The devotion of a son to his mother and a mother to her son can be one of the strongest human bonds imaginable. It is thus fitting that portrait photographer Franklyn Rodgers should have taken this link to be emblematic of human relations in general.
The photographer’s personal relationship with his mother forms the centre around which the exhibition Devotion – A Portrait of Loretta is built. The core of the exhibition is four portraits of Loretta Rodgers, dated 2006, 2009, 2012 and 2013. Mrs Rodgers is surrounded in the gallery by pictures of a number of close friends who have shaped her emotional world.
The large-scale images offer minute, uncompromising examinations of the faces they portray; the intense stare of the camera is reciprocated by frank gazes born of trust. None of the women is smiling (save the hint of an odd smirk); all are intense.
Rodgers was inspired by philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who understood recognition of the suffering of others as a way of grasping one’s own humanity. In examining the ties that bind a small group of elderly female friends and their families, we can get a better sense of the value of connected humankind.
One of the first things that strikes the viewer of these images is the dignity of the women portrayed. The close-up scrutiny of a camera reveals the cares and worries that have shaped these faces, but also lines drawn by warmth.
Set in the centre of this exhibition is a rather different portrait, also by Franklyn Rodgers, of Baroness Doreen Lawrence, mother of Stephen Lawrence, the teenager murdered in a 1993 racist attack the investigation of which was so badly bungled by the Metropolitan Police that a subsequent enquiry led to the verdict that the force was ‘institutionally racist’.
The photo, taken in March of this year, is the first work in a major new commission by Autograph commemorating women from diverse cultural backgrounds who have sought political and social justice.
Since the death of her son, Doreen Lawrence has devoted her life to fighting for police reform and other changes to the criminal justice system that would make what happened in the Stephen Lawrence case less likely. Baroness Lawrence was made a life peer in 2013 and since 2016 she has been Chancellor of De Montfort University.
Though Loretta Rodgers and Doreen Lawrence have lived very different lives, the themes of personal and collective, love of one’s kin and love of humanity resonate in the photos of both women.
With its powerful visual impact and affective pull, this exhibition resonates long after one has left the gallery.