Harry Borden and his ex-wife Jane by Harry Borden HonFRPS
Harry Borden is recognised for his portraits of renowned figures from Margaret Thatcher – with eyes tightly shut – to Sir Paul McCartney, Bill Nighy to Bjork.
Increasingly, though, the RPS Honorary Fellow is just as acclaimed for his personal projects and books, including Survivor: A Portrait of the Survivors of the Holocaust and Single Dad.
Borden’s latest, On Divorce: Portraits and Voices of Separation, is a poignant series depicting life in the wake of marriage breakup. Alongside his portraits of people affected by divorce are their deeply personal accounts, collected by Borden over two years.
The resulting book, infused with hope, sadness and compassion, includes the story of the photographer's own divorce from Jane, with who he shares three children.
Here, in an extract from On Divorce, Borden and two of his subjects each give their testimony on life after a breakup.
“Is there someone else?” I said it without ever thinking there might be. Two actors in a play, it seemed the logical next line. Scripted by our own parents’ dysfunction, it was inevitable that we would part. We’d been an efficient team; three healthy children, a big house. But if our relationship was a garden, it was now tangled with weeds, a neglected space. We had lost the ability to talk.
Initially I tried to fix things. I still believed in us – the brand ‘Harry and Jane’. Big mad gestures, like making a self-portrait in the snow with a heart painted on my chest. I still loved her but had to accept she had moved on, had closure.
As the months passed I began to see the complacent facade I had constructed. Over time I started to re-establish friendships, change my priorities around work and family, cede control and listen. After an intense 10-day meditation course, I saw that marriage is just a set of ideas we have about ourselves. Nothing really bad had happened. Nobody was terminally ill. I wasn’t losing her. Our relationship was just being reconfigured. As [one of my subjects] Keith said, “It’s time for you to have some fun, kiss another woman, fall in love again..."
We would divide our assets 50-50. No lawyers. I could see the best way to win her back – or not win her back and be content – was to accept that if you love someone you want them to be happy, even if their plans don’t involve you. Almost immediately, and maybe for the first time, a friendship began to blossom. United in concern for our three children we were now pulling in the same direction.
Jane and I were so different when we married in 1995 and it’s strange to contemplate the distressed, lost souls we became. Now she’s among my closest friends; the people I phone when something big happens. I’m so lucky to know her. It astonishes me that we have reached this place. And yes, I did fall in love again ...
Self-portrait by Harry Borden HonFRPS
I’m a couples therapist. With my clients I start by understanding each partner’s perspective. Whenever anybody shouts or yells it’s often because they aren’t feeling heard or understood.
A lot of couples will love each other but no longer know how to live together. They fall into a destructive and downward spiral where one will say something quite innocently, and the other will take it as an insult or a criticism and fire something back. One or both will then withdraw from the conversation.
Criticism, defensiveness, withdrawal and contempt for each other are the main indicators of pending divorce. Learning to listen and understand rather than being defensive can reverse this pattern.
For my part, I was married to an alcoholic for 20 years. After many alcohol-induced incidents, the final straw was him accidentally setting fire to the house with our two children and myself in it. This set me on my current journey. The relationship I’m in now is the best I’ve ever had, much because of everything I have learnt about relationships.
Sarah A by Harry Borden HonFRPS
If the divorce is acrimonious, the children will grow up looking for new relationships in which conflict is normal, because that’s all they know.
If you look at separation through the eyes of a child it is nothing less than a tragedy. It’s up to you how much you want them to suffer.
You have to realise they are not your property. There is a great poem by Khalil Gibran called 'On Children' in the book The Prophet. In it he says, “Your children are not your children”. There is everything in that line.
Nav by Harry Borden HonFRPS
On Divorce: Portraits and Voices of Separation – A Photographic Project by Harry Borden is published by The School of Life on 7 September 2023, £18.
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