Simon Bray is shining a light on grief by re-staging old photographs of people with their lost loved ones. We discover why Simon is recording their stories through his photos and podcast.
“These are people who live down the road from you, opening up and sharing their experiences of potentially the hardest days they’ve lived through,” says photographer Simon Bray. “That’s not easy, but it’s reality.”
Simon is the creator of Loved&Lost, a photography project and podcast which tells the stories of ordinary people and the loved ones they’ve lost. By interviewing participants and re-staging their precious family photographs, Simon uncovers the unique and special relationships behind the picture.
“Everyone I’ve worked with has said it’s been a positive experience. There’s something so tangible about returning to that place to evoke those memories and also being given the opportunity to then talk about it.
“Part of it is to do with not wanting to forget those memories, to keep those memories alive. That allows that person to live on and for them to be spoken about.”
Loved&Lost began as a way for Simon to process his own grief, after losing his dad to prostate cancer while he was studying at university.
“He was 51 and passed away between Christmas and New Year, which has now become a far less enjoyable time of year for me and my family,” he explains. “It wasn’t easy to approach with friends. Not many people my age had any frame of reference for what I was processing. Seeking out a counsellor really helped.
“A couple of years later I started to work as a photographer, and the idea came to me to help people engage with their loss. I wanted to give people a reason to talk about their grief and to celebrate the person they had lost.”
Anne, Simon’s mum, re-staging an old photograph with husband, Peter
The first story in Loved&Lost was that of Simon’s mum, Anne, and his father, Peter. Together they re-staged an old photograph of Anne and Peter standing on a hill overlooking Winchester, just a few days after they got engaged.
“When talking, it wasn’t easy to see my mum getting upset, but I actually learnt things about dad and their relationship which I hadn’t known before,” says Simon. “Somehow, going through the process of taking the images, and taking time to listen to one another, had given her permission to open up and express things I’d not heard her talk about before.”
Seeing how engaging with those memories helped them, Simon decided to open the project up to others who wanted to take part.
One participant, James, returned to Hillsborough to watch Sheffield Wednesday play for the first time since losing his father – a tradition they had held together for 20 years before his death. Simon was there to take his photo and hear his story.
James and his dad at a Sheffield Wednesday match, and James revisiting the stadium
“I remember when the last fixture list came out, the last season when he was alive, in July when they release them,” James told Simon. “And suddenly that fixture list had me thinking which game would be his last. Suddenly you could measure a life in home games.
“Everything would have a brave face on it,” James continued. “He was a performer, he was an opera singer, he did lots of amateur dramatics stuff and he was a singer. That was his main thing outside of work, so he liked to entertain. He was a real joker – any party he’d be doing impersonations, play spoons or slap his cheeks to play tunes.”
Watching the match with James, for the first time since his father died
“In essence, we’re complete strangers,” explains Simon, who speaks via email and phone before meeting his photography subjects face to face. “That may sound tricky, but actually, given the right context, it’s often easier to speak to a stranger than those closer to us.
“There’s often not a great deal of discussion needed, it’s amazing how that shared experience of losing someone close to you can bring you together quite quickly.
“It can be quite emotional,” he admits. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that we sit there sobbing with each other, but what we’re talking about can go quite deep. People are able to share things that they don’t talk about on a day-to-day basis, so it’s a privilege for me to hear their stories.
“But I also feel a duty of care towards the participants. I want to create an environment in which they feel safe to share with me and that often means I have to not let myself get too drawn in in order to focus on how they are doing. It can be very emotionally tiring, so I have to pace myself and be aware of my capacity.”
In another story, Simon met Nicola to re-stage a childhood photo on Beacon Fell, Lancashire. She is the only surviving person from the photo, having lost her mother, father and brother in quick succession.
Nicola returning to Beacon Fell to tell her family’s story
“I do think that having experienced such pain and loss has helped me to have a much deeper appreciation of beauty,” she told Simon. “It feels like once you’ve been to a place of such pain, you have a deeper understanding of the world around you and I just, well, I look on life differently.”
She continued: “When someone dies, it can be so shocking and you feel like it ought to be very, very noisy, like people banging drums and playing trombones and shouting, and actually it’s very quiet, because that person’s gone, so you don’t hear their voice anymore. After the funeral, you are left in a very quiet place. Sometimes that can feel wrong because the feelings aren’t very quiet.”
Nicola's story: The view from Beacon Fell
After working with several other people and their unique stories, Simon eventually returned to his own grief, re-staging an old family photograph of himself and his dad in the garden.
“I thought it would be good if had the chance to see the project from the other side,” he explains. “The chance arose when my mum decided to move out of the family home and I found that photograph. I re-staged it and asked a friend to interview me. It wasn’t easy, particularly when mum moved as there were so many memories tied up in that place, but I’m very glad I was able to take those pictures.”
Simon re-stages his childhood photo with his father, Peter
“It’s been fairly overwhelming, but having the chance to share about the project and our experiences of loss has been a privilege. There’s evidently something about Loved&Lost that resonates with the media.”
Simon is not currently accepting new participants for the project, after his sister passed away from a brain tumour in May of this year. “I’m taking some time out to look after myself and my family before I start engaging with other people’s stories of loss,” he says.
However, looking forwards, Simon is planning exhibitions in Manchester and Sheffield next year, as well as the possibility of publishing a book. But his main goal is to reach people who will benefit from seeing the stories shared in Loved&Lost.
“There are lots of people out there who are grieving but aren’t sure where to turn for support or help. To be able to read a story and know that someone else is hurting in the same way as you, that they also feel angry or isolated or confused, can be a great comfort.
“You can find all the stories on the website, so feel free to share it with anyone who might benefit from seeing it. If there’s someone you know who’s grieving, go and talk to them. You don’t have to try and solve anything, just ask them about it. It can make such a huge difference.”
About the author
With a Masters from the University of Bristol, Jessica Hanson has worked in the funeral sector for several years, following the latest industry trends and writing about end of life planning. Jessica has previously written as a blogger for the Huffington Post, covering topics such as death positivity, understanding grief and how funerals are changing. You can find Jessica on LinkedIn and Twitter.