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