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The Mummerehlen

There is an old nursery rhyme that tells of Muhme Rehlen. Because the word Muhme meant nothing to me, this creature became for me a spirit: the mumerehlen.

Early on, I learned to disguise myself in words, which were really clouds. The gift of perceiving similarities is, in fact, nothing but a weak remnant of the old compulsion to become similar and to behave mimetically. In me, this compulsion acted through words. Not those that made me similar to well-behaved children, but those that made me similar to dwelling places, furniture, clothes. I was distorted by similarity to all that surrounded me. Like a mollusk in its shell, I had my abode in the nineteenth century, which now lies hollow before me like an empty shell. I hold it to my ear. What do I hear? Not the noise of the field artillery or of dance music a la Offenbach, not even the stamping of horses on the cobblestones or fanfares announcing the changing of the guard. No, what I hear is the brief clatter of the anthracite as it falls from the coal scuttle into a cast-iron stove, the dull pop of the flame as it ignites in the gas mantle, and the clinking of the lampshade on its brass ring when a vehicle passes by on the street. And other sounds as well, like the jingling of the basket of keys, or the ringing of the two bells at the front and back steps. And, finally, there is a little nursery rhyme.

“Listen to my tale of the mummerehlen.” The line is distorted – yet it contains the whole distorted world of childhood. Muhme Rehlen, who used to have her place in the line, had already vanished when I heard it recited for the first time. The mummerehlen was even harder to rouse. For a long time, the diamond-shaped pattern that swam on my dish, in the steam of barley groats or tapioca, was for me its surrogate. I spooned my way slowly toward it. Whatever stories used to be told about it – or whatever someone may have only wished to tell me – I do not know. The mummerehlen itself confided nothing to me. It had, quite possibly, almost no voice. Its gaze spilled out from the irresolute flakes of the first snow. Had that gaze fallen on me a single time, I would have remained comforted my whole life long.

From A Berlin Childhood by Walter Benjamin

© images Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2013

For later


I wonder if she will remember this moment. The feeling of his vast hands cocooning hers. All the impetuous haste of youth, she had.

I can do it!

He tried to slow her down. To show her. With the wisdom of the knowing tortoise. (She didn’t listen, of course.)

I have saved it for her, anyhow. For later.

For when she is ready to remember. When she needs to understand who she was, and who she might be.

© images and content Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2013



© images and content Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2013

Learning to see


The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.

Dorothea Lange


When I was younger, I was clumsy. I tripped along quite happily in my private world, not really noticing. Friends used to complain to me that if they saw me in the street and shouted my name, I would not respond.

Didn’t you see me?
What, really? You were calling me? Sorry I was miles away….

I bumped into lampposts.

I was 15. A girl, awkward, whose body was betraying her. I wasn’t yet ready to inhabit the unfamiliar swells of burgeoning womanhood. I hid behind chunky cherry DMs, drab cheesecloth tops and jingly jangly skirts embroidered with tiny mirrors, which I hunted out in the dingy second hand shops which smelt of sandalwood and patchouli oil.

I dealt with growing up by trying to make myself small. As small as I could. My thoughts kept me company. My inner life was rich and just-fine-thank-you. I read hungrily, voraciously, desperately (mostly gothic, or romantic literature which affirmed my belief that my life was terrible and tragic, and that I was profoundly misunderstood). My parents hated each other. My sister hated me. My brothers, ambivalent. I lied to my friends. I wanted to fold myself over in half again and again like a piece of paper until I became a perfectly tiny origami square. Insignificant. I didn’t want to be me. I wrote in my diary about hate and anger and shame.

Other people saw a normal girl with a normal life. A girl who had everything she could want.

As it turned out my picture-perfect world was a loosely stacked tower of jenga bricks. The foundations were shaky. A house made of straw. All it took was one swift puff from the metaphorical wolf and it all came tumbling down around us. It was Christmas eve 1991. I sat on the stairs, clung to the banisters and listened to words tumble out. Words which I should not have heard. Words of hatred. Words of passion. Words of betrayal. Words which floated around in my head, confused and aimless at first, but then they slowly, and surely arranged themselves into coherent sentences, which sparked catastrophic chain reactions in my adolescent brain.

A little earthquake occurred.

After that, everything was black for a long, long time. I was devastated. Lost under the rubble.

At some point, many years later (I can’t pinpoint exactly when), I ‘discovered’ photography. It wasn’t like a sudden revelation for me, more of a slow burn of realisation, and I started to notice things. I noticed shapes and patterns in everyday scenes around me. I noticed the world in colour. I noticed it in black and white. I noticed the light, and how it changed throughout the day. I saw a lonely figure where others saw a pile of crates. I saw couples holding hands. I looked up, and I looked down. I noticed people who were interesting and people who were also looking, and noticing, or not noticing. I noticed objects left stranded. I noticed detail and texture. I saw graffiti, shop windows, doorways, signs, as if for the first time. I noticed rubbish, abandoned things. I noticed that they were beautiful. Each day I saw the stage set for everyday life to be played out in all its isolation, its togetherness, its community; in all its irony and incongruity. It was all utterly seductive to me.











Some images from a recent walk around London (Oxford St, Trafalgar Square, and China town)

I took a lot of terrible photographs, but I was noticing. I was seeing frantically, as if I had never seen before, with fresh, hungry eyes.

I took a city and guilds course to learn how to use a camera properly.

My inherent carelessness (read: laziness) and lack of attention to detail let me down somewhat. Always the daydreamer, I had good ideas but struggled to execute them in the way I wanted to. Nonetheless, I passed my city and guilds photography (despite handing in my work late, on the morning of the presentation). Something was driving me onwards.

I applied to do an MA (rather ambitiously). I stayed up all night writing my application in an inspired frenzy of activity. As the course director browsed my rather shoddy, hurriedly-put-together portfolio and made comments like well I can see you have a lot to learn, and yes, the presentation does leave a lot to be desired my stomach plunged down into my boots. When he asked me what I wanted to do for my final project I mumbled something vague about architecture and stared vacantly at the postcards above his desk when he gave me a quizzical look. I didn’t know. I felt like such fool; I hadn’t thought any of this through, yet at the same time I realised at that moment how much I wanted this. Right then and there.

He even laughed at one point (there was definitely a smirk, or a snigger).

Oh the shame!

My face burned. I sat on my hands. I suddenly wanted to fold up again. I had no words. I offered no defense. He was right.

Then, when we had finished, he looked at me pragmatically, and, to my great surprise (and admittedly not with the greatest amount of conviction) said Yes well… these are just details which we can fix… I can see you have a good eye… and with that I was accepted onto the course. I could see he wasn’t sure, and my academic references saved me I’m sure, but it didn’t matter.

I was in!

To this day, I am still utterly shocked that he accepted me. I spent most of the two years I was on that course thinking that I didn’t belong there. I wasn’t a photographer. Hell my hands even shook like crazy most of the time when I picked up a camera! I didn’t really know what I was doing.

But he gave me a break I really needed. I was no longer daydreaming, drifting aimlessly along in my fantasy world. I had a purpose, a goal to work towards. No more self-indulgent hours spent sitting in the bath and sobbing my heart out until the water grew cold.

Those two years fed my soul and I surprised myself and excelled, quietly. I thought about photography all the time. I visited exhibitions; I was engaged in debates around photography; I was reading and writing about photography; I was discussing photography with interesting like-minded people, but I was also absorbing, all of the time looking and listening and learning. I was focused and therefore making better, more thoughtful pictures. Alex and I were very poor for those two years. We didn’t go out much, we scrimped and saved. For my part I was engaged in something that mattered to me. I was blissfully happy.

And then, a faint blue line. Almost insignificant, at first.

Barely there.

But I watched it deepen. I watched it bleed outwards and imprint itself on that thin little white strip of paper. It was unavoidable, it was decisive. The effect of that blue line was immediate, and seismic.

It was there.

It was there in the early morning queasiness, in the all-consuming tiredness, and in the way my body, now so familiar, and now finally me, slowly became tender, awkward, and inevitably, utterly alien to me once more.

Gradually, the faintest butterfly like flutters turned into something more persistent, and unmistakably present inside me, and I felt little heels and toes and fists as they punched and jabbed and stretched and shifted and rested under the stretch of my belly. I would dream that I could just reach in and pluck him out, he seemed so close, so totally there, but not yet there. I stayed awake putting in all nighters on essays and final projects as my course drew to a close. I imagined, romantically, that I would be transmitting all of my knowledge and ideas to my growing baby in the same way that I transmitted essential nutrients to him via my vital, throbbing placenta. When he was born they showed it to me. It was a huge, monstrous, pulsating thing. I hated it immediately. I did not find it beautiful.

He was beautiful, but, he was my everything. My all. My joy, my pain. He was my sleep and my wake. I fed him, and he fed me. We were totally wrapped up in each other. When he was born, I stopped taking pictures, and I lost myself all over again.

I graduated from my MA with first class honours and I took my lively 7 month old son along to the ceremony. By then the magic was already gone, somehow. I had lost touch with the academic world. I had side-stepped into another dimension; a pseudo world which consisted of an endless outpouring of bodily fluids (mine and his) and nappies and stuff. So much stuff, a disproportionate amount, everywhere, which seemed to be required for such a tiny thing!

And sleep. I was consumed by sleep (or non-sleeping, I should say). I wondered if I would ever sleep the night through again and whether he would ever sleep and whether babies were actually a form of torture designed to suppress otherwise intelligent and normally functioning women and men into complete and utter crazies who argue, nay row, have fierce blazing rows about leaving cupboard doors open and where things go in the fridge and whose turn it is to put the rubbish out … just because they are so damn tired and those things seem unbelievably, earth-shatteringly important at that moment.

(And then there is the fear, and how sometimes – more times than I cared to admit – I looked at him, and I wanted to run away).

My world had suddenly shrunk to miniscule and meaningless proportions. All perspective gone, flushed down the plug hole with the tears and the blood and the vomit and the bottles of expressed milk I never used …. I didn’t have big ideas or worthy points to make about anything important any more. I was no-one. Small, and lost again.

Eventually I found my way out of the otherworldly fog which I came to realise much later was depression. I have learnt that when I am OK with myself, I am able to see clearly, and I am able to create. Leaning to see for me is a journey of discovery, of self-acceptance. I’m good, actually. And the way that I look at the world is OK too. It’s me. Integrally, unmistakably me. I can’t hide from that.

And so there is new clarity. Every time I close my eyes and open them again I refresh, I renew.

The image is stored.

Learning to photograph is learning to see.


 I wonder, what do you see?


My apologies to those of you who received a very early draft version of this post earlier on this week – I clicked publish instead of preview!

© images and content Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2013

A lullaby

she dreams
waters deep, curious
serpents nudge at her feet
sighing mermaids lounge on
rocks idle in their romance
disinterested they curl
graceful hands
they cup her
sweet face, gently
caress cool
she drifts
down the stream
carried along on a
unicorn’s dream
lithe frames
arch her slumber
murmuring ancient
secrets profound
in haunting
the while
they fashion
weeds into combs,
drawing wavy spurs
through lustrous
sleeps on
soundly, gathering
hushed whispers
around her
a watery
her floating
head as deft
trails between
finger spaces
turns to black
and a stray rainbow
imagined, maybe
(or just fancied)
surprisingly sleek
and springy flips
down its bow
to rock you
a shelter
vigilant moon
shifts its opal gaze,
silently quiets the
night and weeps
a solitary
skies sigh a
weary breeze and
an obedient scatter of
stars shuffle into place,
dusting the air with an
invisible gauze
of dancing
skims the smooth
stillness of your skin and
the stars strain to listen to the
pure, white lilting rhythm
as it searches and
settles to the
quiet ebb

a careless cloak
of clouds tumbles
down, cautiously
surrounds you,
and, you

© images and content Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2013


Mud+snot+four-year-olds just seem to go together.
Today was a day full of both. All three, actually I should say (apart from the fact that all of my days are full of four-year-olds). I handed out tissues to catch runny noses and cleaned muddy boots before I lined them up neatly. I made snowflakes and drank pretend tea from tiny plastic cups. I praised and I scolded in equal measure. I drew fire engines, read story books about libraries and witches and potties. I mopped up spilled milk. I tidied up toys, endless toys. I opened drinks and sandwich boxes and coaxed little people to fill their tummies with just a few more bites. I built a pretend snowman and flew in the air, waving to the people and houses below. I cast magic spells on impish children who were frogs and trains and racing cars. I sang. I sing every day with a kind of forced, manic joviality that one must have around four-year-olds who are tired and grumpy and want their lunch or just want to go home and watch cbeebies. Songs about sheep and monkeys and stars. Always stars.

The rain fell. Hence the mud. The sky stayed grey.

I’m still waiting for the sun.

Maybe tomorrow?

I don’t think I have ever mentioned in my blog that I work with a girl who is visually impaired. Her favourite colour is yellow. Sunshine yellow. She chooses it every time over any shade of baby blue or girly pink or fire-engine red. I print all of her work on yellow because it seems that her searching eyes find it easier to rest on that gentle, warm colour than the stark glare of white.

(Last year I started a little series of posts themed around colour)

© images and content Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2013

Weaving magic

Once upon a time the photographer was thought of as something of an alchemist. A shadowy, enigmatic figure who spent far too much time frequenting small, dark, windowless spaces, wearing a faint aroma of ammonia and something like salt and vinegar crisps. He* would produce beautiful images, which would appear before your very eyes – as if by magic – from blank sheets of paper. He would spend hours squirreled away, honing his craft, proliferating prints. Working away tirelessly under the dim, seedy glow of a single red light bulb.

Perhaps it is because I am currently reading a book about magic, or perhaps it is because I am looking at a lot of magical winter photographs in blogs: skeleton trees towering eerily in winter mists; bright, crisp snowy scenes and macro shots of perfectly formed snowflakes glistening like frosted jewels against a backdrop of a perfect cerulean sky. In any case, I am occupied by thoughts of magic and fantasy. January is such a dull, frugal month. I am yearning. I need to believe. I need to find some magic – some wonder – to make it sparkle for me.

I discovered these charming images by French photographer Alain Laboile whilst browsing through the blog emorfes. When I looked at them I felt that little flicker of something I can’t explain…. you know that feeling you get when something connects with you in a positive way. It’s like a little jolt of excitement which progresses into a surge of recognition, with all of your senses immediately heightened in anticipation…

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images from the series Reflexion autour du bassin by Alain Laboile

… and then, afterwards, you feel a little bit more content than before and even a little bit changed. At the same time, you have understood something new about yourself. The magic has taken effect.

Perhaps it is something in the dreamlike world he creates, or the way he fuses childlike wonder with gentle humour and surreal elements. Or perhaps it is the quirky perspective; the water which casts a wobbly dreamlike haze, but which also threatens an element of danger to the happy family album: hidden depths, murky waters, a sense of foreboding…. Maybe it’s the big wide sky – more than just background it is centre stage in many images. Children while away so many hours looking up. Daydreaming. Spotting birds, aeroplanes; flying kites; climbing trees to get closer to the clouds, gazing at the moon and the stars and imagining other worlds and whether one day they might visit them. The wonder of the vast, unfathomable sky. It has the power to put us in our places on earth.

I have looked at these photographs a lot recently. I am not really sure why that is. They seem to me to re-capture a bit of that old photographic alchemy. They are not polished, or sophisticated. They are quite low-key, like snapshots, yet obviously considered. They are a constructed dreamworld. Eccentric, you could say. They have something of the air of the slightly mad, nerdy inventor about them – the one who cooks up crazier and crazier scenes whilst his excited wild children froth around him, egging him on. A kind of professor Potts of the photographic world. (I am sure I am completely wrong, by the way and this part is entirely my fabrication, but I do believe Laboile is also a sculptor, which would account for the sculptural elements featured in the photographs.)

Each picture, each little burst of magic speaks to me of its own story, weaving a narrative of a strange, fantastical fairy tale, in which dreams and imagination have leaked into our conscious world and taken hold. And the children – wild and free – are the kings and queens.

Oh, the fun they would have with our dreams.

© images Alain Laboile

© content Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2013

* of course, photographers can be females too 🙂

About a girl

this summer she skipped and swam
clutched piles of acorns in her hands
her chubby limbs grew long and lean
hair tousled in the warm breeze
hidden treasures in secret places
dreams of ponies and princesses in faraway places
she fell in and out of love and
studied the morphing cloud-shapes up above
friendships were made then quickly forgotten
I dried her weary tears of frustration

this summer she let go of my hand
just for a little while….

Later I brushed the tangles out of her long brown hair, pulled it back.
She winced.
Too tight! She cried.
I smoothed the creases out of blue checked dresses
(blinking back the tears).

As she tugged white cotton socks up
over bruised shins.
Fastened up shiny black shoes and
fumbled with unfamiliar buttons,

she looked on, concern in her wide hazel eyes.
Don’t worry mummy, I’ll always be your little girl, she said
(I let the tears come).

This summer was hers for the taking,
but she hung back.
She wasn’t quite ready
(I was secretly glad).

Her time will come

For my beautiful girl

© images and content Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2012

Fabulous Monsters (I believe in you)

… he was going on, when his eye happened to fall upon Alice: he turned round instantly, and stood for some time looking at her with an air of the deepest disgust.
“What – is – this?” he said at last.
“This is a child!” Haigha replied eagerly, coming in front of Alice to introduce her, and spreading out both his hands towards her in an Anglo-Saxon attitude. “We only found it to-day. It’s as large as life, and twice as natural!”
“I always thought they were fabulous monsters!” said the Unicorn. “Is it alive?”
“It can talk,” said Haigha, solemnly.
The Unicorn looked dreamily at Alice, and said “Talk, child.”
Alice could not help her lips curling up into a smile as she began: “Do you know, I always thought Unicorns were fabulous monsters, too? I never saw one alive before!”
“Well, now that we have seen each other,” said the Unicorn, “if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you. Is that a bargain?”
“Yes, if you like,” said Alice.

From the chapter “The Lion and the Unicorn”, Alice Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll

I have just finished reading Alice Through the Looking Glass to my children. The moments when I read stories to them are probably some of my favourite moments of motherhood. I hope that they never stop wanting me to read aloud to them. Storytime is a cue for winding down; time to be still, to stop and listen, to just be content at the end of the day in our weary bodies. It is time to take ourselves off into a different world. I love hearing their gentle warm breath next to my ear, feeling their little chests rise and fall to the gentle rhythm of my voice. Their limbs sleepy and still, relaxing, in concentration and anticipation. Eyes wide with wonder. Warm heads snuggled under my armpits.

I love to play the role of the storyteller. It’s so much fun getting into character and doing all the funny, silly voices; making them laugh, making them scared, intrigued, confused, or just desperate to find out what happens next. I relish introducing them to the wonder of worlds which exist only on the page in words, pictures, and which fizz and sparkle, bursting into life in that moment inside our heads. There are no limits – only the far-reaching parameters of our own imaginations.

The bewildering range of things which a 6 and 4-year-old can conjure up in their make-believe worlds never fails to astound me: mermaids and sorcerers jostle with knights and princesses, dragons and fairies… Disney, God, the tooth fairy, Father Christmas… it’s all there, jumbled and confused maybe (and it’s all pretty much on level pegging), but it all provides such rich and wonderful material for little heads thankfully yet innocent of the onerous reality of the adult world. I’m glad they have all these characters to turn to and provide them with some comfort, and some answers which we adults sometimes fail to.

In childhood I see such urgency, such presence and promise, such embodiment of humanity in all its wild energy, passion, cruelty and innocence.

I don’t believe in so many things as I used to when I was little, but I believe most fiercely and passionately in them, those fabulous monsters. In everything they are in their lively, questioning minds and bodies, and everything they might be.

© Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2012

In praise of toys, and things

There’s no place like home…

It’s been a grey, rainy week, which has forced us to spend more time than is healthy indoors. Consequently, our house is sort of starting to resemble a toy shop after a whirlwind has whipped through it, sucked up its entire contents and spewed them all out again. There are toys, and small tiny child things everywhere. I thought, well, if you can’t beat ’em… and so decided to start photographing the mess.

It got me thinking.

My daughter has a fetish for lining things up. Her eclectic collection of sea creatures, ponies, Barbie dolls, sparkly things and mini beasts are constantly being ordered and organised. They accompany her everywhere: in the car, to the shops, at the dinner table, on the sofa. She also recently acquired a small coconut which Alex had bought to use in our dinner one evening. Her wide, innocent eyes looked on that little brown hairy thing with a pointy nose and two eyes and a mouth (who knew coconuts had faces?) as a new plaything. She immediately consolidated it into her growing entourage with great enthusiasm, much to our surprise and amusement, naming him ‘Nutty’ (Nutty had a friend too, but he, erm, has now sadly departed us to join his small hairy coconut friends in the sky… and yes, there were A LOT of tears shed when daddy got the axe out).

Children are collectors. They are magpies. They like things. Their things are important to them: through them they are informed about their material surroundings; they learn about possession and play; they form part of their identity and they feed their imagination. Their toys are their imaginary friends, their sensory feedback, and their comfort in their small worlds.

Throughout childhood toys are chosen and chewed, cuddled and crushed, traded and trusted, pampered and petted, forgotten and found…. and forgotten again. Attachments are made which will last a whole lifetime; a sugar-sweet honeypot of memories to dip into as we grow older and perhaps we need that extra splash of colour in our lives that children just seem to radiate naturally. Those are times when nostalgia makes us yearn for that familiar feeling of security which childhood provides like a soft, worn blanket.

Toys, for children are wonderful, colourful, comforting, safe, tactile players on the stage of their imaginations.

Childhood is saturated in glorious Technicolor. Remember that scene from the wizard of Oz when Dorothy first opens the door onto munchkinland? Oh the assault on the senses of that too-rich, too-vibrant, blinding colour! These are the colours of the yellow brick road and the ruby-red slippers, the sky blue of her dress against the chestnut brown of her hair, and the emerald-green of the emerald city and, of course, of the rainbow…. These, I imagine, are the colours of a child’s dreams.

As we grow older our urge to collect and acquire is focussed into more ‘grown-up’ pursuits. We buy houses, cars, technology, jewellery; ‘accessories’ to enhance our lives.

It’s sad although inevitable, perhaps, that as we grow up into adulthood we start to lose that sense of wonder and excitement about the world that a child has, but I’m grateful that I have the opportunity to re-live that now through my own children. My own childhood wasn’t always idyllic of course, but, I like to sometimes look back through a vignette frame and re-capture those golden-hazed childhood memories.

There’s no place like home

*click, click, click*

(yep, I still really really want those ruby slippers…)

© Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2012

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