Mark Seymour is one of the best documentary photographers, his images capture emotion, rhythm and energy with what seems like a sixth-sense ability. His sensitivity to the feeling in a room at a wedding for instance, makes his story-telling so honest and full of feeling. In 2015, Mark’s father, Ronnie, passed away. He had been suffering from Alzheimer’s. Mark’s documentary as the disease took hold of Ronnie is one of the most moving visual stories of our time and communicates the real story of Alzheimer’s on a patient and their carers and family. The images are on exhibition at the Andipa Gallery
Mark, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’ve been a professional photographer for over twenty years running a successful wedding business. Alongside my wedding photography I have always pursued personal projects and street photography. My style is in the genre of documentary, reportage, photojournalism, photorealism. I have developed my own distinctive style which I call observational documentary and my photography is recognisable for its editing using deep contrasting black and white ‘chiaroscuro’.
I was the first ambassador for wedding photography for Nikon UK and the first photographer to receive a double fellowship for documentary photography which is an achievement I am really proud of.
I run documentary street photography workshops in the UK and around the world, including my work with the Hope Foundation in Kolkata, India every year.
Over my years as a photographer I have established amazing relationships with some of the UKs most prestigious venues, including Cliveden House, the Langham and Danesfield House, so I regular photograph events for them as well as being their recommended wedding photographer.
My photographic work with charities is something I am really passionate about. I have photographed events for Barnardo’s, this year I have held an exhibition for the Hope Foundation in London with support from Virgin Money, and most recently I have started working with Carers UK to photograph carers and their families. Of course my current focus in raising awareness of Alzheimer’s with my exhibition and all donations are going directly to the Alzheimer’s Society.
What got you started in photography? And why is it important for you, not just in business terms but also personally?
My passion for taking photos started as a little boy, mum has a picture of me with a camera round my neck. Only recently I found out that my parents gave me the camera but they didn’t put film in as I was always taking everyone’s pictures!
My camera is always at hand, it feels like part of me, taking photographs is something I do instinctively. I love making memories, capturing moments naturally as they happen, the people and emotions that are important to me or that just capture my interest.
They say photographs can speak a thousand words and my belief is that when you look back at a photograph is should transport you to that moment in time and feel those emotions. Good observational documentary photography allows the audience to connect with the image on a human emotional level, they tell a real story, it can make you laugh, cry even challenge your own views.
People tell me that my photography, wedding, street and personal projects, evoke real emotions and they want to talk about the images and relate them to their own experiences, the start of a thousand words!
“Harmonica for Ronnie” is such an emotional series of portraits of your father. Can you tell us about the series, sorry it’s a tough and incredibly personal question, what compelled you to document your father’s condition?
As I have said, photographing is something I’m compelled to do and I have always photographed mum and dad, so it was totally natural that even when dad got his diagnosis that I should continue to photograph him. So it started off as just me taking pictures of mum and dad as normal, it was only as time went on that the bigger story began to reveal itself and sitting in front of the computer editing the images that I realised that I needed to make every moment count, to tell Dad’s story because I needed to share this with other families in the same position.
It was those times sitting alone with the images on my screen that I began to process the diagnosis and the impact it was having on Dad and Mum, and that’s when the tears would come.
I showed the images to the doctors and care home and they agreed that they were a very powerful way of communicating the real story of Alzheimer’s on a patient and their carers and family.
So with Mum’s permission it became my mission to get the images seen by more people and raise awareness of Alzheimer’s and dementia. I know Dad would have been so proud and would have loved the fact that his photo and story ended up on the news, in the papers and on gallery wars not just in the UK but around the world.
You can see an acceleration in the deterioration of your father in the portraits, it’s really moving to see this. How did you feel as you were taking the images, did it help you to have the camera with you?
For me, seeing Dad on a daily basis and then looking at the pictures I could see the changes and it made it very real. It definitely helped me understand and begin the grieving process as Dad’s health began to fail.
Sometime Dad was lost in his own world of Alzheimer’s but every so often you saw the spark of the man we all loved come back to you. Those moments were so precious.
Mum never saw Dad’s decline, she couldn’t see how frail he was becoming, for her she just saw the man she had loved all her life, the man she had made a commitment to on her wedding day and she fought for very moment right to the end. It took some time after Dad had passed before Mum was ready to view the photographs, and she was really shocked that she had not been able to see what was happening at the time.
The images have helped us talk about Dad and how he was towards the end. In a way they have brought some comfort for Mum.
Alzheimer’s has become a media topic over the last few years but what the public tends to see is images and adverts led by celebrities and not really communicating the reality of the diagnosis. Talking is so important, sharing your experiences and expectations with other families in the same situations, hearing real stories can bring such comfort and support. More and more families are dealing with Alzheimer’s and I have had so many people contact me after seeing Dad’s photographs sharing their stories. It’s definitely driven me to put this exhibition on and find other ways to use the images to raise awareness.
As a result of this series “Harmonica for Ronnie” what do you hope might happen as a result? Do you hope more people will learn about the disease?
The exhibition in London has a book that goes with it which is a mixture of Dad’s story and information about Alzheimer’s. Visitors to the gallery are encouraged to make a donation to the Alzheimer’s Society via my Just Giving page and we are holding a special event with an auction. Any of my prints that are sold will have all the profits paid directly to the charity as well.
I was incredibly lucky and thankful to my amazing supporters and sponsors, Andipa Gallery for hosting the exhibition for the whole of world Alzheimer’s month is their incredible gallery in London, and Loxley Colour who provided the framed prints.
A project in Milan also contacted me to use the images as part of their work on raising awareness of Alzheimer’s and they are using photographs to tell lots of families stories and help recall memories for patients.
I have applied for the Bob and Diane Fund to establish a travelling version of the exhibition that can be used in hospitals, libraries, community centres, care homes and support groups. I want to continue to use this photographs to share Dad’s story and raise awareness of Alzheimer’s in the UK and around the world, there’s so much more to do!
Has this portrait series changed the way you work generally or how you approach life?
It has not so much changed as it has reaffirmed my passion and belief that documentary photography is incredibly important in capturing memories and emotions, and telling the stories of people.
When I train other photographers I always encourage them to find a personal project that they feel passionate about and begin to build a record, to tell their own photographic story. It is a wonderful thing to have and look back on but also enable you to develop your photography skills.
Having Alzheimer’s in the family history has obviously had an impact on my how I view my own health and I must admit I have started to think about how I look after myself in terms of diet and exercise and mental wellbeing.
Your father died in 2015, has putting the exhibition, prints and materials together helped you process your bereavement?
One of the impacts of the illness is that you start to lose the person you love in front of your eyes, and the decline is very apparent. Editing the images made me sit and focus on Dad and what was happening and because I was so involved in all the decision making that went alongside Dad’s illness I definitely began my grieving whilst he was still alive.
But, like everyone else, when dad finally passed it still hit me hard, every day I think of him, that won’t ever change.
When I get asked to do an interview or talk about the exhibition I can feel the emotions rising and sometimes I need to take a moment to collect myself but knowing that I can reach out to another family and help, I know it is really important and I need to keep working on raising awareness.
A very sensitive question I feel, if someone was thinking of documenting one of their own family who is ill, maybe terminally, what advice would you give them?
For me and my family they were used to seeing me with a camera and they just carried on as normal. So if you take photographs I would say just carry on, because it will be something very natural. You do need to be sensitive to and aware of others especially if like Dad your loved one ends up in hospital or a care home.
Your focus should be on capturing the person their story not the illness, that way it will remain personal rather than becoming a medical report.
I am now working with Carers UK and the images I have taken have been everyday events captured naturally, that show the patient being loved and as part of their family, the caring comes from that love and relationships rather than the illness. As with all my photography, people are focus, I just want to retell their stories with real emotion and compassion.
The exhibition remains open until the 8th October and I really hope more people are able to make the trip to Andipa in Knightsbridge, and if Dad’s photographs and story touch you I would ask you to please make a donation via my Just Giving page. Thank you
For more information on the exhibition and Mark’s own work please do visit:
The Project’s websites: