I’ve been experiencing what I consider to be an issue in the current bodies of work I am working to produce. I spent most of summer 2022 photographing customs, celebrations, rituals, and practices mostly in the South of England. These are part of ongoing documentation with my collective, New Exit Group as we are working on producing documentation on aspects of British culture that connect with us in more than a superficial way.
British culture doesn’t just mean a collection of stereotypical semiotics; it is a rich and diverse mosaic. It means everything from practices dating many thousands of years, to present-day economic and social crises.
This core drive obviously has the potential, if taken as a monolith, to be a project of huge scope, far larger than any individual or even group would be able to tackle as a whole. Someone producing a project with a simple title “Britain”, or “England” is overselling in a sense, which sets up an expectation and will ultimately disappoint. There is simply too much to cover, and there would always be something missing from such a work. As such, we are working in bite-sized chunks around our own schedules and workflows.
We don’t expect to produce something monolithic. Instead, the work represents a limited perspective and hopefully is definitive to that interpretation.
With this approach, a release would not overstate its intention; there would always be a boundary, whether it is a certain timeframe, a certain community event, a certain character arc, or a certain idea we unpack. All of this within the wider context of aspects we personally want to be exploring, which hopefully translates into work an audience will want to learn from.
Documenting communities is a straightforward way to make small steps within this process, gathering-in stories and testimony that can form their own chapters, or become part of larger, longer-term publications.
Our debut zine, BARDO: Summer of ’20 featured a very wide and holistic portrayal of many vignettes — mainly life during the summer under a pandemic, but including social issues, and social triumphs. On a smaller scale, we have community-focused stories, as is the case with Foundation Stone. This was shot over only a few hours and depicts the ceremony by which a small community lays the foundation stone for the expansion to their temple, representing the growth of the community as much as it does simple infrastructure.
Milestone situations like this foundation laying, beginnings, endings, any time a community decides to gather and participate in meaningful expression, are heavily weighted when it comes to the opportunity to produce strong documentation. Everyday cultural expression is one step, a step which can be covered via general view street style photography, portraiture, and “interior” images to show a little more intimacy than the detached street style images would.
However, moments of cultural behaviors manifesting in the form of the events and milestones described above are rarer, and more special to document. They can inform the general view images, and be informed by them. All of these approaches working in harmony provide a very rich view for an audience looking at the resulting photographs.
It is that rarity where I am finding it difficult to remain coherent long-term.
Photographing a general view — documenting the passing of time in the form of day-to-day life — happens implicitly, without needing to be forced, planned, and accounted for. It happens whether something else is happening or not, so it does not offer the structure to really dedicate my time to. However, those rarer situations also do not provide such a framework, as they are not only one-offs, at most lasting a few days, but are also broken up throughout the year, and not consistent enough to really build up momentum within one theme.
I recently photographed the process of re-chalking an ancient hillside giant, the figure of a horse made of Chalk. This happens every year, and ensures the figure doesn’t become overwhelmed with plant growth, or dull from the elements. It is a beautiful situation, very photogenic, and can become its own short story, and also be represented in a wider look at maintenance of heritage, or maybe even something more abstract regarding English culture. The Chalking this year took place across four days, and I was able to attend two of them.
Two days really is not a lot to be able to figure out a dynamic in the location, the people, the activity; but even if we call this an entry point to the story and allocate five years to work on it, that still only really offers four-day slots over the next five years (if I’m able to do all four days each of those years) so that’s twenty days total shooting time. The chalking starts in the morning around 9/10am, and goes onwards until maybe 4/5pm, so lets be generous and call it a 9-5 situation, leaving us with 160 hours across those twenty days.
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That seems like a lot, but when you look at having to pick up fresh after a year, spend that first day getting back into things, and building up that momentum until you are spending the last day or so being really creative with the situation, photographically, with the interviews, really going in deep so that you offer more than something superficial to your audience, and you’ll realize it just isn’t a lot of time.
With perspective, even this limited time is a luxury, when compared to events that do not take place over four days. I photographed a Tamil Rathayatra celebration, which is a one-day-per-year happening. If I wanted to document this specific event over ten years, that still only works out to ten days total working time, not accounting for any contextual work I may also do with the community.
Foundation Stone was photographed across one morning in May 2022, and was a true one-off, not a yearly celebration or ritual, a real once-in-a-lifetime situation. This took the pressure off in a way, as Sagar and I did the best we could at the time, and the work was easy to formulate into a publication. Limited, with clear boundaries, it is a slice of life and a story with a beginning, middle, and end. I was able to do justice to the situation, as I was already familiar with the main aspects of the puja from previous attendance at the Mandir, so only had to find my feet for the second half of the ceremony.
Despite the limited timeframe, I was able to take it slow, observe where necessary and then use that observation to document. In harmony with Sagar together, we produced a significant document from this one-off event. The scope and scale were limited and the project reflects that. It is definitive.
For something repetitive, the scale is less well defined; cyclical stories like the Horse Chalking, equinoxes, new years celebrations, the birthday of a Hindu deity, offer such limited potential, one day to both build back up, find that headspace from the last year, pick up those threads, and then slowly build on the story you are telling. One day per year, jumping from one story to the next, always starting fresh — even on well-trodden ground. I can feel my projects coming together, but so slowly, it’s very frustrating. If I waste a day, or do something experimental, it is so painful if those efforts are unsuccessful and put me back a day, because that translates into adding another year just to reach that day again.
Finding some new direction, researching, and then allocating myself ten years to go in depth on something rare may only be giving myself ten days for the actual photography side of things. Sure I can photograph a general view of the area, work on context, research more, and go in-depth, but for that rare cultural behavior on display, I have such a limited window to work with.
For documentary narrative stories this is not something I will overcome, it is an aspect I must accept. Finding a way to build a framework in between the narrative pieces I want to be the backbone of my publications is essential to giving myself the tools to be still be around for those distant years of finalizing such a project.
In the meantime, I am still hard on myself for making photographs of nothing, those pretty little aesthetic details, the finer art open to interpretation. Ideas emerge, and then these become part of that puzzle: includable, and sometimes integral. These are usually contributions to an ambient project, personal or abstract work outside of my documentary photography, without character arcs or a story structure, but usually expansion on an idea. For these, scope is badly defined until I figure out the definitive purpose, and not always guaranteed, but will still be better than a project where the scope is reliant on an uncertain future.
As much as my ideas stretch into the indeterminate future, I can only ever offer my future self the best building blocks to work with that I am able to. I have to trust that not all of my project ideas will be winners, but that I must give them all the best I can offer, not hold back just because they may be redundant.
I will always have more half-finished ideas, not just in my photography but in my writing, too. Better to push them towards halfway and realize my time is better spent on something else than to lose my motivation to get any of my projects anywhere near finished. Pushing lots of things towards halfway means I will eventually get at least some of them over the finish line. If after three years a project fizzles out, then I will have three years worth of material to re-appropriate for other purposes, or to use for teaching. As I’ve said before there is no wasted time as long as it is part of a larger process.
Thanks for reading,
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Your approach is too cerebral and dryly academic. I get the feeling you are grasping at any subject matter that you deem “important” as opposed to a simple but emotionally compelling subject that GRIPS you. “To describe the tree, show the leaf” Instead of trying to be comprehensive, be personal. Choose YOUR Britain. As an American student I spent most of 1971-’72 in The Ringwood, Christchurch, Bournemouth area. I photographed one particular Bus Stop. It seemed like the summary of how I viewed Britain in contrast to Chicago.
Sound advice. Thank you for sharing.
Are you suggesting that my essay is too academic? 😀
I can agree that the style is academic, but the subject is an interesting one.
Really interesting article, Simon. Thought provoking, because it applies to any project any photographer might be working on. Setting the boundaries of it, finding a structure. I afmire the enormous scope you take on!
Thank you Lorraine! 🙂