When Miranda Hutton does it, it's not as creepy as it sounds.
Died three years ago (2010)
Miranda Hutton's Rooms Project is a series of photos of dead children's rooms. It's pretty heavy stuff, so we rang her up to find out how she copes while taking these poignant "portraits."
VICE: Hi Miranda! How did your Rooms Project come about?
Miranda Hutton: Well, a long time ago, when I was about 17, I lost a friend to cancer. Her parents were always very keen on us, her friends, to still come into the house even after she passed and go up to her room. That room was sort of a significant thing in our lives—we used to hang out there quite often. Then, a while later, my mother died. So I guess it was because I lost loved ones that I began to contemplate the significance that spaces and objects gain once people leave.
That’s a rational way of dealing with loss. Did you start taking pictures of your friend’s room right after she died?
No, she passed almost 20 years ago, but I started taking the pictures in about 2003-2004.
Didn’t the room change a lot during those years in-between?
Actually, not so much. Just before she went to the hospital and died, she re-arranged the entire room and made it all tidy—it was always a complete mess—so the mom thought that this was how her daughter wanted her room to be left. They didn’t dust it for ages. So much so that she would pick up a pot, and the dust around it would tell her exactly where to put the pot back down again.
I know. It wasn’t until I started photographing the room that things began to change, I think. There seemed to be some significance in my photographing the room and getting them to talk about the memories that were stored up there. It’s a very slow-changing room, but it gradually began to be used as a spare room for their grandchildren. It very much still has the same décor, but it’s now dusted and has been rearranged quite a lot.
So you’re saying that your project helped your friend’s parents move on?
No. I don’t think I’ve helped in any way, but there’s a sort of universality in the way people hold onto things in early stages of grief and then slowly let go of them. My photographs represent one moment in a very long grieving process. But I do believe that sharing stories with the parents helps.
Died eight years ago (2004)
Surely you must have taken photographs of the room through many of its “stages.”
I did spent a lot of time photographing it. I even thought of making films at some stage so I could show the progress; show how it would go from dark to light and from light to dark, so you could get a better sense of how unused or used it is.
The photographs have been taken from a wide angle, and with natural light emanating from the windows.
Yes. At first I’d get close-ups of my friend’s room but then I started pulling back and shooting from the doors because it felt a little less intrusive that way. So I had already formed an idea of how I wanted to photograph the rooms—very wide angles on medium format cameras—by the time I started working on the series: Very wide angles, on medium format cameras. No flash or anything too intrusive.
I’m guessing asking bereaved parents to let you into their children’s rooms must be, at the very least, awkward. How did you go about finding your subjects?
Most of it was word of mouth. Bereaved parents often form support groups and that’s what my friend’s parents did too. It was through one of those support groups that three other parents contacted me asking if they could be part of the project. I also wrote about the project on some bereavement websites, because a lot of them have research sections. So I’ve gotten a couple of things from that, but most of it has been word of mouth.
Do the children have anything in common, in terms of age or maybe cause of death?
Not really. There’s a whole range of car accidents, illnesses, and ages. The light blue room belonged to one of the eldest people, which I guess you can tell from the fact that it’s tidy and doesn’t have too much kid's stuff, except from the pictures on the wall.
Died 11 years ago (2005)
They look a bit like vintage portraits that hang above the fireplace in old houses.
It’s nothing like that, I’m afraid. They are just portraits of a band she was really into. I can’t remember their name, but she must have cut them out of a magazine, and I think she had them signed. I mean, they were obviously quite important as she had them hanging above her bed.
Is there a room that you feel most connected to?
To me, they all take on a unique story. I form quite strong relationships with the parents I meet. As you can imagine, it’s not the kind of thing where I can just go and photograph and then leave. I have to invest quite a lot of time into letting them know what it’s all about—why I’m doing it, what I hope to get from the project—and then they tell me their stories about the room and their loss. Each room represents different circumstances, so I wouldn’t be able to choose one over the other.
What are the most interesting things you observed while working on the project?
One is that a lot of them end up being places where suitcases and things like that are stored, which felt quite symbolic as it connotes moving on. Then there's the purple room which I photographed four years ago and felt like things hadn’t moved on yet, at the time. It felt like it was still hurting quite a lot—the way it was kept so immaculate. But there are other rooms in which you are almost able to see that things are moving on. Like the orange room, which the mother had started using as an art studio.
Another interesting thing is that even when they change, the décor is usually kept the same and they’re always called "So and So’s room". You know, Susan’s room, or Alison’s room. However, I am not qualified to say what good and bad grief is, or what people should be doing. My commentary is solely that this is all a unique process.
Died four years ago (2005)
Died 11 years ago (2005)
Have you faced any criticism because of the sensitivity of your subject?
Yeah. Quite often people cannot get past the content. I know it is a really heavy subject, but part of the reason I’m doing it is because these parents not only have to suffer their loss, they also have to suffer the kind of isolation that comes with people not knowing how to approach them because of the size of the tragedy. Some of the parents say that they see people literally crossing the road in order to avoid them. But loss is not an isolated experience—it’s something we all have to go through at some point in our lives.