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Ahead of the Beer O’Clock Talk on Saturday June 8th, photography editor and writer Diane Smyth speaks to Hollie Fernando about her “12” project and her approach to the story.


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How did you get into photography? What do you like about it? 

I got into it after finding an old camera of my Dad’s when I was about 15 and spending the summer working out how to use it. By the following year I was at a new college studying it for A-Level. Obviously, I could speak for a long time about all the reasons I like taking photos, but one of the main reasons (within my personal work), is the freezing of a moment that I am scared of forgetting. I have the worst memory and feel that sometimes I run to get my camera so I remember. 

When did you start photographing your brother? 

He was actually my main subject when I first picked up the camera. He would have been about four or five, and I have so many films of him in the garden playing with bugs and the likes. As my work matured I turned to my sister, Jess, who is four years younger than me and could convey the messages I wanted to get across in my work more than a toddler could. This was the case up until we went on the first family holiday without Jess, and so I found myself asking Max for portraits. I ended up looking at him completely differently for the first time on these two weeks. 

Up until then, he had always just been my kid brother and I had never felt the urge to document him for any art purposes - only for nice family snaps. But I saw this whole deeper level to his life at that exact point, where he was transitioning from a child to a young adult, and I was obsessed with trying to capture this through my images. It was great for our relationship, we are extremely close for siblings with such a big age gap. 

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I'm interested that some of the photographs were suggested by him, recording moments he felt were important. Can you point to some pictures made in that way?

Once I had the project epiphany, I asked him if he would mind me documenting his life for a whole year. He was totally up for it – was really excited and would drop everything he was doing to let me take his photograph. I think he was so used to seeing me ask and shoot my sister the whole time he realised that he was really proud it was him who was being asked this time round. 

I explained it would be so cool for him to be involved in helping me work out what I needed to think about shooting to portray his life at age 12, and together we decided that certain hobbies he was into would be a good addition. We have pictures of him in his football kit after training and also his CCF (cadets) uniform on the way home. We also had Taekwando on the list too but he gave that up pretty early on in the project as he found it boring - which I was slightly gutted about as the white suit would have looked so great in so many locations around where we live. 

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Does Max help you with the picture edits? Are there any images you liked that he vetoed? 

He didn’t help me with the edits, but I would always show him the films as I got them back. He actually didn’t ask for any to be taken out, not even the close up toenail shot that he laughed at. He did ask for one of the very early images of him playing the guitar for his profile picture on Instagram though, and it wouldn’t have necessarily been a shot I would have kept in but I did so for this reason. 

How many photographs do you think you've taken for the project? Was Max always willing to pose? 

I took so many. Thousands. I had to scan them myself at home to save money, so it was really time consuming and I would get really emotional going through them all with lots of time to think about how fragile life is and all that.

He was 99% always willing. I think by the end of the year when the novelty had worn off slightly he’d be less excited to sit for me. I had to bribe him with a fiver on just one occasion when the sunlight at golden hour was incredible but he was on his Xbox mid-game and didn’t want to stop. But generally he was the most patient subject ever and really understood how much it meant to me. 

What does Max think of the project? 

He’s said (in an almost too profound way for a kid to say), that it is going to be great to have all these photographs for him to look back on when he is older. I don’t think what I was doing really hit him until my exhibition opening night, he was just beaming the whole time and loved being centre of attention. 

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Max is quite young, did you have any ethical concerns about putting him in front of the camera and on public view?

I definitely thought about this, but as I was just documenting his life rather than getting him to do anything he wouldn’t normally, I felt it would be more positive than negative for people to have this insight. I would always have his full involvement and consent to anything. 

I'm interested that 12 shows a boy - there are lots of photographs showing girls or young women but not so many showing boys or young men, and especially not so many that show them looking sensitive or gentle. Would you agree? Is it something you've thought about?

Absolutely. Carrying on from the previous question, I knew that this wasn’t something regularity documented, which is why I thought it is was a really positive thing to have put out there as it shows an intimate side to a boy, that you would hardly ever see in the media. There’s such a huge issue with the pressures young men face to be ‘strong’ and ‘manly’, and I wanted Max to almost hold the beacon against that and show that it’s okay to be sensitive and be yourself and to hug your Dad and smell the flowers if you want to. 

Max and I always spoke about this and I was very lucky to have a subject who was so comfortable with being himself, even in front of my camera. He still holds my Dad’s hand down the street and says ‘love you’ to Mum on the phone in front of his mates. It’s nice to have had the opportunity to show that as the ‘norm’ that it is in our house. 

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There's a really nice mix of colours and styles in the project, why did you choose to mix it up? 

This wasn’t a conscious thing, I think as it was shot over a year there were so many different things to document at different times of the day/year that it ended up being more of a case of ‘what do I need to do to get this shot’. I was also growing as an artist over this year, getting more into a documentary style of shooting so I think this may have had a factor too with a slight transition of styles over the course of the project. 

Are there other photographers who inspire you? For example, other photographers who shoot their family?

Sally Mann and Linda McCartney for sure! 

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