University: Staffordshire University
Artist Statement: Since my graduation, in 2011, my work has been entirely focussed on a period of post-industrial regeneration which has coincidentally aligned with my own lifetime in Leicestershire, England. The pit closures of the 1980s and ‘90s left a deep scar in the economic and social landscapes of many communities across Britain. The community in which I grew-up was just one of them.
Working with a local museum, I have, over the last five years, used photography to explore, strive to understand, describe and ultimately articulate my own perspective on this long period of uncertain transition.
What are some standout moments from your time at university?
2009: I discovered a book called ‘Hide That Can’ by Deirdre O’Callaghan.
2009: We were given an assignment, to respond to ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, in a contemporary way. I baked a cake, bought a bottle of wine and went to see my Grandma.
2010: I was awarded a Free Range Art Award at the annual Graduate show in London.
2011: I visited the Paul Graham retrospective at the White Chapel Gallery.
2011: I admitted that my final major project just wasn’t good enough, along with most of my student work.
Which photographic genre do you consider your work to fall into? I guess it falls into “documentary photography”, although, I don’t feel really comfortable defining my work as that, there’s just no other genre, that I’m aware of, that it fits into any better. I tend to shy away from considering this kind of thing these days - I’m not sure it’s my job to assign it to a genre?
What themes do you find yourself exploring? I’m photographing this period of post-industrial regeneration, which coincidentally aligned with my life. So, there’re many themes within that. But fundamentally, it’s about sense of place and identity.
What do you enjoy most about making work in a familiar place? Education. For me, one of, if not the single most interesting thing about photography is the opportunity to have conversations. I don’t mean the theoretical and intellectual discussions about the medium, that go on within the photographic community. I mean the important, simple conversations about the real world that happen as a result of just getting out and being in the world with your camera. My main ambition is to try and understand the world a bit better, and what better way to achieve that is there, other than listening to the people who live on it? There’s also something that the photographer Diane Arbus once said “the more specific you are, the more general it’ll be”. I read that very early on in my time at university and it’s impact only seems to get stronger the older I get. I’m photographing very broad themes and very common issues at the moment, but by photographing in a familiar place, I inevitably discover my own connections with these themes and issues, it almost becomes a journey of self-discovery as well as an act of documentation. I think by accepting the subjective nature of photography and the limitations which come with that you have the opportunity to produce more honest, and dare I say, accurate, work about a place than you might if you were to do a nationwide road trip photographing all of the former British coalfields, for example. You’re also less inclined to remove yourself from the subject if there is an aspect of specific “self-discovery” involved, which in turn, influences your ethical decisions as a photographer.
You mentioned that you weren't happy with your final university submission. Why was this? Simple. I didn’t have the confidence to get close to people. When I first began studying photography, at 16, it was almost the first time I’d even picked up a camera, certainly an SLR. And my initial ambition was to either be a sport or wildlife photographer, but I soon got bored with that when I discovered the work of three photographers; Berenice Abbott, Martin Parr and William Eggleston, they blew my mind. I then spent almost 4 years trying to be Martin Parr and William Eggleston. I headed for the seaside and actually made some really strong intimate pictures on the street. But ultimately I realised street photography, although some of my greatest inspirations still come from that genre, wasn’t for me. I need photographs rather than a photograph, and I need narrative rather than a decisive moment. I spent a long time working on a project called Insignificance which was essentially my misguided attempt to be a young, British, William Eggleston, and ultimately the title of that work couldn’t have been better. In my final year, shortly after discovering the work of Paul Graham, I began working on a project with a tidier, more original concept about place, and it felt okay, it seemed I was onto something. But, I was always painfully shy, and photographing anyone, let alone a stranger, was out of the question. And that’s what my work lacked, I needed people. But, I couldn’t push myself over that final hurdle to get over my lack of confidence. So, in all honesty, I became lazy, and you can’t get away with laziness in photography. You either do everything you need to, or don’t do anything at all, because if you’re not willing to push yourself, it’s not worth it.
Did you carry on the work after your degree show until you were happy with it? Yes. I travelled to Africa to teach, immediately after my graduate show came down, I actually missed my graduation ceremony to make the trip. This was what I might look back on as a defining moment for me. Because I needed to at least fake a certain amount of confidence in order to be able to teach. When I wasn’t working, I’d get my camera and just walk, teaching myself, to make portraits of strangers. Being in an unfamiliar place actually made the whole process easier for me. I think the language barrier levelled the playing field a lot. I spent 3 months in Africa and when I got back, amongst other things, I felt like I could photograph strangers, this might sound like a strange skill to be proud of acquiring, but for me it was huge. Then came an opportunity to work with a local museum on a project. The project ultimately became Disintegrating Histories, and included a couple of the photographs I previously made whist at university. After Disintegrating Histories was finished, I identified some areas that it hadn’t covered and came up with what would become Just Passing By, I wrote a proposal and gained a commission from the same museum. To this day, I’m still, very quietly, working directly on that project I started at university. The last five years have essentially been a constant, organic, often painful, flow, born out of failure.
What has encouraged you to make square images? Is it down to your choice of equipment? This is one of many topics I get nervous to talk about. I shoot digitally with an SLR, so I crop the images. But I always shoot with the intention to do that, I guess I have quite a contradictory approach technically. Because I don’t do any post-production on my pictures, apart from basic adjustments here and there, and yet you could argue that I do the most severe post-production of all by cutting bits of the original frame out. I’m aware how attached to technology photography is, so I worry that people won’t accept my work because of this dirty little secret, but, at least I’m being honest, right? There was one moment that encouraged me to make square images though. When I arrived back from Africa I was shortlisted for an award in London, so I spent a week down there sleeping on a friends sofa and making the most of all of the capitals photographic contacts and resources. It was then that I paid for my first, and last, portfolio review, the review actually had a defining impact on me though, when the reviewer looked at my work and said; “You’re like Lee Friedlander, but too far… You should crop your images square.”
What visual and theoretical influences did you have when making Disintegrating Histories? I’m not sure that I had too many theoretical influences, really? Other than my growing awareness and respect for the work of Paul Graham. I just knew that I’d come back from Africa with this new confidence for photographing strangers, and I wanted to keep flexing that muscle, I had a lot of energy and excitement for photography again, but, it was important that I didn’t just flex it for the sake of it. I wanted to make a body of work that had a reason to exist. And in beginning to work with the museum, I started to wake up to the industrial history of the area, and I began to stumble on some really poignant connections between my lifetime and the period of transition that it coincided with. So the concept was simple, each portrait, except my Grandma, is of a former coal miner and each landscape image is of a former colliery. The project was a starting point really, a way to begin to understand, to get a lay of the land and to start to imagine how things have changed and what impact the changes have had, socially, economically and geographically.
You’ve mixed colour and black & white images together in this series, was this a conscious decision when making the work? It was conscious, and again, it’s something I worry about, but it’s really about the “self-discovery” thing that I talked about earlier. I was growing-up, I was beginning to gain some confidence, and I was starting to find a voice, but, I was still wrestling with all of those things. So during the process of making the work, sometimes I thought I was a black & white photographer and sometimes I wanted to be a colour photographer, but I always shot with the intention of being one or the other. I could have made all of the work black & white when it came to completion, and it probably would have made it “better”, but I felt like it was more important to be honest about where I was at in the moment. I was just as uncertain as the subjects I was photographing. I was growing up in this period of uncertainty.
Do you know all of the people and places in the images? Are there any that hold a particular meaning to you? Well, I know them all now, obviously, but not before I photographed them, no, apart from the first photograph in Disintegrating Histories, that’s my Grandma. I photographed her a lot whilst I was at university, and when I look back they were really the only photographs I was really happy with, other than some of my early seaside shots. My Grandma helped me make contact with the first few miners I photographed. Without her patience during my student years, and later her enthusiastic support, I’m not entirely sure I’d have been able to continue with photography.
What are your creative goals for the future? I’m currently working on a YouTube experiment. I’ve been following an amateur photographer around for about 2 years now, making a film. I’m now in the process of editing that into a series of short films for YouTube. I’m still working on that final university project, it may well become a lifetime commitment! And I have a list of projects on my desk, one of which I’m laying the groundwork for right now, it’s big and ambitious and takes me on a long adventure across the UK. I’m hesitant to say too much more for now though, for fear of my sanity being questioned! I have a love/hate relationship with photography, that’s part of my driving force behind this film experiment. I go through spells of exhaustion with the medium. I think that’s good though, ultimately, because during those times I’m more likely to shake things up, push myself in other directions, the film is an example of that. Another example is last year, I had the opportunity to dip my toe into teaching, something I never thought I'd do, and I've got really excited about it. So I'm also exploring creative and alternative ways in which to teach photography and to engage and collaborate with people of all ages, backgrounds and photographic knowledge. I really do believe that photography is a very special medium that can help people progress in many different directions. I’m getting really excited about photography again now, and I feel a very productive and exciting adventure is just around the corner. The most important thing for me is to keep pushing myself out of my comfort zone, because I have tendency to get stuck there.