I’m a photographer living on a hillside in North Wales where I’ve been based since 2016. I grew up in the Midlands in a semi-detached urban house in Leamington Spa before going to university in Sheffield. I found myself in Wales after ten years of living overseas: from Paris, through the Middle East to Nairobi, Kenya, where I was based for five years, and back to the UK via a year in Berlin.
Photography is my full-time job with most of my clients being international newspapers and magazines, and various humanitarian organisations. During the pandemic, however, my work was impacted by the restrictions and economic hit to the industry and so I’ve been taking on more ‘desk-based’ work from copy-editing to graphic design to get me through this period.
Much of my work has been based around documenting societies, news events, and issues, but during this period I have been producing more work from home, both in terms of landscapes and highly personal observations of my family, which has been a marked change in what I have published thus far.
Tell us about your journey to photography.
I didn’t grow up surrounded by photography, journalism, the arts, or the wider world, and it was only at university that I began to be exposed to these things.
I did my degree in computer science at the University of Sheffield, but outside of my studies I also took an increasingly active role in the photography society, learning to use a darkroom and using my father’s old Minolta from the 1980s. Following my degree and the first year of a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence, I moved to Paris to work as a web-designer and then technical director of a French-based internet company.
It was during my time in Paris that photography became more of a part of my life, particularly with an interest in reportage and photojournalism. My first real taste of it was photographing protests in reaction to Nicolas Sarkozy’s election as French president where, by chance, I happened to have some film in my camera as protests erupted in the evening at Bastille.
Some of these images were published on the BBC’s Readers’ Pictures section, but it was always just a hobby, a passion. I never imagined that photography was something from which I could make a career or earn a living. During my time in Paris, I made use of the long summer holidays afforded by French contracts to travel, to Russia by train one year, Iran by train the next.
It was during a trip to Morocco, reading Patrick Chauvel’s ‘Rapporteur de guerre‘, that an encounter with a friend-of-a-friend led to me quitting my job and travelling to Nairobi, Kenya, to try and forge a career in photojournalism.
It took me a year to get there, travelling overland and studying Arabic in Damascus, Syria, on the way and then living in Khartoum, Sudan, for a few months. My career was born of a determination to follow stories and the serendipity of encounters along the way.
The first proper story I covered was South Sudan’s independence referendum in 2011 and I was lucky to meet, and be taken under the wing of, several prominent journalists and photographers along the way.
From then on, I travelled the region and the world, covering major news stories for newspapers and Agence France-Presse, which really helped me build a name and learn a lot about the industry and the wider world. For many years, it was pure photojournalism that dominated my life and influenced my photography.
After five years based in Nairobi, Kenya, I felt the desire to leave and eventually found myself back in the UK, living with my now-wife, a fellow foreign correspondent who I met out in Kenya, and my work has been transitioning to a slower pace with more nuance. I’m particularly interested in our relationship with the environment and our interaction with it on various levels, from the destruction of areas through nuclear testing, to rural agriculture and food production.
Let’s talk about your project ‘Solvitur Ambulando’. What was your motivation behind making the work?
With my wife pregnant with our second child during the lockdown, we found our household firmly in the “vulnerable” category.
I’ve been used to stepping towards discomfort and danger, whether lost in the rainforest of equatorial Congo, or covering the conflict in Syria, but this time, we had to take more caution.
For months, I didn’t really leave the valley in which we live, with only occasional visits to the shops to stock up on provisions. I was no longer able to cover what was going on by documenting “the other” and I no longer had the filter of a road or an aeroplane to remove me from the story.
The project began by documenting what our life looked like during the lockdown. With our son no longer in nursery and my wife on a deadline for her first book, I took on much of the childcare.
Our world had shrunk, but perched on the side of this hillside in North Wales it felt like horizons opened up. During the lockdown, Finlay and I explored these hills, and our relationship, together. Walking the rugged hills surrounding our home, hauling him up the ascents on my shoulders, I have also explored the raw landscape of my emotions; I had found becoming a parent a daunting prospect.
Amidst all of the anxiety and frustration published about the restrictions, I wanted to also explore some of the positivity that can come from it, without sugar-coating it. We are lucky to live where we are during such times, but it was also a choice – when we moved back to the UK, our priorities for a location were the proximity to a decent airport and the tightness of the contour lines on a map.
This period of time also anchored my feet to this valley, to the people we share it with, and the landscape that offers such release.
Have you always had an affinity to the outdoors and walking?
I’ve always felt the most alive and inspired in the hills. Yet, until moving to Wales, I’ve always lived in an urban environment. During my years in Paris I frequently escaped on the night-train down to the Alps, and I felt caught in a constant battle between living in the city and escaping to the mountains at weekends, or a desire to live in the mountains and visit the city for my “cultural fix”. But I never made that leap.
As a teenager, I was an avid mountain biker and during my years at university spent much of my time out in the Peak District, either biking or rock-climbing. During my years in Nairobi, I used to come to Wales as a holiday and would walk the hills of Snowdonia or cross the Black Mountains on my bike.
Now they are where I find my release. I love being able to leave the door and be up fell-running in an instant, or walking with our newborn to rock him off to sleep. There is a sense of solitude that I find pleasing, as well as the meditation that comes from placing one foot in front of the other. Mountains give no better backdrop to this; of all the landscapes I have travelled in throughout the world, from oceans to deserts to rainforests, to cities of various different hues, it is the uplands that most fill me with joy.
With this series being so personal and an exploration that’s not just physical but mental and philosophical too, did you find working on this series different to the way you usually photograph?
I think the major difference in making much of this series that I was not simply an observer as I usually am in my work, but a protagonist.
While some of the landscapes I made were when out I have been out walking solo, much of them were taken while also being a husband to my wife, while being a father to our child. I was also conscious that I did not want to gloss over the more difficult times and produce a rose-tinted version of life.
I found to a certain extent there was a feedback loop in terms of how the images I produced forged my own feelings towards circumstances, and my own feelings had a greater impact on the feeling of the scenes I depicted. I have had colleagues describe this work as more “poetic” than my other series.
While working on the project, were there any moments or experiences that stood out to you?
There is certainly a sense of the growth that has taken place in our family through the chronology of the images that plays with the seasonal growth around us, formed by the lockdown beginning in spring and this project ending with the end of summer.
I would also say that at times the growth of the landscape intertwined with the restrictions that were imposed on society, the bracken blocking off paths at the same time that new impositions were placed on our daily lives.
What was also interesting in producing this series was avoiding repetition of images and scenes in what was a very repetitive life, the monotony of days passing by. Although perhaps “monotony” is not the best word, but there was a distinct lack of variety in activities when compared to an average year, though I do not bring with this word the connotations of tedium.
With a second lockdown incoming, what are the most important things you will be doing this time around that you learnt from the first lockdown?
As I write this from the hills of Wales, we are emerging from our second lockdown as England goes into its own. The two week “firebreak” has passed, and in all honesty, it felt like much less of an imposition than the first national lockdown.
The main difference, as a parent, is that the schools and nurseries were open. I felt the starkest divisions in society during the first lockdown, between those who are employed and those who work in different ways, and between those who had more free time than ever and those who felt more busy than before.
I would watch friends and colleagues talk about all the spare time they now had to pursue other activities, how they were bored, or had more time than they knew what to do with. In my case, at the beginning of the first lockdown, I had lingering work from a just-completed assignment in Colombia coupled with the obligations of childcare. I was working before my son woke, and after he had gone to bed, often at my desk until midnight, and then up again at 6am.
Recommend us something.
I’ve been reading a lot more nature writing than I used to and just finished Rob Cowen’s excellent ‘Common Ground‘, a book about his immersion in the edge lands of Harrogate.
The chapters in which he embodies some of the animals he encountered, imagining their lives over the span of a few hours or days is some of the most compelling writing I have read for a long time. And it surprised me; the first chapter left me somewhat uninspired and questioning whether I would enjoy the book at all. As it continued, I became more and more enthralled, racing through some chapters as gripping as the most skilfully crafted thriller.
This followed Nick Hayes’ ‘The Book of Trespass‘, which certainly leaves one feeling less-than-enamoured about English property law and its impositions.
I’ve also been enjoying Karl Ove Knausgård’s ‘Seasons’ quartet. His wholly fresh-eyed view of the world writing about the most common of experiences in intriguing detail has been inspiring while photographing a landscape so familiar to me.
The best part of lockdown was that I found the time to convert our garage building into an office space, complete with a large rack of bookshelves, and so was finally able to unpack my photobooks that have been in storage for the last couple of years as we renovated our hillside cottage.
BBC Sounds’ Ecstasy: The Battle of Rave had me reaching for old electronica albums, and the throbbing of Orbital’s ‘The girl with the sun in her hair’.
At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve been losing myself in bits of opera and over the past couple of weeks have had Mozart’s Requiem on repeat. I’ve found it all particularly good to write to when doing bits of copy-editing and copy-writing.
Finally, tell us about a piece of art that has strongly influenced you.
I touched on it earlier but Patrick Chauvel’s ‘Rapporteur de guerre’ is the book that pivoted my shift from a web-designer living in Paris to a photographer based in East Africa.
I took inspiration from him setting off as a young photographer to Vietnam in the 1960s and the life he then led – albeit with much more experience of the world of photography and journalism than I had when I started out.
For many years, my photography was defined by numerous conflicts throughout Africa and the Middle East, and I am still enamoured with strong reportage work from across the globe. However, I find myself increasingly struggling to justify my own departure to these stories when there is already so much coverage of them from other photographers.
I ask myself “What am I adding here?” I felt I played a part in putting the 2012-13 conflict in Eastern Congo onto the global news agenda, at times, but no longer based in the region, I find it harder to produce the same insight and access. I should re-read it now and see if the experiences he describes match with what I experienced and what I now feel about the industry and bouncing from story to story.
Right now, I’m happy to work closer to home on more “local” issues, and perhaps thinking more about the stories I photograph.