capturing sisterhood on camera

Few bonds run as deep as those between sisters, and few relationships are quite as complicated. Photographer Sophie Harris-Taylor has been attempting to capture what sisterhood means and is releasing a book documenting what she has found.

Sophie Harris-Taylor has photographed and interviewed over 50 sets of sisters so far, and aims to shoot 100 by the time she finishes the project. It’s not just a creative experiment for her – it’s something far closer to home. “I have a sister myself and we’ve always had a tempestuous relationship, ultimately leaving us at some distance,” she says. “In essence I’ve been trying to find the secret to a strong connection. To this end, I’ve focused on sisters who are close. However, the diversity in the dynamics has been surprising – to myself and often to my subjects. Women are generally more emotionally open and so any solely female relationship will have a degree of closeness to it. With all the context, history and literal closeness of sisters, this is heightened further." 

The relationship between sisters is perhaps one of the most unusual in its strength and importance, beyond almost any friendship – the number of tears in the interviews is testament to this.

Despite each individual woman photographed being unique, Harris-Taylor says common themes have emerged during the project: trust, jealousy, memory, loss, petulance and unconditional love. “These often ebb and flow between their past and present relationship,” she says, of the sisters she’s met and photographed. “The adult sisters most often have had to re-build their relationships. But – and perhaps this should have been obvious – the formative childhood years always seem to be the basis of whatever relationship they have.”

Here we take a look at some of these subjects, and what they told Harris-Taylor about their own, unique experience of sisterhood.

Alice (27) & Flo (21)
Alice (27) & Flo (21)

Alice and Flo were close as children despite the six-year age gap, but often clashed when Alice was a teen, saying they had to “re-learn” their relationship in early adulthood. Nowadays they’re very close, best friends even, and live together. They say one of the most defining aspects of their relationship is their age gap and how it shaped their formative years: when Alice was 13, for example, she had two parents and a little sister; when Flo was 13, it was just her and her parents – her older sibling had already left home. Simple things like technology also meant they had different experiences of being teenagers: Flo grew up with the internet and a mobile phone, Alice didn’t, and this meant their parents were far more relaxed with Flo. They have both always had a sense of Alice being the maternal, caring one too, despite the fact that Flo is often the more ‘together’, responsible sister.

They tell Sophie about fighting – now and when they were kids – and how knowing each other’s weaknesses can sometimes be hurtful. But they also talk about how they have no secrets, and sort of fill in each other’s blanks. Ultimately, Alice and Flo make one another feel safe, as both sisters and friends.

Alice:  “I think Flo brings me perspective, without her I would find my life a lot harder. I feel like sometimes I’m not great at knowing my own mind and she often knows – it’s such a cliché – but she often knows me better than I know myself.”

Flo: “There was a song by Sister2Sister called ‘Sister’ and it goes:  ”Closer than my closest friend, someone that will be there till the end.” If we had a fight when we were kids – and I knew I’d done something wrong – I’d put it on, open my door and and sit on my bed… and wait till Alice came in to say: “It’s ok”.

Anne (62) & Meng (61)
Anne (62) & Meng (61)

Growing up in a small town a few hours away from Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, Anne and Meng say they were very different children. Anne describes herself as being like the “leader of a gang of boys”; a little tomboy rebel who wore mini-skirts and matching knickers like her heroine, Twiggy. While Anne was running around with her band of boys – riding about on baby cows, making catapults and toy guns – Meng says she was ”at home being very good”, and was always jealous of her wayward sister. This rebellious streak got Anne sent off to boarding school, where she was English educated, and escaped lots of the chores and duties Meng had to take care of in the family home, while she was being educated in the Chinese system.

Sandwiched in the middle of four brothers, they say they weren’t close as children, and the contrasts between them have continued through into adulthood: they have very different approaches to raising their own children, and often ignore each other’s advice. But this is changing with age: they say they’re getting closer and closer now, and despite their differences are always there when the other needs it.

Meng: “The love is unspoken, so although we might not communicate for years or whatever, if she has any problem all it takes is a phone call and that’s it: we will go running back.”

Anne: “You’re not alone. The main thing is, you’re not alone.”

Unity (12) & Zita (10)
Unity (12) & Zita (10)

Unity and Zita say they rely on each other a lot: they often sit in each other’s bedrooms and try to talk through one another’s problems, but also to chat about the things they care about right now: the first day that Zita wore two plaits in her hair, or the first day wearing contact lenses or getting their ears pierced, or wearing a leather jacket.

Unity is the quiet one and Zita is the “boisterous” one, at least in front of other people, they say, but they’re both good at sharing.  If they like the same toy, or the same CD, for example, they know that it doesn’t matter who their mum buys it for – they can both use it. And they normally have the same taste, so this works out well. Zita says she’s learnt, as the youngest, to be patient if Unity has something – say a nice pair of jeans or a top – that she likes, because soon it’ll be passed onto her.

In classic older sister fashion, Unity gets annoyed when Zita copies her – like doing the same thing for her birthday, for example. She knows she should be flattered and take it as a compliment, but sometimes that’s hard to do. They talk about enjoying roller coaster rides together –  “When I’m with my sister, its kind of a time to bond, cause your both really scared and your both feeling the exact same thing” – and having an almost telepathic bond. And both girls enjoy a good argument, but also the fact that with a sister, you’re over it after just a few short minutes.

Unity: “Sometimes if I’m angry, I can talk to Zita really fast cause she will understand. We read each other’s minds, I know exactly how she’s thinking. Well, I don’t know exactly, that would be scary, but we kind of think the same or feel the same.”

Zita: “I like having a sister, its really nice, its somebody that I can rely on, its also somebody that when I go to a new school if I get lost, she’s there but also it means that we can argue.”

Flo (20), Millie (16), Clara (15), Oki (11), Cecily (8) & Bea (6)
Flo (20), Millie (16), Clara (15), Oki (11), Cecily (8) & Bea (6)

These six sisters are such a big group that they say they end up creating their own smaller groups within the unit: so often the youngest two are the best of friends, and the teens join forces. Flo and Ocki act as what they call the “holding forces”: Ocki bridging the gap between the younger and older sisters, while Flo can be a support for all of them, as the eldest. With their three brothers too, it could be easy to think individual personalities would get lost in such a big family, but the sisters’ conversation proves this wrong: Ocki argues the most according to the others, for example, and Bea always needs to be the centre of attention. Clara and Millie clash over clothes, and Cecily enjoys her own company.

It’s a very creative group: they even used to have a Morrisey family YouTube channel for posting videos they made together. Flo is a musician and is often away on tour, which sounds quite painful for the sisters: Flo misses out on the youngest ones growing up as they change so quickly, she says, and they all miss her when she’s away. But the difficulties of age gaps and space clearly don’t bother the Morriseys: Cecily is even thinking of having seven children of her own when she grows up.

Cecily: “They’re always nice to you and they never let you down, usually. I miss Flo when she’s not here – she always makes me laugh and she is really good at things, and I really want to learn from her.”

Clara: “You always have someone to talk to, laugh with.”

Ambi (25) & Ria (16)
Ambi (25) & Ria (16)

Almost a decade apart, Ambi felt like an only child until Ria was born, and has strong memories of craving the company of another child. Talking about the early years, when Ambi was a kid/early teen and Ria was an infant, the sisters refer to Ambi as a ”second mum” and to Ria as her “living doll”. During school holidays, Ambi would take Ria off to art galleries, museums and the theatre; a little six-year-old hanging out with her older sister’s cool mates.

They say both their parents had “quite tortured pasts” and that for lots of reasons weren’t around as much as in more traditional family units: their mum had to work tirelessly to support the family, their dad worked irregular hours in the music industry, and their parents were pretty young, so still had active social lives. While Ambi and Ria say they may have missed out on some ‘family stuff’ –say, learning to ride bikes or scheduled, regular sit-down meals together – they had a great time growing up in their unconventional family. It’s turned them both into independent, resourceful and sociable women, they say, and the fact that Ambi often took on the maternal role with Ria means their bond is especially strong and unique.

Ria: “When she went away to uni, I felt distraught, I felt like I lost everything. I can’t cope without her to any extent.”

Ambi: “I feel the same, totally. It sounds so dramatic, but I actually just ache if I don’t see her for too long, I just need to hold her.”

The quotes here are taken from longer interviews with Sophie Harris-Taylor, which will be published in full in her book, in late 2017.

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