Simon Roberts’s We English shows what traveling around England in a motor home for six months will get you. Of course, it’s much more than that, but in a way it’s also that simple: a series of (exquisite) landscapes photographed in 2008 that depict a survey of Britons at leisure. As Roberts notes below, “I was interested in the fact that leisure is something thing we do very self-consciously, given that we have relatively little ‘leisure time.’ It therefore seems to say much more about us than what we do for work, which for many is done out of necessity rather than choice.”
Roberts’s photographs have been exhibited widely, with recent shows at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art, Shanghai and are held in a number of private and corporate collections. He has been published in magazines including Granta, The Sunday Times Magazine, Details, Der Spiegel, and Le Monde. Motherland, his first monograph, was published in March 2007.
How did the project come about? Had you visited or photographed these different locations before?
Having returned from Russia in late 2005, where I’d spent the year traveling across the country working on my first book (Motherland, Chris Boot Ltd, 2007) I began to pursue the idea of another journey, this time around my own homeland, England. 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. Work by the likes of Sir Benjamin Stone, Bill Brandt, Tony Ray Jones, Martin Parr, and John Davies to name but a few. However, I was surprised by the lack of contemporary studies that had been made over the past decade (possibly because there has been a tendency for photographers of my generation to go abroad to document other, more exotic places—myself included). So it seemed like an appropriate opportunity to try and extend this important legacy.
The key to the project was to find my own unique visual language that wasn’t derivative of the work that had gone before. I 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. Also, in contrast to my work in Russia, where everything was a possible photograph, with this project I wanted to set myself a stricter framework within which to work—in terms of geographical boundaries (England, rather than Britain), composition (only landscapes, not portraiture) and theme (leisure).
From August 2007 until April 2008 I made a number of exploratory trips around the country before deciding to purchase a motor home (a 1993 Talbot Express Swift Capri) and make a continuous six-month journey the length and breadth of England, this time joined by my wife and our two-year-old daughter. Most of the locations which feature in the book I’d not been to before. However, some of the photographs are rooted in a consciousness of my own attachment to my homeland whereby I occasionally sought out places that I believe helped shape my own feelings of Englishness (childhood holidays spent walking in the Lake District—normally in the rain—or visiting my grandparents in Angmering, a retirement town on the South Coast). One of the main challenges in the project was to tune in to the mundane and the everyday, the kind of scenes that you take for granted, the things you pass and wouldn’t necessarily see as a photograph. Of course when you go abroad everything is exotic, in the sense that everything you see is unfamiliar.
The pictures of groups of people are very tranquil—there’s a lack of noise. Did you set out to capture something specific?
It became my intention to produce a series of detailed color landscape photographs, tableaux if you like, which recorded places where groups of people congregated for a common purpose and shared experience. And since landscape has long been used as a commodity to be consumed, I decided to focus on leisure activities as a way of looking at England’s shifting cultural and national identity. I was interested in the fact that leisure is something thing we do very self-consciously, given that we have relatively little “leisure time.” It therefore seems to say much more about us than what we do for work, which for many is done out of necessity rather than choice.
Where possible I would photograph from elevated positions (often from the roof of my motor home), which would enable me to get a greater sense of people’s interaction with the landscape and with one another. I also decided that the people populating a scene would be relatively small in the frame; although not so small that you couldn’t make out some facial expressions, what they were wearing, and their activities. This way of seeing was influenced by the 16th century Dutch and Flemish landscape painters, most notably Hendrick Avercamp and Lucas van Valckenborch who depicted winter scenes teeming with life. I photographed with an old 5x4 field camera, which was quite laborious and often very public, however the process 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 where 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, thereby allowing me to achieve very spontaneous images.
What makes a landscape, or one of these tableaux, specifically English for you?
Frequently referred to as “this green and pleasant land”, a photographic examination of England as landscape alone could easily degenerate to chocolate-box sentimentality, but We English is not simply about landscape, it is about the place of the English within it. While I didn’t set out to produce a very pastoral set of photographs the work became that through a combination of my editing process but also the places where leisure often happened. Even in the center of towns and cities, I found that people were often drawn to the green spaces, where there’s a definite sense of “going out into nature,” a sense that being in nature, however meager, is a retreat from normal life: an opportunity for repair or rejuvenation, as well as an aesthetic experience. The photographs often reflect that idea of a rural idyll; although they stop short of being outright romantic interpretations of a scene and—like the figures that populate them—they are conscious that this idyll is a construct: an allusion to an imagined way of life.
The project derives its title from the suggestion that photographer and subjects—we “English”—are complicit in the act of representation. I was conscious that the work shouldn’t solely be about my perception of my homeland and I wanted to get my subjects I was documenting to talk about what England means to them, but also to invite me to come and photograph an event or leisure pursuit. I set up a web site where people could post their ideas, and I received a few hundred suggestions from the general public. It struck me as a suitably democratic way of working, positioning me as it did alongside my fellow countrymen—a citizen, not just an onlooker—and attempting to involve people, to a certain degree, in their own representation. The ideas that were posted provide an interesting snapshot of England in 2008 in their own right. They illustrate what’s important to people and explore people’s own ideas on the notion of Englishness.
What are you working on now?
Trying to come up with my next big idea! I’m interested in moving away from the “national survey” and working in a much tighter geographical area, maybe a portrait of the town where I currently live, Brighton.