At the end of Brighton Pier, on bright, clear but cold November day, just as the sun is dipping down towards the horizon, a mother dressed in a Niqab strolls easily with another individual, their arms interlocked in a precious way that suggests the maternal nature of their relationship. They are laughing and taking photographs of the sunset with their mobile phones. The young person has the most serene and easy beauty, with large bright eyes and angular cheek bones. Her presentation is strikingly feminine but also, ultimately, androgynous and challenges conventional heteronormative rules of beauty and attraction. Valerie presents us with the possibility for other ways in which traditional notions of beauty, attraction and gender identity can be interpreted and represents the growing awareness in our culture for such alternatives.
I had found the boy in the blinking neon lit pleasure dome of Margate’s Fun Land engrossed in the game of ‘Grab n Go’. I had watched as he became utterly absorbed in the futile task of trying to win a prize and recalled with some fondness my own captivation and failure with this very same game.
Having metered and pre-focused I watched him for several minutes, waiting for him to turn around and make eye contact before opening the shutter. In the brief moment he looked at me I felt his sense of surprise. It was as though the time he had spent engrossed in his game had been held still and stretched like elastic, the release snapping the elastic back into place with a jolt.
As a small boy I would be taken to the seaside town of Blackpool for days out and I vividly recall the intense sense of excitement I would feel in my tummy when the sea finally came into view over the dashboard of the car.
I found him playing the slot games on Brighton Pier with his daughter. His bright blue eyes, white hair and colourful tattoos caught my eye but he didn't seem to understand why I was interested in him. A moment earlier I had seen him having a quiet moment alone on the pier, lost in thought. I was struck then by his vulnerability and imagined he had been thinking about his daughter so I asked him to think about the very first moment he held her after she was born.
I have always loved finding subjects on the beach; as a small boy growing up south of Manchester. I recall the vivid sense of excitement that trips to the seaside at Blackpool and Southport would hold and the wild whirling butterflies I would feel in my stomach as the sea came in to view over the dashboard of the car.
The seaside for me represents that sense of ‘other’, of carnival, freedom and sometimes hedonism. It is a place where we are able to be freer with ourselves and in particular with our bodies. In this way, finding and engaging subjects while on the beach introduces the potential for vulnerability in a subject without that experiencing overpowering the resulting image.
This portrait of Sue, a member of the titular ‘Silly Old Farts Swim Club’, was taken shortly after the club’s daily swim on Vazon Beach, Guernsey. I was drawn by the vivid colour of Sue’s cap, which served to frame her beautiful features. It very deliberately recalls the beach portraits of Rineke Dijkstra as well as Botticheli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’ (which was itself the inspiration for a number of Dijkstra’s own portraits) and aims to portray the serene beauty of a full life in older age.
This portrait of Joe, a young man I met in passing one evening in my home town, asks the viewer to explore traditional notions of sexuality and attraction. It was shot using natural light in a way that aimed to accentuate his sublime and gentle beauty. The very direct look to camera aims to draw the viewer in and forces their attention on his features, in particular the mouth and eyes.
I have always been drawn to people whose physical presentation and appearance epitomised such epicene beauty as previously celebrated in classical antiquity. Until very recently however, the rules of physical attraction were innately bound up with relatively binary definitions of sexuality and the unambiguous beauty associated with either the clearly masculine or the clearly feminine. Of course, preferences for both have always prevalent though far less understood or celebrated. This is changing of course and in addition new terms such as pan-sexual have started to acknowledge a much less constrained notion of physical attraction, perhaps even less connected with physical appearance and much freer in its interpretation of the rules of attraction.
It’s partly as a result of finding and photographing individuals with a beauty so utterly natural and androgynous as to make their masculine gender almost irrelevant (to my attraction to them), that I have come to acknowledge what I have suspected for a while now.
I am (almost certainly) bi-sexual.
I say ‘almost certainly’ because I have never actually put this notion to a practical test and coming to this realisation at this point in life does rather the limit the opportunity to undertake that kind of exploration. But the realisation and acknowledgement does rather help explain a number of things, in particular, the nature of some friendships that otherwise went awry. Perhaps the awryness was the result of that friendship beginning to feel like something more and the subsequent disengagement (on my part), was a way of avoiding a more difficult reality.
This isn’t really a big deal although I am well aware I just ‘outed’ myself. For now, at least, my contentment lies in knowing that people like Joe exist. That they have the potential to throw even the most previously staunchly heterosexual man into a maelstrom of sexual desire (and of course temptation), is both fun and deeply appealing.
There are too few positive images of fathers and fatherhood; this portrait aims to shows the simple and unalloyed love of a father for his children. It is unashamedly naïve in this objective.
Although only 24, Matt is already married with two young children and demonstrative of more poise, maturity and earnestness than most people I know twice his age. When I first met him, I was struck by how readily and openly he expressed his love for his wife and children and his sense of responsibility to them both. In the context of our meeting (Matt works as a labourer in the building trade) I was awe struck with by his honesty and candour, a fact emphasised by his willingness to be photographed in this way and for this image to be shared in such a public place.
I chose to photograph Matt in his flat, the place that he and his wife have made home for their two children. This particular image is located in their bedroom and shows the simpl3 and unadorned way in which they live. There are few material possessions, their bed is a mattress on the floor, the children are content to play with him and a simple purse rather than computer games or phones.
Matt’s lack of a top accentuates his physical and emotional bond with his children by allowing his skin to touch theirs, but it also suggesting of his vulnerability, hinting to the viewer as to the gentleness of the subject.
This portrait, like most of my work, is the result of a chance meeting and is made in the time and place of that encounter, a Sunday afternoon outside subject’s flat as he was replanting tree saplings.
Most of these encounters are meaningful but brief. Sometimes however they flourish, either in that same moment or subsequently. This image is the result of a flourishing relationship in the same moment as I found and talked with Jerimiah in his garden.
It was quickly apparent to me that Jerimiah had led an interesting life but was perhaps, in that moment, in a more challenging place emotionally than he had been before. He disclosed certain information that hinted at this but rather than pry, I simply asked if I could take his picture. The conversation flowed easily, helped in part by a shared love of photography, and I wanted to see how far I might be able to take this moment and develop it further. I asked if perhaps we might take a few inside his flat, which being of Victorian build, offered huge windows and the promise of great light.
Jerimiah agreed and invited me up. Over a cup of tea, beautifully flavoured with cardamom, we talked and mused over our respective life experiences while Shostakovich played through his ancient but wonderful hi-fi. His flat was a treasure trove of curios and ornaments that told of his interests and idiosyncrasies. He shared with me his fondness for making furniture, for Jeffery West shoes and how he likes to dress in wildly eccentric and flamboyant ways to bring a little life to his place of work.
This frame is the last one of those we made in the 90 minutes we were together and is the one that best shows the life and interests of a true gentleman but also the openness and vulnerability of the human being.