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Chris Dorley-Brown on ghosts, clues, and seeing the future

I believe in ghosts. The dead and departed remain with us. I would look through this old suitcase full of folders and boxes of faded documents in my studio from time to time – Mum and Dad’s collection of personal pictures, letters, negatives, and more. They held a suspended threat of revelation, but I could not parse them into a legible chronology. They remained just random sparks of another person’s nostalgia. I would put them away but somehow they were burning a hole in my soul.  Perhaps I was delaying the inevitable assembling of the jigsaw. I thought maybe I was just the keeper of these treasures, designated to hand them on to a more imaginative descendent.

I can’t help feeling they were left for me deliberately, as a set of clues – an invitation to decipher, play, and expose my own motivations for my anti-social, all-consuming life as a photographer. These pictures never made it into the family album. There are my parents, their parents, my brothers and I, younger. Faces and places lit by an ancient sun. Tiny fragments of silver. As I pan down with the looking glass and scan at higher and higher resolutions their lips start to move, frozen waves resume their perpetual motion towards the beach. This is a bi-polar experience, of ecstasy and unimaginable trauma that has been transmitted to me via strings of DNA and a handful of fraying pieces of paper.

The innate optimism my young parents exude in these pictures remains as reassuring to me now as it ever was, but I know what happened next. Reading their faces, it’s as though they believe they are immortal. Seeing your mother and father as young people is like seeing the future, not the past. You realise your own existence came about through the most slender and tenuous matrix of events. You don’t get this sensation from old home movies – they seem subject to veils of unnecessary textures and unnatural speeds that somehow prevent deeper analysis. With photographs you can extend and compress time as you choose, they are interactive and can be assembled into narratives of your own design, without mediation.


Excerpted from The Longest Way Round by Chris Dorley-Brown (2015)