PHOTOTALKS: ‘BEN ROBERTS’
1. Let’s talk about Seventh Zone. A project on the urban landscape, but not completely. What is involved is the definition of city (or rather the metropolis). If driven by a centrifugal force we move towards the edges, here, the urban plots appear increasingly blurred in nature, in the green countryside. The boundaries become more fragile and fleeting. We are located in marginal, interrupted and apparently futile zones, in a third landscape carved by the great infrastructure (the M25). These are investigating areas where often behaviours become transient and uncertain. Some people still believe to be in the nature and others are looking anxiously to the city. It is this transience that distinguishes the human being in processing. What behaviours and situations surprised you in this work?
«Over time, The Seventh Zone has become a reflection on my upbringing – not in a familial sense, but in a geographical way. I grew up right on the edge of the green belt that surrounds Birmingham, the UK’s second largest metropolis. To the west of my village there was a kilometre or so of fields, and then the city began; to the east of my village it was immediately rural. As I grew up (and when I return now to visit my parents) there are an increasing number of interventions into both the green belt and the rural zone to the east. When I attended infant school in the village, we could squeeze our heads through the wooden fence railings surrounding the football pitch, and peer out over endless horse fields. Now there is a 12 lane motorway just 400m beyond the school. Beyond that, a huge international rail freight depot, a landfill site, and a sprawling BMW factory. A large proportion of the UK’s population live in or were raised in places just like this, where the boundaries between city and countryside are in flux.
I started photographing on the edges of London after living in the city for just over three years. It came about through a variety of circumstances and influences. Landscape photography was something that I had begun to look at with new eyes – a number of my close friends in photography – Raoul Gatepin, Hin Chua and Michael David Murphy - were sharing ideas and experiences with me that were helping to shape my way of looking and recording. Feeling increasingly imprisoned in central London, it was a natural development to begin making work on the outskirts. Although I am not a native Londoner, I immediately felt an affinity with these urban fringes. ‘Surprised’ is probably too strong a word to describe what I have discovered in my explorations around London’s perimeter; it feels like a very comfortable and normal place for me to be making photographs, probably because the locations that I find myself walking through have such a strong resonance to my youth on the outskirts of Birmingham.
I first received these interview questions from Urbanautica back in January of this year; the complexity and inquisitiveness of them stopped me in my tracks, and made me realise that I needed to make more work and seriously consider why I was making these photographs and where I wanted to position my work in relation to other practitioners. While I was aware of Mark Power’s '26 Different Endings', it’s been a pleasure to discover writers such as Ian Sinclair (London Orbital) and Richar Mabey (The Unofficial Countryside), who alongside the poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts (Edgelands) have explored similar terrain in an attempt to understand and interpret the complex fabric of life in the margins of British cities. It’s also been a pleasure to revisit the photography of Paul Graham and Chris Killip – British artists whose work, rooted in times of social and political tension, has become relevant again as the UK experiences extreme pressure on the welfare state.
It’s ambitious, but I see myself operating in this canon of writers and artists who have responded to social and political upheaval by moving out to work in the fringes, where the effects are felt in more subtle ways. In recent days, it seems that my life has gone full circle, as I have discovered that I will soon be relocating to a suburb of London in Zone 6. It’s an ideal base from which to push on with The Seventh Zone, and for the first time in my life an opportunity to embed myself in the region in which I am making work.»
2. This thread of ambiguity is also the path of your recent work The Gathering Clouds that shows the building boom in Spain, an invasion that quickly boundless, filling open spaces and creating an amorphous urban texture. In your pictures we feel the more anxious side of the development, eager to occupy and convert. What is missing is the spirit of a community, there is little hope.
«I returned to Spain very recently to make new work after a years absence; My relationship with this work was first very different to how I am engaged with the photographs that I am making in London, yet on my most recent trip to photograph, I realised that there are also some quite striking similarities in the methodology and context of the images.
However, in Spain, I am almost without exception an outsider looking in. In this sense the photographs are very responsive – and you’re right that a sense of despair or frustration was something that I felt was around every corner. This didn’t necessarily come directly from the Spanish people, but from more physical signs, namely the almost infinitely repeated motif of abandoned building sites. Aside from these more obvious landmarks, the landscape in Spain bears countless miniscule scars that over time I have noticed more and more.
The suggestion that there is a lack of community in the photographs is also accurate. While it’s important to emphasise that my photographs from Spain are not intended to be inherently factual, there is an unavoidable contrast between Spain’s town centres and the newer developments on the fringes. The passage of time and the gradual development of Spain’s central urban areas have enabled communities to become intrinsically linked with their physical environments. Even when major redevelopment takes place (e.g central Barcelona in the1990’s) there have been existing physical constraints that have dictated a more considered approach, preserving and enhancing the shared public spaces that are integral to the sense of community that is historically a part of Spanish urban living.
In contrast, Spain’s newer suburban development is characterised by a brash and divisive approach to planning. The traditional narrow streets have been overlooked to accommodate bigger properties with private gardens, or vast apartment complexes characterised by their uniformity. Little thought has been given to creating functional and attractive public space, discouraging neighbourly interaction - the fabric that builds a community.
In the last ten days, the tension that I felt amongst the unemployed Spanish youth has exploded into nationwide protests in almost every major centre; In contrast to the empty spaces that I have been photographing, the spirit of unity amongst the young Spanish has proved itself to have tremendous strength. I’m now keen to return to Spain to make some new photographs in response to this dramatic narrative.»
3. In some of your projects places are recounted through the portrait of people. In Higher Lands and Weekenders for example, two distinct visions of youth and their needs are found. The portrait as an opportunity to be surprised by the reality itself, the kind of “unplanned collision” that you tell in Chance Encounters.
«Weekenders came about by pure chance really. I studied photography in Bournemouth from 2004-2006. After graduating, I decided to spend the summer on the south coast of England before moving up to London. My friend Hin Chua came down to visit and photograph for a weekend, and we decided to head down to the beach really early on a sunday morning to capture the seafront in the beautiful morning light. I had been working as a bartender 4-5 nights a week for the previous 2 years, so while I was aware that Bournemouth attracted it’s fair share of weekend revellers from out of town, I didn’t expect to see so many of them still on the beach from the night before. Instead of shooting landscapes that morning, I ended up initiating conversations with some of these drifting souls, and taking their portraits.
The process of photographing Weekenders was a real learning experience; It has informed my working practise, and the way I go about negotiating taking a stranger’s portrait. I learnt to soften my approach, and to quickly build a bond of trust through conversation. My aim when taking a stranger’s portrait is to make my subject feel like they are part of a worthwhile collaboration.
The collection of portraits that I have grouped together in Chance Encounters is a condensed edit of a large number of stranger portraits that I have taken over the last 4 years. When I visit a new place or go on a weekend away, it’s pretty much automatic that I will take a camera with me. I’m not always looking for people to photograph, but every so often I will see or meet someone who it just makes sense to photograph. I’m not particularly scared about approaching a stranger – but often the challenge is how to ‘open’ the encounter without coming across as creepy! Generally I’ll have the camera in a bag or over my shoulder, and will try to identify some common ground with which to engage the subject; common themes are football, music, or that person’s home town.»
4. Thx for the Add brought us to the issue of networking, and in particular to Flickr. Images that feature people first and their faces. How do you rate this ocean of images that is the internet. How is affecting photography and the way we think about it?
«My Thx 4 the Add series evolved fairly organically, by simply photographing people I met originally via online interaction, and eventually in person. To this end, as you have recognised, it reflects upon the phenomena of how photographers have used the internet for both publishing and networking. I’m aware that for photographers who have been in the game for a long period of time, the swift evolution of the internet (and in particular photography and the internet) has had a huge impact. Some have adapted and embraced the internet, others struggle with it, while a small minority of photographers are doing just fine by ignoring the internet almost entirely! My relationship with photography and the internet is probably familiar to many of my peers. I grew up with computers - my parents bought me an Acorn Electron when I was about 10; I can remember writing basic programs and saving them onto analog cassette tapes! I graduated onto the BBC Micro and BBC Master Computers, and eventually an Amstrad PC. I had just started taking photographs (at the age of 15) when we got a Compuserve account at home and I was introduced to the internet.
It was another 7 years before I really started taking photography seriously, and by the autumn of 2002 I was travelling around the world, sending my family and friends photographic updates with a basic Picturetrail account – click here to see a cache of my old homepage! By 2004 I had moved on to a personal photoblog (now also lying dormant!), and since 2005 I’ve had an active and regularly updated flickr account. Nowadays I don’t tend to publish my more serious work on flickr, but in my early days of using the site, I pushed a lot of photography through my stream to see what made an impact, and to work quickly through ideas and styles. I was also able to accumulate a strong and enduring network of friends and peers. The dynamic of reciprocal support that I have experienced through flickr is really quite extraordinary; I’ve been guided through New York, Philadelphia, Kuala Lumpur, Paris, and Sevilla by people that I have met through flickr; I’ve been involved in group shows, collectives, fundraising activities, print exchanges, dinner parties and several road trips with flickr contacts. I’ve hired assistants through flickr, got commissions and syndication deals through flickr, heck I even told Getty to get stuffed via flickr.
I think most photographers in my peer group publish their images through a variety of different platforms. I post random phone images to instagram and twitter, I put party photos, and ‘sketchbook’ snaps through flickr, alongside an occasional more serious photograph as a taster of what I have been doing with my personal work. However I hold back a lot of my project work – I’ve been releasing some images to selected blogs (like this one!) and showing some new work in non internet forums – for instance group slideshows organised by Contact Editions and Roof Unit here in London. Right now I’m holding back new work from my personal website; I’ve got this notion in my head that if I keep the bulk of my images under wraps, there’ll be a reward for those who somewhere down the line choose to invest in my book or go to see my exhibition. I have my first solo show this coming friday at the Third Floor Gallery in Cardiff, and I’m excited that visitors will see a number of completely new and unpublished photographs.»
5. Marcel Proust wrote that «The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes». The project Bratislava goes beyond the banal comments and alien contaminations of a journey. A “clean” documentary that focus on the essentials. Tell us about…
«This Proust quote is such a good one, and really pinpoints where I was with my photography at the time of making the photographs in Bratislava. I’d been making fairly predictable and straightforward documentary projects up to this point – Chinese refugees in London and gold mining in Australia being two such examples. While I was happy with the quality of the photographs I had produced for these series, I was becoming increasingly bored by the predictable nature of this work. I would plan meticulously, make contacts, arrange shooting times – and somehow in my head I new what the images were going to look like before I had even been there. While the were positives to be taken from this approach, I wanted to rediscover in some ways the innocent wonder I had felt when travelling through Australasia and Asia as a younger man with a simple 35mm camera.
I made a series of short excursions in 2008-2009, including trips to New York, Bratislava, Kuala Lumpur and Ontario. Each time I tried to photograph in a freer way – exploring a new place and looking for the scenes and details that encapsulated a locale without becoming cliched. I really felt that in Bratislava and Kuala Lumpur I hit my stride and found a natural working rhythm that I have carried through to my more recent work in Spain and London. Over the course of 3 days in each city, I walked many miles and let myself adapt to the pace of the communities around me.
When I am exploring the outer reaches of London now, I’m unconsciously hitting those same rhythms – the repetition of my footfalls sharpens my senses and awakens my peripheral vision. I see things differently than if I was merely passing through without purpose. Simultaneously, I make a more conscious attempt to be inquisitive of those around me – passing strangers have the potential to be collaborators and conveyors of local knowledge. It is precisely this spontaneity and covering of unexplored terrain that keeps the act of making photographs so vital. For me, the method has become as satisfying and important as the end product.»
Interview by Steve Bisson
© All copyright remains with photographer Ben Roberts