Elizabeth Handy, self portraitWhat makes a house into a home? And what kind of home today best fosters the wellbeing and development of all the individuals who share it? These and other related questions will be addressed at a conference in London in November, the second in a series organised by the Home Renaissance Foundation and entitled Excellence in the Home: From House to Home.

Among the key speakers is management and social philosopher Charles Handy, whose books on the changing shape of work and its effects on our lives and organisations are known well beyond the United Kingdom. He will address the upcoming conference on the topic, The Home of the Future: Work in the home. His wife, Elizabeth Handy, a portrait photographer using a distinctive "joiner" technique to convey her subjects in the round, will mount an exhibition at the conference on the home and the people who make it.

Here Elizabeth Handy talks to Catherine McMahon of the Home Renaissance Foundation about her photographic style and what makes a house into a good home.

*****

Tell us how you discovered this technique of joiner photos and why you use it.

I began using it for our book, The New Alchemists, which was about what it takes to be a good entrepreneur, and did my own portrait first and then Charles’. I got frustrated at just taking one photograph of a person because we all have different roles, and I wanted to make a portrait that would project those roles. So I studied David Hockney, who did this with scenery, putting lots of different photographs together.

Family living room. Photo: Elizabeth Handy

In the series we have done for the the House to Home conference, the picture of the mother and her three children tells a story about what this family likes to do when they are together. The mother likes reading books; the boy likes jumping around on the sofa and being naughty like all small boys do; you can see the Scrabble game; and what’s in that box? — the little girl is wearing one of the dresses from it. By the way, when I go to people’s homes I say, ‘Don’t tidy up, please, let me see everything’, because each little thing round the room has a story – like the table — and tells you something about the person or the family.

It’s a wonderful way of using photography as a psychological tool to help you really understand what you’ve seen. When you look round this room in the flesh you don’t see everything, you might just focus on one thing. In this picture you see the older girl playing the guitar; and you can see the guitar twice over so you think of who is playing it and you get some movement into it. So it’s really bringing emotion and movement and all kinds of other things into making the photograph a story about what's going on in that family instead of something static. It’s much more lively.

When you did these portraits for the house-to-home theme did you know in advance what you wanted to show?

At work in the kitchen. Photo: Elizabeth Handy

Oh yes, we talked about it with each family beforehand. Generally we wanted to show good homes that are not necessarily rich ones. In one family the wife works as an architect and her husband does a lot of the homemaker and caring roles while doing a bit of paid work via the internet. We decided we would do one photo of them outside the home, because where they live tells you quite a lot about a person, and you can see it’s a quite small cottage in the country.

The work picture shows them in their tiny kitchen: you go into the home and see that she’s the breadwinner, she’s the architect, the husband is the secondary earner and carer, and we see one of their daughters doing her homework — and you can tell quite a lot about their status in a way from their kitchen, which is quite an ordinary kitchen.

Learning to care in the extended family. Photo: Elizabeth Handy

In the caring picture we see them in their sitting room, the simple room they all share: he’s serving fruit to the two kids she’s caring for her mother so the kids are learning about caring and sharing. And the final picture is the community one, showing them outside the house again with the kids playing in the safety of the garden with the parents and the granny and their neighbours there.

So these are the things you see that go to make a good home?

Yes, it’s nothing to do with how much money you have; it’s very much to do with where there’s love and concern, and in these images you see that the parents are working, earning money for the family, they are listening to their children, they are helping them with homework, providing that they have friends and extended family.

Part of the community. Photo: Elizabeth Handy

Even in the one-parent family — where we have a picture of the mother bathing a child — we see, despite the limitations she faces, the patience she has as she talks to the child before she washes her hair, how she allows the little boy who’s always jumping off things to be himself, and how the older sister helps with the caring. It’s not a rich place but she’s a good mother, in spite of being on her own.

I’m hoping these photographs will help people realise how important it is to be a parent and that what goes on in the home, the learning that goes on in the home, sitting round a table sharing things, caring, listening — all these things go to make a home. The kids that get into trouble are the ones that don’t have that stability at home and the lessons about all the virtues that we hope to develop as human beings.

For more information on the conference, Excellence in the Home: From House to Home, visit the Home Renaissance Foundation. For more on Elizabeth Handy: www.lizhandy.net