Simon Roberts

This England

I was born in 1974 in a South London suburb. My mother is a northerner from Cleator Moor in Cumbria who met my London born father when they were both working in the capital. My formative years were spent in Oxted, a provincial town in Surrey’s commuter belt. Holidays were often spent walking in the Lake District, usually in the rain or visiting my grandparents in Angmering-on-Sea, a retirement town on the South Coast. My memories of holidays are suffused with very particular landscapes: the lush greenness around Ennerdale Water or the flint-grey skies and pebbles of Angmering’s beaches. It seems to me that these landscapes form an important part of my consciousness, of who I am and how I remember England, whether I am at home or abroad. My childhood memories and the range of associations and images they evoke, were the starting point for the series.

Having returned from Russia in late 2005, where I’d spent a year travelling across the country to produce the book Motherland (2007), I was ready to further develop some of the themes I had found there. Motherland was an exploration of, among other things, the Russians’ attachment to their homeland. This attachment to place was mysterious – both profound and banal – and led me to think about my own fascination with ideas of belonging and memory, identity and place.

The aim of this project was to find my own unique visual language that wasn’t derivative of the work that had gone before (I was acutely aware that there had been a long and rich history of documentary surveys by British photographers that had captured the social, political and cultural landscape of England/Britain – Sir Benjamin Stone, Tony Ray Jones, Martin Parr and John Davies to name but a few). I therefore set myself a fairly rigorous framework within which to work, in terms of geographical boundaries (England, not Britain) and I fixed on leisure as a thematic starting point. Looking at leisure activities struck me as a thought provoking way of exploring England’s shifting cultural and national identity. Leisure seems to say much more about who we are than, for instance, what we do in the workplace. These activities can be aspirational, revealing as much about how we see ourselves as how we wish others to see us. I also decided that I would move away from photographing the individual, which had played a major role in Motherland and engage instead with the idea of the collective, of groups of people populating the landscape.

Where possible I would photograph from elevated positions. Working that way gave me a greater sense of people’s interaction with the landscape and one another. I also decided that the people populating a scene would be relatively small in the frame but not so small that you couldn’t make out some facial expressions, what they were wearing or what they were doing. The plate camera I used was large, cumbersome to operate and often very conspicuous. The process however, turned out to be helpful in capturing each scene as it unfolded before me, without any intervention on my part. I had anticipated that there might be problems in situations in which there were lots of people close to the camera – like photographing on beaches – but by the time I’d finished setting up, any curious onlookers had lost interest and turned away, allowing me to capture very spontaneous images.

I sought to produce a body of work that was beautiful, where England was rendered in an unashamedly lyrical way, even if the landscape depicted was somewhat banal. I wanted to illustrate the paradox of how our wish to ‘commune with’ and ‘be at one’ with nature is set against the seemingly unstoppable desire to inhabit and demarcate the area around us. The result is a series of detailed color landscape photographs – tableaux – which record places where groups of people congregate for common purposes and shared experiences.

Although I had made several solo trips since starting this work in August 2007, the main leg of my English journey began on May Day 2008, when I was joined by my wife Sarah and our daughter, Jemima. I’ve long been fascinated by the tradition of the road trip in photography. Two of my early influences, photographers Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld, have both used extended journeys as a way of exploring America’s cultural landscape.

One of the main challenges was to tune in to the mundane and the everyday, the kind of scenes you normally take for granted, things you pass and wouldn’t necessarily see as a photograph. The wet climate offered up its own challenges in terms of logistics and events being cancelled. Of course, the unpredictability of the English climate has long been seen as one of the keys to our national character and informed much of the character of English art.

My formal training as a cultural geographer (I studied a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Human Geography before taking up photography) was a further influence on my work. The question of how photographs are important to the construction of sense of place has influenced my approach. I became interested in exploring the idea that landscapes need to be decoded. The photographs explore the way in which landscapes can become a site of conflict or unease, where perceived notions of nationhood and quintessential Englishness are challenged, as diverse social groups seek to colonize shared public spaces.

While travelling I began to notice that the settings of my photographs were pastoral. Even in the centre of towns and cities, I found people drawn to the green spaces, where there’s a definite sense of ‘going out into nature’; a sense that being in nature, however meagre, is a retreat from normal life: an opportunity for repair or rejuvenation, as well as an aesthetic experience. Yet I was reminded of a quote from W.G. Hoskins’ 1955 book The Making of the English Landscape 1955: “Not much of England, even in its more withdrawn, inhuman places, has escaped being altered by man in some subtle way or other, however untouched we fancy it is at first sight.”

Interestingly, many scenes of modern day leisure now take place on what were once industrial sites, such as Cotswold Water Park, which were once gravel pits; or the Stadium of Light, home of Sunderland football club built on the site of a former coal mine. Another theme that emerged was the importance of local communities and the strength of attachment that people feel to their local area. Lots of the leisure activities I photographed occurred at boundary points: edges of cities, beside lakes and reservoirs, along footpaths and mountain ridges. I liked the sense of literal and metaphorical boundaries, of edges created or unconsciously preserved. While editing the photographs, I noticed how many of the landscapes are shot through with rivers, trees and hedges that create physical divisions, just as the people themselves create their own personalised environments and boundaries. These divisions impose a new structure upon the landscape and have a beauty of their own.

In most places I visited, I bought a local newspaper to find out about local events – such as summer fetes, sporting events or annual customs – and gain some insight into the area. Village and community notice boards were also valuable. I wanted to get an English audience to talk about what England means to them but also to invite me to come and photograph events or leisure pursuits. I set up a website where people could post their ideas. I received a few hundred suggestions from the general public www.we-english.co.uk. The ideas posted provide an interesting snapshot of England in 2008. They illustrate what’s important to people and reflect English people’s ideas about the notion of Englishness. This work is still very much my England. I feel it fits into a wider history of photographic projects that have explored the national question about who the English are.

Simon Roberts

We English by Simon Roberts was published by Chris Boot Ltd (www.chrisboot.com)

An exhibition of photographs from We English will be on show at the National Media Museum, Bradford, UK from 11th March – 8th September (www.nationalmediamuseum.org.uk)