlist. That series documented her youngest daughter, Alice, who has Down's Syndrome, in her early years of family life and explored Davey's own experience of mothering her.
But it was Davey's son Luke, and his then-girlfriend Amy, who prompted her longest ongoing series, "First Love." A picture of the couple was one of the first photographs Davey took when she began playing around with a camera. Since then, she's shot over 20 young couples "under the spell," as she calls it, of first love. Davey spoke to i-D, over the phone from her home in Devon, about her own memories of first love and how her former career as a psychotherapist helps her as a photographer.
How did you start photographing this series?
It didn't really begin as a series. I just started photographing my son with his girlfriend, which really ignited my interest in photography. I began to use that as a vehicle for how to understand photography as a narrative form. I'd only just started to use a camera and I just started experimenting. I got kind of lost in them. There was something about the pictures that really touched me about that quality of love in a first relationship. How intense and painful and possible that feeling is. That lack of boundaries, your sense of immortality.
Did it remind you of feeling that way yourself?
No, [my first love] was tortured and awful and bleak! That's what it was, I think. I was looking into something I haven't experienced. Not in a voyeuristic sense. I was just really present with it, really aware of something. I think for many people that first relationship is painful. Experimenting with intimacy for the first time is often going to be a car crash.
Are they still together?
No. There are only about two couples in the series that are still together. I think that's to be expected when you're 16 or 17.
How did you meet the other couples?
A lot are my children's friends. Early on, I just really wanted to make pictures, so I put myself out there all the time. It's the most difficult project to shoot. Every picture has been very problematic. Because these are real relationships. To shoot two young people, I'm inviting myself into a world that adults don't occupy, so that's one barrier. Then, I can't photograph them in the week because they're at school. At the weekend they're all getting smashed so they don't want me around in the morning. And because I only work with natural daylight, the opportunity to photograph indoors is so rare. The light's so limited where I live in the UK. So by the time I often got to people, they'd broken up. It was just extraordinary for me to get myself into the space with them.
The images look so relaxed you'd never know.
Getting there was the hard bit. But then I'd just get to hang out with them. A shoot would take an hour, two hours. We'd find enough ease in the relationship to work together. I've been a psychotherapist for many years, and part of that is enabling people to be at ease with me.
Do you think there are similarities between what makes a good photographer and a what makes a good therapist?
I think there's one really key thing about being a portrait photographer: you have to like people. You have to be curious about what makes them tick. That was always in me inherently. Psychotherapy allowed me to understand people's inner landscapes, so I can now navigate boundaries and know where to place myself in their relational field. Essentially the idea is that they can be who they are and not who they imagine I want them to be.
Were you aware that sometimes they were putting up a front? And did you try to break that down?
Yes. But I can only do that to a certain degree. They're all acutely aware of self-image and how they want to be seen. The girls want a perfect picture with their boyfriend for their profile. And there's some relevance in that too. You can keep trying to break that down, but actually this is what's happening now. And nearly every teenage girl wants to look her best, to be seen. They'd keep on getting really cross with their boyfriends for not being really affectionate, not seeming like an archetypal perfect first boyfriend. I've got a lot of respect for them for letting me in the room for a start. Some of the boys enjoyed it, some really looked like they were being crucified!
What story do you hope the images tell as a series?
I don't work with an agenda. I really hope that each image tells its own story. But if they're going to communicate anything, I hope it would be distilling that quality of intensity and immortality about that first love — that kind of live and death, "can I survive this?" intensity.
It's amazing that your subjects are going to have these documents of their first relationships forever. But at some point in the future, that same photo will also probably make them really sad.
Exactly. I had someone come up to me and say, "That was my girlfriend. My girlfriend is now in that picture with someone else." There are also two gay couples in the series. One of the boys in one image hasn't come out to his family. The picture is about three or four years old, and I did ask him about how he felt having it published somewhere. And he said, "But I look so beautiful" or something like that — he didn't care. He just wanted to be seen being gorgeous.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Sian Davey