Love, Loss And Catharsis

The Heartfelt Photography Book Where Death And Dying Take On Tulip Form

Even the simplest images are full of stories. Even the most substantial life-events can be captured in a single image. Tulip, the pathos-laden first book by London-based documentary photographer, Celine Marchbank, is both image and story, overflowing with grief and beauty. It is the story of the photographer’s mother’s struggle against lung cancer and a brain tumour. Focusing on the tiny details in everyday life, she allows their significance to shine and burn brightly. “I tackled it from the approach of looking at the small details that together tell a bigger story,” she tells us.


Candidly and delicately, the book documents little items of significance in the last months leading up to her mother’s death. Without undue attention to the morbid, Celine prefers to see her project as a celebration of her mother’s life. “My mum was a head chef and had studied art, so she came from a creative background,” Celine tells us. “She loved my images, and I think she liked the idea of being the subject of one of my projects, she was not a shy woman.”


Celine used to be a graphic designer, but switched to documentary photography after pursuing an MA in the same topic. Having been practicing the art and trade for the last 5 years, her book, which she launched on Kickstarter, allows us to share in her sorrow, as the process became a pillar of strength to lean on, helping her to cope and overcome her strife. Ingeniously, the sole image of a tulip encapsulates the gamut of emotions in a recognisable and plaintive image; a concentrated symbol of loss, beauty, despair, and hope.


“I could see that the tulips were telling a story on their own,” she affirms. “I realised they were symbolic of what was happening. They represented happiness, love, kindness and generosity, but also isolation, decay, and finally death.”

We caught up with Celine to ask her more about her process:

The Plus: How did you find using Kickstarter?
Celine Marchbank:
It’s been fantastic, but a long hard month, a lot of hard work goes into reaching your funding target. I think a lot of people think you make a nice video, launch the campaign and then sit back and watch the money roll in, but it couldn’t be more different! There was a lot of preparation work before launch, but the hard work all pays off if you get it right. For creative projects, it’s such a fantastic way to gain interest and support for your work. What’s so invaluable with Kickstarter is reaching a new audience. They become a community to share future work with.


TP: How was the process of photographing your mother at such a difficult time?
It was obviously a very hard project to do, but I knew from the start I did not want to just concentrate on the dying part, it was more about the time we had left, so I would take pictures of the things that would remind me of her. Some days when she was really struggling I didn’t take any pictures at all, I tried to be respectful to her needs. I didn’t want images of my mum suffering.


TP: How was she as a subject? Did she also share your passion for photography?
My mother was always very open about the idea of me photographing her. I think it made her feel like she was doing something in return for me. When she was diagnosed I became her full-time carer. I didn’t mind caring for her, I would have done anything for her, but I think she always felt guilty about her illness. So we kind of made this agreement that I would look after her and she would let me photograph our time together.


TP: How do you think art helps you deal with loss?
I still can’t work out if doing the project made me feel slightly detached from the pain, or maybe I felt more affected by it, I’m still not sure. Since the project my work has evolved to explore emotions, it became a way for me to process all the grief and sadness. It wasn’t something I planned, it just happened. Every new personal project I worked on had connections to my grief. I started writing lots about grief on my blog, it just seemed to pour out, and then I felt better. It really helped to get it out in whichever way, especially because speaking about it was not my preferred option.


TP: What has the reaction to this heartfelt project been?
It’s been incredibly warm and supportive. People have contacted me from all over the world who’ve been through a similar experience. Commercially the project has been received very well too, it’s being shortlisted for many prestigious photography awards, but that wasn’t the reason I did it. You have a kind of bond with people who parents have died from cancer, you join a club, and these people’s opinions mattered the most to me, and the good response I got from them was reason enough to have done it.


TP: What would you say your mother’s legacy is?
My mother was an amazing person; she had a very interesting life and had a great influence on many people’s lives, not just mine, especially in the cooking world. You can read about it in her obituary. I’m just glad to have been born to such a strong, talented and fascinating woman; she’s left a lot to live up to!


TP: What are you working on now?
Since my mother’s death I have been working on a project about her cooking history, as I found boxes of her old recipes and menus from all of her many restaurants. I started to teach myself how to cook her recipes, they made me feel closer to her. Alongside this I have been working on a project about grief. When I felt sad I would cook her food, it would feel like she was with me, and so I think they could work well together. I have written lots and shot lots of images, I need to give myself time now to sit with it and see what comes out of the editing process. I’m really looking forward to this.


Tulip: My Mother’s favourite flower is published by Dewi Lewis Publishing in March 2016.