WEEK ZERO //
'It's better to burnout than to fade away'.
Earlier this year I read a short photobook by Andrew Phelps, 'Higley' (2007). Both inspiring and slightly unnerving I was surprised to see many similarities in our experiences as a child and as a photographer. This was even more surprising as we grew up in completely different corners of the earth. Phelps demonstrates isolation and nostalgia in a deceivingly innocent manner. By photographing a return trip to his home town he captures a community caught in 'expansion'. Whether purposeful or not, as a reader I drew my own connections with Phelps as he dissects elements of his upbringing and documents a fading tradition. He grew up in a remote dry town called Higley in Arizona (thus the name). I grew up in a remote farming community in the North West of England. Both places seemed to suffer from the same issue, a stubborn community struggling to fight the future.
Interestingly, growing up in such a setting allowed me to learn two important life skills.
1) How to enjoy the outdoors. (There was nothing else to do)
2) How to enjoy my own company.
I also learnt how to smell cow shit on a daily basis and not let that bother me. However, when I turned eighteen I shipped myself off to Manchester and became absorbed by the urban abyss. So Ten years later when I read 'Higley' and witnessed glowing imagery of the past I got hit by a truth bomb out of nowhere.
'I have completely lost touch with my origin, my roots' I thought.
Phelps presents us with images of empty childhood homes, aged relatives, dust filled family photos and other nostalgic knives in the back. We get to see slithers of change and renewal, but met with a visual feeling of 'distrust'. His images demonstrate people and places fighting to preserve their 'tradition'. Which led me to question my own mindset and I came to the conclusion; I don't see my family enough. I never leave the house, unless it's to get to and from work. I hated my own company, it consisted of worrying about deadlines, struggling to pick a podcast or generally just planning the next chunk of my life. I no longer carried my two important life lessons from my youth. I'd let change beat my own traditions. Therefore, it was time to fight back.
So what did I do? I did what every self depreciating artist does. I ran into a creative project, arms flailing, no research, just me and over £100 of colour and B&W film. You don't have to read to the end, I'll kill the suspense now by revealing that my project was an utter disaster.
Chronologically it went a little like this -
I rang my parents excitedly explaining that I had a 'very important' photography task to do. I stayed with them for just short of a week in the middle of the countryside in Lancashire. During this time I shot a considerable amount of film work and clocked off a few SD cards from my digital. 'Mixing the formats' I thought to myself, as though this was some groundbreaking technique that would somehow transform my work.
I ended up drinking a lot of gin with my family and even got to try my dad's favourite new pizzeria, fair to say that was the best part. In an attempt to investigate my own traditions from a documentary perspective I fell into the nostalgia trap that Phelps had warned us about. See the trouble with nostalgia is it's a completely skewed vision of events. I attempted to re-create the empty scenes and meditative motifs of my past and just ended up having a really good time with my loved ones. I tried to force direction on my style and my imagery. Phelps had actually succeeded in relating to me without either of us being aware. Instead of being inspired to create my own project, his photography had actually inspired me to enjoy myself. It had woken me up from a long creative drought and initiated a break in my routine. I returned to Manchester relaxed, accompanied with a huge film developing bill.
Although a little deflated from my work, it reminded me about the importance of photography, It's ability to move people. I no longer wanted to run head first into re-creating something I liked. I needed to follow my own path to produce imagery drawn from my own emotions and take the time to craft meaningful person work.
The image at the top of this text is one of my favourite images taken in the project (Mum and Dad's room). Whilst the shot lists called for countryside and farmland. I woke up with a hangover on the Sunday to see some interesting light falling on my parents bed. This was the only time during the entire project were I felt a connection between an image and my past; but also a morbid reminder of my future. This bed is empty, is this positive or negative? The old fashioned colours and decorations convey an aged motif. Has somebody moved out, or passed away? A setting sun would suggest the end whilst a rising sun the beginning. The name 'Mum and Dad's room' makes it sound off limits. These are the sort of questions and thoughts I draw from my image here. Depending on where somebody is in their life, the image and its title could bring them to tears. You can't force somebody to 'feel' something from your photography, just as you can't produce photography with the sole goal of making people react to it.
None of the other images from this project create that sense of feeling or suggestion. This project proved to me that it's okay to crash and burn, it's actually a really big part of artistic progress. But it also reminded me the importance of viewing other photographers work, as this creates direction whilst solidifying the need for honest, heartfelt images.