Explanation of Images
I don’t usually explain my images, but because the whole assignment became very personal I felt perhaps I should on this occasion.
My first image is one I would rather not have included, but I wanted to show a decisive moment that happened for me over Christmas. The doctor told me I would have to be checked at the breast clinic urgently. The photo was taken when I got home and made a cup of tea before I sat down and had a proper look at the letter she’d casually handed to me. Perhaps the photograph is not well composed. But it’s an honest moment in time; a decisive moment. Until I’d got home I’d not looked at the letter at all. Cancer had not been mentioned, but perhaps tacitly acknowledged as a possibility that no-one seemed keen to verbalise.
The second image is about the seemingly silly things that started to come into my head. One was about the way I look and my relationship with my own body and how that plays out into my relationship with others. Maybe I am vain, but I don’t want to be a bald woman. The thought that I might have to let doctors poison my body for a cure, what that would entail and how I might look and feel by the end of it played on my mind. I have a friend who has had a mastectomy; she is elderly, in her 80s. She told me that when she showers she opens the doors of the mirrored bathroom cabinets so that she doesn’t have to see her own reflection without breasts, but with scars instead.
The doctor had told me not to book any holiday, not to go away. She was worried when I said that I always go to London for a few days after Christmas; you have to be available, you have to take any appointment that is given to you. I realised that within a fortnight I might have not have breasts, and I thought about what that might mean for the version of femininity that I have recently discovered and have fought so hard to reclaim as a part of my identity. I have been told since childhood that my interests in some way are unfeminine; I have a book on mechanical engineering next to my bed, I studied physics and computing. Apparently these things are still only truly acceptable if you are male, so it seemed that at some point there was a certain expectation that I should do the decent thing and not be too overtly female, or that I should feel some shame about it perhaps? There was an enforced denial of some aspects of femininity I suppose. So the idea of not having breasts played into that, like I would be going backwards on a journey.
The third image is Hebrew lettering from the scroll in my mezuzah. I don’t have it on my front door, I’ve had negative reactions from people who find out what it is and they were upsetting to me. So I hide it indoors, and it feels like I am forced to hide a big part of who I am. I suppose the question came up about whether I will continue to hide the fact that I am Jewish? The lack of focus is on purpose because it’s not clear to me what I will do in the future as I am not religious and I cannot rationally see a point to continuing these traditions.
It’s important to me to be buried as a Jew, but I don’t know why? I just cannot stand the thought of being buried as a Christian, the thought of it is stifling. I went to visit the graves of my great-grandparents and great-great grandparents in East Ham Jewish Cemetery; it is important to me that they are there, that they are buried as Jews. Everywhere I looked in that place I saw my maiden name carved onto a stone.
Every day I decide not to put the scroll on the door, every Shabbat I decide to light or not light candles, all these things have an effect not just on me, but also on my children and beyond.
The fourth image shows two of my three children walking away from me. One has already left home, the other two pictured here are teenagers. Every day they ask me to make decisions, ask for permission for things that will take them away from me, and every day I say yes. I watch them moving further and further away and it is relentless and it is mundane. I am making small decisions that will help them to leave, which is as it should be. Part of me wants them to go, part of me wants to hold onto them forever.
The fifth image is a sign I saw on Lulworth Beach which struck me as important when I saw it. It says ‘Please Do Not’. The prohibition has been worn away, I no longer know what I’m not supposed to do. Every single day I feel constrained by something or other to not do things I want to do, and I decide to obey. It’s something I can’t quite touch, some ephemeral collection of commandments that exist solely for me. I am afraid to do anything or go anywhere in case I break one of these forgotten rules. I suppose the idea that I might be very ill made me think again about whose rules I am obeying, because whoever it is, their reach is Orwellian in scope. They are everywhere.
The sixth image is about the feeling that if I had cancer I might be stuck on a road that I couldn’t escape from. I had my daughter when I was 19. When I went into labour I went to the hospital with a lady who made no secret of the fact that she wanted to adopt my child, even though I had made and clearly communicated my decision to keep her. I remember being on the ward with contractions coming and really wanting more than anything else to just go home, but I didn’t have a home, just a room in a mother and baby unit. I was put onto a hospital bed and I had the feeling of being strapped down, I really just wanted to move and I couldn’t. I remember saying to the midwife ‘I want to go home now.’ She just laughed. I was stuck on that journey in that place with that awful person who wanted my child and covered all her manipulations with Jesus, and a midwife who thought an unmarried 19 year old should be ashamed and should be made to suffer. I felt utterly powerless to change any of it. Somehow that’s how I thought I would feel if I had to have cancer treatment. Even just having to go to the hospital for the tests, I didn’t want to do it. But I couldn’t make a decision not to.
The seventh image is about loneliness. A lot of the images I printed and didn’t use were about loneliness. Again, it’s not focused, and that is on purpose. I felt very lonely, I didn’t want to tell anyone that I might be ill because I didn’t want to worry them. I didn’t want my children to feel they needed to support me the way I had to support my mother. In the end the circumstances required me to say something. But this image is also about the decisions I make every day that make me feel lonely sometimes. Eventually there will be a moment when I will have to face everything alone, no matter what. That’s all I can say really, it’s where I come back to, like a perfect cadence.
The eighth image is about confusion. (If I have to cut one image out of the set, it will be this). I suppose I wanted to communicate another feeling I had during that time. Confusion and an inability to see the moment. All moments felt important, so I felt confused about the importance of things and couldn’t make any decisions at all.
I wrote this in my notebook while I was sitting in the hospital waiting room with my youngest son with me – everyone else was away. I was waiting my turn to see the consultant and to have my tests. Daniel kept asking me what was for dinner. I couldn’t decide.
The final image is really about a final journey. It’s actually taken at 11am in January on Lulworth Cove beach. When I took this, I knew I was okay. But when I had considered what might be ahead of me and what that might be like, I had thought I might come to this place and just walk into the sea or jump from the nearby cliffs before I got too ill to do it. Now it is more considered. Decisions I make daily will have a bearing on how or when my final moment comes. The fear of death has left me since I stopped being religious. I know it’s often the other way round, but for me it’s not now a final punishment for my sinful ways with the possibility of not having believed quite the right thing, so with the added worry of eternal punishment on top. It’s part of a natural cycle that everything that lives will go through. There is a certain sense of connection in that, almost a warmth to it. When it comes then I want to make my own decisions about it as much as I can, and I want to welcome that moment when it arrives for me.