Tank Spotting with Mum

'We must be the only people who go for a picnic in the middle of a battle!' 

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I looked after my mother for two and a half years before she died. I photographed her as she struggled with mounting health issues and, as a result, I learnt not to fear death as much as I used to. Having lived for almost 30 years in Asia, I realise the way we distance ourselves from death (here in the UK) only increases our fear of dying.

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On the day of my mother’s death (from Covid-related complications), I asked a nurse at the hospital if she could tell me how my mother died. She told me they had been with her, that she had been comfortable and had died peacefully. Feeling this was a little too pat I asked another nurse on the ward the same question. She replied that they didn’t know for certain as they had been busy elsewhere and she died sometime between 4.30 and 5am. I've no doubt the first nurse was offering me a degree of comfort, but I would have preferred to know what happened, no matter how unpalatable.

 

To me, the nurse's words speak of a wider inability to face death. And I have come to believe this fear comes from our distance from death as an event. We are removed from it; it is something that happens behind closed doors, something we can only talk about euphemistically. Death is seen almost as an unnatural occurrence, like a disease that will one day have a cure. And this attitude to death has been brought into sharp relief during the pandemic.

In early 2019, I returned to England to care of my elderly and infirm mother. I decided to photograph her life as she struggled with the loneliness of old age and mounting health issues. Among the images I have are a series of her watching tanks on Salisbury Plain, a sweeping expanse of wild downland in Wiltshire and the British army's largest training area. She would sit in her deckchair and, at times, watch the shells exploding in the distance. On one occasion, a patrol of Royal Marines marched right through our picnic. She turned to me with a grin and said, 'We must be the only people who go for a picnic in the middle of a battle!’

For most of my career I have photographed people in difficult circumstances; from refugees in Bangladesh to the wounded from Burma's civil wars to those with HIV/AIDS in Thailand. I was an outsider and these people were strangers in situations I had no personal stake in. I often wondered how I would feel if they were my own family. Turning my camera on my own mother, it was the challenge of the intimate that drew me.

In Thailand, where I have lived since 1991, people are generally more accepting of death. In Thai Buddhist culture, it is seen as just a normal part of life, like birth or marriage. There isn't the degree of questioning there is in Europe. When my Thai mother-in-law died in 2016, the family understood her death as having ‘reached her time’. And death is integrated into the everyday from an early age. At my mother-in-law’s funeral toddlers were lifted up above her open casket to say goodbye to their great grandmother before the funeral pyre was lit. After the burning of the body, we all sifted through the ash to retrieve bits of bone to place in a stupa, children included. There was a lot of laughter coupled with tears. Death in Thailand isn’t seen as quite the frightening event that it is here.

The photographs I took of my mother are a portrait of old age and a personal record of her final years. They are also an exploration of my own attitude to old age and death, confronting a reality we will all one day face. Although some of the images may be difficult to look at, they are also a celebration of a full life lived well. Even when she was in hospital my mother talked of getting back to the Plain to go 'tank spotting'. 

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Magdalene Jardine Dunlop

(nee Browne-Clayton)

1937-2021