To build a home – Amanda Jackson

I’m originally from Canada and moved to the UK in 2001. Both my parents are English so we always spent a lot of our summer holidays over here and I always felt a draw to live here. I’ve moved around a fair bit since, first living in Malvern, where my mum is from, for two years to study photography at Hereford College of Arts, then London for four years to work as a photographer’s assistant. In 2007 I went back to Hereford to finish my degree, and I later lived in Wales in a static caravan for two years next to the Lammas Eco Village and have now been living back in Malvern for the last seven years.

Being a working photographer has been my dream since I was sixteen years old and first discovered the darkroom in my alternative high school in Toronto. Until four years ago I’d always had part-time jobs to help supplement my income from photography and, because of that, I never had the impetus to really try to make a proper living from it.

When I finally took the leap to go fully self-employed in 2016, I learnt so much about myself and what I needed to do to make and get work than I had in all the years before that. I now work as an interiors and portrait photographer commercially and also undertake personal documentary projects.

What’s your story?

I was given my first camera by my grandfather on my eighth birthday. I’m the youngest of three siblings and it was a tradition that he would give each of us a camera on our eighth birthdays so I was even more excited than a kid usually is about my birthday that year. I loved photography all through my childhood and teenage years but it wasn’t until I started using the darkroom at school at the age of sixteen that I really started to think of following it to a career.

In my work, I’m passionate about sustainable living and the environment and my documentary work focuses on people living low-impact lifestyles and their connection to the land. I also place great value on the connection to the people I’m photographing.

Tell us about your project.

The series ‘To Build A Home’ is a study of the people of Lammas Tir Y Gafel Eco Village and the surrounding community, a North Pembrokeshire settlement near Glandwr.

My approach to photography is to get to know the people I photograph well, allowing me to create intimate portraits of the people within their surroundings. I photographed Lammas in 2010 for the first time. I fell in love with the area, the people and the way of life – so much so that in early 2011, I relocated to live beside the village and I now have my own land nearby. In 2013, I received a grant from the Arts Council of Wales to produce this series, which is all shot on medium format colour film.

The series not only looks at the nine plots and the people that make up Lammas but also looks at the people surrounding the eco village as they very much part of the community too. While some already lived in the area before the eco village came about in 2009, others moved there and bought their own land after volunteering at the eco village. Also key to the community are the volunteers that come to help on people’s plots, sometimes short-term – often they find themselves embracing the way of life and stay for a few months, or indefinitely.

As well as documenting the day-to-day activities, I aim to show a mix of community life through the people that live there. Some of the photographs will not only meet expectations of what living in an eco village would be like, but feel familiar; others will surprise. In photographs such as “YouTube Friday” we see how the residents embrace modern day technology but in a sustainable way, using hydroelectricity.

In a society that increasingly shelters children from harm, perhaps at the expense of freedom, the photographs of the children of the village may invoke anything from wistfulness to fear in the viewers. The children are free to roam away from busy main roads, but also live and play in an ongoing construction site. We also see adults, including parents, working their plots or enjoying some down time.

Through these photos, there is a glimpse into the lives of the people of this community living a way of life that used to be ordinary but now must be chosen. Sometimes contradictory, often humorous, the series evokes a timelessness while capturing a growing modern movement.

Telling stories about communities is important. How did you approach this story and community as an outsider?

I came across the Lammas eco village in 2010 when doing research online about sustainable living and eco villages and, by chance, I met someone who knew some of the people involved in setting it up. I then contacted one of the residents at Lammas by email with the view of going to visit and (naively) thinking I could make a project in a few days spent there. At that time the eco village hadn’t been going long, so whilst they had visitors they weren’t as numerous as they are now, especially with the increasing number of volunteers who come to help and learn from staying on a specific plot.

My photographs will always have my viewpoint imprinted on them, so the idea of authenticity is an interesting one. I try to tell a story with my photos through that viewpoint but more than that, I want the images to evoke a feeling of the place and the people and give the viewer a glimpse at a way of life.

Were there any moments or experiences or realisations that stood out to you?

There were so many, which I guess there would be if you’ve been photographing a community for a decade! One of the most important things that I learnt through doing this project is to trust my approach. I like slow photography. I enjoy the process so much more when I don’t feel rushed, when I can take the time to observe and to make connections to the people I’m photographing.

I remember attending a get together at Katy and Leander’s house on Christmas Eve, 2014. We were sat around the table and my friend Jasmine who also lived at the eco village then turned to me and asked me “Amanda, do you ever take photographs just for fun and not for a project?” And I replied that no, I didn’t. The concept had become so alien to me, I’d become so project-led. And she declared that she’d been “doing” the book ‘The Artist’s Way’ by Julia Cameron, a self-help book divided into twelve weeks to help artists to rediscover their creativity and gain confidence.

With a nod of her head, Jasmine said she thought I needed the book too. I can be resistant to anyone telling me what to do, so it wasn’t until a year later that I bought the book and did the exercises from cover to cover. It was through doing that book that I came to the realisation that no one was going to tell me when it was a good, safe time to quit my job; it was ultimately my decision. I think until that point I’d been waiting for permission.

I also want to ask about the arts council funding you received for this work. So many of us struggle with grant applications – do you have any advice to share?

Everyone told me how competitive grants were and that made me all the more determined. I think it also made me go into perfectionist overdrive and I ended up working on my application for eight months.

I am currently in the process of applying for a grant from Arts Council England for a new project. This time I’ve done an exchange with someone specialising in helping with people with funding – photographs for her website in exchange for mentoring with my application. I’ve found this really helpful as it gives me specific deadlines to get progress sent to her and it also helps keep my perfectionism in check.

The main thing is not to get bogged down with the concern of whether you’re going to be successful with you grant application or not. It’s a hard thing to do but the process of completing a grant application – while sometimes arduous – can make your ideas much more concrete and force you to be more realistic about timelines and budgets.

Recommend us something.

I’m currently reading Sally Mann’s memoir ‘Hold Still’. It is wonderful and is a memoir like no other. I’ve been in love with her photography for many years and hearing her describe her process, her obsession with the Virginia landscape and the importance of place is deeply moving and inspiring.

While ‘Hold Still’ is a riveting book, it also gets my brain going. So to shut down my over-thinking and planning brain off I’m also reading fiction books at the same time. I’ve declared 2020 the year of Agatha Christie. Having never read any of her books before, I’ve found the escapism to be greatly comforting especially in this year of uncertainty. I’ve read about forty so far – I’ve never read this much in my life!

Finally, tell us about a piece of art that has influenced you.

I was first introduced to Emmet Gowin’s photograph ‘Nancy, Danville, Virginia, 1969’ of a girl with her arms entwined holding an egg by a tutor at a photography night school class whilst I was still living in Toronto, and I was later re-introduced to Gowin’s work whilst studying at Hereford. While I love all of Emmet Gowin’s photography and the intimacy of his family portraits, this one first stood out to me for both that intimacy and for the subtle humour and gentle bizarreness of the scene.

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