Harry Borden HonFRPS and son Florian, April 2021, by Abbie Trayler-Smith
Flick through Single Dad, the latest book by photographer Harry Borden HonFRPS, and you are struck by two things. The first is the talent for powerful portraiture that has made him one of the UK magazine industry’s ‘most wanted’, photographing everyone from a shut-eyed Margaret Thatcher to an angel-winged Richard Branson.
Look closer at Single Dad, though, and you see a tenderness rooted in personal experience. Each spread features a lone father with their child or children. Opposite every portrait is a piece of text telling a story of love and loss, hurt and regrowth, resilience and vulnerability.
The book is Borden’s visual tribute to a tribe he feels is often overlooked – the fathers going it alone due to bereavement, broken relationships or personal choice. Ask him why he created Single Dad and he tells you candidly he is one of them. He will also explain that his style of parenting is radically different to that of his late father, who was a remote figure through his boyhood and adulthood. Borden writes about this in a moving introduction to the book – and explains more about the series that became Single Dad here.
What inspired Single Dad?
At the end of 2012 I was contacted by Dad’s House, a charity based in west London that provides help and assistance to fathers. They asked if I might donate a portrait session to raise awareness of the work they do. It was serendipitous because I’d wanted to do something on single-parent fathers for a while after seeing Edmund Clark’s series on teenage dads. Initially we were going to have an exhibition, but finding dads who were prepared to be photographed proved difficult so I decided to continue the project by finding participants myself.
Your portraits of well-known figures are renowned – from Bill Nighy to Bjork. Single Dad is far more personal. Are the tactics of gaining trust and relating to your subject the same?
The approach is fundamentally different. With the famous, the trust is transactional. You are part of the machine that helps them achieve their aims, be it selling a book or film or cultivating an image that chimes with their ‘brand’. I felt very protective of my subjects in Single Dad and really grateful that they let me into their lives. Trust was at the core of the process.
Neil with Kiwa and Ngaire by Harry Borden HonFRPS
What is your own story as a single dad?
Unlike my subjects I was never the main carer of my four children but my role as their dad is more important to me than anything. Material success and status mean little if you don’t have a connection with your children. So many, including my own father, learn this lesson too late. My eldest three are 25, 21 and 18 and are therefore pretty independent but I share the parenting of my youngest, Florian, with his mother 50/50.
How did your relationship with your own father shape your ideas of fatherhood?
Obviously a boy learns about being a father and a man from his dad. I looked recently and struggled to find a picture of me with my father in our family photo album. Sadly I don’t think he wanted kids. Growing up he was emotionally distant and later, when he expressed no interest in his grandchildren, I stopped idolising him and began to see things as they were. My idea of fatherhood began to shift and out of that emotional space came the book.
Royston ‘Stone’ with Fin by Harry Borden HonFRPS
Sir Bob Geldolf writes the forward to the book. Why did you approach him to do this?
The couple of times I photographed Bob – for Time magazine and the Guardian – I was struck by his fearless intelligence and passionate advocacy for men. I learned he was brought up by a single-parent father and I felt his life experiences gave him an interesting perspective.
What do you hope publishing Single Dad will achieve?
I’d like the book to challenge simplistic notions about what it is to be a man and a father, and honour these men engaged in the singular and vital task of bringing up their children. On a personal level I wanted to make a book that has impact, depth and complexity, and continues on from my first book Survivor: A portrait of the Survivors of the Holocaust.
Charles Borden with his son Harry, Long Island, USA, 1966
Single Dad by Harry Borden HonFRPS is published by Hoxton Mini Press.
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Discover the lives behind Single Dad by Harry Borden HonFRPS in the cover story of the May/June issue of the RPS Journal.