Childhood Unplugged features Polly Alderton

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So honored to have Polly, from @dollyandfife, here on our blog this morning. I’ve been a fan of her work for so long and if you’re not already, I’m sure you will be now. So with no further adieu, here’s Polly…

dollyandfife4Please, introduce yourself. Where are you from? Tell us a little about your family.

My family moved around a lot when I was a child but I guess I mainly from Kent in the UK. I’m the oldest of 11 siblings and from a complex family. I have three children of my own, Noah, Olive and Ned and a stepdaughter called Hope. Being a step mother was never one of my goals and it has been a really difficult part to play at times, negotiating all the complexities of playing that role. I’m fortunate to have a wonderful step daughter though, and I adore her. I met my husband Robin at university, we both studied Fine Art at the Byam Shaw school of Art (part of the University of the Arts, London). We were friends before we became boyfriend and girlfriend and it was never more than something casual, though I was always deeply in love with him. Happily it turned to marriage and lots of children. We live in the East of England currently. Robin is a musician and plays in a band called, the Dead Rat Orchestra.

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What do you want your children to take away most from their childhood?

I want them to be happy and open, to be kind. We have always been massive advocaters of self learning. The internet and public services give free education -I want to see that they are self motivated to learn, and to keep on learning, to not be ruled by how much money they have and be wealthy with knowledge. I want them to be successful in their jobs, and for that success to be measured in happiness. I hope they will be drawn to being outside, when they were babies there were times they’d be inconsolable or irritable, even if it was 3am I’d just go a step outside with them -it was instantly calming.dollyandfife7

Can you speak on the importance of unplugging and how your children spend their time unplugged?

I don’t know, sometimes we’ve had weeks where the children have been watching films everyday and then weeks of nothing. I have a few rules which are, no computer games/consoles in our house and every film that’s chosen should try to be inclusive of everyone (age ranges of 11 to 3). We don’t have a television but do have a computer, I don’t know that this means we watch any less TV than the average family but I like that we can avoid adverts and that films are chosen conciously rather than rolling into the next programme. We like going out and when we’re home the children play big games, on the weekends they have a ritual of watching films in the evenings, I don’t really mind that.
I think it’s really important to unplug, I feel like I need to practice what I preach a lot more -my children are pretty sorted on it really. It’s me checking social media before sleep some nights and cooking whilst staring at a TV programme on my phone. Sometimes my youngest son walks around talking to himself stating officiously that he’s ‘just writin’ an email’. In terms of unplugging it’s me who really needs to disconnect.

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Are you a full-time photographer? Describe your work and your ideal client.

I don’t know about this question. In a lot of ways I don’t identify with being a photographer in a classic sense. I want to make pictures about life. I feel like I’m in a transitory phase in my life where we’ve committed to not having more children and I’m trying to find my place as a woman, as an individual. I would love to exhibit my work and I guess my ideal ‘client’ would be someone who wanted to pay me to do that! I need to earn money though so right now my ideal client is someone who is open to be directed or wants to colaborate on a project, be it a series of portraits or a story in images.dollyandfife9

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I had a wonderful request in the summertime to photograph a free festival for children in my town, they were really open to getting a portrait of festival workers behind the scenes and I got to learn about the history of the Albion festival makers and photograph some really beautiful people. A brilliant woman called Emily Green was the organiser of this event and my favourite part of this whole process was piling into the back of her van to photograph her getting transformed into her festival character/alter ego, Gunpowder Gertie. She had been very emotional, overworked and had been shouted at by other festival workers for not being given the right spaces or because they were frustrated by not earning enough money. She entered the van without a scrap of make up, not having showered for days and transformed herself into this amazing character with flower crown, make up and huge sewn in dreadlocks. The atmosphere as she walked to her stage was electric and she was magnificent in her performance. All the tiredness and tears evaporated in that moment and it was inspiring to picture that transition. I loved being part of that.

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I’ve noticed that several people have issues with images of children that don’t appear “happy”. I, myself, dealt with an individual that had an issue with me posting an image of my youngest son throwing a tantrum. I’m very much for capturing all parts that make up life. One of my favorite images of yours is of your son crying. Did you receive any flack from anyone for posting it? And if you were to, how would you respond? And lastly, would you be so kind as to share the story behind the image?

Ofcourse! The image is of my son, Noah. He’d attempted a flip from a swing about six feet up into the air. The swing had caught one of his arms and I remember taking a sharp intake of breath thinking it would surely be broken when he landed. He’d hurt himself, though luckily not badly and he wanted to try the flip again knowing this time what he should avoid. However we declared that he absolutely couldn’t. A mixture of frustration and pain in his arm caused him to cry. Whilst he was crying to Robin (my husband/his Dad) I took the photograph. What’s interesting is that within five minutes my husband took a video of him laughing and mucking around with his little brother, Ned. Things move so fast with children, their moods and small moments that we share with them. I connect with the sharper moments that other parents share on Instagram say, they resonate. Sometimes things online/social media can feel so superficial that we need to see ‘real’ even if the ‘real’ only lasts for 30 seconds. If Noah was in real pain emotionally I would never have taken that picture or posted it. And he knew that I posted it and liked it. I didn’t recieve ‘flack’ for it necessarily but the tone of some comments were disapproving. I suppose I just preserved a look of a moment of real sadness, in that image he will always be sad, the viewer will never see past that.

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How do your children and husband feel about being your subjects? Do they understand your artistic vision? How do you involve them in the process?

I am open. I want my children to be art literate and to understand as much as they can about my processes. If I have a set idea in my mind, I’ll ask them to do it and if they like the sound of it they will. Sometimes they don’t like the sound of it and they wont. I have a picture I like of my oldest son posing in a flower crown in our back garden, he looks so serene and earthy, he was at the time sitting giving me a list of reasons why he should be allowed to have a computer games console in the house. Another time I let him stick his fingers up to swear as part of a photo trade.
I am trying to move in a bit of a different direction with my pictures at the moment and pose them less. I’m really just trying to catch them as they are, I like this idea of collecting a series of what may look like film stills. I realised that the kids were starting to get bored by me, and I was of myself too. I had a weird moment in the summer where my daughter Olive wanted to show me how she’d finally mastered a cartwheel -she wanted me to photograph it. So I did, but as a trade off I asked her to stand in a pose for me afterwards. She couldn’t get her cartwheel right and kept retrying for a good picture with her legs ‘super straight’ -my response was of annoyance because I wanted to get her posed in my picture before the light changed. Then I just thought, WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING!!! I should just be in this real moment with her and get the best picture I can for her rather than stressing over the fake posey picture that I’m not getting right now. I want to be more present and get something that represents more truth than fantasy.

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You’ve had images deleted from instagram because your six year old daughter was shirtless. Oftentimes this is due to your own followers reporting your images. I read your blog post and couldn’t agree more that what should really be called into question is the motives of the people reporting images like this. Why are they viewing a boob-less child as a sexual being? I want to give you a moment to share your thoughts, though I’m not certain paying it any more attention is even worth it.
Yes, a couple of my daughter and a 3 year old female (family friend).
I don’t know, I’m just really bloody sad about it. I’m sad that people will look at a FEMALE child and see sex. Even those people who wrote me afterwards saying, ‘oh but it’s great that your daughter is free to wear just bathers on a beach, I just worry about what other people may think’ -They did’nt get it, they were perpetuating everything that made me angry about it, they were sexualising my child too -whether they realised it or not, they were looking at a six year old female and seeing sex, just through an imagined persons eyes. My daughter was never naked, she had jeans on or swim shorts without a top, in very hot weather.
It’s shaming females into covering up, being ‘modest’. Telling them that they must avoid dressing a certain way, be safe by walking in packs, make sure they get ‘proper’ taxi’s home, cover their girl friends backs against unwanted attention etc -ALL the stuff I was taught as a teen and still abide by as a woman. This silent underlying whispering of: if you don’t follow these rules and a man attacks you, YOU are responsible. And this starts from 3, maybe younger? Society is pedaling that and I hate it. There’s a great quote, (I wish I knew who it was by), it says – ‘If you’re going to talk to your daughter about rape, talk to your son about consent’. And I feel so validated by that, as a society we need to take collective responsibilty with whats going on with our females and males. Respect both equally and have them respect eachother.
So, I don’t believe it was right for instagram to censor a shirtless 3 year old because of HER gender. If instagram wants to censor ALL children from being shirtless on social media then I have more truck with that. It’s the objection to her gender that I have, I think it’s irresponsible perpetuating this devastating rise in victim blaming and rape culture we presently have going on. Instagram is a massive social media site, I feel strongly that it should open it’s eyes to this and be more responsible with the messages it’s sending out.

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Tell us about your images of your children with the gawking heads. Did you make them? What drove you to create those images?

It was a bit of an accident that came good really. I had a last minute costume change request from my son Noah the night before school that he wanted to go in as Beorn the bear instead of Mr Gum (from the book, ‘Youre a Bad Man, Mr Gum’). So I ended up staying up until 3 in the morning making this papier mache head. The kids loved it, and as my reward for making it Noah wanted to bring it with us to the beach on the weekend and do a few photo’s that he’d devised. We had a really great day and ended up in a cafe on the seafront in the evening watching the sun going down. A woman in her 60’s approached us and was really tearful over the cardboard head, she told us all about her childhood at Jaywick Seaside town and how as a very poor area (the poorest town in England presently). Her mother and mothers friends had made their children funny heads from cardboard and created their own little carnivals. I began researching it and just loved the whole thing, it’s heritage. So began with a friend planning a community based project for the town, something we are in the midst of applying for various funding for. We made several heads trialling their ease to make, how long they took, how much work we would need to make them etc. And the children adored making characters and stories about how they’d lived or died. It became a school holiday project, like a theatre production and I got to photograph and film some of the stories.

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Are you working on any particular projects at the moment?

I’m trying to make a film right now. When I take my pictures I always try to think of them as part of a wider scene, with a back story and future narrative. I love film stills, that style of picture and so it felt like a really natural transition to make. But I’m struggling a lot -I keep getting stuck on a single image and not being able to move it forward. My brain whizzes all over the place but it’s sort of stuck now and I just keep repeating scenes in my head hoping a direction will reveal itself.

 

One thought on “Childhood Unplugged features Polly Alderton

  1. It’s always such a good feeling, connecting to someone you’ve never met, through their words. What an inspiration you are… As a mother, a photographer, and as a woman. I know that your inspiration to finish your film will find you soon, just as soon as it’s meant to.

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