What British Families Really Look Like In 2017

Photo: Sian Davey
We Are Family, a photography exhibition about modern families in the UK, opens at the National Portrait Gallery this week. Writer/producer Tom Seymour and photographer Sian Davey visited Devon, London, Yorkshire and Scotland’s Hebrides to take pictures of families being families, confirming in quiet moments that there's no such thing as 'normal' and, in fact, that 'normal' is the antithesis of British culture.
"As we travelled the country together, our gendered ideas of motherhood, fatherhood and teenagehood were challenged by the realities we met," Tom told Refinery29. "This exhibition is a study of family life – how we form a family, how we rely on one, the responsibilities and sacrifices they entail, and the unique, integral things they provide."
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A heartwarming documentation of family life today, the exhibition introduces us to single mother Denise, raising her four children as a “unit of individuals” in Birmingham; to co-parenting father Tom, bringing up his two children in Devon; and to a Scottish couple who have "known of each other since they were children, and now have two of their own."
Click through to see a selection of images, and read Tom's captions detailing who's who, and how they relate to each other.
We Are Family, sponsored by McCain, opens at the National Portrait Gallery on 21st September.
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Photo: SIAN DAVEY
Roo, Peter and Tom Chadwick – Devon

Tom grew up in London, where he worked as an actor. He moved to Devon six years ago. “I’d started to yearn for a more simple life,” Tom says. He bought a caravan and rented out his family home for the summer.

From where the caravan is now parked, you can see the Devonshire coast. It’s a short walk down to the beach. “You wake up, you get breakfast. You go to the beach and learn to surf, then you come home, clean up and think about dinner,” he says.

He teaches his children how to make fresh bread, helping them to knead the dough. After dinner, they walk to the brow of the hill for the sunset.

Recently, Tom went through a separation and childcare for Roo and Peter is split. He looks after them for six days, and looks for supply work as a teacher on his off days. “Becoming a father has taught me patience,” Tom says. “I’m good at multitasking. I don’t believe in gendered roles for parenting.”

“You can’t choose your family,” he says. “They are given to you. I love you not for what you do, but who you are. In a world defined by choice, there’s something deeply reassuring about that.”
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Photo: SIAN DAVEY
Brianna and Remar Henry and Denise Christopher – Birmingham

“There isn't a schedule or time for anything really in our home," Denise says. “It’s usually a case of when it happens, it happens, so be grateful.”

Denise is a single mum of four children, ranging from 23 to 12 years old. She works full-time as a teaching assistant, supporting children with special educational needs in Birmingham.

“In the mornings, you have breakfast if you want it, which most of the time results in none of us having breakfast,” she says.

She has taught her children to be honest, open and supportive of each other. Each has their own talent, in music, acting and dance. Her youngest boy, Remar, is on trial with Leicester City FC. “We stick together,” she says. “We’re a unit of individuals.”

Recently, Denise met Tony. “Our relationship seems to work by us,” she says. “We’re honest with one another, keep our business to ourselves, we don’t go to bed on an argument and we don’t forget to take one day at a time.”
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Photo: SIAN DAVEY
Tom, Billy, Mila Wigston and Anna Durrant – Devon

After past marriages, Tom and Anna met through friends. “We just had a feeling we were meant to be together,” Tom says.

Billy, their son, was born eight years ago with Down’s Syndrome. He has suffered life-threatening seizures throughout his life. They bought this home in Devon – open, whitewashed and airy – to suit his needs.

“His smile allows him to get away with a whole lot of mischief,” Anna says.

Mila, his sister, is four years younger. More than anyone, she instinctively knows how he feels, how to read his wants and needs.

For much of his life, Billy has struggled with physical contact. Now he reaches out to embrace his mother. “I didn’t realise how much I needed it,” she says.

Billy’s wellbeing encompasses many of the family’s decisions. “Our family is about sacrifice, reward, and a sense of belonging,” Tom says.
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Photo: SIAN DAVEY
Amelia Catherine, Catherine (facing away), Catherine Flora, Niall and Iain Morrison – Outer Hebrides

Kate Morrison was born on Skye. Iain Morrison was born on South Uist, in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. They have known of each other since they were children, and now have two of their own. Amelia is a dancer. “She’s nine going on 19,” Iain says. Niall solemnly plays a Gaelic song on the accordion.

This family are crofters, the sustainable farming practice that uses the island’s salty peat. Iain’s ancestors survived by living off the croft. “It’s a way of life,” Iain says. “It’s something you’re born with.” But as well as farming, Iain must work nights as a nurse at the local hospital.

In the spring months, seals bask on the beaches near their kitchen window. Dolphins chase the bow of the ferry to the mainland.

On sunny days, Kate takes Niall and Amelia and friends down to the private stretch of beach by their croft. The children run into the Atlantic without wetsuits.

“Family is being together as the generations so the children know their heritage. We are here to nurture Niall and Amelia, to help them grow into the next generation,” Kate says. “They can either go out into the wider world or work the land we have handed over to them.”
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Photo: SIAN DAVEY
Sue Myatt, Rebecca Newell, Holly Pearce, Stuart Nicholls – West Midlands

“I was 18 when I gave birth to Holly,” Rebecca says. “To become a mother at such a young age was a big shock for me. The pregnancy wasn’t planned, and I’d only just started to date Holly’s father.”

After Holly was born, Rebecca was told to sit down. “The specialist said she had some bad news – it was highly likely our baby had Down’s Syndrome.”

“I thought at first the diagnosis would change how I felt towards Holly. It did, but not in the way I expected. I felt this overwhelming feeling of protection towards her. I wanted to shelter her from the judgmental world out there.”

Rebecca and Holly live close to Holly’s grandparents, Carol and Stuart, in Sedgley, near Birmingham. “There’s a lot of love between us,” she says.

“I am so happy I wasn’t told during the pregnancy,” she says. “I feel sick if I think of the choice I would have made if I had found out. Holly has enriched my life more than I could have ever imagined.”
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Photo: SIAN DAVEY
Karen and Jim Plummer, Rebecca Hammond – Kent

Jim grew up in Portsdown Hill, overlooking Portsmouth. He and his wife, Joyce, sang in a choir at their local church, and were chaperoned during their courtship as they walked together across the hill. Jim and Joyce were married for 63 years.

Jim’s wife died three years ago. He still lives in their home. “It is his wish that their ashes should, in time, be scattered over that hill,” his son Richard says.

“They were simple, honest, self-contained, hardworking country folk who would do anything to help anyone at the drop of a hat,” Richard says.

Jim now has dementia. Every weekend, Richard or his brother now drives a 150-mile round trip to stay and care for him, or bring him home to the rest of the family in Beckenham, Kent.

“He will burst into song, making up little ditties as he goes along,” Richard says. “He has a smile for everyone and wants to talk to whoever will listen. He has helped form this family, and it means everything to us.”
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Photo: SIAN DAVEY
Sebastian and Christina McIntosh – Outer Hebrides

Christina was 26 when she had Sebastian. His father worked for the Scottish military, on the island for training, but is now mostly absent.

Christina was born on Uist. She owns a little house in a hamlet near the sea. Further down the same track, you can find her mother and brother Derek, who runs the family croft. Her other siblings have left for the mainland, but she’s happy here.

She works as a cashier in the supermarket across the road, and then, in the evenings, as a chef at a local hotel. While she works, Sebastian is taken over to his grandmother’s, or to stay with friends. “We always eat breakfast together,” she says. “It tends to be the only time we're always together.”

“He’s a funny and social wee boy,” she says. “He loves to be around people and making them smile.”
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Photo: SIAN DAVEY
Kate Walker, Sean Campbell, Mary Walker (ironing), Angus Walker and James Campbell – Outer Hebrides

Mary built this house from the ground up, from the original croft her husband inherited from his father. They have raised five children there – muddy shoes are scattered on the hardwood floor, clothes lie in heaps. Mary cooks the lunch with bagpipe music playing through the house.

There are no walls or gates on the island, nothing but wet ground to stop the kids from roaming as far as they want.

An older brother works in the fisheries. The eldest has just left to attend university in London – it is almost the first time he has visited the big city.

There are roughly 1,300 people on Benbecula, working out at 15 people per square kilometre. The population is decreasing in what is already one of the most remote communities in the British Isles. Crofting, the sustainable, ancestral farming practice, is under more pressure than ever before. The number of crofters has halved since the 1970s, as more people choose to leave the island.
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