Colin Gray interview

1.COVER_Colin Gray_fra In Sickness and In Health

From the series ‘In Sickness and In Health’

Text and interview by Ida Arentoft

Colin Gray is a photographer originally from Hull, England and now living and working in Glasgow, Scotland. Gray initially studied graphic design but moved on to do photography. Gray graduated from Royal College of Art in London in 1984 from a master’s degree in photography, and since then he has exhibited worldwide.

As a child in the 60’es, Colin Gray would borrow his father Ron’s old Brownie Box camera to document family holidays. Since then, Gray has continued taking pictures of his parents. His “parents project” began more seriously to take shape in 1980 and this collaboration ended along with Gray’s father passing away last year. The project consists of the series ‘The Parents’, which comments on the life and relationship of his parents. Furthermore, the series ‘In Sickness and In Health’, which deals with the stroke of his mother Rene and ultimately her death, and at the same time it deals with Gray’s father’s experience of loss. In 2011, ‘In Sickness and in Health’ was published as a book by Steidl/Mack. Gray is currently working on shaping the series ‘Do Us Part’, which mainly focuses on the death of his father in 2014.

The narrative in Gray’s storytelling has elements of playfulness, ambiguity and experimentalism. ‘In Sickness and In Health’ beautifully discusses how age and illness impact our lives, and this work is both emotionally, aesthetically and visually challenging. Colin Gray uses photography as a tool to record life, love and death, and photography has helped him to deal with and to somehow make sense of the death of his parents.

2.Colin Gray_fra In Sickness and In Health

Two images from the series ‘In Sickness and In Health’

How did you initially start photographing your parents? Did you decide already back then that you would continue working on the project for so long?

I started in 1980 initially to produce my own family album, I lived far away from home so wanted some happy memories. I only really thought it was a long term project later in the 80’s when I’d produced many pictures from the series.


From the series ‘In Sickness and In Health’


From the series ‘In Sickness and In Health’

Over the 34 years you photographed your parents, was there ever any point where they stopped wanting to be part of the project?

It got easier as the project rolled on, as initially my parents were both working and I only saw them briefly on my visits. But after they retired (see picture, Helping Hand 1985, which is about their retirement) things got easier. As the work got exhibited round the world and my parents became ‘famous’ they realised I wasn’t wasting their time, so became more helpful.

5.Colin Gray_Helping Hand_1985

’Helping Hand’ (1985), from the series ’The Parents’

Did collaborating closely with family change your relationship to your parents?

By working and collaborating with them we became much closer. Like anytime you come through difficult situations with people it creates more of a bond, and the fact we collaborated made this bond stronger. I also think as you get older you just become friends with them as neither are having to look after one another.

6.Colin Gray_fra In Sickness and In Health

Two images from the series ‘In Sickness and In Health’

Can you describe your method of photographing? Do you work intuitively or do you stage the pictures beforehand?

Every situation is different but generally I like to have a plan as usually I have an idea, but that is just the start. I would then discuss this with my parents and quite often they’d have suggestions that initially seemed absurd and often childlike, but after mulling it over an idea would take shape.


From the series ‘In Sickness and In Health’

Do the images appear from memories or experiences or arise from the given situation? 

With the earlier work the images came from dreams, childhood memories, and domestic situations my mum would be trapped in, then as we collaborated they became often fantasies, about what my parents wanted to be.

8.Colin Gray_Heaven and Hull_1990

‘Heaven and Hull’ (1990), from the series ‘The Parents’

Is there one particular image from the work you’ve done with your parents that is most dear to you and that you feel in a way sums up the project?

From the earlier work, Heaven and Hull 1990 and from In Sickness and in Health, a picture of my mum holding a photo from when she was young.


From the series ‘In Sickness and In Health’

I know from hearing you speak in public about the work, that you get a lot of personal response from people, who can relate to your imagery and who share stories of theirs parents’ death with you. How does this make you feel and does it influence your thoughts on your own project?

It doesn’t influence the way I take pictures, but I love sharing the work, to be able to laugh and cry along with my audience is like art itself.

10.Colin Gray_fra In Sickness and In Health

Two images from the series ‘In Sickness and In Health’

In the epilogue of your book, you mention that making ‘In Sickness and in Health’ in a sense was a preparation to the loss of your parents and that it was a painful but cathartic process. Did it occur to you that other people could benefit from the pictures in a similar way?

It did not occur to me that this project would appeal to anyone as it seemed very personal and was about illness and death, something at the time that was not shown. The process of creating this project was very cathartic to me and has become helpful to others, something I did not anticipate. It has been very humbling to know that I have helped people and to feel my work is useful to me is very important.


From the series ‘In Sickness and In Health’

What are you working on now, after both of your parents have passed away? Do you think this will change the way you work with photography? Do you think you might become the subject matter yourself?

Not just yet but as I get older I feel I will show my own mortality more, it is at the back of my mind and hopefully I won’t start this process for a while, but you never can take life for granted. I’m ready for it!


From the series ‘In Sickness and In Health’

Can you tell about the process of creating the publication ‘In Sickness and in Health’? Are you thinking of possibly making a publication of your more recent work?

The series follows a narrative, of which say 70% are in order, other pictures were fitted in to enhance the story and some were made to go with other pictures as I always saw the project as a book and love it when two pictures feed off one another on a double page spread. The recent work on the death of my father is different in that I used photography and the process as a cathartic healing tool to help him with his throat cancer and to face his mortality. Yes, I really need to get to grips with putting a publication together, though, with this project 0I need more external input. Is there anyone out there?

13.Colin Gray_fra In Sickness and In Health

Two images from the series ‘In Sickness and In Health’

What is your advice to emerging photographers?

Always go into any situation open and ready for anything. It’s difficult not to have pre-conceived ideas and it’s good to be prepared but always try to be open to any eventualities.


From the series ‘In Sickness and In Health’

Text and interview by Ida Arentoft
All images by Colin Gray


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