Frances Kear­ney

‘Sylvie was a 10-year-old veg­e­tar­ian. She held the dead pheas­ants with­out flinch­ing’

The Guardian - G2 - - Arts -

This was taken on 10 April 2015. I re­mem­ber be­cause I was in Lon­don the day be­fore and there was this strange light across town. A level 10 pol­lu­tion warn­ing had been pre­dicted for the fol­low­ing day – which would be the high­est ever recorded in the UK. Some­thing called the Sa­hara haze was com­ing and we were ad­vised to stay in­doors.

I knew these at­mo­spheric con­di­tions would give me the soft, hazy hues and muted light I like to work with – and I had this lo­ca­tion I’d seen in East Anglia in mind. So I rang my friend Rachel and asked if Sylvie, her daugh­ter, would be avail­able the fol­low­ing day. I’d used her and her sis­ter be­fore, pho­tograph­ing them on the mud­flats of the Wash, the vast es­tu­ary in East Anglia. They’d lain in pools of ice-cold water with harsh winds blow­ing.

I drove around that even­ing look­ing for roadkill – pheas­ants in par­tic­u­lar, for their ubiq­uity and their colour pal­ette, which would blend in with the land­scape. It was im­por­tant that it was roadkill and not game that I had pur­chased – the idea of liv­ing off the land, of the sim­ple life and re­spect for na­ture, was cru­cial. Then Sylvie and I looked through her clothes. She was only 10, but she was an ex­per­i­men­tal, in­tel­li­gent child. I asked her if she would be OK hold­ing the dead birds and, although she was a veg­e­tar­ian, she felt she could with­out flinch­ing. She knew her lim­its, knew she had the strength to per­form. I loved how af­firmed she felt. This is what the work is about, not just what’s pre­sented within the frame. When I was in my 20s, I nursed my fa­ther for a year as he was dy­ing of can­cer. I felt as if my life was tem­po­rar­ily sus­pended. I had a need for still­ness, soli­tude. It still in­forms my work.

I’ve been cre­at­ing fic­ti­tious sce­nar­ios for some time, work­ing with girls on the cusp of aware­ness but still able to ac­cess their imag­i­na­tions. I’m in­ter­ested in the jour­ney from girl­hood to wom­an­hood. We live in a so­ci­ety where chil­dren aren’t al­lowed to roam any more. There’s a cul­ture of fear and safety. We’re told ev­ery­thing is go­ing to be dan­ger­ous. And I want to question that, to ask what it means to be alone in this era of con­stant con­nect­ed­ness.

I was about 50 me­tres away, call­ing out di­rec­tions: “Can you move your left shoul­der, your right arm?” I asked her to hitch up one leg slightly and we worked to get the creases in her jumper right. I loved how they mir­rored the folds in the sand and the stark con­trast be­tween the soft­ness of that volup­tuous mound and the geom­e­try of the in­dus­trial struc­ture. I wanted her to hold her strength against that mon­u­men­tal en­vi­ron­ment.

I al­ways ask a child’s per­mis­sion to pub­lish an im­age. I give them a print and pay for their time: £50 if I have Arts Coun­cil fund­ing, £20 if I don’t. It’s their wages: I want to val­i­date their work. She was stunned and rather proud. In­ter­view by Dale Bern­ing Sawa

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