The beautiful 19th century house where she lives with her husband, composer Andrzej Panufnik, and their two teenage children is full of contrasts. A shiny copper violin with broken strings lies on the kitchen dresser like a misplaced piece of cubist sculpture. (It does work, it just needs new strings. Yehudi Menuhin has played it, though it sounds rather tinny.) A harp stands in the centre of another light filled room; it belongs to 15 year old Roxy who is ‘passionate about music’. Rooms off the hall with its sweeping curved staircase seem to contain a similar mixture, the stuff of everyday life alongside objects of extraordinary beauty. And yet it’s quite obviously a lived-in family house.
Upstairs outside Camilla Jessel’s study lies Saffy, the large labrador whose progress is recorded in The Puppy Book. Inside is a wonderful den of ongoing thoughts and projects. Heaps of books, proofs, posters, photographs, drawings by 13 year old Jem whose ambition is to be a political cartoonist. On the wall is an old boot, sole towards you, somehow stuck onto a block of wood. It’s a bizarre image. `It’s called “A Kick in the Face of Adversity”,’ Camilla says. ‘No-one else likes it!’
The quality of quiet background involvement which comes across in the photographs is very evident in Camilla Jessel herself. She gets up at 6 a.m. to work, (‘I usually have three or four projects on the go at once.’) and cooks three meals a day. Despite the 17 books to her credit (‘Not a claim to fame, just a way of life’) she is far more ambitious for her husband’s work than her own and she acts as his business manager, keeping the world at bay. ‘I’m not actually very career minded. But I think it’s a good thing that I don’t just do books. If I was only giving out and not absorbing the world and finding out more and more things I’d soon stop having something to say. Besides I could never get cocky about my work living with someone like Andrzej. He goes off to the end of the garden each day’ – there’s an old stable where he works – `and comes in with all these small notes on the page. Then we go off to Boston or Chicago and hear these colossal symphonies coming out. So just writing children’s books compared to a whole symphony…’
So how did it all begin? `At school I was a complete rebel. I entered for the scholarship exam because it meant we had three days off for revision. I wanted to do three days roller skating and I accidentally got a scholarship…I completely wasted my educational time but I knew I didn’t want to be an academic.’ Her teens and early twenties she depicts as a kind of whirl where opportunities just presented themselves, things `just happened’, just as things ‘began falling into place’ a little later with her involvement with music and meeting and marrying Andrzej at the age of 25. She talks about her catalogue of experiences with casual wonder almost as if she were a static element in the midst of this whirl. Yet there is an underlying grit and determination which show through.
She lived for a year in India (her father was a naval officer who thought travel a better education than university for girls) then went to America with £30, working her way across the country doing 26 jobs in 6 cities in a year. When she returned to London it was World Refugee Year; she wanted above all to go to Morocco to work with Algerian refugees. She had always loved children and was `prepared to do anything’. Despite her lack of qualifications she persuaded someone to take her along as their secretary. `They said they’d leave me behind when I found a niche to work.’ But she got frustrated by not being able to speak French, and with typical resoluteness took herself off to Paris and got an extra-mural degree in French literature at the Sorbonne. (She’s still studying languages: it’s Polish at the moment. Linguaphone tapes in traffic jams. `After 20 years of being married to a Pole I thought it’s about time to learn!’)
Photographs up to this point were what she calls `happy snaps’; but on her return to London she found some people had a higher opinion of them. The Press Officer at the Save the Children Fund asked her to do some more. Her immediate response was `I’m not a photographer.’ But the Press Officer said, `Well actually, I think you are’, and told her to go away and learn about the technical bits. `So I found this rather crummy wedding photographer and paid him to teach me … and I made a sort of flap over the bath and darkened in the windows.’ Work began to come from the Times Educational Supplement: regular articles with photographs, always about children, education, and handicapped children and music. Music is a passion for her too. ‘Music is like food to me. I can’t live without it.’ She began writing because she felt she had ‘something more to say than just captions.’
Then came the books. `I’d been in South America when my husband was conducting. When we got back I freelanced some of my work around. On the strength of one of my photographs of Peru which appeared in The Guardian, Methuen Children’s Books asked if I’d like to contribute to their Children Everywhere series.’ Here began her `very equal and enjoyable partnership’ with Methuen.
Privilege and truth are two key words to an understanding of the way in which Camilla Jessel approaches her subjects. About The Joy of Birth especially she feels, `It’s a great privilege to have seen so many babies born.’ It was in the making of that book, too, that trust between photographer and subject became of particular importance. ‘If people don’t trust you you’re never going to get natural pictures anyway.’ She found it `extraordinary and very touching’ that women allowed her to photograph them in labour. Only two out of 20 refused, and in those cases it was the husband who objected. The resulting photographs were then ‘sifted like mad’. ‘I think that some of the pictures go fairly close to the edge but I had to photograph over 20 births before I had the ones to show to children. There’s no real mess shown in The Joy of Birth but I felt there was no point in doing it unless I showed the truth.’ Black and white photographs also help to give `a sense of documentary, of being told the truth.’ Truth in Mark’s Wheelchair Adventures meant being true to the speech of spina bifida boy, Mark. The lack of grammatical correctness was criticized by one reviewer. `I was furious,’ said Camilla. `It’s just straight Mark.’ Honesty bypasses sentimentality, though compassion and a sense of humour shared with her subjects are evident in abundance.
There are no short cuts either. She spent a year going round different kinds of schools researching attitudes to the handicapped. `I went into classrooms with total strangers and had these amazing discussions.’ She found that time and time again children `couldn’t separate handicapped children from old people.’ There, perhaps, is the origin of the strength and potency of the image of Mark and the old man, both with their useless legs, confronting each other in their wheelchairs. It jolts. One feels that she and her subject have never really been `total strangers’. There is a real kinship in the photographs. The impact of images, like the wheelchair image of old and young, or the image of jealousy in The New Baby, fascinates Camilla Jessel. She would like to do a book about it, about those images ‘linked in people’s subconscious, that spark off thoughts.’ They are often connected with subjects `that you can’t discuss.’ But, she adds, `you can throw the image at people. Maybe I should take time off and get academic over it all…’ She laughs, `I’m not sure I can be blowed. I’m an instinctive person, not an academic, really.’
New projects are constantly bubbling in her mind, although she says that if Methuen `didn’t keep holding these lovely projects under my nose I mightn’t lift a finger. Quite often they give me an idea and I say `I can’t!’ One takes all this with a very large pinch of salt. There’s the feeling that what she calls her `very own childlike curiosity’ will always win through. Childlike it may be, but together with her modesty and appetite for learning, it’s a powerful quantity. `I’m really always finding out… Perhaps it’s a good thing that I’m not very well educated.’
Her work for the packagers, Dorling Kindersley she sees as the `glossier, hardselling’ end of commercial photography. But she also sees it positively. `I’m forced to improve all the time. I don’t want to get into a rut. I love doing Chatterbooks but I don’t want only to do books for 2 year olds; it would get slick.’ She considers the idea. `I don’t think I’m ever going to be the cool professional. I don’t want to be!’
About the Chatterbooks she is quite specific. `Using colour is vital. Young children relate to the realism of colour photographs better than anyone’s drawings…I don’t think children want much fantasy until they are older; until their imaginations can cope and indulge and enjoy.’ She always tries out her books with children. `I invite the child to explore with me.’ Some two year olds felt so close to the children in the Chatterbooks that they actually stroked their skin. The books go well in schools with five year olds too. `They feel they have conquered their baby fears and enjoy scorning the child who is now finding things frightening. It’s something they can relate back to.’ Her feeling for the book as a whole is crucial. `In my books it’s not photographs illustrating text and it’s not text describing photographs. Text is equal: a complement rather than an accompaniment.’
Creating that partnership is something that Camilla Jessel does with consummate skill. She delights in the richness and continuity of life, looking both beauty and adversity in the face; the result is books of great originality, sensitivity and warmth which are informed by the values which pervade her own life. Her photographs, whether of dancers or the handicapped, being born or growing old, homes or hospitals, animals or humans, emphasise always the strength of unity, the companionship of relationships and the supreme importance of the sense of `family’.
Camilla Jessel’s Books
(all published by Methuen)
The Joy of Birth 0 416 89970 6, £5.95.
The Puppy Book 0 416 87430 4, £3.50.
Life at the Royal Ballet School 0 416 86320 5, £5.50.
Mark’s Wheelchair Adventures 0 416 80670 8, £4.50.
Paul in Hospital (with Dr Hugh Jolly) 0 416 202101, £3.95.
Learner Bird 0 416 22460 1, £3.95 (to be published in June).
Moving House 0 416 88880 1, £ 1.50.
The New Baby 0 416 88860 7, £1.50.
Going to the Doctor 0 416 88890 9, £1.50.
Away for the Night 0 416 88870 4, £1.50.
Going to Hospital 0 416 25990 1, £1.50.
At Playgroup 0 416 26000 4, £1.50.
Lost and Found 0 416 26010 1, £1.50.
The Baby-sitter 0 416 26020 9, £1.50.
(The last four titles will be published in September.)