Alex Hewitt interviews Rob Townsend

To accompany the new edition of PGZ, we approached industry experts to select from submissions received a photography graduate they would like to interview for Photograd. Here we have Findr founder Alex Hewitt interviewing Open College of the Arts student Rob Townsend.


You say that photography, like politics simplifies. Do you believe your work fully interprets the story of a nation in turmoil or is your imagery designed to provoke the debate? Absolutely the latter. The work doesn’t try to interpret the story of a nation so much as take a sideways look at how the nation, or certainly parts of it, are being interpreted in a highly oversimplified way by the media (both mainstream and social, i.e. us). The question marks at the end of the project title and the town captions are intended to encourage a challenge to my deliberately stereotyped imagery.

Image from the series  Two Kinds of People?

Image from the series Two Kinds of People?

Much like the political situation a major fascination of your images is in the nuance of interpretation. The juxtaposition of competing narratives is binary and oppositional but the everyday nature of your subject matter normalises these parallels. Is this a deliberate choice? I don’t see the narratives as competing, more co-existing. Both parts of each pie chart are ‘true’ (both as in an unmodified capture of reality, and in terms of being true to some people’s everyday lived experience) but that doesn’t make the juxtaposition accurate in terms of meaningful representation.

The binary/oppositional thing is an exaggerated construct; the reality is that everyone in these towns co-exists and sits somewhere on a scale from committed Remainer to hardcore Leaver. I suppose I’m trying to satirise the massive generalisations that imply you can describe a whole town in one or two adjectives or pictures.

Image from the series  Two Kinds of People?

Image from the series Two Kinds of People?

You touch on the danger of simplification. Are your images simplified to highlight how this simplification was a powerful tool that the pro-Brexit lobby leaned on to engineer the result of the referendum? Yes, but not just the pro-Brexit lobby. Both campaigns oversimplified an incredibly complex situation. I certainly have my own opinion on the referendum result itself, but this work was more about taking a step back and looking at how we so quickly ended up in these oppositional ‘tribes’...

To a certain extent simplification is just human nature, a useful cognitive shortcut to dealing with complexity. But it kind of got 'weaponised' in the run-up to the referendum and has, I think, continued to disrupt the whole debate to this day.

People, and their choices, are what led the UK to this precipice but the subject of your work is almost entirely inanimate scenes. Do you think that presenting work devoid of humanity removes the absurdity of human behaviour from your debate or are the scenes carefully selected to display this absurdity from a subjective point of view? I generally tend not to use individuals as representatives or exemplars, casting them in a role that might not fit them just because they look like they suit my (highly constructed) narrative. That's not to say I dislike such an approach taken by others, it's just a personal preference to leave people out of the picture unless they have explicitly consented.

Image from the series  Two Kinds of People?

Image from the series Two Kinds of People?

More specifically with this work, in a sense I was imitating the metonymic way that places get anthropomorphised, as in "Middlesbrough voted Leave" etc – the town linguistically standing in for its inhabitants in another simplified shortcut. Like a whole town has a split personality that can be summarised in two photos. Excluding people seemed to help my intent here.

The words you use in your narrative are harsh (is Burnley 33.4% striver / 66.6% skiver?) do you think the political situation has opened new wounds in class division or do you think they've never really gone away? Media discourse tends to round the referendum votes up to 100%, describing a town or a region as "Leave area" or a "Remain area" – with the pie charts I was aiming to highlight this absurdity by taking it down just one level, as in 'OK, so are you saying that this town is two-thirds left-behind underclass and one-third latte-sipping metropolitan liberals?'. The pairs of words are deliberately polarised as I think that emphasises how we've lost sight of the nuances of human behaviour and values. I'd like to think that most people's response to all of those polarised pairs of statistics is 'no, don't be daft...'.

Image from the series  Two Kinds of People?

Image from the series Two Kinds of People?

But to answer your question... the political situation of the last few years has, I think, surfaced a lot of tensions that have been simmering for decades. Not just around class but age, education, regional inequality, identity and more. The referendum didn't create these divisions but I believe it revealed and amplified them. Here I've just tried to photograph those amplified divisions in a deliberately exaggerated manner.

Image from the series  Two Kinds of People?

Image from the series Two Kinds of People?

What would you like to happen next? There's at least two ways of answering that...

Regarding Brexit and society in general, much as I'm a committed Remainiac I feel that the only sane way forward for the UK as a whole is some kind of soft Brexit, a compromise that reflects the 52:48 split. No-one will be wholly happy with that but it's better than half the population potentially nursing various levels of grievance for years to come.

Regarding the work, I'll be happy if after looking at these images a viewer spent just a short while thinking about how oversimplification and mass stereotyping negatively affects our public discourse; how mass generalisation of populations isn't just unhelpful, it's actually a bit silly too.