Our House

  • Dates
    2021 - 2023
  • Author
  • Location Burnham, United Kingdom

A house, a home, a heartache.

Our house was always there for me, until one day when it suddenly wasn’t anymore. Somehow I'd always imagined that I’d have it for ever ...

I remember the first afternoon that I went to the house on my own after mum and dad died. It was a short, grey day between Christmas and New Year in 2020. Overwhelmed, I sat in the front room with all its clutter and thought: "It's entirely up to me what I do here now." The house was so full of mum and dad and all the little things they left behind. I inherited the dust under the bed and all the ornaments on the mantle piece and everything in-between. It all fascinated me. Without intending to they had prepared everything for me. All I had to do was notice things - in some ways properly for the first time. It became a final conversation between the past and the present.

I was raised as an only child, but in reality I was the eldest. Eldest and only: a contradiction that I kept to myself for 45 years. I had a close relationship with both my parents. There was a lot of love and we used to talk and laugh a lot. They were happy times. As a child I had space to play and do what I wanted. But there were other things that were much harder to talk about. By the time I was five in the mid 1970's, there had been a double family tragedy in which my two youngest siblings had separately died from the same ultra-rare genetic condition. Rupert and Caroline were both under a year old. Yet in the lottery of genetics, my genes are totally unaffected and I became the surviving child, with all that that brings. After all of this my parents and I became a strong family of three, but I don't think any of us really knew what to do with the burden of grief that remained.

After they died, I soon realised that the house was also a character in this family story. My parents had moved there in 1967, a few years before I was born, and they never left. The house had witnessed everything. In a way it became a stand-in for mum and dad because it still contained all of their possessions. I saw and found traces of them everywhere. Each week for nearly two years I spent hours carefully and obsessively photographing everything that interested me. I was fascinated by the light, the dirt, the objects, the spaces and the clutter. The house was both a subject and a studio. I never left it empty handed, and I would quickly load up my car with things to take away before departing. Photography gave me permission to remove something from the house: it was a slow, meditative process that made me feel closer to my parents and my childhood. Yet with each passing visit and with every photograph I took I found myself another step further away from mum and dad. I no longer have the house, but of course I have the photographs I took there. The series is largely about mum and dad and yet it is also about me. It is about my relationship to them as a son, both as an adult and as a child.

I have made something about mum and dad that they will never see. This still seems strange to me, since they have always been there ... Maybe they would be horrified about me disclosing the quiet and powerful secrets of the house, maybe not. It doesn't matter. I didn't want my voice to be sentimental, more emotionally forensic. I wanted to touch every familiar surface and to turn it over in my hands and to see it anew. I bagged up the dust I found and took it to Cambridge University to see close up the hidden worlds it contained. I remember dad once telling me that our family had been what he termed a "medical curiosity," because for years the children's deaths had remained unexplained. Eventually we were told that it was Pompe disease, an ultra-rare condition that affects less than 10,000 people in the world and that would have required both my parents to be carriers. I wanted to get several objects x-rayed to see what things looked like inside. What inner stories were they keeping hidden and not revealing to the world?

This has all been a strange form of inheritance. At its heart I have wanted to find pictures for places and things where there were no pictures. I have wanted to show what is missing and what has remained.

© Oliver Woods - Dad, mum and me in front of the house, taken some time in 1985. Photographer unknown.
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Dad, mum and me in front of the house, taken some time in 1985. Photographer unknown.

© Oliver Woods - Image from the Our House photography project
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Wooden and glass cabinet containing my parent's best crockery. The old glass in the cabinet shows a distorted reflection of the room and the front garden. Transparency and distortion are recurring themes in the project.

© Oliver Woods - Salt and pepper set from dad's last breakfast. This cruet  appeared at every mealtime at home for about 50 years.
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Salt and pepper set from dad's last breakfast. This cruet appeared at every mealtime at home for about 50 years.

© Oliver Woods - Dad's last completed crossword puzzle, as I found it resting in a chair in the front room.
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Dad's last completed crossword puzzle, as I found it resting in a chair in the front room.

© Oliver Woods - Electron microscope image of pollen from a dust sample taken from the front room.
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Electron microscope image of pollen from a dust sample taken from the front room.

© Oliver Woods - Image from the Our House photography project
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Toy baby rattle that belonged to both my brother and my sister. I found this in the drawer of the desk in my old bedroom that dad had been using.

© Oliver Woods - Flowery 1970's wallpaper along one wall in my parent's bedroom.
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Flowery 1970's wallpaper along one wall in my parent's bedroom.

© Oliver Woods - Image from the Our House photography project
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A page torn from a diary and written by my mum. I found this amongst some papers. On it is the inscription for the headstone she wrote for my siblings grave, which they both share.

© Oliver Woods - X-ray of dad's 1960's typewriter in its case that he was still using up until his death.
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X-ray of dad's 1960's typewriter in its case that he was still using up until his death.

© Oliver Woods - My old desk that dad had been using. In the middle is a framed fading photo of my baby sister Caroline.
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My old desk that dad had been using. In the middle is a framed fading photo of my baby sister Caroline.

© Oliver Woods - Mum's old pin-cushion from the mid 1970's. I think this originally started out as a soft toy.
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Mum's old pin-cushion from the mid 1970's. I think this originally started out as a soft toy.

© Oliver Woods - X-ray of mum's old pin cushion. I wanted to know where all the pins went inside.
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X-ray of mum's old pin cushion. I wanted to know where all the pins went inside.

© Oliver Woods - Image from the Our House photography project
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The closed door of my old bedroom, illuminated from behind by the light in the hallway - just as I remember it from my childhood.

© Oliver Woods - Image from the Our House photography project
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Grave gravel that I collected during my sister's funeral in 1975. I had thought about these small items for years. I then discovered them in a box in the loft when I cleared the house. .

© Oliver Woods - An electron microscope image of a feather from a pillow found in the dust under my parent's bed.
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An electron microscope image of a feather from a pillow found in the dust under my parent's bed.

© Oliver Woods - Thick clumps of dust found on the carpet when mum and dad's bed was removed.
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Thick clumps of dust found on the carpet when mum and dad's bed was removed.

© Oliver Woods - Self portrait of my mum and another one the she did of me as a child, both found in the loft.
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Self portrait of my mum and another one the she did of me as a child, both found in the loft.

© Oliver Woods - Image from the Our House photography project
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Reflection of the fireplace in the window of my now empty childhood bedroom, while looking out into the garden at dusk. The double glazing in the window makes the image look fractured.

© Oliver Woods - Image from the Our House photography project
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My parent's empty bed, as dad had left it on the day he died at home. Mum had died a few years previously. The bed was exactly as I found it when I came to the house for the first time alone.

© Oliver Woods - A view of my childhood bedroom door opened and looking out onto the landing with some of the lights on.
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A view of my childhood bedroom door opened and looking out onto the landing with some of the lights on.