Jessica Ashley-Stokes

South West Graduate Photography Prize 2017 winner

University: Falmouth University

Graduation: 2017

Websitewww.jessicaashleystokes.com

She lives in a world surrounded by peace. Absent from the technological chaos, her rural childhood embraces contemplation, discovery, and challenge, forcing her to absorb the natural elements produced from her motherland.

Documented over a duration of time, I delicately observed a singular child, Alice. Miles away in distant imagination, the soft sound of nature’s melodies encouraged regular moments of stillness. Recorded through her performative language and gaze, I was enthused by the compelling relationship shared between her distant trail of thought and the maternal space that surrounded her.

What and where did you study? Describe your university experience. I studied BA Hons Photography at the wonderful Falmouth University situated in Cornwall. Absorbed by the passionate energy that surrounded Falmouth, I instantly bonded with likeminded creatives. As a result, I found myself immersed in my practice and inspired continuously from a variety of disciplines. 

How would you describe the work you make? What are the typical themes and ideas you like to explore? Enthused by the cultural processes of othering, my practice works closely with marginalised groups and individuals to explore untold narratives in the South West. Curious by alternative living and the close-knit communities of which I have visited, my visual language is increasingly intimate and honest. 

 From the series  Miles Away

From the series Miles Away

As you won last years South West Graduate Photography Prize, can you share some advice to new graduates? My advice is to simply make work that is entirely honest to yourself. Produce work that inspires you, motivates you and continues to fascinates you. Observe, listen and communicate themes of interest to others and embrace them in the wildest sense. 

What genre would you place your work under and why? Through my continuous determination to connect with individuals and diverse groups of people, I’m quickly absorbed by unique stories that surrounds each and every one of us. Therefore, as a creative I feel my work provides a social documentary aesthetic, as I hope to apply my observation tool to explore these honest and endlessly curious stories to enable others to feel empowered, motivated and inspired. 

Who is Alice? How did you approach your subject? Within my third year of university I stayed with a host family in the most charming farm house. During late afternoons, my land lady and I would wonder around the village as she introduced me to the local people. Here, she demanded that I met little Alice. From the first moment, we we’re introduced to one another, we immediately bounced off each other’s infectious energy. Aged 5, Alice lives quietly with her mother and father on a rural farm. Absent from technological chaos, her childhood embraces contemplation, discovery, and challenge, forcing her to absorb the natural elements that surround her. Fascinated by her engagement, I gradually began to record Alice through her curious performative language and gaze. 

 From the series  Miles Away

From the series Miles Away

What equipment did you use to make Miles Away? Was it vital to your way of working out on location? From the initial start of constructing Miles Away, I simply wanted to slow time down with Alice, ensuring that I observed every detail whether that be through conversation, to photographing her directly. As a result, I worked in harmony with the Mamiya RB, which gave me the ability to exploit such intimate, raw observations. Through the RB’s waist level viewfinder, it forced me to slow down the essence of time to fully compose each shot. Ultimately it served as a communication tool, allowing me to engage with Alice purely. Overall through its delicate formality, the soft aesthetic enhanced the sensitivity and intimacy of the work, highlighting the fragility of childhood. 

Tell us how you edited your images down to this final selection. Was it a difficult process? Creating a final edit was undoubtabley a challenge. Due to shooting, developing and scanning endless rolls of film, the image bank for the project became increasingly overwhelming. Therefore, I would print and expand on images that fascinated me, resulting in a continuous edit. I would then place these small, intimate prints around my personal space to allow daily observation and thought. Gradually this formed a story board that slowly began to narrate Alice’s wonderful story. 

Did you set out with a story in mind when photographing Alice or did it unfold itself as you created the work? At first my intentions felt controlled and forced as I aimed to explore the relationship between child and animal. However, as I spent more time with Alice it appeared that her childhood was indeed pure, honest and indeed remarkable. During time spent together adventuring and exploring, I observed Alice discovering her own imagination and self. Through her distant trail of thought and undisrupted gaze, Alice was miles away in her own imagination. As a result, I found myself observing and photographing Alice quite naturally, documenting her performance and placement as a rural child in today’s society. 

 From the series  Miles Away

From the series Miles Away

What does Alice think of her portraits? During the entire process of the project I would create endless prints, contact sheets and zines, of which I would bring along to show Alice. Through much laughter, thought and interest, Alice and her family would sit down with me to select and refine that images that I had created. By doing so, Alice had the opportunity to construct her own narrative through the observations that I had recorded, which ultimately equalled in a very personal, honest project. 

Who visually influences you? Along with many other creatives, I’m visually influenced by daily rituals, scenes and routines that surround us all. From reading, observing, note-taking and communicating with others, my visual influences surround me continuously. However, I have three practitioners that I am in complete awe of; Alessandra Sanguinetti, Sian Davey and Jenny Lewis. Every time I experience a creative block or lack of inspiration, I find myself referring back to each one of their practices. Through their ability to connect and share the most pure, intimate stories, I instantly feel empowered, emotional and inspired to shoot again. 

 From the series  Miles Away

From the series Miles Away

How do you think winning last years South West Graduate Photography Prize will benefit your career? What are your plans? Winning the South West Graduate Photography Prize was incredibly humbling, which gave me the confidence to pursue my career in making, observing and sharing intimate projects. The prize provided a platform for us all, allowing us to engage and connect as recent graduates whilst networking with industry professionals. The prize then led me on to be given the wonderful opportunity of working alongside Fotonow CIC as a Photographer in Residence. Currently in progress, I’m working closely with the Fotonow team and the local community to produce a project called The Island Stories, which reflects the wonderful story of Barne Barton. 
In addition, the prize has given me the support to deliver my passion and skills to upcoming college and university students in the visual field of making. As a result, I work closely with students on a daily basis, motivating them to create work that inspires their creative minds.