November 2nd, 2008 admin

Quite belatedly, I’m reading Susan Sontag’s book On Photography (Penguin Books, 1971).

Just read this paragraph, which seems somewhat relevant to my last post….

“One situation where people are switching from bullets to film is the photographic safari that is replacing the gun safari in East Africa. The hunters have Hasselblads instead of Winchesters; instead of looking through a telescopic sight to aim a rifle, they look through a viewfinder to frame a picture….The photographer is now charging real beasts, beleaguered and too rare to kill. Guns have metamorphosed into cameras in this earnest comedy, the ecology safari, because nature has ceased to be what it always had been – what people needed protection from. Now nature – tamed, endangered, mortal – needs to be protected from people. When we are afraid, we shoot. But when we are nostalgic, we take pictures.”


October 31st, 2008 admin

“The subtlest and most pervasive of all influences are those which create and maintain the repertory of stereotypes. We are told about the world before we see it. We imagine most things before we experience them. And those perceptions govern deeply the whole process of perception.”

Walter Lippman (1987) quoted in The Hollywood Arab

Still no baby yet so I’m going to take this opportunity to respond to a post I received earlier in the summer from a photographer in Italy who challenged my approach to We English. Notably, my decision to invite the general public to post their own ideas which I could then photograph. Here is their post-

Dear Mr Roberts
As a viewer the idea is really functional. As artist the idea it is a bit vicious. Are you playing smart asking people to help?! Finding by yourself events and situations is the main reason to be a photographer. You will be a translator of others ideas and inputs.  Are you a politician of a self-thought photographer? And you receive funding as well! Yes definitively you are a bit of a politician.
Giuseppe Mascia, May 3rd 2008

My reply is loosely based on two interviews I did with Joerg Colberg on his blog Conscientious and Jim Casper on Lens Culture in July 2007 where I discussed my approach to Motherland (published: Chris Boot). A number of points I raised are important in helping to answer Giuseppe’s question, and will be fleshed out slightly here.

There were two main reasons for choosing to travel to Russia for my book project, Motherland. Firstly it was somewhere that had always fascinated me. I studied Human Geography at the University of Sheffield and a number of the courses I took looked at social, cultural and economic issues surrounding Russia and the former Soviet Union. Secondly, while there had been a number of important photo documentaries on Russia in the last decade, many were produced around the time of the fall of Communism, and tended to concentrate on themes surrounding disintegration and decay. I felt that the dialogue was very one sided and that the debate had moved on in recent years but photographic representations hadn’t.


Samples of imagery and text used to advertise British overland tourist trips to East Africa.

The problematic notion of representation and the question of how photographs are important to the construction of senses of place very much informed my approach to Motherland. The context for my approach was based on my BA Hons undergraduate dissertation. Published in 1995, my dissertation, entitled Encountering the Other: Representations and Readings of East Africa, was undertaken while traveling on an overland truck from Kenya to Zimbabwe with a group of Western tourists. Using Edward Said’s concepts of ‘Orientalism’ and ‘imagined landscapes’ my paper looked at Western representations of Africa, in particular those associated with the tourist literature advertising overland expeditions.

Ideas of imagined geographies and representation provide the starting point for Said’s discourse of Orientalism where he attempts to map the production and reproduction of myths and imagined geographies in constructing the inferiority of other people and places. Orientalism maps relationships between Occident and Orient. The Orient, Said argues, is contructed as an object for the Western gaze, a representation of ‘the Other’. Said suggests that although all cultures tend to make representations of foreign cultures, the preponderance of power has been on the side of the self-contituted Western societies.

Tourist literature referencing the English explorers like Livingstone, Stanley and Speke.

The premise of my paper was that as Western tourists our imagery of Africa is one grounded in a colonial history; the 19th century European tradition of the expedition with adventurers such as Livingstone, Park and Thompson going out to explore and encounter distant and exotic lands. These images have been nurtured and re-enforced by the media and tap into a reservoir of ideas we have regarding colonialism, imperialism and representations of far away, exotic places and peoples. These ideas have also been appropriated by modern tourist companies in advertising ‘real’ African experiences; we, the tourist, are branded as adventurous travellers going out to experience the dark heart of Africa.

A page reproduced from my dissertation. The photograph is captioned: “Our quest for authenticity- Photographing the Masai tribe provided us with a ‘cultural experience.'”

My research concluded that even once East Africa had been encountered, it was very difficult to overcome the representations of place, engrained stereotypes if you like, that the individuals had brought with them. Evidence of which was presented in the photo albums that people produced at the end of the trip. These albums were representative of the way people remembered and ‘experienced’ East Africa, but the problem remains that many merely reproduced exotic images rather than presenting reconsidered and augmented perceptions of East Africa.


Turning to Russia, I had my own preconceptions of this place. As a child, the Soviet Union seemed vast and mysterious. It took up most of the wall map in my geography classroom and was the vital region to capture to win the board game ‘Risk’. There were the glamorous KGB agents up against James Bond, and the Soviet-bashing propaganda of Cold War films like Red Dawn and Rocky IV. I marvelled at the photographs of Yeltsin aloft a tank outside the White House in Moscow on the collapse of the Soviet Union, ushering in a new but uncertain era.

I’d only been to Russia once before, passing through in 1994 to visit my wife, Sarah, who was studying there. We decided that now would be a fascinating time to return, fifteen years after the fall of Communism. After researching the project for 18 months, we left London in July 2004 and spent the next 12 months travelling over 75,000km from the federation’s Far East, through Siberia to the Northern Caucasus, the Altai Mountains and along the Volga River. We finished in Moscow in July 2005.

Cover of Motherland, published by Chris Boot Ltd, March 2007

The resulting book is meant as a visual statement about the nature of contemporary Russia. It is my attempt to try and move beyond ‘imaginative geographies’ where the fantasies and preconceptions of the photographer are prevalent in the images to a representation of Russia that does not deny the problematic veracity of pictorial representation. Motherland responded to these questions successfully, in my own judgement, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the fact that I spent a continuous year in Russia allowed for a sustained and in depth engagement with the landscapes and people that I came across. While I travelled extensively and did not, as it were, conduct visual ‘fieldwork’ in a single location, the duration of my engagement enabled a spontaneity – I could respond to diverse events and situations, and was neither constrained nor driven by the specific agenda or timeframe of a photojournalistic assignment or news agenda. My preconceptions and expectations about place, for example, were altered the more time I spent there. If, inevitably, a visitor or traveller can only acquire a partial understanding, one that remains ultimately more that of an outsider than an insider, the grasp acquired by a questioning and persistent onlooker will nevertheless be richer and deeper than that of a more transient visitor.

I was constantly conscious about shedding my preconceptions and instead to be led by what I saw and experienced. If I had gone to Russia with the intention of documenting poverty, I would have looked for it – and found it. Instead I wanted to be as open as possible to new ideas and be surprised and challenged by what I found.

Map of Russia showing where we were each of the 52 weeks of the year.

It was very important that not all of the trip was planned. While I had a framework for the journey, I deliberately left at least half of the itinerary to spontaneity, thereby increasing the chance for my own stereotypes to be challenged and opening up new avenues of exploration that I could otherwise have overlooked. By staying in peoples’ houses, rather than just hotels, I was able to find people and places that I would never have otherwise come across. In some ways enabling me to become an insider rather than just a tourist.

One of the greatest challenges was being able to submerge yourself in some of the larger cities, notably in Siberia, when you often only had a few days. How do you really get a sense of a particular place in a short period of time? You turn up, you book into a hotel, and then how do you integrate yourself into the local society? It’s very difficult. One way I overcame this was by using homestays (sourced from the Hospitality Club website) where I sourced local families to stay with. Instead of just being overwhelmed by a place on arrival, I was immediately experiencing it from a local viewpoint. People introduced me to their friends and took me to places that I would never have found from a guidebook, or from our own research.

In Omsk we stayed with a University professor who gave me a tour of his University and took me to the All Russia Ballroom Dance Contest, which his daughter was competing in (which led to the portrait of Nikita and Rufina); in Rostov-on-Don I stayed with a local journalist who gave me a tour of the Cossack military base (which led to a portrait of a Cossack soldier on horseback); in Yekaterinburg I stayed with Sergei who took me for a banya with his son Kostya (which led to the image of them bathing naked in the lake); while in Kamchatka I spent five days trekking through the wilderness on horseback with Paval and Sasha.

Camping with Sasha and Pavel, Kamchatka, October 2004 © Simon Roberts

Sergei and Kostya after a banya, Yekaterinburg, May 2005 © Simon Roberts

To participate in the everyday rites of Russian life and society, to be an involved guest and a friend, as well as an observer and witness, turned out to be tremendously enlightening.  On the other hand, the sheer magnitude of the country and the unusually large distances I covered allowed for a greater sense of conceptual and aesthetic comparison, of visual diversity and the cultivation of knowledge and photographic memory.  Distance and time, therefore, ensured a naturally more rounded representation of people and place and a recognition of the complexity of my subject.

It was always my intention to combine both landscapes and portraits in the book. I used landscape photographs to provide panoramic overviews of the country, images that help to provide a sense of context, evoking peoples in their diverse habitats and surroundings. I was interested in making detailed pictures that the viewer could read, like a map, and find different cultural and social references in. Where possible, I tried not to crop out any significant details from the landscape I photographed.

Ballroom dancers, Nikita and Rufina, Omsk, May 2005 © Simon Roberts

Cossack soldier on horseback, Rostov-on-Don, April 2005 © Simon Roberts

These landscapes I countered with portraits that are fixed in a narrow moment of time and space and which take you in to the landscapes and provide a much more intimate experience. Most of my subjects were stopped and photographed in the environments where I came across them. I attempted to select as large a cross-section of people as possible, from all walks of life. The portraits were taken before engaging in conversation with the individual so I could remain as detached as possible and their expression appear deadpan. What becomes of greater importance are the details in the image; the clothes they are wearing and the landscapes they inhabit. The portraits are almost an anthropological study. As formal and static in nature as they are – I still think there is often an intimate connection between myself and the subject.

In producing a balanced portrayal it was important not to gloss over the cracks of modern day Russia. The Chechen Republic is still a profoundly emotive issue in Russian society and it would have been wrong to ignore or ‘sensor’ pictures from this region.. At the same time, I have included two very differing images in the book from Chechnya. While one shows the main outdoor market in Grozny in front of heavily shelled apartment blocks (in some ways a more typical image we’re used to seeing), the second shows a group of well-dressed Chechen women and their children in a part of Grozny that has been reconstructed. The latter is a surprising image in terms of our visual references, which have been dominated by negative photographic imagery. It was important that I showed both sides of the story.

Outdoor market in Grozny flanked by shelled apartment blocks, April 2005 © Simon Roberts

Group of Chechen women, Central Square, Grozny, April 2005 © Simon Roberts

Of course my view is still only a representation of Russia, “a construction that is contingent, partial and unfinished.” Duncan & Ley, 1993 (Place, Culture, Representation pub Routledge) and one which reflects my own set of ideas and biography. However, the book will now stand alongside many other bodies of work about Russia and, hopefully, form part of a wider photographic debate about contemporary Russia.

More recently I decided to create a website for the book and have a guest book page where people can leave comments about the work in a public forum. Here I am most interested in receiving feedback from a wider audience, particularly Russians themselves, where people can discuss how they perceive my representations of Russia.

Screengrab of the guest book page on


Turning to my England project, I won’t discuss much about the background to the work, which you can read on the blog here, instead look at why I decided to request ideas from the general public.

I had plenty of ideas about what I wanted to photograph for this project. Two boxes full in fact. At one point I employed a researcher to help me sift through the piles of cuttings, tourist brochures, books and leaflets I’d amassed. However, this is the point, these were my ideas. My representations of England. What I was interested in also discovering, were other people’s ideas about England; gaining a sense of their perceptions of this place, rather than just photographing my own.

Box of cuttings gathered during research for We English.

In all I received about 250 ideas from the general public. Ideas which, in themselves, provide an interesting snapshot of England in 2008. They illustrate what’s important to people and explore their own ideas on the notion of Englishness. They also enabled me to get a broader spectrum of coverage across themes and geographical locations and helped to find subject matter, especially on the local level, that could otherwise elude me. Rather than just photograph yet another Cheese Rolling Festival, a now cliched tradition, I wanted to find out what else happens in England that may not be part of the national conciousness.

In the end, I only probably used about 10% of the ideas provided.  However, I’m considering printing them as an appendix to book, unedited, to sit alongside my own photographic representation of England.


October 28th, 2008 admin

I was interested to see Patrick Keiller’s excellent film Robinson in Space (1997) included in The Guardian’s 1000 Artworks To See Before You Die (a series which is running all this week in the newspaper).

“Sitting comfortably, I open my copy of The Revolution of Everyday Life.” So begins Keiller’s video take of a “peripatetic study of the problem of England” conducted by the deadpan Robinson and his long-suffering mate. A mysterious advertising agency has tasked Robinson with investigating the ‘problem of England’. He and the narrator embark on a series of seven journeys across England, inspired by Daniel Defoe‘s Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain, based on Defoe’s travels as a spy in the 1720s. Paul Scofield narrates a series of illuminating snippets of information as the itinerant camera focuses on one provincial backwater after another.

Guardian writer Robert Clark describes the film as “like being lucky enough to get stuck on a train next to somebody’s utterly erudite and slightly potty grandfather. If you sometimes get fed up with the state of England, watch this. It won’t change a thing, other than cheering you up no end.”

Another film I watched recently was Gallivant (1996) by filmmaker Andrew Kötting.  Gallivant is a 6,000-mile journey zig-zagging around the coast of Britain, which is both an experimental travelogue and an intensely personal story. Kötting begins the journey to bring Gladys, his 85-year old grandmother, and Eden, his 7-year old daughter, together. Gladys’s stamina is limited, and Eden has Joubert’s syndrome: she’s not expected to live to adulthood. Both are fragile, and the journey is an opportunity which may not be repeated.

This road trip film is part homage to the unsung eccentrics who make up our national identity, and part tribute to the bonds of family. It’s a tender film, definitely worth watching.


October 15th, 2008 admin

I’ve just come across this article by Blake Morrison on The Guardian website where he reflects on what our photographic heritage reveals about our changing national character


Think of England

Blake Morrison, May 19th 2007

“A photograph seeks to capture the present, but by its nature can only contain the past. However alive or ‘gritty’ or imbued with a sense of instantaneity, the photo can’t help but be nostalgic, since its subject (whether a face or a landscape) is frozen in the moment the shutter clicked – a remembrance of things past. When Philip Larkin, writing lines on his girlfriend’s photo album, said that photography is “as no art is, / Faithful and disappointing”, this was the paradox he tried to pin down – that on the one hand photos seem immediate and “empirically true”, but on the other they commemorate “just the past”:

Those flowers, that gate, 
These misty parks and motors, lacerate 
Simply by being over; you 
Contract my heart by looking out of date.

The Tate’s new exhibition of 150 years of photography in Britain is entitled How We Are. It’s a good and perfectly justifiable title, since the 500 images that are included, ranging from Julia Margaret Cameron and Lewis Carroll through Bill Brandt and Cecil Beaton to Chris Killip and Jane Bown, provide us with a composite portrait of ourselves as a nation. But the show is also the story of “how we were”, since even the most recent exhibits are a commemoration of lost time, and reveal not just what is constant in the British landscape and character, but how much is changing or has already changed. For the curators, Val Williams and Susan Bright, the defining characteristic of British photography is its obsession with the past, and the dominant images “taken in the frustrating place of the present, are infused, explicitly or implicitly, with a sense of melancholy”.

The convention is to think of photography as the most up-to-the-minute of art forms – not just because its practitioners are impelled (or commissioned) to record the latest fashion, the freshest innovation, the newest face on the block; but because (unlike novelists or film-makers) they lack the freedom to set their work in the past. But history no longer happens without a camera being present. And photographers have always been more preoccupied with history than their reputation would suggest. Among the earliest photos in the Tate show, from the 1860s, is one of Stonehenge taken by Colonel Sir Henry James: a moody tribute to ancestral pagan origins. And from the 1880s comes a shot of two women and a man frolicking in the hay in their Sunday best: a pastiche of bucolic bliss. Neither fulfils the expectation that most of us have about late 19th-century photography, in which industrial might or urban poverty dominates the picture: Brunel posing in top hat and cigar against a backdrop of massive iron chains; the waifs and urchins rescued by Thomas Barnardo, as photographed by Thomas Barnes. But as becomes clear from the Tate show, the Victorians were drawn to rural idylls and costume portraits – with photographers like Francis Bedford and Benjamin Brecknell Turner quick to supply their needs by producing images of reassuringly timeless landscapes.

For early exponents eager to establish photography as a respectable pursuit, the temptation was to imitate classical scenes and poses. It was as if the newness of photography could only pass muster if it succeeded in looking old, and the best way to do this was to aspire to the condition of painting. (The Tate show even includes a bizarre example, circa 1870, by Kate Gough, of the two media being mixed: on to the necks of three painted ducks swimming on a pond, three photographs of women’s heads have been superimposed.)

But honouring the past was more than a PR exercise on behalf of an upstart art form. Many photographers then and since have been motivated by the need to preserve something they believe or fear is disappearing. In the late 1960s, for example, the short-lived Tony Ray-Jones (1941-72) set out to record what he called the “daily anachronisms” of British life, such as beauty contests, carnivals, galas, dog shows and strongman contests. As the country became “more Americanised”, “reduced to an island or defrocked”, he wanted to pay tribute, as Orwell had before him, to the British (or, more specifically, English) people, with “their old-fashioned outlook, their graded snobberies, their mixture of bawdiness and hypocrisy, their extreme gentleness, their deeply moral attitude to life”. Forty years on, the national psyche seems to have changed (whatever happened to our gentleness and moral rectitude?) The territory Ray-Jones explored has since been reoccupied by others, including Martin Parr, whose photo of morris dancers performing outside a high-street McDonald’s commemorates the perilous survival of ancient British customs in the global marketplace.

There’s a similar spirit in the work of Homer Sykes, who in the 1970s compiled a set of photos of “traditional British customs”, morris dancing included, and published them in a book called Once a Year. It’s an extraordinary document, not least because most of these customs – though venerated over centuries and still carried out on particular days of the year – are so weird. Without Sykes, we might not know what’s involved in burning the clavie, wassailing the apple tree, dicing for maid’s money, dunting the freeholder, firing the fenny poppers or bottle kicking and hare pie scrambling – nor have heard of the haxey hood game, the wicken love feast, the Painswick clyping ceremony, the Hungerford hocktide or the Hinton punky night. It’s true that you can get by very well without knowing a thing about them and still feel British. But Sykes’s attention to the wackiness and paganism of these activities is not the usual pointless heritage industry fare. What interests him is the contemporaneity of the participants, the coexistence of ancient and modern.

Take his The Burry Man, for example, which celebrates a tradition still carried out annually in South Queensferry in the Firth of Forth: on the second Friday in August, in order to bring luck to the local herring industry by acting as a scapegoat, a man dresses up in a costume of freshly collected burrs and walks through the town, calling in at every pub to collect money and be given tots of whisky. What makes Sykes’s photo more than quaintly folkloric is the contrast between the eyeless, flower-festooned beastie, or “green man”, and his quotidian surroundings: the battered bar with Youngers beer mats; the sharp-faced helpers, in jackets and ties; the drab pub backdrop, with a dispensing machine. It’s the same with other images from this same series: we see ancient rituals being performed or observed by people in ribbed tank tops, thin floral dresses, miniskirts, flared trousers and Zapata moustaches. The effect is incongruous to the point of surrealism, yet it makes you see how rites that have seemingly outlived their usefulness can serve to bring a community together.

A distorted attachment to indigenous tradition can also drive communities apart, which is perhaps what led Sykes to embark on another project in the 1970s, when he took photographs of National Front members during their meetings. More dramatically, he was one of the photographers present when NF marchers clashed with anti-racist protesters in Lewisham in 1977, and the police used riot shields for the first time. As Sykes shows, an alertness to history can work in different ways.

Sykes comes from Vancouver. Ray-Jones, though born in Somerset, learned his art in the US. A striking aspect of the Tate show is how many iconic images of Britain and the British have been produced by outsiders: it’s as if we can’t see ourselves without their help. Among the artists featured are Otto Pfenninger, Bill Brandt and Albrecht Tübke (all German), Leonard Freed and Nancy Hellebrand (both from the US), Wolfgang Suschitzky (born in Vienna), Dorothy Bohm (Konigsberg), Horace Ove (Trinidad) and Vanley Burke (Jamaica). Others in the show – from Madam Yevonde in the 1930s (who grew up in Streatham but was educated in Belgium) to newcomers like Douglas Abuelo, Grace Lau and Penny Klepuszewska – have a perspective that helps them notice things which insiders might miss.

What they and the rest notice, invariably, is how eccentric the British are – or, rather, how much stranger and more interesting than we fancy ourselves to be. How fond of posing with exotic animals; how keen on dressing up and body painting; how obsessed with stardom (long before the age of celebrity); how drawn to clowns, mirrors, circuses, illusions, hats and masks; how shrill and gaudy in our choice of colours. There are more familiar images too, showing our attachment to gardens, villages and beaches. But, for the most part, this is the antithesis of the Picture Post view. The Britain that appears is dandier, showier, more European, more multi-ethnic. More arty, too: there’s a notable strain of surrealism, and in the context of the show even Wolfgang Suschitzky’s photograph of a bowler- hatted businessman outside Foyles in Charing Cross, circa 1936, begins to look like a meticulously orchestrated artwork rather than a piece of opportunistic social realism – the empty pavement, the lines and angles, the falling shadows are all beautifully arranged.

Though careful construction has always been part of the process, it also gives enemies the opportunity to shout “Cheat!” when they find that seemingly “true” photographs are works of artifice that have been set up. The Victorian Arthur J Munby insisted that the working women whose photos he assembled – pit girls, milkmaids, fisherwomen – wear suitably dirty working clothes. Walker Evans did much the same with his Alabama sharecroppers in the 1930s; Thomas Barnes found himself at the centre of a legal row over his “before” and “after” portraits of rescued waifs when the Rev George Reynolds objected, “He is not satisfied with taking them as they really are, but he tears their clothes, so as to make them worse.” There’s no denying Barnes had a propagandist purpose: to highlight poverty and class difference. But a sense of mission can sometimes help rather than hinder the making of art: without it, neither Barnes nor Evans would have created such powerful, aesthetically “pure” images. If we worry that their subjects were coerced and exploited, the Tate show reminds us that many people, not least the British, enjoy posing, crave the attention of the lens and are naturals at dolling themselves up.

Nowadays, people no longer need to go to studios for an image of themselves. The history of photography is, in part, the story of an art form becoming progressively more available to all – from daguerreotypes and the gelatin dry plate, through Leicas, 35mm film, Kodachrome and instamatics, to digital cameras, mobile phones and blogs. Though the Tate exhibition doesn’t go so far as to include phone camera images of 7/7, it does reflect the populism of the art – and its affinity with less privileged sections of society. A comparable show mounted 50 years ago would have offered a very different picture of the British, with greater emphasis on national pride, certitude and homogeneity. This one is postmodern, postcolonial and postmasculinist. Instead of generals and war heroes, we get Percy Hennell’s mutilated soldiers; instead of 1950s housewives in their kitchens, we get suffragettes (a radiant Christabel Pankhurst in 1912); instead of grouse-shooting toffs and flat-capped workers, we get Horace Ove’s Walking Proud, a photo of a black couple in 1971 – the woman tottering on platform heels, the man with his hands in his pockets, both of them wearing hats – the street clearing in their path, as if the world was all before them.

With only 500 images chosen from the millions available, and some wonderful photographers omitted, the Tate take on the British is necessarily partial and selective. But it does raise big questions about where our obsession with the past has brought us. How we are, on this evidence, is confused about who we are. But perhaps that’s not a bad place to be.”


September 22nd, 2008 admin

Although I’ve already mentioned Homer Sykes’ work in a recent blog post on Sir Benjamin Stone (Knight of the Camera) I felt his work on traditional British customs warranted it’s own post. 

Born in Vancouver, Canada, Sykes has been in the UK since 1954 and working as a photographer for over 40 years. It was while studying at the London College of Printing (now LCC) between 1968-71 that he came across the work of Sir Benjamin Stone. A discovery which provided the inspiration for his book ‘Once A Year – Some Traditional British Customs’ (Pub: Gordon Fraser, 1977).


Sykes has described his motivation for Once A Year in an interview on Luminous-Lint

“I thought it would be interesting to re-photograph some of these customs and others I researched seventy years later, but not in a static way with a large format camera as he had, but in my own style, that I hoped would be a fusion of the American street photography genre that I loved, and had seen in MOMA in New York – Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, Burk Uzzle, Robert Frank, and Bruce Davidson, (because of the way their images appear spontaneous, accidental and stylish) and that of the humanitarian reportage and documentary photography of the great Magnum photographers.

The project lasted 7 years, I travelled all over the country to take these photographs and covered about one hundred traditional events, that for the most part took place once a year. I tended to avoid folk club revival country customs, and those events that seemed to be more to do with town hall tourism than local history. As a young documentary photographer I was interested in the contemporaneity of the participants, the coexistence of ancient and modern, and of course of the documentary value of what I was doing.”


The Burry Man (Jacko Hart), South Queensferry, Lothian, Scotland

© Homer Sykes, 1971

The Burry Man with his helpers Billy Scott and David Scott in the South Queensferry Ex Servicemans Club taking a break from his perambulations of the towns boundaries (1971). 

There are reports from the nineteenth century of the Burry Man appearing in other Scottish locations when the fishing harvest was failing. The twentieth century Burry Man makes his perambulations of the town boundary on the date preceding the annual Ferry Fair. It is thought that this was once a fishing fertility rite, although these days it is associated with the local borough or burgh. The fair has been in existence since 1687, and now takes place during the second week in August. By 1971 nothing of what was once an eight day fair remained save the road race, run for a traditional pair of black boots.

It’s a beautifully photographed, tender and often humorous document. I’d love to get my hands on a copy. Unfortunately it’s out of print and a used copy will set you back £100. I think I’ll have to wait for the re-print!

For those of you who want to find out more about Skyes’ recent work, you can read an interview from 2007 on the Photo Histories website here.  

I’ll be interested to know what Sykes thinks of my attempt at documenting England thirty years later, especially given my choice of a “static” large format camera.



September 22nd, 2008 admin

As mentioned in my last post, here are a selection of headlines from regional and local newspapers collected during my travels. They come from a variety of free-sheets, daily and weekly newspapers. I’ve only quoted the main headline and not the subtitle. They are in date order.

Midhurst and Petworth Observer, “Academy twist as heads unite to back move”, 1st May 2008

Reading Evening Post, “Body pulled from river”, 9th May 2008

Gloustershire Echo, “Tracey had a heart of gold”, 14th May 2008

Weston & Somerset Mercury, “Crimebusting vicars on call”, 15th May 2008

Somerset Guardian, “Journey of terror”, 15th May 2008

Worcester News, “Deep fried pigeon”, 16th May 2008

Malvern Gazette, “Marriage made in heaven or recipe for divorce”, 16th May 2008

Weekend Citizen, “Supermarkets’ food attacked”, 17th May 2008

Western Daily Press, “Pinned down by card scammers”, 19th May 2008

Western Daily Press, “£14bn deal secures west defence jobs”, 21st May 2008

Burnham & Highbridge Weekly News, “Speedboat owner’s miraculous escape”, 21st May 2008

Devon Journal, “Black Tuesday in north Devon”, 22nd May 2008

West Somerset Free Press, “Aquasplash; Rescue bid falls through”, 23rd May 2008

Dorset Echo, “‘Ghost Town’ fears over homes”, 26th May 2008

Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard, “Polyclinic threat to GP surgeries”, 29th May 2008

Salisbury Journal, “Super – surgeries plan angers GPs”, 29th May 2008

Yeovil Times, “Avril aims to clean up mean streets”, 28th May 2008

Newbury Weekly News, “Driver jailed for friends’ road deaths”, 29th May 2008

Gloucestershire Echo, “Flat blaze victim – I’ve lost all I had”, 2nd June 2008

The Advertiser (North Hampshire), “ProLogis plan thrown out, but appeal likely”, 3rd June 2008

Saffron Walden Weekly News, “Plan to bring back police station cells”, 5th June 2008

Melton Times, “New council HQ – two-year wait”, 12th June 2008                                                

Herne Bay Times, “Goodbye Warren”, 12th June 2008

Evening Telegraph, “Absent Wendy to be kicked out”, 12th June 2008

Grantham Journal, “Victimised for being old”, 13th June 2008

The Argus, “Rough justice”, 21st June 2008

Kent on Sunday, “Say goodbye to family GP”, 15th June 2008

Thanet Times, “Spy cam to trap vandals”, 17th June 2008

Isle of Wight County Press, “Why can’t we have ferry subsidies?”, 20th June 2008

Reading Evening Post, “River plunge tot critical”, 26th June 2008

Oxford Journal, “Eco-town charm offensive”, 26th June 2008

Northampton Chronicle, “Did u c incdnt in ur pk?”, 1st July 2008

Harborough Mail, “Homes anger to reignite”, 3rd July 2008

Hinckley Times, “This is the future”, 3rd July 2008

Hereford Times, “Bulmers: ‘Faults beyond belief’”, 3rd July 2008                                                

Coventry Telegraph, “Playground prowler tries to grab girl”, 4th July 2008

Bridgnorth Journal, “Landmark row erupts”, 4th July 2008

Express & Star, “Jobs to go at factory”, 5th July 2008

Leister Mercury, “Grand Prize”, 5th July 2008

Shropshire Star, “PM’s plea on food wasting”, 7th July 2008

Macclesfield Express, “Man leaves £1million fortune to churches and charities”, 9th July 2008

Crewe Chronicle, “Woman is held over death”, 9th July 2008

Nantwich Chronicle, “Thieves strike at church”, 9th July 2008

Echester Evening Leader, “City council workers to strike”, 11th July 2008

Liverpool Echo, “Strike Chaos”, 16th July 2008

Ellesmere Port & Neston Standard, “Future of £50m school academies plan hangs in the balance”, 17th July 2008

Bury Times, “Three care homes may shut”, 17th July 2008

Formby Times, “Post office survival bid”, 17th July 2008

Southport Visitor, “Sex shame of top boss”, 18th July 2008

Liverpool Post, “Region reaps benefits of Birkdale bonanza”, 21st July 2008

The Bolton News, “Students ‘killed by meningitis’ on holiday”, 22nd July 2008

Lancashire Telegraph, “Classroom pervert”, 23rd July 2008

Longridge & Ribble Valley News, “Family mourns tragic mum”, 23rd July 2008

Hebden Bridge Times, “Battle to recycle the waste”, 24th July 2008

The Clithroe Advertiser & Times, “Head’s fury at new SATs blunder”, 24th July 2008

Batley News, “Minibus death crash – driver questioned”, 24th July 2008

Todmorden News, “Filmed up girl’s skirt”, 24th July 2008

Wakefield Express, “Busted”, 25th July 2008

Heckmondwike Herald, “Water baby”, 25th July 2008

Nelson Leader, “Two die on way to a funeral”, 25th July 2008

Burnley Express, “Tragedy of pregnant mum Claire”, 25th July 2008

The Gazette, “Life in ruins after attack”, 25th July 2008

Dewsbury Reporter, “We’ve got £1.2m to splash out”, 25th July 2008

Evening Courier, “Taxi terror thugs caged”, 28th July 2008

The Huddersfield Daily Examiner, “‘Dodgy Lodger’ back in the line of fire”, 29th July 2008

Uttoxeter Advertiser, “Armed raid”, 30th July 2008

Cheadle Post & Times, “Workers wait in fear as JCB jobs axe looms over”, 30th July 2008

Yorkshire Post, “Mortgage squeezes prompts fraud warning”, 30th July 2008

Staffordshire Newsletter, “Town’s new pool is closed within hours”, 31st July 2008

Black Country Bugle, “Cutting the cost of living in the thirties”, 31st July 2008

Buxton Advertiser, “NHS fears £8m gap in budget”, 31st July 2008

Derbyshire Times, “Cannabis grower risks jail”, 31st July 2008

Birmingham Mail, “Fury as gas staff run riot”, 1st August 2008

Uttoxeter Post & Times, “Fears of economic crisis as employers deliver triple”, 1st August 2008

The Sunderland Sentinel, “Boy racers face ban from the roads”, 4th August 2008

The Sunderland Star, “Landslide owls vote, 7th August 2008

Darlington & Stockton Times, “Appeal to blow opponents of caravan park”, 8th August 2008

The Northern Echo, “Horror in the Alps”, 9th August 2008

Evening Gazette, “Dad killed in freak crash”, 11th August 2008

Whitby Gazette, “Bradley’s debt to Liz”, 12th August 2008

Scarborough Evening News, “Girl, 6, held hostage in armed siege”, 13th August 2008

Rydale Gazette & Herald, “Crisis talks planned on housing shortage”, 13th August 2008

Peterlee Star, “SATS row goes on”, 14th August 2008

The Whitehaven News, “OAP fined £80 for stubbing cig in street”, 14th August 2008

Peterlee Mail, “New street booze bans”, 15th August 2008

Sunderland Echo, “Drivers pay up”, 15th August 2008

The Westmorland Gazette, “Tory leader pledges to support hospital”, 15th August 2008

North West Evening Mail, “Secret millionaire lived in 75K flat”, 16th August 2008

Lake District Herald, “Action taken over acrobats ‘cheeky’ town centre act”, 23rd August 2008

The Visitor, “Coroner’s plea after hit-and-run tragedy”, 27th August 2008

Morpeth Herald, “Thieves strip undies shop of entire stock”, 28th August 2008

News & Star, “Power cut will cost thousands”, 28th August 2008

The Whitehaven News, “Is Sellafield hand over under threat”, 28th August 2008

Northumberland Gazette, “Green light at station”, 28th August 2008

Morecambe Guardian, “Battling granny goes to the High Court”, 29th August 2008

The Westmorland Gazette, “Damsons in distress”, 29th August 2008

The Newcastle Journal, “Builders shelve 1,000 projects”, 1st September 2008                                               

Northumberland Gazette, “Braid is saved”, 4th September 2008

The Berwick Advertiser, “Report claims climate change could cause havoc”, 4th September 2008

Pocklington Post, “Man on trial for robbery at shop”, 4th September 2008

Kent on Sunday, “Repossessions on the up as credit crunch hits home”, 7th September 2008

The Press, “Stadium dream in jeopardy”, 8th September 2008

Evening Chronicle, “Miracle Escape”, 8th September 2008

Lynn News, “Pupil power to back appeal”, 9th September 2008

Cleethorpes Life, “Why is Teresa Basset turning back the clock?”, 10th September 2008

Telegraph & Argus, “Drugs addict terrorised elderly in homes”, 10th September 2008

Yorkshire Evening Post, “Top solicitor theft charge”, 10th September 2008

East Riding Mail, “Savaged”, 10th September 2008

Driffield Times, “Our agony”, 10th September 2008

Grismby Telegraph, “Our kids are ‘bone idle’”, 10th September 2008

Boston Standard, “Judge socks it to repeat offender”, 10th September 2008

North Norfolk News, “Traders victory”, 11th September 2008

Sevenoaks Chronicle, “Area must have more play parks”, 11th September 2008

Brighton and Hove Leader, “Enemy at the gates”, 11th September 2008


September 22nd, 2008 admin

Wherever possible I bought a copy of the local newspaper in all the places we visited in order to explore the context within which my photographs were taken. More about this in a later post. For now, I want to talk about how visual media has become integral to our exposure to representation of death. 

As with much of our mass media, the negative story often helps sell a newspaper. These were two headlines I came across on newspaper billboards in recent weeks, one from Berwick upon Tweed and another from Cumbria.


They reminded me of a project I worked on a few years ago called ‘Death, Read All About It’. I became interested in how we witness death daily, but at a safe remove, on the news and in the newspapers, where anything too challenging is excised in the editing suite. The school photograph of the murdered child, the mangled metal of the crash with none of the carnage – these homogenised accounts of violent death, like fictional death in films and books, reinforce distance from ‘natural death’.

Over the course of a year I photographed newspaper billboards, mostly around London where I was living at the time, which dealt with the subject of death. With all these headlines the topic of death, often described in grizzly soundbites, was used to sell our daily news. Headlines such as: “Man’s Head Cut Off In DLR Train Horror”, “Baby Savaged To Death By Dog”, “Victim of Black Magical Sex Killer” and “Shallow Grave Woman Battered To Death.” In some cases, we are also tempted by the fact that photographs are available: “McVeigh Ready to Die – Pictures”, “Child Victims Of Suicide Bomber – Picture” and “Hanratty Body Exhumed – Picture.”

I collected forty-nine headlines and created a composite the shape and size of a newspaper billboard. My intention had been to the place them in Evening Standard billboards around London, however, I got cold feet, worried about being prosecuted!

Here is a small version of the composite-


The aim was to explore how death is portrayed as entertainment, as sound bites and soap opera. This interplay between private and public experience often confers a false sense that we are sharing the drama of death in other people’s lives, while in reality we are completely insulated from it. 


September 17th, 2008 admin

I’ve just received details of an exhibition of photographs by Sir Benjamin Stone which are going on display in Centenary Square, Birmingham, from 20th September – 30 October 2008.

‘Knight of the Camera’ marks the first major display of images by the renowned Victorian amateur photographer, Sir Benjamin Stone, in his home town of Birmingham for almost a century. It follows on from the exhibition and publication project A Record of England: Sir Benjamin Stone and the National Photographic Record Association which was shown at the V&A in 2006 (more information below).


The exhibition is being organised by Birmingham Library, where Stone’s archive is held, and will include over 100 of his most iconic images - from Parliament, customs and festivals and others such as his previously unseen photographs of the Franco-British Exhibition in London, 1908. Interestingly the exhibition will also include a ‘Legacy’ section revealing the influence of Stone’s work on subsequent generations of British photographers such as Homer Sykes, Daniel Meadows and Anna Fox. It’s being curated by Pete James who is head of Photographs at Birmingham Central Library and has undertaken extensive research on Stone’s collection for many years.


A Record of England: Sir Benjamin Stone and the National Photographic Record Association, 1897 -1910 

In July 1897, in a flourish of publicity, Sir Benjamin Stone – Birmingham industrialist, Member of Parliament and passionate, almost obsessive collector, announced the formation of the National Photographic Record Association. Its prime objective was to make a record of England for future generations, to foster “a national pride in the historical associations of the country, or neighbourhood, in family traditions, or in personal associations.” Over the next 13 years, Stone and his amateur supporters deposited their photographs at the British Museum. In 2000, these were moved to the V&A. This book examines Stone’s central role in the project and presents over 100 of his photographs, many of which have never been published before. It also charts the history of the NPRA and points to its legacies within photography.


Ripon Pageant. Guild of Woolcombers Group. Ripon, Yorkshire, England 1906 © Sir Benjamin Stone, V&A

The NPRA was part of a much wider photographic survey movement at the end of the 19th century, covering British archaeology, geology and ethnography. The idea of photographic surveys survives to this day, operating at many levels, from local camera clubs and community projects to the National Monuments Record. While there are strong elements of nostalgia in the NPRA,  it was also dynamic as our Victorian ancestors, like us, used photography to project what they valued about their past into the future.

You can see a selection of images from the V&A exhibition here.

You can read a biography of Stone here.


September 12th, 2008 admin

We’ve made a slight diversion from the A1 and headed east to north Norfolk to visit Holkham, officially Sarah’s favourite spot in England!

While in the area I took the opportunity to call in on photographer Harry Cory Wright in his Saltwater Gallery. I was interested in meeting Harry as he recently undertook a similar endeavour. In March 2006, Harry took his large-format plate camera, and family, on a trip around the Britis Isles. Beginning in Unst in Shetland at the spring equinox, he travelled down through the Western Isles and mainland Scotland to Northumberland and further south through England and Wales. Merrel have just published the results in the book Journey Through the British Isles.



You can read extracts from the blog Harry produced during his journey on The Times website here.


Camp at Tilhill © Harry Cory Wright


August 29th, 2008 admin

I’ve found the community noticeboard – often found outside shops, churches and village halls, as well as in the local newspaper – a valuable resource, both in terms of finding out about events happening during my stay but also as a gauge of local interest.


For instance, here are a few events listed in the Whitby Gazette, August 12th –

  • St Hilda’s Church garden party will be held in the grounds of the Old Recotry in Sneaton by kind permission of Ian Buckle, today at 2.30pm. There will be the usual stalls, tombola and competitions and farmhouse teas will be served int eh village hall.
  • The Goathland Walking Group meets at the shops on Thursday at 10am.
  • Sleights Horticultural and Industrial Society will hold its 127th annual show on Saturday on Sleights sportsfield, Lowdale Lane, 1.30-4pm. Admission adults £1.50, children 50p, concessions £1.
  • Whitby Young Farmers’ Club sponsored walk in aid of Pancreatic Cancer UK – Gallon walk from Mallyan Spout, Goathland is on Friday, for sponsor forms and details contact Kathryn on 810202.
  • The Dalesmen are holding their annual garden party on August Bank Holiday, Monday 25 August, 10am-4pm, at Waites House, Goathland, the home of the choir’s president, Audrey Smith. Admission is free but cream teas are available for purchase throughout the day. There will be a cake, plant and bric-a-brac stalls and a tombola. The Dalesmen Singers will be doing two singing spots during the day at noon and 2pm.
  • Robin Hood’s Bay Bowling Club Tuesday afternoon whilst drives taken place at 2pm in the bowling club. New players welcome.



And in a round-up of last week’s events The Westmorland Gazette, August 29th, reports –

  • Despite the recent poor weather, the Barbon and Middleton Flower Show had more entrants than usual. A new class for oven-baked cakes by men only was well supported, and for the first time a visitors’ choice was held and was won by Janet Greenwood with a knitted Herdwick wool throw.
  • Beetham WI celebrated its 90th anniversary year with a garden party in a member’s garden. Jane Binney, vice-chairman of the Cumbria-Westmorland Federation, gave a resume of the 90 years of its existence, and thanked past and present presidents and members for their help in keeping alive a worthwhile institute.
  • Kendal Fellwalkers explored the fells near Wasdale during their B walk. From the roadside near Santon Bridge, they climbed to the little-frequented summit of Irton Fell. There were good views of Wastwater as they made their way along the grassy ridge above the Wastewater screes.
  • Geoff Harrison won the Bowling Leasgill Trophy in a closely fought contest. Gordon Coleclough was runner up.
  • The latest STEPS walk was through Trowbarrow Quarry to Hazelslack Tower and back via Haweswater. Those take part saw dragonflies, butterflies and hardly any people.


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