Exercise 2.1 – Telling a story – The Dad Project (P.51)

How does Bryony Campbell’s The Dad Project compare with Country Doctor?

Briony Campbell’s The Dad Project is a photo essay that chronicles her father’s death from cancer. The work was made with her father’s input and is semi-autobiographical as Campbell herself features in some of the images. On Campbell’s website the images are accompanied with text and there is also a ten minute video featuring interviews with Campbell’s father.

The Country Doctor was a photo essay shot by W. Eugene Smith that appeared in LIFE magazine in 1948. The photographs were of Dr. Ernest Ceriani, the GP to the 2,000 residents of Kremmling, a small town situated at an altitude of over 7,000 feet in the Colorado mountains. Taken by Smith over a 23 day period the series drew attention to the lack of doctors and the impact this had on remote communities in parts of America.

Although both photo essays are narrative series, they tell a story, that is where the similarity between them ends. At first glance the most obvious difference between the two is that The Country Doctor is shot in monochrome and The Dad Project in colour. This less a stylistic choice to reinforce the respective narratives but rather a reflection of the cost and availability of colour film in the 1940s and the default settings of modern digital cameras.

The narrative quality of both essays differs significantly. The story telling in The Country Doctor is more direct with 25 of the 27 published images featuring Dr Ceriani and the majority of these, 21, showing him tending to patients. The narrative is straight-forward, Dr Ceriani is a committed, hard-working doctor ready to tackle a wide range of medical conditions to look after the well-being of the population of Kremmling. By contrast just over half, 18 out of 33, the images in The Dad Project actually feature Briony Campbell’s father. The narrative here is more nuanced, although the series shows the deterioration of Campbell’s father and ultimately his death, it also shows the impact on the other family members and in particular Campbell herself. The difference in narrative quality is also evidenced by the differences in the text accompanying the photographs. For example the text accompanying image 20 of The Country Doctor states; ‘Dr Ceriani gives the 85-year-old man spinal anaesthesia before amputating his gangrenous left leg’. In The Dad Project a photograph of feet and a walking stick on partly shaded grass has the accompanying text ‘Sitting in the garden became an event, then a day’s activity, and eventually a strain that he endured only to comfort us. Or was it to comfort himself? I wondered endlessly, but really there was no difference.’ The text in The Country Doctor is factual and informative giving the view some additional information about the photographs, in contrast the text in The Dad Project is sometimes informative but at other times is questioning and unresolved or an expression of Campbell’s feelings such as in the first photograph in the series where she states ‘The sunlight supported me this year…’.

The most important difference between the two series is the relationship of the photographer to the main subject. The Country Doctor is described on the Magnum website as ‘representing a definitive moment in the history of photojournalism.’ W Eugene Smith was and impartial observer who worked hard to be unobtrusive so as not to impact on the narrative. In The Dad Project Campbell makes no attempt to distance herself from her subject because the essay is not just about her father’s cancer and ultimate death, but also about their love for one another and her loss and grief; the emotional impact of her father’s death on Campbell is as much a part of the narrative as the her father’s death itself.  

What do you think she means by ‘an ending without an ending’?

The full quote form which this extract is taken is; ‘This is the story of an ending without an ending. And I hope it always will be. This is my attempt to say goodbye to my Dad with the help of my camera.’ What I think Campbell means by ‘an ending without and ending’ is that although the photo-essay records her father’s battle with cancer and his death, he will always remain her father and she was able to reflect on this after his death as she worked on and published the images she created with him. 

Sources

Time. 2019. | Time. [ONLINE] Available at: http://time.com/3456085/w-eugene-smiths-landmark-photo-essay-country-doctor/. [Accessed 10 January 2019].

Timeline. 2019. The life of an American country doctor was heroic, necessary, and utterly exhausting. [ONLINE] Available at: https://timeline.com/life-american-country-doctor-9434632e1134. [Accessed 10 January 2019].

Magnum Photos. 2019. Country Doctor • W. Eugene Smith • Magnum Photos. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/newsroom/society/w-eugene-smith-country-doctor/. [Accessed 10 January 2019].

Briony Campbell. 2019. The Dad Project – Briony Campbell | Photography & Film. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.brionycampbell.com/projects/the-dad-project/. [Accessed 10 January 2019].

The Dad Project – Photography as a Social Practice. 2019. The Dad Project – Photography as a Social Practice. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.asocialpractice.com/the-dad-project/. [Accessed 10 January 2019].

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