Tom Griggs – A Creature Obeys a Creature That Wants

I come to this only days after taking my father to a residential care home for the first time. His blindness has added to a list of ailments which has meant looking after him at home is now no longer possible. A feeling of practical sense and reason is slowly being invaded by thoughts of inevitable loss and feelings that the family life we shared at home is coming to an end. I feel moments of rupture that I imagine my dad feels in between the day to day of my own life. I can’t help but feel his displacement and powerlessness under these circumstances.

The irony has not escaped me that my father, who introduced me to photography and who became a central figure in the reconstruction of my own archive-based art practice tracing my family’s heritage, has lost his visual perception. Something most of us take for granted. These days conversations with my dad are no longer based on the memory that photographs evoke but on memories themselves, about who and when. One thing I seldom broached was how a reflexive inquiry into my father’s life and experience maps onto my own, and how his fathers shaped his life. As much as feel I am turning into my dad at times, I’m equally reminded, as we’ve both grown older, the huge gulf in our generational experience and attitude.



It was timely and serendipitous that I recently came across Tom Griggs’s A Creature Obeys a Creature That Wants. We both share an interest in family archives and Tom’s book resonated with me deeply with the unravelling of his father’s life, how that related to his own personal challenges and how for him, photography became a tool for inquiry. Griggs’ reworks family album pictures of him and his father alongside photographs he shoots to layer up a combination of abstraction, affect and nostalgia to resurrect not only memory but apply a sense of psychological space and time to a sequence of images. What really underscores his project though is a text that takes the reader through a poetic rendition of significant chapters of his father’s life and key events that build towards the beginnings of clinical depression and the ensuing challenge of maintaining social life.



Griggs’ story takes us across three generations: his grandfather, his father and his own. We come to understand the psyche of the grandfather first. His post-war generation characteristic of a developed grit and fortitude in pursuing work and family life. A stable and secure basis upon which Griggs’ father, of the boomer-generation, while sternly instilled with a sense of purpose and responsibility drummed into them by parents, nevertheless thrived and was able to fight to pursue his academic and occupational ambitions. In this period of hippie attitudes, liberal and open-minded thinking towards society often created a conflict of duty for this generation. This is where ruptures and cracks in the American dream would surface to reveal a malaise, a discontent felt widely across society.  The author’s generation, much freer still, then benefits from a period of neoliberal prosperity, relative economic stability, and freedom of choice for the individual that the late 20th Century western subject is granted. This is where the American dream gives rise to ways of being, dysfunctional yet functional. Yet, despite this, generational trauma is somehow still carried forward.


This sets the intergenerational context for the book. The backstory of the grandfather and Griggs himself, by intervention and in a storytelling capacity, parenthesise the central figure of the father. He, despite leading a rich and active life, sadly and tragically eventually succumbs to the acute depression significantly affecting his life and those close to him. As a Minister there is a relationship to God that becomes tested under these conditions and perhaps the role of ‘father’ here takes on additional meaning with regards where faith lies. The depression manifests itself in several ways, the text outlining the details of a mental condition alongside familial anecdotes that the psychic space of images can only allude to, and this makes the book deeply personal.

Griggs analytically reflects on his father’s experience to understand his own challenges. With no ending stated, outside of drawing on conclusions or outlining his own predicament, the book serves as a meditation on how the past creates and makes us, affecting our own paths. It begs the question, what intergenerational weight do we carry and is it possible to learn from the past to make way for better futures? Perhaps it is through this kind of process that a form of therapy is possible. A way in which to understand and accept our family and the ways in which they mould us into the people we become, not them, but an image of them.



Tom Griggs

A Creature Obeys a Creature That Wants


(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Sunil Shah. Images @ Tom Griggs.)

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