University: Falmouth University
My photographic practise primarily aims to explore themes surrounding social and cultural diversity, and as such can be viewed as social documentary. My first comprehensive body of work, Benedict’s House, looks into the serene world of the Benedictine monastery and those devoted to a spiritual service. The project stemmed from a personal interest and curiosity, and the view that many aspects of religion are often portrayed negatively in today’s media, with complete disregard to its compelling, underlying beauty.
What are some standout moments from your time at university? My second year of university took me to Bordeaux, France for two months on an Erasmus exchange! I was supposed to be there for a little longer but the course I was on didn’t quite work out as I planned. That was a shame, but I still had a good two months in Bordeaux, which was worth every part of the course failure. Besides that, we had so many amazing guest speakers and mentors at Falmouth. Michelle Sank and Jason Larkin helped mentor my final project, which was great, and I’ll always remember a talk Rob Hornstra gave on The Sochi Project . . .Honestly, nothing short of amazing.
Which photographic genre do you consider your work to fall into? I think that would be social documentary? Perhaps documentary? Perhaps elements of fine art? I’m actually pretty unsure of that one.
What themes do you find yourself exploring? So at the moment I seem to be delving into the diverse realms of religion, and after Benedict’s House I am quite keen to continue on the same trail of themes and ideas; the devotion of time and mind to religion etc. and the way it can impact / effect peoples lives.
How did you come across this location and briefly, how did you make the work? The work was made in two different monasteries. The first Downside Abbey was found through research and the second Buckfast Abbey, was kind of just natural progression, I had been told about it by the community at Downside and of course had heard of the famous Buckfast tonic wine before so I made a few trips there too. I made the work whilst staying in the monastic guest wings of both monasteries for up to a week at a time. This meant I could properly immerse myself in the atmosphere of the monastery and spend time getting to know members of the community. I would eat and drink alongside the monks in silence and arranged times to photograph those who didn’t mind being photographed, monks can be very shy.
Are there ways in which your images portray the cultural and social diversity of the Cistercians? It is actually the Benedictines who are featured in this project. The Cistercians are a different order of monk, typically characterised by their white cloaks. I visited a Cistercian monastery when I was younger which inspired this project later on in life, I’ve been meaning to go back and make more work there. In terms of the Benedictine monks, I don’t feel my images portray a particular sense of diversity; I think that will come after I have made more work around the subject.
What have you learnt from making this work? Has it influenced you as an individual? I think it has opened me up to these ideas of religion and spirituality, and I think reinforced my interest in it. Not just one but all of the world’s religions. Its mystery and grandeur is captivating. Though I don’t consider myself particularly religious, my mind is yet to really connect with something like that; perhaps that is where my interest comes from. I don’t know which of your readers has read Life Of Pi but the main character Piscine Patel has a great view on religion. He visits all of the Gods in all of their temples and as religious man worships them all. He asks his un-approving mother:
“If there’s only one nation in the sky, shouldn’t all passports be valid for it?” - Yann Martel
The lighting in your images seems perfect for your subject matter and story; did you spend a lot of time in post production creating this aesthetic or were the conditions simply that ideal? I actually spent very little time in postproduction. I don’t spend too much time in Photoshop, only cleaning up from a dusty negative. The conditions were really just that ideal; the lighting in both the monasteries was amazing. I don’t even think I realised at the time, I knew it looked good but the quality of light that came back in the photos is something I had never seen before, from my own negatives at least. I was amazed!
What advice can you give to those working in a similar location to you? Especially as you mention that the monks can be quite shy and of course the location you placed yourself in for this work should be well respected. Just smile, be polite and take interest. They can be shy but are also very warm hearted and welcoming. Remaining respectful is the biggest thing, you don’t want to go in and start pointing you camera every which way possible without first spending a bit of time with the people you meet and getting to know your surroundings. Some of the community might not want to be photographed so that’s an important one too, make sure you clear that up. It’s best just to observe and listen at first, learn the ways of a monastic vocation or wherever you may be. Joining in with prayers; saying grace in Latin and eating in silence. It was all part of it and felt a little uncomfortable at first but it shows your interest and respect and that’s when you can start making work.
Did you have any major theoretical influences when making this series? I wouldn’t say I had many major theoretical influences, and that was actually one of the biggest criticisms I gave myself when I looked back and reviewed the work. What you see is what you get, and that is fine, it is what I intended. I went into the project with a sense of discovery and I think that come across in the photographs. I would however like to go on to create something that is more theoretically informed, as I do think it can really bring something else to the work. That isn’t to say I didn’t go into any research. One of the reasons I aimed to show a monastic vocation in quite a beautiful, positive light is because a lot of press surrounding the Catholic Church can be quite negative. I’m sure you’re aware of the problems and allegations, especially after the release of Tom McCarthy’s recent film Spotlight; I think there can be a certain stigma attached to these people.
Can you talk us through the way you presented this work at Free Range? Did you invite those who you photographed to come and see your work? I printed and framed two pieces for the show in London. One of which was the portrait of Brother Colombo with his walking stick and the other was a long alter piece, which was effectively one long frame with four alter prints displayed next to each other, each in their own window. I also had a book, Benedict’s House, which I had made in the style of a Bible by a great little book binding shop in Bristol called Bristol Bound. I always forget to mention that it was made into a book! Ah dear. Anyway that book was placed on a shelf underneath the alter piece, so the idea was you would be looking through this “Bible” whilst looking up and seeing these elaborate alters, as you would if in church. It seemed to work quite successfully and I had some great feedback.
What are your next steps for this series? Continue getting the work out there and seen by as many people as possible! The Print Space has recently been in touch with the interest of printing and framing a portrait from the series for permanent display in their gallery, alongside the likes of Spencer Murphy, Dean Chalkley, Mario Sorrenti etc. That is exciting news so lets hope that goes ahead! I also want to try and push the publication a little more. It was quite expensive to produce so I’d like to make different version, which can be made more available for people. I’m also planning more work to be made around similar subject matters and stories, to make this series part of a much bigger project, but I’m not sure it’s time to go into that just yet.
Any other creative future plans you can tell us about? Truth be told I’m about to embark on a post graduation trip to India this October and am planning a little illustration / photo colab project with the person I am traveling with. We are unsure of just what it will entail at the moment but being in such a beautiful place I don’t think we will be short of inspiration!