By Ailsa McWhinnie
Simon Roberts is a British photographer who for a number of years worked on assignments for magazines and weekend supplements. His eventual disillusionment with being asked to produce what he describes as "the definitive story" on a topic, and then being given three days in which to do it, led to him embarking on a year-long trip across Russia. The resulting images were published to great acclaim by Chris Boot, under the title Motherland.
The success of Motherland put him in the position where he was able to raise funding for his next project from Arts Council England, the National Media Museum and the John Kobal Foundation. His latest book is We English.
Simon lives on the south coast of England with his wife Sarah and their children Jemima and Florence. Of his daughters, he says, "Jemima was conceived in Russia and Florence as we traveled through England, so I can’t go traveling any more as we can’t afford any more children!"
Ailsa McWhinnie: We English is photographed in a quite different style from Motherland. What prompted the change?
Simon Roberts: It’s not quite the departure it might look. There are a couple of pictures in Motherland that inspired the direction I took with We English. One in particular shows a Victory Day picnic at Yekaterinburg [a major Russian city on the eastern side of the Urals]. Victory Day is a very important public holiday when the Russians celebrate victory over Nazi Germany. When I blew the picture up for an exhibition I became really interested in the relationship between these constellations of people and the geographical space. There are all sorts of little signifiers in the photograph, such as the silver birch trees—which are a motif in Russian landscape painting—but also when you look more closely you’ll see balloons in the trees, so it becomes a natural landscape adapted by human presence. It was something I decided I’d quite like to explore in the England work.
AMc: What inspired the project that became We English?
SR: I was quite struck by the relationship between the Russians and their geography, and it started me thinking about my relationship to England. I started to want to explore that sense of identity. There’s a very rich tradition of British photographers photographing the British landscape, from Benjamin Stone in the 1890s to Bill Brandt and Tony Ray-Jones, but there had been a bit of a lull more recently, so it felt quite timely to go on this journey. My generation has travelled abroad a lot, there’s this sense of the "exotic other"—and I’ve done it myself with Russia, albeit trying to take an anthropological approach. However, it was really important I wasn’t derivative of what had gone before in terms of photographing Britain—I had to find my own voice. So in summer 2007 I started exploring different ways of photographing.
Motherland was shot using a Mamiya 7, because I needed a light camera when travelling—but this time I started playing with a 5x4-inch camera and began to see something quite interesting when the people in the picture appeared small in the frame. I wanted the landscape to be as important as the people within it, but to make sure the people weren’t so small you wouldn’t be able to make out the detail of what they were wearing and how they related to one another.
AMc: So did you try to avoid the places that have formed parts of other photographers’ work?
SR: No. I deliberately went to New Brighton [the seaside town photographed by Martin Parr in his book, The Last Resort]. The pictures didn’t end up in the book, but I certainly went to some of these places because they’d been done before. I was intrigued, because historically we’re doing many of the same things we did a hundred years ago, it’s just we’re wearing different clothes. A lot of old traditions and festivals are being revived by local councils who are looking for new ways of getting tourists. Actually, there are very few photographs of that sort of event in the book, because I wanted to steer clear of events that were being quite deliberately marketed and promoted. The images that ended up in the book often depict quite mundane activities.
AMc: Were there any surprises as the project got underway?
SR: It was interesting to see that people are quite parochial. They end up doing things very close to where they live: the guy fishing on the banks of the river, or the Sunday-league football, these are very ordinary things, but to the person doing them they’re very important, so I wanted to make them more grand—and that was one of the challenges. When you’re doing a project in your own back yard you have to learn to tune into the ordinary things you see every day that you don’t consider to be a photograph—so in many ways I was looking for the "non" photograph.
AMc: You invited members of the public to submit ideas for places or events to photograph. How successful was that?
SR: What I liked was not just the suggestions themselves but also the way that people talked about them. What’s interesting is the way they think about England. A lot of it is about memory—how they remember a place and how that might be different from how they experience it now. If the person was writing from abroad, it would often be to suggest something they missed about England. I probably photographed only five or ten percent of the ideas, but it was a great way of generating interest. Other ideas would come from local newspapers, or I’d stop by the local village hall and see what was posted on their noticeboard. There were probably 12 main anchorpoints—places I wanted to be at particular times in the year, such as Ladies Day at Aintree—and then I’d build in other places around them.
AMc: Even though you worked with a 5x4 camera, which by its very nature slows things down, the pictures are still very much about the "decisive moment"—I get the sense of you waiting for the choreography to come together.
SR: It was very challenging because often there were a lot of people in the frame, and how do you find the decisive moment when there are a hundred people moving around? Sometimes I would just take the picture and not really be too bothered if one person was standing in front of another, or if a lamppost was coming out of somebody’s head. But another reason for using 5x4 was because everyone’s a photographer now—whether with a mobile phone or a high-end DSLR—and I had to ask myself what differentiates me from them? So by using a 5x4 I was actually making a very public statement that I was there to take a photograph of this landscape.
People were quite interested in what I was doing but, more importantly, they didn’t feel threatened. If I’d been on a beach walking around with a 35mm camera I suspect people would have felt a lot more threatened. Funnily enough, I was getting quite spontaneous pictures with a very cumbersome piece of equipment. It would take five or ten minutes to set the camera up, so people would get bored with watching me and end up carrying on with what they were doing. There are only a couple of frames where you can see in the distance that someone’s looking at me, but generally it’s almost as if I wasn’t there.
AMc: What other considerations were there?
SR: I shot using only a 150mm lens, which is pretty much how the human eye sees, and I always wanted, where possible, to have an elevated position as this gives a greater sense of the people and their relationship to the landscape. So often I would photograph from the roof of my motorhome.
I wanted to explore the notion of leisure because often this is something we do quite subconsciously, and what people do with their leisure time not only says something about them as individuals, but us as a collective, too. I also knew I only wanted to work outside, to give a sense of the pastoral. And even though I worked in cities, too, there is still a sense of people gravitating towards the green spaces.
AMc: Why England and not Britain?
SR: Because of devolution, and with Scotland and Wales having a lot more local power politically and to some extent economically, there is a sense of Welshness and Scottishness, but people often see being passionate about being English as rather dirty. I deliberately put the flag of St. George on the cover because I wanted to be quite provocative and suggest there don’t have to be right-wing connotations to it. I’m not suggesting I’m a nationalist, but I do find it interesting how people align themselves with a geographical border.
AMc: Would you say the photographs are romantic?
SR: I was certainly inspired by romantic paintings of England, but even so there are probably only one or two images you would describe as picturesque. I did deliberately photograph in quite evocative light sometimes to try to generate a particular feeling, but yes, I did want to create quite beautiful pictures—and unashamedly so.
AMc: Thank you very much Simon.
SR: Thank you.
We English, by Simon Roberts
Hardback, 112 pages
Published by Chris Boot Ltd.
For more information visit www.we-english.co.uk
A major exhibition of the work will be on show at the National Media Museum, Bradford, from March 12th to September 8th, 2010
Motherland, by Simon Roberts
Hardback, 192 pages
Published by Chris Boot Ltd
My friend Ailsa McWhinnie, now a freelance writer and book editor, was founding editor of Black & White Photography magazine. My thanks to both Ailsa and Simon. —MJ