Interview: Dave Tomkins Is Traveling the World to Reenact His "Grandpa's Photos"

After finding his grandfather's photographs stuffed in an old drawer, Dave Tomkins set out to discover where they were taken.

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Complex Original

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Five years ago, Dave Tomkins' grandfather, Stephen Clarke, moved into a nursing home. While cleaning out his grandfathers' old house, Tomkins came across photo film slides tucked in a drawer. The photos revealed lighthearted family moments as well as scenes from many locations around the world. Tomkins took what he found to his grandfather in hopes of hearing about Clarke's past adventures. Unfortunately, Clarke could no longer recall where he had taken the photographs.

Unable to simply forget his discovery, Tomkins took matters into his own hands. He created a website, called "Grandpa's Photos," to discover where each photo was captured by posting the images online and asking visitors to his site to help identify the places pictured. With help from the online community, Tomkins was able to pinpoint the exact location in many of the photos, and he traveled to the sites in order to reenact the photos. We got in touch with Tomkins via email to discuss his moving photo project and how it changed his life.

working on "Grandpa's Photos" keeps reminding me to ask more people about them.

Did your grandpa know you were making this website?

No, he didn't know I was making the website. It's a shame, really. I mainly didn't tell him as I wanted it to be a surprise, but, there are also a bunch of concepts that are pretty difficult for him to get without a lot of explanation. For example, a website or social network or the Internet, for that matter. I was hoping to explain it all to him in one big and amazing unfolding of how much people loved his photos. Unfortunately, I left it too late.

A lot of the family photos you shared capture really great moments. How did your family members react to seeing the photos after you found them?

People within my family love the photos, too. There are still many of them I've yet to talk to about it as they are in Australia. To most of the people actually in the pictures, they've seen them before many years ago and more recently. I think within our family these photos have been loved for a long time.


Which one is your favorite photo? Why?

It's really tough. I love them all, and it always changes. Maybe, I'll say Photo 06 because it has Grandpa in it, and it looks like such a warm and friendly dinner—such a great scene. The composition in so many of the others are fantastic, like 05, 12, and 21. Yeah, I guess I love too many of them.

On the website it says there's only 100 photos. I'm guessing there are more. How did you go about choosing the 100 photos?

I tried to design the site to be as easy to use as possible, to let people see the photos as quickly and clearly as possible and to tell the story of Grandpa at the same time. I thought more than 50 photos would be a little daunting, so [I included] 50 travel photos and then 50 more family photos to look at, if people wanted to. It was so tough to choose the best 50. There are many more good ones, but I feel these were the best. 


How did your relationship with your grandfather changed since you started this project?

Unfortunately, I never got to discuss it with him, but the process has made me think about my relationship with him and with everyone. Personally, I spent too much time talking about my stuff. When I went to visit Grandpa, he was always so kind and wanted to hear about me. Finding the photos made me remember to ask about him even when he just wanted to talk about how I was doing. As a kid, it's easy to fall in this common behavior. It's lame, but we all do it, constantly reciting our resumes to everyone, how we are, how interesting our lives are currently. Facebook and Twitter and Instagram only facilitate this human trait. All these outlets are great and help us all keep in touch, but working on "Grandpa's Photos" keeps reminding me to ask more people about them.

I think within our family these photos have been loved for a long time.

How has the initial concept of finding the locations in the photos developed into your traveling to them? What made you finally decide to go exploring?

The trip came about through a lot of things. I was thinking about heading home while in New York, mainly to spend more time with friends and family. The trip is partially "the long way home." Then once the site launched and I got such a huge response, I thought it would be great to go to all of the places and stand right where Grandpa was. People have sent many pictures of the same places in the photos, but it's a lot to ask people to re-take the photos in exactly the same spot. It's not easy as I'm finding out. I'd love to have the site complete at some point, showing all the photos side-by-side with the same photos from today. The trip was a way to help make this happen, travel home, and have a great experience all in one.


Has this project become a full time job since you quit your job at the ad agency? How are you able to make a living off of a project like this?

I have referred to it as a full time job previously because it sometimes has amounted to a fair bit of work. It feels like a full time job sometimes: getting up early and racing to a location, filming, shooting, making notes, trying to write back to hundreds of emails, and then racing to the next location all before 11 a.m. so I can get all the locations in a given city before sleeping in the hire car and driving to the next one to get up early and go again. It's really exciting and fun, but I may have given myself a bit much to do. At the moment, I'm not making a living. I'm traveling as cheaply as possible, staying in hire cars and hostels. You can make a decent prosciutto and cheese sandwich in Milan for two Euros. I'm living off a tiny amount of savings. After working in advertising for the last 10 years with deadlines and expectations, it's nice to do things at my own pace for a while.

Where do you plan to travel for this project?

My trip so far starts in Switzerland in Zurich, Biel, Olten, Bern, Geneva, Lake Thun, and Interlaken. Then Italy in Milan, Sarezzo, Venice, Florence, and Rome. Then Portugal in Lisbon; Spain in Madrid and Barcelona; China in Hong Kong; and Australia. 


What's next after the website? Do you have any plans to publish the photos?

Many people have asked me what's next for the photos. I'm not 100 percent sure. I'm trying to film along the way and take lots of photos, talk to lost of people about the photos, and about Grandpa. I might try and make something from it all when I get home. It's not the goal right now, though. I'm just trying to enjoy the trip. It's good to know that I can worry about that in a few months, not right now. Oh, and I'll probably just have to go back to work. Reality will probably come storming back, as well. 

You can view the rest of "Grandpa's Photos" on Tomkins' website

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