The subject of illness is understandably one often avoided, or, as photographer Tami Aftab noticed, discussed in hushed tones. Of course this often makes sense, as a subject it can make people feel uncomfortable, or remind them of something, or someone, they’d rather keep to themselves. However, in a new series by Tami made in close collaboration with her immediate family, this recently-graduated photographer proves that if you approach a difficult subject openly, even playfully when suitable, you can only open the conversation for further clarity and wider comfort.
Titled The Dog’s In The Car, Tami’s series – which began back in 2018, was largely made during 2019, and published this year – discusses her father’s condition of hydrocephalus. A condition where an individual experiences an abnormal build up of cerebral fluid in the ventricles of the brain, around 25 years ago Tami’s father, Tony, had an endoscopic third ventriculostomy to bypass blockages. During the operation, an internal bleed occurred which permanently damaged Tony’s short term memory.
In turn, Tami photographically explores this experience of her family’s throughout the series, which is “inherently related to memory,” she tells It’s Nice That. “Both in the subject of Dad’s illness but also in the new memories we’re creating together – almost as though we are piecing together our own special kind of family album.”
Initially begun while Tami was studying her BA in photography at London College of Communication, the photographer describes how at first she began looking at how “Images of illness have historically been constructed to play out certain ideas, through the choreography of the physician or the photographer”. Researching this further, the photographer felt “a pressure on myself to conform to a certain way of storytelling,” and the result wasn’t true to her circumstance or her subject either. Setting these previous approaches aside, Tami realised that “what I enjoyed more were the moments of in between,” notably when she witnessed “the importance of humour in understanding how we deal with Dad’s illness as a family.”
Deciding then to create a series which “had lightness at its core”, Tami and Tony began collaborating on visualising “memories and notions of Dad’s way of living,” the photographer describes. Some are bold signifiers of the Post-It notes Tony leaves around the house as reminders, but others are simply nods to his interests, like “his addiction to charity shop caps,” Tami points out. Each image displays these tiny nuances her family know intimately, and in turn paint a far larger picture of the man as the subject, not the illness. “I want my images to radiate the same energy my Dad brings into a room,” adds Tami poignantly.
While some images across the series relate to particular moments, the intimacy the viewer experiences via Tami’s lens is due to the constant conversation in the build up to each shot. For instance, the photographer explains that: “Whilst my mum and sister aren’t in front of the camera, they are frequently there throughout the image making process.” Then, when Tami is further developing ideas and each image’s art direction, she’ll pitch them her Dad, “to see what he thinks we should do, and 99 per cent of the time he’s keen to try anything.”
As a result, The Dog’s In The Car paints a clear picture of Tony’s personality, but in a way that displays how often the people closest to you know you better than you do yourself. Tami elaborates on this too, noting how whilst the project does utilise the performative lens she wanted it to: “It isn’t of his illness specifically, but a broader enquiry towards ideas of the self,” she tells us. In the case of Tony, the photographer illuminates her father’s ability “to make light of something that other’s would see as a vulnerability,” and how that’s what she finds “most powerful of all,” adds Tami. “I want the images to give my dad the confidence he deserves, by seeing himself the way we see him and recognising his strength.”
In terms of her wider work, The Dog’s In The Car introduces Tami as a confidently considerate photographer, especially when you consider how she’s just only just graduated, in the midst of a pandemic too. Intimacy and family relationships continue deeper into her work and, at a time where communication and openness is deeply needed creatively, we hope Tami’s touch allows her to achieve her goal of making “photography my day-to-day life”.
Tami Aftab: The Dog's In The Car (Copyright © Tami Aftab)
About the Author
Lucy (she/her) is the senior editor at Insights, a research-driven department with It's Nice That. Get in contact with her for potential Insights collaborations or to discuss Insights' fortnightly column, POV. Lucy has been a part of the team at It's Nice That since 2016, first joining as a staff writer after graduating from Chelsea College of Art with a degree in Graphic Design Communication.