Sian Davey: picture perfect

She has become one of the most decorated and celebrated emerging photographers in the country, with a focus upon the quiet and intimate moments of family life. Lauded by critics and subject to commissions from international organisations, it is fair to say that Sian Davey’s world has changed dramatically since she enrolled on – and graduated from – the MA Photography programme at Plymouth.

Receiving a visit from CONNECT at her home on the Dartington Estate in Totnes, Sian is – as usual – doing a myriad of things at once. She has been up since 5am to get her children ready for the day ahead and has just returned from her daily yoga class which, she admits, is the one time she can truly slow down and switch off. Now though, she is back at full tilt and as we talk, is packing up copies of her book Looking for Alice to take with her to another awards ceremony, this time in Paris.

“I’d had quite a turbulent upbringing and wanted to put the world to rights,” she says, looking back to her first experiences at university, when she enrolled on a fine art degree at the University of Brighton. “So I switched to politics and social policy, but then when I got to my graduation, I realised that I didn’t want to go into social work or housing like my fellows on the degree. I knew that in order to find my path, I first had to find myself.”

This Sian did by taking herself away from family and friends to enrol at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Scotland. It enabled her to reflect upon life and spiritual practice, helping her to respond to the world around her, rather than just railing against it. Indeed, it shaped her career for the next 15 years, as she began to practise as a humanistic psychotherapist.

It was only after a series of traumatic personal events that she picked up her camera and started taking pictures, realising that it was helping to relieve her personal pain. In her words, how she saw the world was in the pictures she was producing.

“At that moment, photography was a necessity,” Sian says. “But whatever I do – family, work, whatever – I throw myself into it and am completely committed. As with many things in my life, I quickly realised this was a spiritual path I had to go down and that spirituality remains an integral part of my work and keeps my heart open.”

Sian Davey says:

At that moment, photography was a necessity. But whatever I do – family, work, whatever – I throw myself into it and am completely committed. As with many things in my life, I quickly realised this was a spiritual path I had to go down

Even then, Sian’s path was not a straightforward one. Having decided to re-enter university education to learn more about photography, she struggled to find a place, with one institution telling her that her portfolio was “not sophisticated enough”. But after a number of setbacks, she met the programme leaders at Plymouth, and in what she describes as “one of the best days of my life” was given the chance to prove herself.

During the course of her MA and subsequent MFA, she has worked closely with Professors Jem Southam, David Chandler and Liz Nicol, something she says as being “a true privilege” and an enormous influence on her work.

“I once took a series of pictures to David, taken as I was tearing around the country with a young baby in tow,” Sian says. “He reminded me that what I do best is to work intuitively. From that moment, my immediate world opened up and I realised I had everything I needed right in front of me. Those words continue to inspire and support me to this day.”

It is her book, Looking for Alice, that has really propelled Sian to the current level of international attention. Her most personal work, it follows Sian’s youngest daughter, who was born with Down’s syndrome, and chronicles her development, her place in the wider family and, perhaps most poignantly, Sian’s own struggle to bond with her as she had with her other children. Over the past two years, the project has helped Sian to connect with Alice, using her camera to capture the personal and emotional development of their mother-daughter relationship.

With it has come a string of accolades, including a New York Photo Award, the Lens Culture Emerging Talents Award, and Best Emerging Photographer at the Pingyao International Photography Festival. And the book itself was named one of The Observer Books of the Year 2015.

Sian adds: “When I started out, I never thought my work would be received as it has. It has been quite difficult to adjust, not only because of the accolades but also the learning of new skills. But I also recognise how privileged I am to be doing something I love, and I hope that whatever happens in the future that is something I will be able to retain.”

Looking for Alice