University: The University of The West of England, Bristol
Artist Statement: Alex is a social documentary photographer based in Bristol whose images aim to reflect on contemporary social issues faced in the Western World.
St Davids is a city founded on the desire for seclusion. As the United Kingdom’s smallest city, both in terms of size and population, it shelters on the most westerly tip of Wales, surrounded on three sides by vast expanses of open water, where the last shards of land stand strong against the crashing waves and perilous currents of The Bitches. It is a landscape that has been shaped by nature and in turn has shaped the inhabitants of this community, who have learnt to live and adapt to its remote geographical location in quiet solidarity.
The writer, Thomas Mann saw in solitude something that “gives birth to the original in us, to beauty unfamiliar and perilous”. The return to my hometown after four years away has enabled me to consider St Davids and its people through fresh eyes, examining their relationship with the landscape and the connections and fellowships that have formed within this tight knit community. The people that live there have a connection with one another that goes far beyond just a postcode. They have a patriotism for the place. This book aims to give voice to some of the individuals that inhabit the landscape, and the stories they have to tell.
Where did you attend university and what year did you graduate? I studied BA (Hons) Photography at The University of The West of England, Bristol, graduating in July 2016.
What are some standout moments from your time at university? One of the best things about the course was the contact and involvement that you have with the tutors and all the technical staff, who always found time to help you and push your creative ideas into new directions. Another thing that really stood out on the course was the sheer amount of guest speakers that we had come into the Uni from all aspects of professional practice, from photographers, to photo editors, book designers, and agents, who were able to give us real life examples of what life is like as a working photographer and how we can prepare ourselves for life after University. I always thought of my time at Uni as being the time where I can make mistakes and challenge myself, and I think that with all the support that I have received over the past three years I have been able to overcome a lot of the challenges that I have faced.
Which photographic genre do you consider your work to fall into? I would describe myself as a documentary photographer, but that is only really because I would say that I’m quite a nosey person in general and enjoy photographing people. I like talking and meeting new people, and being a photographer opens up so many doors and enables you to enter into people’s lives.
What themes do you find yourself exploring? I don’t really start a project with a set theme in mind, I start out with a vague outline and idea, and then let the project evolve over time. I always seem to find myself focusing primarily around people, the stories that they have to tell, and the relationship that the subjects of my images have with the environment they inhabit. Every person has a story to tell, and I see it as my responsibility as a photographer to tell their story and capture their lives in this moment of time.
How long did it take to make this project and what were your main influences? I tend to work on projects for a relatively short amount of time, but I have been working on my most recent project, ‘David’s House’ for just under a year. The project all started with my neighbour Dai and my relationship with him. He has spent his entire life living within a three-mile radius of where he grew up, with no real interest of living anywhere else. For him, St Davids offered everything he wanted in life, and he used to tell me all about his life and his experiences growing up here. I on the other hand felt that St Davids didn’t really offer me what I wanted, and this project was an exploration of my relationship with the place that I grew up, and how it has impacted not just my life, but the lives of every individual that lives there. Dai was the main influence for this project. I was fascinated by his happy little life in this little part of the world, and I wanted to expand my project to the wider community and see explore how St Davids has impacted their lives.
Talk about the process of how you went about making the book. I have always had a massive interest in photobooks and the role that they have in photography, and for me, it is the perfect way of viewing an image. I think it is incredibly difficult to make a successful photobook as there are so many fundamentals that you need to consider, from the size of the book, the edit, the order in which the images are displayed, right down to the paper stock. You need to get all of these things right in order for the book to be a success, and I spent a long time trying to figure all this out.
Is the work finished? I don’t really consider the project to be finished. I have photographed 48 people over the course of the project, but there are 1891 people living in St Davids. Once I have photographed them all and heard all their stories, that is when I will consider the project finished.
What encouraged you to choose this particular city to make work in? St David’s is the UK’s smallest city, and Europe’s second smallest, with a population of just 1800. Growing up there I didn’t really appreciate it for what it was and I took everything for granted: the beautiful coastline, the sea, the way of life and the friendly people. Having spent 4 years away at university I came back viewing it as if through completely new eyes and I began to see what it is that people love so much about the area. I wanted to create a project about the people that live there and how living in such a remote area of the world has impacted and influenced their lives.
What theoretical influences did you have when making this work? I was really inspired by photographers such as Alec Soth, Jon Tonks and Bryan Schutmaat and the amazing images they produced and the commitment and dedication they put into their long-term projects. I did a lot of research into folk laws and tales about Pembrokeshire before I began shooting and researched into the history of St Davids. Also, just by speaking to people I learnt so much about the place that I grew up that I had never heard about before. For example Brunnel’s Great Western Railway that was meant to finish in St Davids, linking the area to The City, and also all the UFO sightings during the 60’s. It was things like this that I had never heard of before whilst growing up there, but kept inspiring me and pushing the project forward.
Do you think you approached the subject differently because you grew up in this location? I think the fact that St Davids is such a small place really helped me to shoot this project, as everyone was really willing to help me, everyone know who I was and what I was doing. I had a lot of people approach me and ask for me to take their portraits, which is quite an unusual thing for a photographer! It was quite strange at first speaking to people that I had known all my life and talking about some very personal aspects of their lives, but I think that as a whole the fact that I grew up there was a very positive thing and really helped me progress with the work.
What have you learnt about your connection with this landscape and your surroundings from making this work? I’ve started to view St Davids in an entirely different way since I began shooting the project. I have a newfound appreciation for the things that I had really taken for granted growing up there, and have a much greater understanding of the place and its history. I have always considered it home, and I always will do, but I now have a completely different connection with it than I had previously.
Can you talk to us about the book you’ve made this work into? Have you got any images you can show us? I am a big fan of photobooks and the role that they have in photography, and for me, I think it is the perfect way of viewing an image and getting your work out there. There are so many different photographers out there who all have their own websites, or blogs etc. and it is easy for it all to just get lost in this big mirage of images. If you send some a physical book of your work, the person receiving it will spent a lot more time viewing it that if you were just to view it on a website. That’s not to say that putting photographs in a book automatically makes it good, as there are a lot of really shit photobooks out there, but you definitely view the work in a completely different way when looking at it in print. I think it is incredibly difficult to make a successful photobook as there are so many fundamentals that you need to consider, from the size of the book, the edit, the order in which the images are displayed, right down to the paper stock. You need to get all of these things right in order for the book to be a success, and I spent a long time trying to figure all this out.
One of my favourite spreads from the book is that of Canon Dorrien in the cathedral. I’m quite fond of the image, but I think it is the text that accompanies it that really makes it work. To me, I think it sums up what people are like in St Davids perfectly, and I wanted this story to be quite a dominant part of the book, which is why it is one of the only portraits to be spread over two pages.
Do the majority of the places and people in your images for this series mean something to you? Not every image in the book has a personal connection to me, but every image has a connection to St Davids and the people that live there, and is important to the story of the community in some way. I wanted to ensure that I didn’t just create a book full of beautiful images of beautiful landscapes in Pembrokeshire. If you want a book full of photos of sunsets at the beach, or postcards of the wildlife, you can buy hundreds of them in almost any shop in Pembrokeshire! I wanted the images I was producing to have some sort of narrative behind them, which told you more about what St Davids is really like from a personal perspective. Some of the images might not be of the prettiest things in the world, or might not be the sort of photograph you would want framed above your fire at home, but they are what St Davids is really like, and that is what I wanted to try and portray in the project.
Who are some of the most influential photographers to you and your way of working? I’ve been asked this a lot and I think my answer changes every time as I am constantly seeing amazing new work from all these amazing photographers! But right now I am very much influenced by Bryan Schutmaat, Niall McDiarmid, Jon Tonks and Mimi Mollica. They’re really incredible photographers who create some beautiful images, and are definitely very influential in the way that I produce my work.