Exercise: We English

Brief

Read the article on We English in Eight magazine (issue 25, summer 2009).

Download Stephen Daniels’ introductory essay to We English and the relevant contact sheets.

Write a short reflective commentary.

Response

I was pleasantly surprised to see that despite the title implying something along the lines of Tony Ray Jones, Martin Parr or latterly Peter Dench – quirky vignettes of British life – this collection is something else altogether. It’s an example of what’s probably a quite underpopulated hybrid genre: landscape-documentary.

The essay was interesting enough but I struggled to find major insights; I was hoping for an explanation of the urge to photograph our leisure time but mostly found a description. This extract was particularly interesting however, in the light of the post-Brexit future:

“In a way, it is curious that despite its being one of the oldest, most densely settled and heavily portrayed countries in Europe, writers and artists still go in search of England as a nation. This perhaps reflects England’s post-imperial predicament, the complications of New Commonwealth immigration, membership of the European Union, and UK devolution, particularly the resurgence of a confident, forward-looking, flag-waving Scottish and Welsh nationalism.” (Daniels 2010)

It does however coin a pleasingly alliterative phrase that perfectly describes Robert’s work: “living landscapes of leisure” (ibid).

We-English-20.jpg
from We English, 2008 by Simon Roberts

The distinctive approach that Roberts takes for the vast majority of the project is genius in its simplicity: he pulls back for vast, wide shots, taken from high above (he was usually standing on the roof of his motorhome). Instead of focusing on, for example, one family picnic, he takes in a broad vista showing dozens of families doing the same thing. Rather than use one family or individual to stand in for, or represent their social group, Roberts instead shows a significant chunk of that social group all in the same place doing the same thing. He reveals the kind of group-think that leads people to want to do the same things in the same place in their leisure time. In doing so he actually makes a stronger case for portraying ‘the English’ – or at least subsets of the English – as identifiably having national character traits than the other photographers I mentioned in the introduction.

Visually a few things stand out. Firstly, the resemblance to landscape paintings is strong in many of the images, particularly the rural ones.

Secondly, it was interesting to read the Foto8 interview written whilst the project was a work-in-progress and understand that Roberts had quite strict parameters that he had set himself with his selection, such as needing to have people in the shots but only taking up a third of the image. (Foto8, 2009). Working to self-imposed rules like this help to give the set a cohesive feel, and it’s something I should think about incorporating into my own practice.

Finally, the high vantage point does an excellent job of detaching Roberts, and therefore the viewer, from the scene – it’s the viewpoint of an all-seeing higher power, surveying the land (if you believe in that sort of thing…). This lends it an authoritative air.

Quite apart from the visual and artistic elements of the work, it’s worth briefly looking at how Roberts successfully got interest in his project, as it is kind of a case study in self-promotion. Part of it was a ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ friendship with a BBC website picture editor, and the other masterstroke was crowdsourcing (before that word was coined) subject matter for the project while it was a work in progress – thus guaranteeing a readership before the book was even published.

In a callback to my last post comparing Gypsies with The Roma Journeys, this is another example of someone finding fresh ways to depict seemingly well-covered subject matter. The English, and England, prove to be endlessly fascinating.

Sources

Foto8 Issue 25 https://issuu.com/foto8/docs/issue25 (accessed 18/07/2016)

We English http://www.simoncroberts.com/work/we-english/ (accessed 18/07/2016)

We English http://www.we-english.co.uk (accessed 18/07/2016)

The English Outdoors http://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/weenglish.pdf (accessed 18/07/2016)

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