James Arthur Allen
University: University College Falmouth
Artist Statement: Shot entirely on film, Adiga: Circassians in Israel is an arresting collection exploring Israel's little-known ethnic Circassian population. Displaced from the Caucasus region in the nineteenth century, the Circassian diaspora spread through Europe and the Middle East. One group settled in what is now Israel; today, a population of 3,000 Circassians resides in Kfar Kama, a small town near the Sea of Galilee.
What and where did you study? What are your thoughts on studying photography? I studied on the Press & Editorial Photography at what was University College Falmouth, I was lucky enough to be taught by a fantastic team. The environment was geared towards achieving your potential and provided a good place to fail and make mistakes. I think that’s key, to make mistakes and to learn from them. I learnt a lot during my time in Cornwall and the people I met there remain close friends with many of us managing to work in and around Photography. I’m furthering my studies at University South Wales on the Documentary photography MA, it’s a different environment and proposition but I’m learning more and this is in part exposure to different ways of working. But in reality the best way of studying photography is by doing photography, looking at photography, and thinking about photography.
How would you describe the work you make? What are the typical themes and ideas you like to explore? That's a hard one. My approach to photography and my opinions on it seems to constantly shift, although my themes tend to stay the same. I seem to gravitate towards people and the places they inhabit. Increasingly this approach also has become a driver in my practice. My daughter arrived in to my life late last year and this has had a huge impact. I’m trying to learn to work closer to home on important issues I can walk or drive to. The whole idea of documenting as an insider as opposed to an outsider has changed the way I work.
Tell us how you went about generating ideas for this body of work when you received The Rebecca Vassie Memorial Award. What initially drew you to Israel and the Circassians? The Circassians have been on my radar for a long time. When I was researching a project in Georgia, I read a book called Let our fame be great by the writer and journalist Oliver Bullough, in the book he explores the Circassians, the famed lost tribe of the Caucuses. Forced to flee there homeland they spread across the middle east and the peripheries of Europe. The Circassians in Israel were of special interest due to there desire to retain there identity and customs as Highlanders of the Caucasus mountains despite living and settling in what is now Israel. I wanted to explore this and how they see themselves in the modern world.
How does this series inform your viewer of the Circassians? What would you like for them to learn? The project I hope shows the landscape the Circassians inhabit, and the people that live and work there. Around 3,000 Circassians live in the village of Far Kama in Northern Israel, they keep to themselves and retain there ancient customs, language and religion. Uniquely though as Muslims, the Circassians are highly regarded by the Israeli state, they are conscripted to the military, unheard of for many Muslims and are allowed to teach a Circassian curriculum in there schools. This Circassian culture is ingrained in them from a young age. The biggest fear from the elders is the young's assimilation into a modern world and consequently losing centuries of knowledge.
How did you make these images? Were you drawn in by particular locations and to certain people? I arrived in the village with a few email exchanges and a list of names of people who said they would be happy to help me. I was on a deadline in some aspects with ten days to produce the work it took a while to convince the community of my intentions and what I wanted to do. I was lucky that I struck up a few key friendships that opened a lot of doors in a short space of time. I was drawn to everyone and everything during my time there and tried to document as much as possible in between listening and talking.
What does winning The Rebecca Vassie Memorial Award mean to you? It meant a lot. I’ve been short and long listed in a few awards which has always been good enough, but to win one was amazing. Crucially if your shortlisted with the Vassie Award you have to pitch to the judges in a final round which I think more competitions should do. For me it's far easier articulating a story than writing about it. Most importantly though is the freedom, the hardest thing after university is the struggle to build a portfolio and make work. Trying to find the money to make what you want to do is always an uphill battle. The award has allowed me realise my idea and work in a new way. The team at the trust are truly wonderful and have supported me in many ways over the last year. With this project I have started to work in a new direction and the award has come at a perfect time. My experience is directly complimenting my work closer to home. I’m looking forward to meeting the new winner and seeing them develop as well. The mandate of nurturing emerging photographers is genuine. I can’t thank them enough.
How do you think is has, and will continue to, benefit your career? The award is on my CV which is great but I have also expanded my network, I’ve met some inspiring and I hope important people over the last year who have all offered to support me moving forward. I also hope my name and work has been exposed to far more people. I’m looking forward to completing my next project and building off the success of the award.
Have you got any tips or advice for new graduates working in a similar documentary style to you? Work hard, fail a lot, and make mistakes. Don’t take any criticism personally and always believe in yourself and your ability. Many people just won't get or want to get you or your work and that's fine. Perhaps the most crucial thing though is to shoot what you want and shoot for the love of it.