The story that “The Epilogue” is the epilogue to is that of the life and death of Cammy Robinson, an American yound woman, who died of bulimia in 2005 at the age of 26. The photographer did not meet Cammy, and the project took place eight years after her death. Which means that in order to tell the story, Laia Abril had no choice but to use who was left, and what was left, meaning the family members and friends who survived her, as well as the objects and documents which may pertain to her story.
Any photographic story telling is by essence subjective. It is one person’s vision and understanding of a situation. This notion is pushed one step further here as the author is not translating what she experienced first hand, but she is conveying/translating what first hand witnesses have experienced. It is this multiplicity of subjectivities which gives this project its validity and impact. It is because the mother, the father, the friends, the aunt, etc… will tell their own tales of late Cammy’s life that the viewer gets an understanding of the unbearable complexities of what bulimia is, and how it can affect a family’s microcosm. Leaving the viewer in charge of coming to his own conclusions (and thus giving him the credit of being an intelligent viewer, which is always nice).
The book is composed of three chapters, each defined by a date. The first chapter focused on how the Robinson family’s life is taking place years after Cammy’s death. It is the present. With the unbelievable fact that life goes on. Back to the definition of an epilogue: what happens after the story ends: if Cammy’s story has ended, her family’s story keeps going, however unbearable this fact can be for them. Simple, sad and beautiful portraits of the family members give flesh to their testimonies.
Chapter two is a flash-back in time and tells us about the center character of this story: Cammy. The chapter’s title is her birthdate. Of course, this repartition of content has some flexibility, which allows for the different contents types to be evenly spreadout within the book. We follow her life from its early days to the very tough period of high school when she is overweight and somewhat of an outcast, to her College years, where her condition takes a different form and she loses her weight and her health, to her final love story. The last -three spreads long- chapter deals with Cammy’s death.
The complexity of content is translated in a manner which is both simple to grasp and yet very alluring (oh, the double folded pages!...). Simply put, the book begs to be playing with. The design of the book, made by Laia Abril and Ramon Pez, combines an array of different sources materials: interviews of the family and friends of Cammy (which remain short enough not to rebuke the reader, yet confrontational enough to highlight some discrepancies between how each character may have perceived such or such moment), vintage images & objects (re photographed on a white canvas background), and original photographs. This combination of sources sets the viewer in the position of a detective having re create a story which has happened long before and which can only be re constructed via those pieces of evidence: a deflated air balloon, a medical record, a letter by her brother, of party photograph, etc… Yet the essentially chronological order of the sequencing, along with thematic pages of interviews makes this piecing together rather simple. Paradoxically, this might actually be the one few downfalls of the project for me: it leaves little room for mystery which would call for a second and a third reading.
M. Pez had successfully played a similar game of assembling sources of different nature with the “Ponte City” project by Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse published last year by Steidl. All of which could be family tree-ed back to the publication of excellent “Raised by Wolves” by Jim Goldberg in 1995 by Scalo. In its narration of kids lives in LA and San Francisco after they had ran away from their homes, he similarly mixed objects (photographed in the studio), testimonies (oral and written), found images and original images.
“The Epilogue” tells a much simpler story than those two examples did, the story of one single girl who thought herself different from the rest of her family, perhaps inadequate, who soon translated psychological issues into weight gain (up to 225 pounds) until she balanced her binge eating with purging, which brought her down to 122 pounds, and lead to a series of heart attacks & seizures until the one she did not recover from. This story is very specific and brutally honest. And by being so it paradoxically gains a quite universal echo for people who might be confronted to eating disorders in their families or circle of friends. Of course interviews were edited, but not edited enough to erase the contradictions, the hesitations, perhaps the wrong choices made by some of the protagonists. Those multiple voices make for a complex story, respected by Laia Abril with great discretion in her account of events.
Some insights into the work process of Laia Abril in her own words:
“My long-term project on Eating Disorders started on 2009 with the first chapter, the multimedia piece "A Bad Day." After that I decided to denounce social networks and photography as risk factors in the disease, by reconstructing the new visual language of pro-anorexia advocates in 'Thinspiration' self-published the.
After a long reflection I realized my angle on documenting Eating Disorders was focused on the uncomfortable aspects which nobody wanted to talk about. So, I decided to open the boundaries further to highlight the most avoided agents of this mental disease and tackle its deaths and the collateral victims. It took me a while to understand how to document the lack of somebody and show the recovery grief process of a family and loved ones who suffer. Then I understood the memory contributions of the family dealing with the aftermath were the same puzzle pieces that I needed to reconstruct Cammy´s life.
Once I knew the sort of investigation I wanted to follow it was the time to find the family willing to share their story. I emailed hundreds of associations, foundations, therapist, individuals... and one of them was Jan Robinson, Cammy's mother. She understood right the way my intention with the project (probably because their own healing process involved creating a small foundation on her daughter's name) so as soon as I could travel to US we started to work together.
It was very clear in my mind this was going to be a book as was clear the kind of storytelling I wanted to create. As in previous projects text was an important aspect, so I interviewed all the relatives of Cammy in order to use the text in the project (first for the book, then eventually a video piece), I photographed the grieving process in the present and I started to collect anything that could help me tell who Cammy was and explain every part of her life; helping me show a bigger panorama of her struggle with bulimia. I asked each of them to bring me an object which reminded them of Cammy; Jan helped me with enormous patience to recreate her life timeline (which was very interesting, since everybody has a very different composition of memories and not always concurs). As I stayed at the Robinson's house I had access to hundreds of pictures, family albums, letters, diaries, documents, objects, spaces... anything that I needed they gave to me. Eventually I collected and photographed everything so I would be able to do some serious editing the following year. Their generosity in sharing the most painful as well as the most beautiful moments is what actually made the book.
Ramon Pez and myself started a 'book maker team' in 2012 doing the design, editing and production of books such 'The Afronauts' followed by 'Thinspiration fanzine' and more recently 'Tediousphilia' (Musee de l'Elysee, 2014). With him also I worked for almost 3 years at colors magazine, where I was a staff photographer and consultant photo editor and he was Art Director. Besides being art director Pez has a huge knowledge in photography and visual storytelling, so he understood the intention of this new project perfectly.
Our working process is quite similar in each project: first we study and examine the amount of material and find a narrative structure which works in order to tell the story.
Then documentation and research is huge in order to find the materials and the shape of the object which will allow us to tell that kind of story. For that part of the process we also got inspiration from diaries, from genealogical albums, from psychological reports, investigation documents, a specific selection of 80's american movies looking for similar geo-demographic atmospheres, country songs... anything which could help us suggest to the reader the kind of environment Cammy's story developed in and make people engage with different feelings the story might evoke for them.
The editing process was a key element as I literally had boxes of her stuff. Obviously as a photographer you want to go to any detail, you think everything is essential to make people understand, but that's the hardest part of our job: explain and make people engage as much as possible but with the minimum amount of information necessary in order to leave enough free space to the readers’ own interpretations. It was important to have a balance between the family's stories about Cammy and their own mourning process, right lifetime reconstruction, the whole bulimia struggling aspects, the different trigger factors... and everything without applying my opinion in the book, since I was nobody to judge. But at the same time I needed to get into the darkest moments respecting the family memory.
In pure terms of design (and of course storytelling) we had a big challenge with the composition of text and photography. Text was essential, but again the rythm of the book was very important, so at the end it was always a matter of finding a balance between content and narrative flow. Finally it was basic to find a translation of the narrative in the design and a great example of that could be how we managed to highlight the 4 'breaking points' of Cammy's life (2 heart attacks and 2 seizures) into 'breaking the book' with 4 special foldouts which will help us to stop the reader when we need him to.
The book wound't have been possible without the freedom, trust and support we had from Dewi Lewis since day one; he left us in charge of the design and production of the book. He was very interested since the very beginning seeing just a few images and telling him the story. A few months later we showed him a very advanced mock up of the book. For the next 6-8 months we worked very intensely and we met him in Venice a couple of times to show him the evolution and production. But as I said, he gave as 100% freedom and trust. He also understood that this project was a research/documentary piece which I wanted to keep affordable in order for it to reach as many people as possible.
It is only while printing that I realized how fast the whole process had been. From shooting to printing, there was only one year. The idea of this chapter was on my mind for 2 years, and research took months, but the actual making of the book was quite fast.”
Image credit: Dewi Lewis