From the heart: 10 photographers on the theme of love | Photography13 min read
Senami, Shambhala, New Zealand, 2012
Paul Graham is an English fine-art and documentary photographer living in New York. He was awarded the Deutsche Börse photography prize in 2009 and in 2011 the Paris Photo prize for the most significant photobook of the past 15 years with A Shimmer of Possibility
The woman in the photograph is Senami, my partner of 18 years. It was taken in a very basic room during a trip around New Zealand’s South Island in 2012. We were staying in a travel hostel called Shambhala, a lovely place on the northern coast. I always wake up early; Senami… doesn’t.
We are very different, Senami and I, but have found a way to make it work, and we have a lovely son together now. As Harold Brodkey put it: “People are somewhat gorgeous collections of chemical fires, aren’t they?”
I chose this photograph because I like the simplicity of it. You don’t need adornment and embellishments to express love, despite what Hallmark says. When you take images of others, it is vital to take that Buddhist approach of projecting love towards everyone, no matter who, no matter where. KF
Walter holding newborn Bruno, 2014
Born in Birmingham, Richard Billingham is best known for his award-winning photobook Ray’s a Laugh (1996) and the 2018 film Ray & Liz, both documenting the chaotic lives of his parents in the Black Country. He lives in Wales with his wife and three children and holds professorships in photography at Gloucestershire and Middlesex universities
This photograph was taken seven years ago. My wife had our third child, and when the baby came back with the other two kids from the hospital, I wanted to make a photograph that captured the positive energy you get when you bring a newborn into the house. I knew from having the other two that the energy is there for the first few days, and then it dissipates. Everyone’s happy and blissful, but it doesn’t last. It’s like a honeymoon period. You can never get back to it.
In the photograph, Walter would be eight, Ramona six or thereabouts, and the baby is probably just a day old. It still has blood on it. It wouldn’t have had a bath. Whereas the older two have had showers and it looks like they’re ready for bed. Walter’s got a bare chest and he’s got the baby on it skin-to-skin. I was trying to make a photograph that captured the three of them together for the first time. Since then, screens have come in – phones and iPads. That picture was taken just before there were any screens in the house apart from a TV. Now [the three kids] are more atomised.
I’ve got five brothers, but, except for one of them, I haven’t seen them for many years. So I don’t recognise the sibling dynamic here. I guess a lot of the photographs I’ve done in the past, with my family in them, haven’t been as positive.
Does love come up a lot in my work? Empathy, maybe. And even when I photograph in quite grim surroundings, I’m looking for composition, beauty and harmony within that.
When I took all those photographs of my parents many years ago, the camera brought us together more. If I hadn’t had the camera, I wouldn’t have gone around to see them as much and taken all those pictures. A camera enables you to get closer.
There can be an expression of love in the taking of the photograph. In this photo, it’s in the arrangement, the way I’ve positioned the camera, the way I’ve got the three kids together within the frame, the way I’ve positioned myself in relation to them. I’ve got down on to their level, I’m not standing up with a phone looking down on them. It’s like you’re in their world with them, and I like that. KF
True Love, from the series Venus & Mercury, 2020
Viviane Sassen is a Dutch photographer based in Amsterdam whose work straddles fashion and fine art, using human bodies to often surreal effect. She won the Prix de Rome in 2007 and in 2013 exhibited at the Venice Biennale
I love how this work symbolises the ever-lasting longing to fully merge with another; how two become one. It’s a romantic myth that somehow kept lingering in my subconscious ever since I was a young girl. My heart yearned for such a collision of two bodies and souls; to truly melt together with one’s lover. To never be alone. Now I’m older and wiser and know there’s no such thing, at least nothing definite. Maybe in alchemy, art and death there might be answers and solutions, but not in our daily lives.
This image shows a man and woman in stone, sharing body parts – it reminds me of Pompeii, lovers who died in each other’s arms. Classical sculptures that slowly crumble in time, erosion of their bodies, symbols of decay. But where their bodies meet, there’s an eruption of colour, as if to say: we’re alive, fluid, we’re dancing. I like to think of this as two people making love, an orgasm frozen in time and space, and hope for them they’ll enjoy it for ever.
The Dance, Manchester, 1958
Born in Salford, Neil Libbert is a photojournalist who has worked for the Observer, the Guardian, the New York Times and many other publications since the 1950s, with specialisms in street photography and the performing arts. In 1999 he won Nikon news photographer of the year and a World Press Photo award for his coverage of the bombings in the Admiral Duncan pub, Soho
I was 20 years old when I took this, living in digs in Manchester, a few years after finishing at art school, taking photographs for the Manchester Guardian and local papers. I can’t remember being commissioned to do it, or where the club was – it’s such a long time ago. I was single, but I certainly wasn’t there for the dancing. I’d have just been there with my camera, to try to capture moments between people.
This picture doesn’t reveal much about the people involved, and I like that. Nobody can recognise themselves years later and be upset about it. But even though you can’t see their faces, there’s a tenderness in the image that everyone can understand. I read recently that Picasso said that inside every photographer is an artist trying to get out, which made me laugh. There’s some truth in that. I think this photograph has a little feeling of a painting, with me trying to capture a spontaneous moment. It’s a bit of a fantasy, really, and it helps that back then I always shot in black and white.
Can a photo be an expression of love? Yes, I think it can, especially in photos that aren’t staged or set up, as they feel trivial – those aren’t my scene. Even after all these years, I don’t stop seeing little moments of connection or taking photographs of them. I can’t stop it, actually. I love it. Taking a photo is still such a form of pleasure. JR
Jakob Hugo, Nature’s Valley, South Africa, 2020
An internationally renowned photographer specialising in portraiture, Pieter Hugo made his name with his 2008 photobook The Hyena and Other Men, and has since been shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse Photography prize and the Prix Pictet. Born in Johannesburg, he lives in Cape Town with his wife and two children
There’s something inherent in love that it comes at such a great cost. Love keeps you awake at night. It comes with loneliness and discouragement. With kids, it’s a different kind of love from what I’ve experienced before. I guess it’s a more unconditional love, and with that comes a whole bunch of things that you have to accept. The nature of this thing that you love is changing, becoming sentient, evolving. And even when you desperately love someone, you also have to be able to give them space, give them distance, let them grow by themselves. You can’t smother them.
This is my son after he’d had an accident during lockdown in South Africa. He was six. We had a strict, long lockdown, then we were on the red list for a very long time, so I couldn’t travel for work. Financially, it was unbearable, but I got to spend so much time with my kids that I wouldn’t normally have had. I started taking photos of my family and spoke to them about it. It became a collaborative thing.
We are lucky to have a house in the countryside, so we spent a lot of time in nature and in the ocean, letting the kids roam free. You can see another scar on the photo too : that’s from a chafe from my son’s wetsuit. There’s also something allegorical about the photo, to me: we’re all scarred. And love hurts! It’s a cliche, but it’s true. JR
Soho, London, November 2018
A Scottish photographer based in London, Niall McDiarmid has spent much of his career roving around Britain documenting its people and landscapes. His books include Crossing Paths, Town to Town and, most recently, Breakfast
This shot, from a series I’m working on called Nightfalls, was taken in the early evening, about half past four, just off Old Compton Street in Soho. I don’t know anything about the couple but I’m guessing, from what he’s wearing, that the two of them work in restaurants. I get feelings of melancholy and a certain sense of desperation from them. The restaurant trade is hard, and they may be far from home. He’s feeling a bit down and she’s moving in to him and saying it’ll be OK, I’m there for you, we can get through this. The city is big, the night ahead will be tough, but we can do this together.
There is love in this picture. There’s also the fairly surreal element of the dodo looking on, or maybe giving a bit of encouragement. Though perhaps it’s not the best creature to have rooting for you. Don’t end up like the dodo! Get together and reproduce, or we’ll all be gone!
I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m a street photographer, but street photography has a rich tradition of trying to capture aspects of love. The idea of showing affection has always been part of the genre. Who could resist a picture of people kissing on the street? It provides an element of hope, and if done in the right way, it’s engaging, people are drawn to it. You do have to be a bit sensitive, because people are being intimate and hopefully you’re not capturing something illicit or wrong, but I think love is an important thing to capture, in any kind of photography. KF
Canal Road, from the series Nalini, 2017
An artist based in Eastbourne, Arpita Shah has lived in India, Ireland, Saudi Arabia and Scotland and her work explores the intersections of culture, identity and heritage. Her practice involves photography, film and found objects, and she has exhibited internationally
This is Canal Road, from a long-term project of mine called Nalini, named after my grandmother, whose name means “lotus flower” in Sanskrit. It looks around my maternal lineage, at our stories of migration, love and loss. This passport belonged to my great-grandmother, Narmada, who ran a dairy farm in Nairobi in the 1920s and 1930s before returning to India during the second world war, which took 27 days by sea.
In 2017, I travelled to Kenya with my mum for the first time, as a way to connect with my family’s past. Growing up, I’d heard so many stories about it from my grandmother, who was young when they left: it was like a family myth. I knew that Narmada was a very resilient, petite woman, 5ft tall with 14 children, hands-on with farming and running the business. But when my mother and I got to Nairobi, Canal Road, where my family’s home used to be, didn’t exist any more: the road names changed after Kenya gained independence.
I tried to find old maps, then, by luck, my mum chatted to a shop owner who knew someone who knew someone… and we were fortunate enough to be taken to the exact spot where it used to be. That’s where I picked the pink flower. When my grandmother used to talk about her childhood, she talked about the vivid, pink flowers that grew there.
Flowers are a sacred offering in Hinduism, which is the cultural background of my family, so by collecting objects and making still lifes, I’m making shrine-like images imbued with stories that bring us together in love. JR
Untitled #8, from the series Languor, 2020
Born in 1994, Donavon Smallwood grew up in Harlem, not far from Central Park. A self-taught photographer, last year he published his first monograph, Languor, and won the Aperture portfolio prize and the Daylight photo award
This picture was taken in Central Park in summer 2020. I was mostly at home alone that year because of the pandemic. Being with yourself instead of with a partner, everything sticks out as an image of love, of what you don’t have. I was walking through a part of the park that you’re not supposed to go through and I saw a bunch of spider webs, including this one. I was like, of course I see a heart – it just keeps coming up!
I spent 30 minutes trying to get photographs of it – I had to wait for the light to shine through at a specific angle so that you could see the whole web. The wonkiness of the heart was really interesting. People always ask, did you Photoshop that? No, that’s literally how it was. The fragility of the heart said something to me about the fragility of love – of loving without getting love in return. And a spider web is used as a luring device to capture prey. There’s so much meaning there.
Ideas of love come up a lot in my work, but it might not always be obvious. Recently I’ve been taking portraits of people I’ve just met, and I found those experiences to be really intimate and even loving, even if they only last 10 minutes. When people are wary about being photographed and then become at ease with it, it reminds me of the transition from winter to summer and the idea of rosebuds growing from underneath the snow. Everything looks like it’s dead, but underground everything is working hard. KF
Toni & Jamie, 2020
Born in 1991 and based in London, Sophie Green is a documentary photographer who celebrates British culture and its idiosyncrasies, with a particular focus on under-represented communities and subcultures
When lockdown relaxed in summer 2020, huge crowds of people from all classes, races and religions headed to the beach. I started going to seaside towns around the UK to take portraits, and I met Toni and Jamie outside the arcades at New Brighton beach in Merseyside. I’ve always found arcades exciting social spaces, with mad interiors and machines ramped up to full volume… there’s huge energy. When I met Toni and Jamie there was something quite intense about their faces, their eyes. I immediately wanted to make their picture.
It was clear they were a couple. I asked their permission to photograph them, and they were really up for it. It felt necessary, in order to convey their status as a couple, that Toni and Jamie should be in some kind of embrace or loving posture. They had been in a similar position when I found them, so this was inspired by what I saw.
I love Jamie’s protective position over Toni, wrapping his arms around her. It’s a very sweet gesture. I’m not sure how long they’ve been dating, but there’s something quite romantic and innocent about their body language. I always think of young love being so innocent. We imagine we’ll be with that person for ever, but in most cases the relationship will fail. There are so many challenges to overcome in any kind of relationship, but particularly when you’re young and there’s so much evolving and learning to do.
A lot of my work follows different subcultures and communities who are drawn together by a way of life or shared identity, and I’m always looking for positive stories. Our world is incredibly negative, so it’s wonderful and necessary to find instances where people merge and find common ground. KF
INDIA. Delhi. A Valentines day love cake, 2009
A chronicler of modern, everyday life in Britain and abroad for the past 50 years, Bristol-based Martin Parr is internationally renowned for his anarchic and brightly coloured photojournalism exploring subjects such as class and tourism. His major projects include The Last Resort and Common Sense
I’ve been to India two or three times and often been there in February. During the run-up to Valentine’s Day, I discovered they make a lot of cakes. I wasn’t expecting to find this surfeit of them, but I couldn’t resist photographing them. They were bright, colourful and kitsch: everything I like about a good image, and a good cake.
So over the years, I’ve made a point of photographing them with my closeup lens and lens flash. This one was in Delhi – a lot of them were in Delhi. I’d make it my business to go round some of the bakers and get some shots on the 13th: I’d have to get permission, then pull the cake from behind the counter, so it was a bit of a faff, but most shopkeepers were good. We’d have a little chat in English, but the bakers didn’t tell me why they made them. Supply and demand, I suppose… as simple as that.
I don’t know why we don’t see more cakes like this made in the UK, because I’m sure they’d sell. I send a Valentine’s card every year – I’m very happily married – but I’ve never bought a cake, because I haven’t found one. I could make one myself, yes, but sadly I’m not the cake-making type. JR