Martin & Leonie Hampton
Martin Hampton - Possessed
Leonie Hampton - In The Shadow of Things
Interview: Martin & Leonie Hampton
Do you have a specific method for creating your films/photographs? Does it vary based on your commissions?
MARTIN: I sometimes create films off my own back, working on my own terms and this allows the subject matter to dictate the appropriate form for the film. Working to a commission, for example for the Tate modern, means I am starting from a different place as I am working to a brief discussed with a producer in an institutional framework. Every project is different but I tend to use a similar process for both, which is based on a relatively orthodox documentary approach. First I spend as much time as possible reading around the subject in libraries and watching as many existing films as I can get hold of. Then if the film involves people who are alive, I arrange a meeting. As soon as the door is opened and permission gained, before talking too much I start to film. I often ask for some kind of tour, where the person can show me things while talking in response to my questions. This I find helps to create a freshness to the filmic encounter because I am genuinely filming that first meeting, a special time in which stories are told for the first time and all the clues to a person are given away. Later, I organise a more in depth interview, with everyone seated and comfortable. I usually gather specific visual material in parallel to these conversations, rarely knowing exactly how any sequence of shots will be used in the edit, but intuitively shooting everything that contains something poetic, beautiful or just extraordinary. The next stage is to transcribe the interviews. Reading transcriptions helps me discover themes and think through structure and content. When you have a lot of material it’s almost impossible to know where to start without them. I draw an initial structure on a large piece of paper, stick it to the wall and start trying to create small sequences in response to the plan which usually ends up being ignored.
LEONIE: Photography and life are intertwined for me. My studio is in my home. I only pick up the camera when I feel like it. I spend most of the time with the camera well and truly packed away. So when I take it out it’s the result of a decision and I am then a photographer. I don’t find it too difficult to switch. Perhaps working in all the other families helped me learn how to do this. If you’re with people all day for weeks on end you can’t be shooting all the time. You get exhausted. The odd and obsessive thing that I’ve been thinking about recently is that maybe I never wanted my mother’s house to change and that it’s not just her that was stopping things from moving on. Perhaps in our family, we all play a part in stopping the change. Maybe change frightens us. Better to stay as we are. The place we know. What a terrifying thought! I think I needed to photograph everything so that I could cope with the potential change. Photography can be cathartic in this process of letting go. “I have a picture of it, now i’ll let it change” It’s a peculiar thing but I like the fact that I have found a way to channel my own obsessive tendencies into photography, and that such personality traits can actually help me be creative, but I also have to be careful that they don’t become destructive. I find that striking the right balance between between being obsessive (while shooting and editing) but then being prepared to let go (when it comes to showing the work) dominates my working process.
What is the audience that you most commonly create films/photographic works for? Are your artistic productions influenced by the audience you intend to present them to?
MARTIN: I don’t think it is a good idea to think too hard about who might view a film. This can become confusing and lead to unnecessary compromises. I try to let the subject dictate the content in response to my presence and my intuition. When I am with a subject I have limited opportunities to gather material. Bringing a camera into a situation or someone’s life creates a special opening as every detail potentially becomes important. I try to get the most out of these opportunities by shooting the most intimate, the most moving and the most strange scenes I can. When I come to edit, I try to distil out the gems, but I like to share them in such a way that the viewers feel like they have found them for themselves. I do assume a certain poetic intelligence, whatever that might mean, but I try not to make unnecessarily cryptic or jargon filled films. I think the best way to deal with complicated human issues is through strong and simple stories and images.
LEONIE: In many ways I start by making images for myself. I was at a talk by Paul Graham the other day and he actually said the same thing, that when he starts to edit the photographs at the end of a trip, he is his own first audience. I think the pictures that most interest me are the ones that tell me things I did not know before. So they help me move on to find other things, other thoughts, other ideas and feelings that can be hard to express. The documentary quality is important to me only in that it was the way I made the pictures. But I have no desire to control the reading. Although I am dealing with people and a place and real events, I am not trying to tell a single story, because the truth is I don’t know what that story would be. The reading can be quite opposite to the way I feel about the picture or what I remember from taking it or quite the opposite from what was actually happening. All these things actually delight me. I like opposites, the idea that things are not quite as they seem, that readings are full of questions not answers. I hope my audience are open and ready to be surprised. That’s certainly how I try to be when I edit.
What motivates you to create works that are influenced by social issues?
MARTIN: Writing in incredibly general terms, social issues are invariably interesting because they tend to result from conflicting realities leading to unresolved problems. This is generally rich terrain for a curious filmmaker or anthropologist. However both our work on hoarding and now my film about memory loss is influenced by direct family situations: Leonie’s mother lives with OCD and the problems it causes her and her family directly affects our life. Through researching hoarding with Leonie, as a way to make sense of this thing in our lives, I discovered some of the subjects who later were to appear in Possessed, and I decided to make the film. My half sister has Alzheimer’s disease and so I wanted to make a film as a way to work through her experiences. This project is ongoing. Hopefully by having first hand experience of both issues the films will be stronger and more helpful to other people who see them. At the same time neither Leonie or I would restrict ourselves to social issues, they just happen to have been preoccupying us of late.
Do you feel an ethical obligation to the people you film/photograph?
MARTIN: I certainly feel an ethical obligation to the people I film, but it’s easy to say that and hard to fulfil in practice. I generally try to film people I fundamentally respect in one way or another. This makes things easier. Another thing I do to make me more accountable is to ask the people I film to sign release forms after I have made a full edit. Generally, filmmakers will aim to get the forms signed immediately after the interview, after which point they are in full control of the material. It’s quite dangerous to work that way as in the edit suite, certain ways of showing things might seem to be very important that you know the subject might not approve of. It’s very easy to manipulate footage without really trying very hard. Presenting the material at the end means sometimes you have to reedit scenes if there are complaints, but I think that’s the least you can do to involve the subject in their own representation.
LEONIE: When it came to this project about my own family, we had a plenty of debates and arguments about the work, but ultimately they agreed to share their world. I think they are very brave. In my book In the Shadow of Things there are around 18,000 transcribed words of dialogue and a large part of that is specifically relating to your question- it’s my mother and I arguing about the work, the process, the end product, my ego, or her being a ‘work in progress’ I wanted to share these dialogues because in my opinion, they are what makes the body of work more than a ‘reportage’ about a family struggling with mental illness. I think they counterbalance my very particular way of photographing and presenting my family and I hope that they introduce a form of circularity into the way you view the work. I like the idea that by reading the texts you might really try to imagine what it’s like for my mother to be photographed so thoroughly. These are the sorts of things I believe photographers need to be engaged with. I would not want to exploit them. I don’t believe that I do. My feeling is that it’s much harder to exploit your own family than it is someone you don’t have to spend Christmas with every year… My mother has agreed to let the work be shown because she can see that it might help other people but that doesn’t mean we don’t have to discuss things every time the work is shown in a new context. I believe I share a personal world and that I encourage myself and those near to me not to be ashamed of who we are. I don’t like secrets and I don’t like closed doors. I’ve had some very interesting reactions to the work from showing it in exhibition form from people who don’t normally go to galleries, and I’m very interested to see how different people respond to the book.
Martin & Leonie Hampton - The Collector Part 1
Martin & Leonie Hampton - The Collector Part 2
About Christian’s case: An example of the consequences of neglect
Christian lived in a small town in Provence near where my sister lives. Leonie met him while photographing other ‘alternative’ families in the valley. For 50 years he had been collecting things that have been thrown out by the people town’s inhabitants. The Mayor tried to ban him from collecting and over the years had organised with the local social services for his house to be emptied.
After each traumatic clearing, Christian would once again start collecting, eventually working at night to evade detection. I first filmed him in 2003. His house was full of objects and smelt of rotting food, rats lived next to where he slept, but Christian was happy doing something that made his life make sense to him. On October 2009 Christian was forcibly taken to a psychiatric hospital in Montelimar, over an hour from his home town, after the Mayor and his legal guardian or ‘tutelle’ decided he could no cope with living alone in his home. A petition circulated in his home town of Buis les Baronnies in Provence demanding that he be allowed to return to be looked after within his own community. Eventually it was decided that Christian should be given a place in his town’s retirement home. However, after being made to wait for over 2 months in the hospital, during which time he became progressively more depressed, to the extent that his lost his appetite and energy, on 30 December 2009 Christian suffered a massive heart attack and died in the office of the hospital. Leonie and I happened to visit him in hospital 2 days before his death, when we filmed him in hospital, and again shortly after he died.
Christian despaired at the wastage of modern life and worked 365 days a year to salvage the things he believed were still useful, storing his finds at his home and on inherited land, occasionally selling or giving them on to his ‘clients’. This enormous collection of fridges, televisions, toys, shoes, books etc… represents a remarkable material history of the town’s consumer habits, and I consider it to be an outstanding artwork. Should you wish to visit them, the collections are here and here.
After his funeral there was a lot of discussions about the causes of his death, people in the town started to watch the films I had made and the Mayor wrote a feeble letter in the local press absolving himself of responsibility. Eventually there was a march to commemorate his life during which speeches were made. I could not be there but I wrote this text to be read out loud in front of the Town Hall:
There are several reasons why the Mayor’s letter in Le Buis J’Aime is unsatisfactory and I feel it warrants a response.
- Obsessive Compulsive Hoarding disorder is a mental illness. Christian was unable to stop himself collecting because his behaviour is motivated by a profound pathological compulsion. It is very rare that someone with christian’s type of profile will be able to control himself without considerable help, in the form of Cognitive Behavioural therapy. Even with such therapy there is no guarantee that they will stop collecting. To expect Christian to have modified his behaviour because the mayor made his house clean and tidy and ‘normal’ is being highly optimistic. To remove his things without addressing the root of the problem is never going to make it go away as any psychiatrist with any experience of this condition would testify. Christian likely suffered acute anxiety as a result of childhood difficulties and clearly found great comfort in collecting. As the letter says, it was his life and his great pleasure. Why, if social services were monitoring Christian ‘daily’ was he able to fill the house again so completely to the extent that such a dramatic solution was needed?
-Christian felt surveilled rather than helped. For the past three years he has lived in constant fear that the ‘Guard’ was out to catch him. In 2009 he began sleeping mostly in a cabanon in the hills for fear of being caught in his home while asleep and taken back to hospital. For the mayor and local social services to allow this situation to develop suggests they had little informed understanding of his condition. By treating him as an unruly child instead of a man with a manageable psychiatric illness they attempted to control his behaviour with fear rather than compassion.
- The Mayor, the Tutelle and the doctors claim to have acted in Christian’s best interests, however an analysis of the facts suggests otherwise. Christian was very much capable of expressing his will, and therefore his wishes should have been taken into consideration. The only reason he was unable to be helped was because on this occasion his only relatives consented to his confinement. The psychiatrist at the hospital Dr Bema admitted that it was not the right place for Christian so why was he put there in the first place?
- This was not the first time that Christian was forcibly incarcerated against his will with no initial timetable for release. The last time he was put in a closed hospital while his house was cleared, it was Christian’s cousin in Nice who hired a lawyer to demand that he be allowed home.
-He died in a psychiatric hospital in Montellimar, over 1 hour’s drive from his home town. Only one friend from Buis visited him regularly, largely due to the distance. As Christian explains himself, hospital was experienced as a form of punishment for his hoarding. This is a long sentence for anyone, but a particularly harsh one for someone for whom collecting is everything.
- On the last occasion that Christian was sent to hospital he became clinically depressed, to the extent that it effected him physically. It is clear from his description of the experience in the first second part of the film The Collector, that it was a highly traumatic time for him. Why would anyone want to put him through that again and for such a long time? Surely one would want to find an alternative way to handle the situation. It is surely a form of cruelty to knowingly subject someone to an experience that they find deeply disturbing, when other, less painful alternatives are available.
-The Mayor writes that Christian knew he had a place in the retirement home. At the time of his death, he had only recently joined the waiting list for a room, and was being told that he might have to wait until someone either died or moved to another home before he could return to Buis. Why did they not wait until there was a room ready for him in the retirement home before they sent him to the psychiatric hospital? What was the plan when he was removed from his home?
In conclusion, despite sympathizing with the complicated predicament faced by those responsible for Christian due to his persistent collecting, one cannot help but feel that had greater consideration been given to Christian’s personal feelings and wishes, had he in fact been listened to and treated as a person with human rights, the convenient solution that was adopted; that of locking him in a psychiatric hospital while they worked out what to do with him, would have been unthinkable. It is impossible to establish whether the extreme deterioration of Christian’s mental and physical health while in hospital culminating in his death of heart failure, was related to the trauma of the experience, and this letter in no way accuses anyone of being directly responsible for his death. However, in the film we see that Christian was miserable, depressed and alone in that hospital four days before he died. Although he knew he would one day be moved to the retirement home in Buis, it shows that he believed that he had been caught out and was now being punished by the mayor and the Tutelle for his collecting activities. These are not the delusions of a madman. His fear of the wrath of the authorities that had haunted him for years had come to pass and he had lost his freedom. Is this really the right way to treat the mentally ill?
-Martin Hampton 2011