Dad's relic Raleigh bike, bought in 1960s Singapore and cycled back to the UK. © Hannah Laycock, all rights reserved.

Motor Neurone Disease

Hannah Laycock‘s sensitive and emotive series “Railing At The Enthrallment To The Failing Of The Light II” is a quiet and personal glipse into living with Motor Neurone Disease.

When Document Scotland was sent this work by Hannah for consideration we were instantly fascinated. The personal and honest nature of the project along with the visual approach to the subject in such an in-depth and comprehensive way left us wanting to know more.

Sophie got in touch with Hannah for a long, and what turned out to be, very open and honest discussion about her motivation for making the work in the first place, the effect the process had on her relationship with her father and ultimately, what she hopes the project will achieve.

DS – Hi Hannah – thank you for your honesty Hannah and for showing us this project. It’s powerful stuff. Can you tell us a little bit of how you came to make this project about your father?

HL – This whole project initially came about from my Dad’s archives. In 2009 I began working on a project called “The Fundamental Makings of a Solitary Voyager“. It was primarily focused around my father’s archives and possessions.  It was a collaborative project, I was working with my father quite closely, and we looked together at his artefacts and objects from his past such as photographs, coins from all over the world, maps, letters, I was playing with these objects. I wanted to make them relate to this idea of a person, a solitary voyager. He’d kept all these notepads which really described his adventurous nature and we also did a number of recordings too, in which he’d tell me stories from his childhood and from when he was young man.

He has this old Raleigh bike that he bought in Bangladesh before he was married to my mum, from when he was a bachelor working abroad.

When I was researching and shooting that project, my father’s Motor Neuron Disease (MND) started to become apparent and so the focus of the work naturally shifted on to him and his MND.

The bike is a symbolic object. It all started with his bike really, and this idea of the bike follows through from the first project, into this one. Bikes have always been a big thing in my family.

Quiet contemplation © Hannah Laycock, all rights reserved
Quiet contemplation © Hannah Laycock, all rights reserved
Family ancestry, letter from the Irish Famine. G Hannah Laycock, all rights reserved
Family ancestry, letter from the Irish Famine. © Hannah Laycock, all rights reserved

HL – We still didn’t know what it was at that beginning stage, and gradually, through photographing him and my family, the work evolved into a documentary project. It was a completely intuitive process – making photographs was the way I felt I could deal with the situation at hand. It was also very difficult to concentrate on anything else at the time because it was all so consuming. Doing this, making this work was a way of trying to find a route through the dark and find a way through it. At the end he was diagnosed with MND, so then it was a process of working through emotions and finding a way through the darkness. We were in the dark trying to find our way, and trying to find answers, and working in that way made me feel I was getting the answer to what was wrong with him, even though it wasn’t actually until later in the project that he was diagnosed.

Mum and Dad's slippers. © Hannah Laycock, all rights reserved.
Mum and Dad’s slippers. © Hannah Laycock, all rights reserved.

HL – There isn’t much known about Motor Neuron Disease. I want people to see what this disease is, and what it does to those who are affected by it. This isn’t a medical or factual project, there are other places people can go to find out that information, this is much more personal. This project shows an audience what it’s like to live with this disease, as an individual, and as a family. I want people to be able to understand it from that perspective.

I’ve always seen photography as a tool. I see it as something I use to communicate, for me it’s natural, instinctive and intuitive. In terms of the subject matter there is nothing graphic in these images, some other photojournalistic approaches might show work which is controversial in a way – this project was never going to be graphic and I always knew I was going to show it and constantly be in conversation at the same time. Something which is a strong theme running through all of my work is a very strong sense of identity and an intuitive working process.

I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a documentary photographer, some of the themes of my other projects are not documentary, but when I’m hit with something in my life, when I’m faced with some significant experience, photography draws me to make work from that experience. I find it’s the best way to express myself and deal with something. It’s not a process which is for everyone, some like to steer away as much as possible if the subject is to do with themselves. The process of making the project allowed me time to get to know myself and to understand my feelings and thought processes – it was very self reflective as well as looking inwards and documenting the specific situation.

You can get a strong reaction to showing work like this – I was emotional throughout the whole process. You can’t escape that. I might have days where  I was absolutely fine and then the reality of it would just hit me. It was a case of choosing to show it, and I’ve always had it in the back of my mind that I would. I’m glad I’ve shown it. I hope to push it out there a bit more, I want to highlight the disease itself.

Living with MND is a massive part of this disease. The test results, the medical facts and all the complications are one thing but actually what people often don’t see is the day to day pure emotion and the family relationships and emotions. That is a massive part of it. It’s always shifting and changing.

Barometer and Dad's photo from his travels in 1960s Australia. © Hannah Laycock, all rights reserved.
Barometer and Dad’s photo from his travels in 1960s Australia. © Hannah Laycock, all rights reserved.
Chrysalis, butterfly and a note written by Grandad. © Hannah Laycock, all rights reserved.
Chrysalis, butterfly and a note written by Grandad. © Hannah Laycock, all rights reserved.

DS – How did you first approach your parents with the idea of a making a project like this? How did they respond to the process and did your relationship change during the time you spent together making this work? What did you all gain from the process?

HL – It was a collaborative project right from the beginning. I think what made it less of a leap for my Dad and Mum being part of my work was that they were already used to me coming home for periods of time and focusing my attention on them. I was very open about discussing my project with both of them, and about them discussing it with each other. I showed them the photographs as we went along and they were part of the whole editing process.  I wouldn’t have produced it if they hadn’t wanted me to.

I wouldn’t say we’ve talked about it much but, I think what I got out of it the most in a sense, was the opportunity to spend more time with my parents. It wasn’t at all tiresome, there were times when we just spent time together and I wasn’t taking photographs, there was lots of time together. That was when I would gather the material, but it also provided time to just get to know each other better, on a slightly different level. We were all going through it, but each person deals with it so differently, and so during this process we learned a lot about each other and gained a deeper level of understanding of each other. I guess you all develop and grow with something like that happening in your life. I think it’s interesting the relationships that can form, you know, because whether it be as strangers or as family members, you might not otherwise have a reason to come together like that. If it hadn’t been for this then we might not ever have sent as much time together.

It was mostly from the re-telling of my Dad’s childhood stories that I definitely feel I got to know him better. It meant I could hear those stories much more in-depth. It really became the building of a friendship, as opposed to being just father and daughter. I’m thankful that I’m close to them.

DS – what do they think of it?

HL – I know my family find it very emotional and it is an emotional project. For my sister, the first audio part of the project, where my Dad is speaking, is a very emotional thing to look back on and hear because he can’t talk anymore. Time does a funny thing. Sometimes it brings up different emotions and changes things.

Essentially they are very happy with the project, it wasn’t, I guess, too invasive of their privacy, I don’t think I’ve dredged up things they didn’t want to be seen, it’s respectful of that specific time.

Rag-rug and Māori portraits. © Hannah Laycock, all rights reserved
Rag-rug and Māori portraits. © Hannah Laycock, all rights reserved
As a boy Dad used to keep homing pigeons and on trips with his uncle in his wagon would release them to beat them home. © Hannah Laycock, all rights reserved
As a boy Dad used to keep homing pigeons and on trips with his uncle in his wagon would release them to beat them home. © Hannah Laycock, all rights reserved

The letters and objects in the images are all important things from my dad’s and my family’s history. These physical objects gave my dad some strength through the diagnosis and so those little things are all symbolic. The letter dated from the Irish famine, for example, gave my dad strength. With the portraits I was making general observations and wanting to capture their contemplative quiet moments with a range of emotions. My aim is to show that not only is the project about me, it’s also about family members contemplating everything.

The indoor and outdoor scenes within the whole project are important, both as locations and landscapes, but also because symbolically, we are looking inwardly and looking outwardly. I’m from Forres, on the north coast of Scotland, I grew up there, my parents moved to Nairn when I left Scotland to go to university in Brighton, and they still live there now. Railing at The Enthrallment To The Failing of The Light was shot in and around Nairn.

I grew up on the coast – going to the shoreline and seeing that expanse of space, it gives you the space to breathe and to think through the things you’re going through. For me it’s a place where you can go to try to ‘find’ the answer.

As Grandson James finds his feet, Dad loses his. © Hannah Laycock, all rights reserved.
As Grandson James finds his feet, Dad loses his. © Hannah Laycock, all rights reserved.

HL – It really can just come out of the blue – my Dad has always been very fit and healthy so would often go out on his bike, he was fighting fit. I think if he didn’t have MND now he’d still be going on world trips with my Mum and cycling etc. It makes you realise, and put things in perspective. It gives me determination, and it gave me strength in a way, in terms of dealing with the industry that I’m working in.

This project has given me the opportunity to look inwards and tackle things differently than if I hadn’t experienced it. I am still, now, experiencing it every day – he’s still here – MND is degenerative, so it just gets worse.

But then you go through lots of different experiences throughout the process which means that as my emotions change, and develop, I work out new ways of dealing with it. I think when anyone experiences something they’re not ready to deal with, it’s maybe years later that something can shift. For me that experience has given me certain outlooks in terms of how I go forward with things.

It’s still a journey.

Dad's childhood collection of cigarette cards and his exercise bike. © Hannah Laycock, all rights reserved.
Dad’s childhood collection of cigarette cards and his exercise bike. © Hannah Laycock, all rights reserved.
Bike tracks in sand, Kingsteps walk. © Hannah Laycock, all rights reserved
Bike tracks in sand, Kingsteps walk. © Hannah Laycock, all rights reserved

DS – Do you think being a female gave you any particular perspective?

I often wonder about the fact that I’m female in relation to making this work – if a male photographer was put into the same situation would he tackle it the same way? Would the project be very different? I don’t just mean aesthetically but also in terms of how they might discuss it? I think women do tend to have more of an outwardly emotional connection with their work – even more so with projects like this.

DS – What have you done with the work – where have you shown it?

HL – I showed at my degree show at the University of Brighton, Free Range at the Old Truman Brewery, London and International Talent Support, Italy, a competition I was a finalist in. I did try and make contact with MND association, it didn’t really get people responding which I thought was weird, but I guess I didn’t push it enough and then other things at the time took over.

DS – You’ve made a very personal piece of work here. How do you feel about others’ reactions and responses to the work?

HL – I haven’t heard anyone criticise it face-to-face, that’s one thing – I’m open to hear what people think. I’ve heard from people who have seen it in an exhibition and have generally felt quite overcome by it and had an emotional experience. I did hear from someone who went onto my website and who then wrote to me saying that she’d got a lot from the work because she had a friend who was dealing with receiving a cancer diagnosis and so for her it had brought up a lot of emotions. She was very open and gave her opinions, about how it related to her own experiences – and I found that to be a really positive reaction – to know that someone is getting something from it – whatever that reaction. If thiss bring up feelings relating to some experience then that’s a good thing. It means it’s touching people in a certain way. As long as people are responding to it or can relate to it on some level it means the project is doing what I had hoped and intended it to do.

Because this certainly wasn’t meant to be completely narcissistic – it’s good for other people to reflect their own experiences. With this work my intention isn’t to close the door to anyone – I’m saying that this is something I’m experiencing and it’s possible that you’re experiencing something like this too. I welcome and hope that people will get that from it.

Mum and Dad holding hands. © Hannah Laycock, all rights reserved.
Mum and Dad holding hands. © Hannah Laycock, all rights reserved.
Dad finds it hard to believe it's happening to him, he feels detached from it all. © Hannah Laycock, all rights reserved.
Dad finds it hard to believe it’s happening to him, he feels detached from it all. © Hannah Laycock, all rights reserved.

DS – What’s next for you? Do you think you’ll continue to make projects like this?

HL – I think when I went to university I had a different mind set to most of my classmates. I was older and also very active when I was at university, I got involved in internships and voluntary things. I knew how important it was to put yourself out there and to learn about the industry. It’s been really useful working with other full time photographers, I think when you’re starting out it’s crucial to understand the business aspects and the practical side. I realised quickly that for professionals, taking the photo can be a very small proportion of what you have to do. The marketing, administration, expenditures, income etc, the detail stuff is what takes you away from making work. You have to put a lot of hours into it – it’s never ending.

Right now I’m interested in portraiture – meeting people, artists etc. I like environmental portraiture – I’m very interested in that and I’m still experimenting too. I’m being a bit more playful rather than hitting a really specific story. Right now I’m working with a friend taking portraits – they’re editorial and related to fashion. I’m  experimenting really, having a bit of fun rather than thinking too deeply. I’m not currently working as full time photographer, but I have been assisting other photographers.

When I moved to London, I worked on The Photographers’ Gallery project The World In London, I was involved with the oral histories part of that which was very interesting too. I learned a great deal about different cultures, I was hearing stories and meeting people. It really drew together a lot of my passions. I’ve got a real interest in working within the arts with heritage and creative spaces as well as with my photography. I want to keep my photography as my own personal enjoyment and make it a a gradual process whilst I’m in a permanent job. I feel happy looking at it that way.

I like the fact that having a permanent job will provide me with an income – and then I will be enabled to make my personal photography work. At times I can feel quite burdened by the weight of living in London whilst at the same time, trying to make work. This takes that weight and pressure off – rather than struggling financially in a city like London. I feel like this pressure might take away my enjoyment of photography and I don’t want that to happen.

There have been ups and downs, it’s all part of the journey really. I think it’s all about going along and assessing these things as you go. Making choices. You get to those crossroads and have to make those decisions.

DS – Thank you again Hannah., it’s been a real pleasure talking with you.

You can see more work by Hannah at

Further reading about Motor Neuron Disease can be found at:

Motor Neuron Disease Scotland –

Motor Neuron Disease Association –

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Categories: Interviews

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