A Portrait of Love and Loss: Contact Photography Festival Exhibitor Ian Willms shares ‘We Shall See’ at the Gladstone Hotel
As part of the featured exhibitions of Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival 2016, the Gladstone Hotel is pleased to present Paris: Baras / Les Roses d’Acier by Nick Kozak and We Shall See by Ian Willms. Both shows will have opening receptions on May 5, 2016 from 7–10 p.m. and will run throughout May (RSVP on Facebook here!)
We Shall See is the series of photographs that Ian Willms initiated while visiting his father in the hospital after a catastrophic accident while on a motorcycle tour of South Africa. The images began as Instagram posts documenting the details of their daily routine, created in an effort to visually communicate and cope with the emotional struggle in facing his father’s traumatic injuries. The series quickly grew to comprise more than 200 photographs.
The result is an emotional and compelling portrait of grief, resilience and the beauty of life and family. We interviewed Ian Willms to learn more about his experience documenting and sharing We Shall See.
Was it instinctive to start taking photos of your father after his accident?
Taking photos is part of my daily routine. I shot the day before I heard of the accident, on the way to the hospital and nearly everyday since then. While it was my instinct to shoot, I was at first unsure about showing the images to anyone whom I wasn’t close with.
When I arrived at the hospital, I was obviously feeling a whole lot of things, but it was too much to make sense of. It was like a dense fog inside my head at all times. Photographing at that time allowed me to keep track of our experiences and keep them in context. It also gave me something to do that was technical, which served as a much-needed grounding presence at a highly turbulent time.
You’ve already been sharing the collection on Instagram to a massive and engaged audience. How has photography been a tool to connect others to your experience?
I’m not so sure it was the photography that built that following. I think it was the honesty of the posts. I didn’t hold back very much in terms of what I shot and what I wrote about. In the few moments that I hesitated to photograph something, my father told me to keep going. He said to me in those moments, “at least something good can come of all this.”
Loss and grief are obstacles that impact nearly everyone in this world and we usually deal with that struggle in private. It can be an extremely isolating experience. Being able to relate to someone else while you’re in that place can be a big help.
Can you speak to the resilience that shines through in your series? There’s one picture that really comes to mind, where your dad is lying in his hospital bed giving the finger. The caption says, “His sense of humour.”
My dad was the one who made the choice to endure all the pain and suffering. He made the greatest effort to be strong and just live. All I could do was be there and remind him that he was loved.
The funny moments in the hospital were like the most precious treasure. He and I lived for them. If we were able to smile or even laugh about something, we would really savour that feeling and try to build on it. Most of the time was dreadfully depressing and we both knew it. Sometimes he’d tell me he wanted to die, but other times we would make grand plans for the future and how he was going to get the most out of life without the ability to walk.
Have the photos helped you and your family through the grieving process?
I feel that grief is a really personal thing. It’s different for everyone, no matter how close they are to the loss. So, I feel like I can only really speak for myself when I say that I’m not too sure.
After he died, I photographed the funeral and the days immediately afterward with my family, then I began to recoil from shooting the project. I was in shock for about a month before losing him really began to sink in. It felt like descending into a dark lake where you couldn’t see the bottom. I remember feeling the grief pile on more with each passing day. It was slow at first and then it sped up at an alarming rate. I spent a couple months just maintaining a basic level of self-care. I didn’t work at all. I just saw friends and got out as much as possible. It was summertime, which helped a lot. At that time, shooting We Shall See meant confronting my grief and I just wasn’t ready for that yet.
After a little while, I began to notice all of the heartfelt comments on the Instagram feed from people I had never met. Most were supportive toward my family and I, which meant a lot, but I was most moved by those who chose to share their own experiences with grief. A lot of people told me that my posts were helping them to deal with their own losses. Several people told me that my project had helped to get them out of a years-long slump so they could finally get on with their lives. I had never seen my photos help others in such a direct way before. That revelation did a lot to help me to get my shit back together and start working again. Once I felt a bit stronger, I began to photograph and write about my grief process on Instagram.
I post a lot more infrequently now than I used to, but that feels natural. Life is starting to become more manageable again. I’m so grateful that my work was able to help all these people that I’ve never met and then they returned that same gift to me when I needed it the most. It really feels like my dad got his wish: something good did come from all this.
What was the process like getting the show together?
I’ve spent most of my effort on the printing process. I wanted a specific look to the final photographs that mimicked the way it feels to deal with trauma. My goal from the beginning was to produce a print, with a floating, glowing, somewhat obscured and textured quality. I spent a lot of time calling and testing out print shops all around the GTA before finally finding something that I’m quite happy with.
As I type this, I’m in the curating stage. There are several prints of various sizes and paper types, stuck to the walls of my loft right now and an edit of smaller prints that I’m working out for the show. It’s a process that I work on in small bits and keep coming back to.
Natalie MacNamara has been lending me her sage advise about the process and that’s been a huge help. If I’m completely on my own with projects like this, I tend to go off on tangents and get separated from the essence of what I’m trying to do. Natalie has already reeled me in a couple times and kept me on track.
It’s extremely difficult to edit photographs that are so personal. It makes you want to communicate every little bit of what happened, which is a trap. When you try to say everything, nothing ends up being heard.
I have been going through some of the archives for the first time since I first shot them and it’s been pretty intense. I last about 15 minutes before needing to take a break. I have a large print on my wall right now with a bunch of magnets on it that spell “DO IT FOR HIM.” It’s a bit dramatic, but it works.
Ian Willms is a member of Boreal Collective and has been supported by Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council. His work resides between photojournalism and contemporary photography. The indelible marks of passing time and the conflict of inevitable compromise are common threads that run throughout Willms’ longterm photo essays.