Tommy Keith is a Canadian photographer whose work allows him to explore how he relates to his parents and other family members. Often producing work spontaneously inspired by his subjects(s) or the environment they’re in, a major work of Tommy’s, and one that caught our eye, is Success Strategies. A series made in southern Ontario, where Tommy attended high school, it explores Tommy’s understanding of his place in his family as someone who was conceived by means of a sperm donation clinic.
Tommy – who recently moved to Chicago to begin an MFA in photography, having spent the previous three years working in Toronto as a camera and production assistant – had always been aware of the fact and when he reached high school, he began to meet other siblings through “online DNA registry websites” who share the same donor as he does. The three siblings he discovered – Brendan, Gregory, and Jake – have been raised in different places, by very different families to Tommy. In turn, he looked inwards, examining his own upbringing, particularly focussing on how self-improvement was promoted within his family.
Throughout the series, his parents and half-siblings feature heavily. “I’ve often told myself that my interest in photographing myself and my family stems from my own personal history of being conceived through a sperm donation clinic,” Tommy tells us. “What does my biological father look like? Why does he not want to be found? Will I ever meet him? These questions seemed to consume the way I thought of any photograph I made with my parents.”
Not confined just to Success Strategies, much of Tommy’s portfolio has explored these ideas. “My own projects seem to bleed into one another and I’ve always found it difficult to figure out where they begin and end,” he explains. “One idea leads to another and everything ultimately feels connected for me, even if sometimes I don’t immediately see how.” Before Success Strategies, this had always meant an understanding of his origin story as being of the utmost importance, but in Success Strategies, it merely functions as a starting point. “The photographs in this project speak far more to how I relate to my family and myself in the present moment than to our past,” he adds.
Today, Tommy’s interest in photographing his family centres around “how we perform for the camera and how our actions are translated or mistranslated into a still image.” Collaboration is a fundamental aspect of Tommy’s photographic practice, and he always aims to make portraits which toe the line between candid and staged, “while using domestic and recreational activities as inspiration.” This manifests in bizarre scenarios – his mother bounces on a small trampoline; Tommy and his siblings pose arm-in-arm somewhat awkwardly. “When we stage ourselves in front of the camera, regardless of how pre-conceived the idea is, an element of chance always seems to seep in,” Tommy explains. “It is this unexpected symbolism and meaning created between myself, my family members, and the environments we occupy that fascinates me most.”
In turn, Success Strategies – and Tommy’s portfolio at large – explores how possible it is for photographs to accurately reflect relationships. Is it possible to document the nuances and complications that exist and “how will this influence the way we see each other in the future?” Tommy muses. As a series, Success Strategies doesn’t provide any answers, instead, it throws up an image of modern-day familial life and all its complexities while simultaneously proposing how the photographic medium can at once lie and tell the truth.
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor.