Student blog: Remain/Leave

Danielle Martin is a second-year english and history student at the University of Sheffield and a regular contributor to the University's official student blog, We Are Sheffield Students. Here she reviews a talk by the photographer Jeremy Abrahams.

Jeremy Abrahams presented the touching photographs from his Remain/Leave series, which captures couples divided by Brexit. The European and British citizens await further news in the next couple of years on how the UK’s departure from the EU will affect their relationships. As well as photographing the couples in their homes, often with their children, Abrahams also interviewed them on their thoughts and fears. His work is a poignant example of how citizenship and personal identification are affected by political decisions.

After his talk, Abrahams invited two couples from the series to discuss their views in front of the audience. One key point raised was how the European citizens now feel as though they have two identities and two lives, in two different countries. The Brexit vote has been a source of division nationwide, with one European partner saying how they feel pushed out by co-workers they had previously worked with. Another focused on the loss of individualism, and how people are being treated as dry numbers instead of real people.

Abraham’s interviews were honest and open, less planned than a written statement. The words and the faces of the participants were ones of vulnerability, including the comment, ‘somehow it has relieved me’. The couples have already suffered from the result of the vote and its continuing aftermath, but on top of that they have decided to make their stories public, producing this sense of vulnerability. ‘I don’t blame the voters’ was one surprising comment, ‘they had good reason to believe’. The couples’ frustration is targeted not at the voters, but the politicians.

A theme Abrahams highlights in his series is the idea of death and grief. Multiple couples said Brexit felt as though something had died. This despondency is shown through Abraham’s decision not to have the couples smiling in the images. Whilst this may seem obvious for portraits expressing such a topic, an audience member argued the couples smiling would have suggested unity and strength, rather than the division and despair shown in their expressions and placement in the frames. For example, in the image Abrahams describes as the pivotal shot of the series, the couple are placed at either ends of the frame, leaving a blank wall of space separating them.

Abrahams explained the degree of artistic control he had: ‘I didn’t take the picture, we created the picture’. The emphasis here is on co-construction. The shoots were dialogues between Abrahams and the couples; as the photographer, he listened to their suggestions and incorporated them into his vision. This reflects how the government and the public should be working together, and how countries should be co-existing. One couple mentioned Brexit is the result of a situation ‘when cooperation and collaboration breaks down’. We should be expanding and strengthening our partnerships, not shutting them down and closing them off after over half a century of cooperation.

2017 is the anniversary of 30 years of Erasmus+, the university exchange programme allowing students to undertake part of their study in Europe. One of the couples from Abraham’s project met whilst on Erasmus, emphasising the value of these exchanges.

Most couples are left with little choice but to play the waiting game, and see what decisions are made and which policies are acted out. Some are keen to apply for dual citizenship for themselves or their children, to hopefully offer some protection from the future of uncertainty they now face due to Brexit.

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