I’m interested in how a family story becomes a family legend. Take, for example, the story of how our parents first met. The details are usually quite banal, so the truth tends to get mythologised – and that’s where I step in. The first thing I do when I decide to re-create such a meeting for a photograph is ask a couple to describe, without conferring, how they met. What follows is often a well-rehearsed story, so I then speak to them individually. Their versions are always slightly different: one partner might describe the whole process, the other a key moment. I combine these and then let my imagination do the rest.
This, the storytelling part of the photo, comes easily to me since I read an enormous amount as a child because we never had a TV. Ideas and images flood into my head. Sometimes, I’ll even put the characters in a different time period.
This is the first picture I shot for my Love Stories series. It shows my two friends Tom and Karen, who first met at a Sunday lunch in 1966. She was 15, he was 17. Karen is sitting next to Tom wearing a red dress. (The girls in Love Stories are all in red – it’s a little thing that links the pictures.) Karen and Tom’s fathers were both in the Free Czechoslovak Army. After the second world war, one went to Canada and the other to London. Then, 20 years later, they had a reunion: Karen’s dad brought his family over to London and they had this Sunday lunch with Tom’s dad’s family. There was a frisson between Karen and Tom at that first meeting, and even more so when Karen returned a few years later. Two weeks after she arrived, Tom asked her to marry him.
When I took all my actors out to the costume shop, we discussed what kind of clothes they would wear. That way, they get a character to inhabit, which adds authenticity to the image. Otherwise, they’re just modelling. This was taken in Tom and Karen’s dining room. They’re both in the picture but playing older characters: the real Tom is at the head of the table in the black jacket and Karen is standing. She’s wearing a wig. This freaked Tom out: he thought she looked exactly like her mother.
I completely redecorated the room to give it a 1960s look. It’s important the details are right, from the wallpaper to the button-down collars, because those are the things that trigger memories. I remember asking Tom about his shoes. I wasn’t sure about them, but he said they were fine because his dad wore exactly the same type.
Most of the objects in the picture refer to the couple’s lives. The photographs are of Tom and Karen’s children and grandchildren – and the young couple leaning against a car is actually them. The paintings of Prague on the walls are by Karen’s father. I brought the cat in because I wanted some movement in the bottom left that would draw the viewer’s eye around the table and back. I also wanted something for the little boy to do.
I always put something from my own life in these shots. Here, it’s the hideous fruit ceramic in the middle of the table. It was on my own family’s kitchen table throughout my childhood, facing me at every single meal.
So far I’ve only made three of these pictures. I want to make 20 but they’re expensive – about £5,000 a time. I told Karen and Tom: if I can take over your dining room for a week, I’ll redecorate it. So after the shoot, I painted the walls and got them a new carpet. I think they found the whole process intriguing, what with actors and makeup artists turning up, and the wigs and costumes. It was all quite exciting and bonkers.
• Lottie Davies is a guest artist at the Young Masters Art Prize at Lloyds Club, London EC3, until 5 December.
Born: Guildford, 1971.
Studied: Philosophy at St Andrews University.
Low point: “It’s been hard to get commissioned work after winning the prize, because people think that I’m some kind of artist. It’s prevented me from being a working photographer and I miss the interaction I had with people.”
Top tip: “Have faith in your own work. Or go and be an accountant.”
Source: The Guardian