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Ashley Markle, Do you know how beautiful you are?
Photography Ashley Markle

These portraits recreate missing memories with an absent dad

Ashley Markle’s Do you know how beautiful you are? envisions an imagined shared history with her long-lost father

Ashley Markle’s parents divorced when she was just five, so her early memories of her estranged biological father Robert Markle are hazy, shaped by her mother’s inevitably biased perspective. “Through the [intervening] years there were a couple of times that we tried to reconnect but it never lasted,” the New York-based photographer tells Dazed. By the time she was 11, her dad had become an absent figure. 

It wasn’t until over a decade later till father and daughter reconnected again. “When I graduated from college, I knew I was going to move away and most likely stay away for the rest of my life. I figured if there was ever a chance of us trying again, I had to do it now,” Markle recalls. “So I reached out to him that summer. We met up and walked around town talking for hours.” 

But half the time they were strangers, walking on eggshells, cautious of the discontinuities in their relationship. “Things were still slightly awkward because we had no idea what our relationship was supposed to look like and didn’t really know each other,” Markle explains. “There was a lot of love between us but also a lot of fear. Eventually, I told myself that if I wanted to have a real relationship with him, he needed to see all of me.”

One day, they met up and strolled around Mosquito Lake in Bob’s native Ohio. Markle had brought her camera with her and, catching a break, they paused in front of the azure lake by the sandy shore. She set up her camera and her father stood a few feet away from the device, uncertain of what to do. In a swift move, Markle jumped at him. He was caught off guard but held his daughter in her arms as the lens snapped the photo. She recalls: “That image felt so powerful when I first saw it because it really felt like I was taking a leap of faith by opening up my soul to him for the first time.” 

Over the following five years, Markle created more portraits of her father and herself as a way for them to bond over the few shared memories they did possess while tentatively filling in the gaps and forging new mutual experiences. The photo series Do you know how beautiful you are? chronicles these attempts to reconstruct her relationship with Bob. She frequently visited his home in Warren, Ohio, and recreated unrealised images from the imagined past that might have been – the seminal moments of her childhood that he’d missed out on. 

Each portrait of father and daughter revisits a fantasised, revised past, filling in the holes of their imagined history: watching him shave his beard, she too applies shaving cream to her smooth face, mirroring his routine; climbing a tree and almost slipping, Bob stands poised to catch her; brushing her hair, she gets ready for school while he watches on; from the vantage point of his leather armchair, he admires as she practices her swag moves for prom night. 

Below, Ashley Markle recalls, in her own words, her memories of taking a particularly important image [below] from the series Do you know how beautiful you are?

“I don’t remember much about my dad growing up. It all feels so hazy. I remember constantly laughing with him as a child. He’s a very funny, colourful character. I remember being confused about how different it felt to be around him versus my mother. Their parenting styles could not have been more different. My mum was very involved and cautious. My dad is extremely carefree and would often leave the house without saying where he was going or when he was coming back. He wasn’t used to that kind of responsibility all on his own. He would take me out on his motorcycle and my mum would be fuming when she found out. 

“When we reconnected, I think those things about him were still very much true; him being a jokester and a risk-taker, and his temper. Those puzzle pieces of the image of my father were still there but when we reconnected, I started gathering other puzzle pieces to complete the picture. He’s very loyal and loving to the few people he’s chosen to stay in his life. He was pretty wounded during the separation from my mother. He is also fearful of losing me again. Every time I see him, that hazy image becomes more clear.

“I made this image – the one where we’re hugging at the bottom of his staircase [above] – pretty early on in this project. I think I was almost forcing intimacy, hoping that it would eventually feel natural. I love this image because it has taken on different meanings as our relationship progresses. In the beginning, it was this forced intimacy. Then it became a moment for us to finally let go of the past and embrace each other with love.

“I’m so grateful to this medium for giving me the opportunity to get to know my father and reframe my past with the new information I received from him” – Ashley Markle

“And now that we know each other much better and can see how similar we are, we feel more comfortable leaning on each other when we’re dealing with mental health issues because we have very similar brains. With that new discovery, this image feels like I have found the reason for so many unanswered questions I’ve had about my own behaviour over the years. And now I have someone to go trekking through the emotional depths with. 

“Our relationship has grown so much over the course of this project. It feels like we’ve been able to work through our past while simultaneously building a new future full of more love and understanding. He sees me for who I am and we’ve both been able to recognise how similar we are to each other. The Markle gene is very strong! 

“I’m so grateful to this medium for giving me the opportunity to get to know my father and reframe my past with the new information I received from him. Our relationship is forever evolving because it is very hard to come back from a ten-year absence, especially during my formative years. But the more I introduce my camera into ‘his life’ the more it becomes ‘our lives’.”

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