England is Mine
Englishness is back on the agenda. Gordon Brown has been flying the flag for St.George; and Billy Bragg has been banging the drum for patriotism.Propitious timing then for Simon Roberts to undertake a major new project, We English, examining national identity, landscape and leisure. For the next five months he (and his family) will travel the country in a motorhome photographing and researching subjects and locations. The work is due for book publication in September 2009.
Maldon Mud Race, Essex – Simon Roberts
Maldon Mud Race, Essex – Simon Roberts
Roberts is best known for the widely-exhibited series and book Motherland, a collection of photographs taken over the course of a year traveling throughout Russia. Though he was not aware at the time, that experience prepared the ground for his new project:
“We English basically came about after doing the book on Russia – I became really interested by the whole idea of patriotism. The thing about Russian identity is that there’s this real sense of belonging to something that’s bigger than just the state…and I really felt that I almost didn’t know what it meant to be English, or British for that matter. I really didn’t get the same sense of being part of something.”
“So when I came back to England I really felt that I wanted to explore my own country and look at the idea of what it means to be English. I know it’s difficult, and I’m not suggesting that I’m necessarily going to produce something that achieves that.”
Despite the long succession of English photographers who have documented their homeland, Roberts identified a recent dearth of material. “There’d been very little work over the last decade or so. I think my generation of photographers has often gone abroad for a lot of our work. I remember when I was starting out so many photographers I trained with were going out to Bosnia or Chechnya, or wherever it was, to try and get a dramatic set of pictures. It’s that kind of work that wins awards.”
For many of Roberts’ predecessors the rituals, absurdities and banalities of English leisure have proved particularly fertile ground. Sir Benjamin Stone’s turn of the century photographs catalogued “picturesque festivals and curious customs”, as did Homer Sykes’ pictures some seventy years later. Mass Observation took a break from Worktown to survey the excesses of Blackpool’s Pleasure Beach. Tony Ray Jones’ photographs were gathered under the title A Day Off; while Patrick Ward’s were subtitled The English at Play. No great suprise that Martin Parr worked as a photographer at Butlin’s.
Roberts is similarly inclined. “What people do in their leisure time can say much more about them than what they do at work; and so leisure seemed an interesting vehicle to use to explore the country. Although we all go away on our annual summer holiday, we also tend to do things that are quite local. In some ways our identity is expressed in a very localised manner through leisure and recreation. This could be something as mundane as a car boot sale or just some guys fishing at the side of the road – it doesn’t have to be something very eccentric.”
Half term holidays on Holkham Beach, Norfolk – Simon Roberts
Roberts’ project is distinguished by an understanding of cultural geography and the importance of landscape – all of We English will be photographed outdoors. “I’m very interested in our relationship with the landscape, and I’ve decided to do everything outside – so of course there are things I’m going to miss like working men’s clubs or bingo, things like that – but you cant do everything.”
And, to a probably unprecedented degree, his portrayal of the English promises to be collaborative and dialogic: “An important part of this project is that it is not just about my ideas of England; I’m trying to get other people’s. So I have a website with a section where people can invite me to come and photograph them. And they can suggest ideas. So the whole concept of representation is being challenged. It’s not just me and a guide book being a tourist; it’s much more an engagement with my subjects to try and find ideas that aren’t part of the national consciousness, to try to explore things that haven’t necessarily been photographed, or that we’re not so familiar with.”
Visit We English at: http://we-english.co.uk