The Dog House


Last summer I went with my friend Katie Stead to visit her parents Bob and Anne, recently settled into a residential home for the elderly in Woodingdean, just outside Brighton. Katie and her brothers and sister had chosen the home for its bright open location; and for its dedicated dementia unit, since Anne had come to need a professional level of care. It was obviously imperative that she and Bob should stay together. They'd moved from the house in which they'd lived for fifty years, with the shedding of skins that such a huge upheaval implies. Like so many, their sale of the large family home - usefully in London with its stratospheric property prices - finances their care. 

We had tea in the spacious lounge, comfortably arranged so that it was only halfway or even a quarter way to the institutional, making as few concessions to the reality of dependency as possible. Anne played an endless and very individual game of Patience, while Katie, Bob and I looked at family photographs.

These were astonishing family photographs. I was slightly stunned. First of all by the volume: there were crates of the things. Then by their age: on the back of a particularly charming brother and sister portrait the date 1856. Then by their place in history: Bob was a self-professed champagne socialist but his father, grandfather, great-grandfather had lived military lives in Egypt and India and here were album after album of regiments and travel, tiger hunts and picnics. Fortunately a lost world; but fascinating.

In the way of old stuff, these pictures were both very familiar to Katie and also not at all familiar. Various things began to come together: Katie's curiosity about this embarrassing-intriguing family history, her poignant feelings around her independent parents suddenly so evidently become dependent and, indisputably, old; and my enthusiasm for photography alongside my planned open house during the May festival.

We began to cook up the idea of an exhibition of some kind.

By the time we'd dug out letters and postcards as numerous as the well-used cards in Anne's pack, and Katie had said 'Oh and then of course there's the cassette tapes' the idea was ours.

Karen Barratt