Framing the World – Interview with Sian Davey

Marianne Stenger
1st March 2021

Sian Davey is a British photographer whose work focuses on themes of family, community, love and belonging. She was born and raised in Brighton and worked as a psychotherapist for 15 years before making the decision to pursue photography full time. 

Her first series Looking for Alice is the story of her daughter who was born with Down’s Syndrome. Davey says working as a psychotherapist taught her not how different we all are, but rather how alike we are as people. Although the stories vary, we all experience similar emotions. The book touches on this and shows how similar Alice is to any other little girl, but it’s also the story of a family and their journey together.

Looking for Alice was nominated for the Aperture Best Book Award at Paris Photo 2016, and Davey has since received numerous awards and had work included in the National Portrait Gallery Taylor Wessing Portrait Award for three consecutive years.

“I’m still slightly shocked about it,” she says. “If you think about it, it’s all still quite recent. Alice is nine years old now, and I only really started taking pictures when she was about two. That’s when something radically shifted and I decided I wanted to be a photographer. Before then, I had just been taking random pictures. But after I completed Looking for Alice my whole world changed. It was mental. Really odd. People were asking for interviews and wanting to talk about the project, and it just felt really overwhelming, namely because I’m not seated in a photography history.”

Images © Sian Davey

Davey’s second photo book Martha came out in 2018 and follows her eldest daughter’s transition from adolescence into adulthood. The series also explores the mother-daughter relationship, and like all her work, is intimate and deeply personal.

Of course, like most photographers, Davey has had to put many of the projects she was working on before Covid-19 on hold. But between her personal projects and practicing yoga, learning French, and caring for her kids as well as a brand new puppy, she says she’s actually been busier than ever.

We had the opportunity to talk to her about her remarkable transition into photography, what her creative process is like, as well as some of the projects that she currently has in the works.

Images © Sian Davey

What made you want to quit your job as a psychotherapist and start working as a photographer full time?

When I was in my mid-40s, I went to see the Louise Bourgeois retrospective at the Tate. I had recently had a late miscarriage, and I came out of that exhibition feeling unexpectedly overwhelmed. I decided while sitting on the steps, that I was going to do something creative with my life. 

It was like something happened with Louise Bourgeois where her unconscious world kind of collided with mine. It was like a creative transmission. I didn’t know what it was going to look like or feel like, but I knew I was going to do it.

I don’t particularly remember what happened after that, except that I started thinking about photography. I was very anxious about the camera, and it’s funny because I got two of my mates together and I was like “Let’s start a camera club.” But really, I just wanted them next to me so I could ask them questions about how to use the camera. Then I joined this Tuesday night club in Brighton and I had a point and shoot camera. I don’t know what it was, but it was like this compulsion began. It was like a calling. It was love at first sight. 

It took me a couple of years to get it together. I think it was moving from my hometown in Brighton and coming to Devon that ruptured all my boundaries. I was very unhappy for a while, and it felt like the only thing I had was my burgeoning love for photography.

I was born in Brighton and grew up there too. My mother died young, and then when my father died, I felt like “I want to get out now.” It just felt overpopulated and I had outgrown it. So I think moving and having a different view of the world brought about a natural curiosity.

All of your work is so deeply personal. Is this kind of your way of expressing yourself or working through different things in your life?

I think the compulsion is to understand how to exist in this world. I think quietly, we’re all driven just to feel sane. We’re trying to figure out what nourishes us and brings us into wholeness and well-being.

I had a very difficult upbringing. My parents had serious mental health issues and we were homeless and in and out of homeless accommodation until I was 14. It was really difficult. So my work and my life is about finding connection and grounding. Because when I feel connected, I feel well and whole. Of course, as we know, the journey to sanity is problematic, but that’s the work. So each developmental stage of my life has been about finding new ways to reconnect.

During the 90s I was involved in the dance culture taking recreational drugs and this was one form of reconnection; on the dance floor with friends and community. After that it was Tibetan Buddhism, and then it was psychotherapy. These are different states of immersion. I had to essentially find resourceful ways of being in this world, and being in my body. Whatever I’ve done, I’ve committed to it. So when photography found me, I just committed to that.

It’s interesting for me now to photograph at festivals, because it’s like a fast track to connection. Life for many, as we know, increasingly feels more and more disconnected. At festivals, people are  getting as many drugs and alcohol down as quickly as they can, and then by day three, people are noticeably connected. 

The layers have come off, and the ego has shifted. There is a lovely sense of abundance and connection and people are just less judgemental, they are less caught up in self. It just feels whole. People mourn for that person they rediscovered in that field, and are soon planning the festivals for the following year. So what is normal life? For most people it’s quite isolating.

Images © Sian Davey

How is it for you as a woman working in photography, which is still a very male dominated industry? What’s your take on that? 

I’m always struck that when a man is in a room, people take note, sometimes regardless of what he’s delivering. Men still have this overwhelming authority out there. 

I do understand, in terms of feminism, that it was only in the 60s that women had access to their biology through contraception and housing and divorce. So this is all still very much at the beginning. It’s very fresh. So change will come incrementally, although it’s very painful to see and experience how women are still being represented.  

I’ve got this working artist group called The Emmas and there’s seven of us. It’s myself along with Cheryl Newman, Alys Tomlinson, Abbie – Traylor Smith, Lua Ribeira, Alice Zoo, and Clementine Schneidermann.

It was Clementine Schneidermann who came up with the name. She said the idea was, when you’re walking into a room and you need  to find your voice amongst male photographers, you need to interject your girl power or your superpower there. It’s not about being better than anyone else, it’s really about finding your voice and your ground. We’ve got a long way to go though.

I also think there’s been an overemphasis on equipment, and on the camera itself rather than the form of it. So I’m hoping that will change. You often get people asking “What camera do you use?” and I say, “I use my eyes and my heart and my intellect.” The camera is just a vehicle that enables that, to bring it into form. The hard bit is learning how to see. That’s the frustrating bit.

Could you tell us a bit about your creative process? Do you tend to have an idea in mind before you begin shooting? Do you bring your camera with you wherever you go?

I do have my camera with me a lot. This morning, for instance, I was doing yoga, and I noticed that the light was really great. So I had to stop and run outside and quickly take a picture. 

For my series River I’ve been photographing the people I meet when I’m at the river. Last year, basically all of my projects came to a standstill, so I used to just spend the whole day swimming in the river with Alice. We would spend five hours a day there just playing, swimming and socialising. My camera is always with me and as I meet people I ask if I can photograph them.

But I think my process for each project is different. I’m making a piece of work this year that feels a little more focused. It’s been a very sobering year for me, so it’s going to be more challenging, because there are really important narratives that I need to communicate in a very particular way, so writing helps to organise my thoughts.

What’s happening in the whole world is being reflected back to me in my own home. I’m kind of going “What’s the world dealing with, and what have I got to deal with and need to confront about myself?” So, it’s been very painful, but within that, there’s been the opportunity for me to grow and essentially find my voice. I actually felt very down this morning, and my friend said “find your girl power again Sian” and that’s what this year has been about for me – finding my superpower that’s always there but I choose not to see.

Images © Sian Davey

Does it feel different when you’re shooting commissioned work as opposed to your personal projects? 

Initially it did feel different, only because I didn’t know how to trust that my way of seeing was transferable. But then I realised that it’s no different, because it’s still my eyes and my heart. What you take into every moment that you photograph is your entire history.

I want to limit the amount of commercial work I undertake because I don’t want it to feel like “Oh, now I’ve got to do this,” when really I just want to be making my own work. Also, I suppose I don’t define myself as a photographer, but more as an artist.

It’s what I dream about. The moment I wake up I’m thinking about where I’m going to go with the next piece of work. So I don’t really want to be taken away from it. Life is short, so I’d rather be poor and making work. It’s a bit random and chaotic, but in my view, as long as I’ve got enough to pay the rent and keep my film habit alive, then that’s good enough. I’m totally happy, because this is what I want to be doing.

At the time I gave up my psychotherapy practice, I was seeing an acupuncturist who questioned why I was still working in this field. I said “I need the income,” and he told me the money always comes when you sign up to what you love. It felt in that moment like another transmission. That day I gave up my work and committed to being an artist. The money did come, but only just enough. But what absolutely did come was that I wake up every day feeling inspired with a sense of purpose.

If you wake up every day and feel excited to start your day, I just think it really doesn’t get any better. I actually can’t believe how massively fortunate I am to have found photography. I offer up my gratitude every day for it. I love it so much.

Can you tell us a bit about your decision to shoot film rather than digital?

I always wanted to shoot on film. It was an intuitive response to the world. I don’t see the world as digital and I don’t experience it as high definition. I experience it as chemistry, and film is chemistry. If you have every picture in high definition, it just ends up looking generic, and I feel it also cancels out the emotionality of the world. 

My theory is that although we see the world in high definition, we don’t feel it in high definition. In every moment, there are all these feelings and ideas and responses that arise, and I think that’s something that gets really replicated with film. 

When I’m looking through a digital lens, I feel it’s just so hard and absent of life. I just love the whole process of film anyway; sending my film off and waiting to observe the mistakes that so often work.

Images © Sian Davey

This past year of lockdowns has been especially difficult for creatives, because so many things have had to come to a standstill. How has it been for you? 

Well you know, quietly I’m really pleased. I’m always working on multiple projects simultaneously, because I’m always looking for opportunities to use my camera. So I had a lot going on before Covid-19.

I was making a book about festivals across the UK, so I was charging around everywhere, from Glastonbury to the Wilderness Festival in Oxford. I would be there with my large format camera for about 12 hours a day  meeting so many people. It was the most perfect place for casting.  I’d be working in intense heat and then I’d throw myself into the river and have a quick swim and then come back again. I loved it so much.

I was also working on Guernsey Island with the farming community there, as part of the Guernsey Photography Festival commission. Additionally, I was doing another substantial piece on social inequality and poverty. All the work came to a very abrupt end because of Covid-19. I’m halfway through with it, but it’s just been sitting there for a year now.

It’s a difficult project as it’s really personal for me and very politically driven. There’s unparalleled poverty out there and it’s unbelievable. I do struggle with how to photograph people’s poverty with consciousness and integrity. How do you do that? I still don’t know. The trouble was that I was on a tight deadline because it was commissioned and needed to be turned around very quickly. So I was left with this very difficult tension around the work that I never got through.

I felt that to point my camera at poverty was dehumanising for the people I was photographing. So I really struggled with it and I’m quietly relieved that it stopped, because now I can invest the time that I need to make it work. I need to build relationships with the people I’m working with, and when I return to the project, I’m going to give it years in fact. 

Nowadays, I get up and do an hour of yoga online every morning. Then I have my French lesson. I love France and I’ve been wanting to learn French all my life. So I’m doing an hour every day with a teacher and I’ve written the verbs all over my kitchen wall. I guess that’s kind of what this year has been about. I don’t want to waste time.

My son has also just come out of a Tibetan Buddhist monastery where he spent two years. So I’m going to be working with him on a piece about his transformation and I’ll be working again on a  large format camera. It’s about his transformation in the time he’s been away, but it’s also about our relationship. I’ve never been able to photograph my older son. He’s really beautiful and ethereal, but I don’t know how to get close to him because he disappears in the frame energetically. People have got to occupy the frame in order for us to see it. But somehow he’s not there. It’s kind of an energetic response to having a camera pointed at him by his mother.

Anyway, it’s been going on for years. But the project is going to be very layered in terms of our relationship and where we’ve come from, and it’s also going to be about the world and the environment. I’m really excited about this project and we’re planning it every day. 

I think there’s this call to consciousness at the moment. For me, this whole slowing down process is shining a big light on what I have and what’s important. I’m trying to occupy all the space around me and create meaning from this intimate context.

View more of Sian Davey's photography on her website and make sure to follow us on our social media channels for updates on our latest interviews.