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Fashion Throwback Thursdays: discovering my late father through photographs

24 Dec 2015

In this week’s Fashion Throwback Thursday, Jamila Prowse talks about the importance of old photographs in forming a bond with her mother, and helping her to discover more about her late father.

Photography is a form of documentation that has been integral to youth culture for decades. In the 21st century it has taken on a life of its own. Though our parents may not have recorded the present with the same extremity that we do today, the photographs they do own can be used as a window into the lives of the people who raised us.

As photographer Nina Manandhar writes in What We Wore, a history of British style through personal photograph collections, “the human need to document and share seems enduring and important”. The book indicates the roots of the trends that we can now see retuning to the streets today.

My mum has a black metal box that she keeps in the house filled with photographs of herself and people she knew in her early teens and 20s. When I was young, she was never without a camera in her hand, and as such she is often the figure missing from photographs of my youth.

That metal box, on the other hand, holds a reflection of her beyond the woman that I know today. In one of my favourite images a young girl stares back, relaxed in her studio space. She is close to the age that I am now, and somewhat resembles the woman I have grown up with, yet also different.

Speaking to her about why she keeps so many pictures, she tells me that her grandmother used to take photos of her as she developed an identity as a young person, trying out different looks, styles and friends. This was a ritual my mum repeated as I grew up, creating a collage of hairstyles and phases that have all contributed to the person I am now.

For both of us, parallels can be drawn between our experiences. There are the photos where our styles have somehow matched up, despite the thirty years separating us. This is epitomised in a pair of striped dungarees she passed down to me. I love the idea that we have worn the same piece of clothing at the same points in our lives. An inextricable connection between mother and daughter found within a metal box.

My mum was my age, 21, in 1983. My dad, nine years her senior, would have been 21 in 1974. Today he would have turned 62. As a working musician and producer, he inhabited a world where moments are recorded because of the nature of the work. As he passed away when I was three, I know very little of the man he was.

What I do know has largely been pieced together through the documentation that succeeded his life: CDs of the music he worked on, obituaries and, indeed, photographs. Through the internet, a process has begun of discovering my dad through the lenses of the people who knew him personally.

These photographs hold much more resonance than styles of clothing; they act as an insight into lives I never knew. In my mum’s case her own words fill out the blanks that a still image cannot communicate. For my dad, I only have the advantage of my own imagination combined with the aspects of character that a camera is able to capture. In the words of Nina Manandhar, “people’s own photography can take us closer still”.


My mum in Pembrokeshire, 1980. She was studying a Foundation Diploma in Art at Hounslow Borough College.


My mum (left) and grandmother (right) in 1987. Standing next to a mural my mum painted in her partner’s flat. The text translates as ‘proletariat of the world unite.’


My mum (centre) with her friends Gill and Andrew in 1986.A

My mum in 1986, working in Carnaby Street selling jewellery and listening to African mix tapes.


Passport photos of me aged 16 in 2011, my mum aged 25 in 1987.1

My dad, Russell Herman, in 1983, performing with his band District Six in Elephant and Castle. Photo by Kenneth J Gill.F

My dad (centre), with others: Lorna De Smidt (left), and Reg Hendrickse (right). Photo courtesy of Eugene Skeef.


My Dad at a Jazz event, Photo by Kenneth J Gill.


Eugene, a friend of my dad’s, captioned this photo: “’I think that’s South African drummer Churchill Jolobe (who played with Dudu Pukwana) listening in between Cedric and Russell. The wall is lined with hessian as an added layer to the soundproofing I created by building a whole new room a few inches in from the walls, floor and ceiling – so that we could stay up all night jamming without disturbing the neighbours. It worked perfectly; and all the materials were made available to me by the 1981 Brixton uprising.”


Kintone were a band made up of ex-patriot South Africans. (Left to right) Bheki Mseleku, Frank Williams, Alun Harries, Joe Cang, and my father. The band “explored the common musical ground between its West Indian and South African membership”. Kintone recorded two albums for Sterns Africa, and built a solid live performance profile in the UK.  This is Kintone performing for Anti-Apartheid at Greenwich circa 1987. Photo courtesy of Frank Kenner.