The sun rises over Brighton beach around 5am during the spring and summer months. I am there for a Sunday morning but the revellers are still there for Saturday night. Just as the sun starts to rise over the South Downs the club goers start to spill out of their dark dens and crash like waves onto Brighton’s’ pebbled beach, blinking like nocturnal animals in the bright early morning light. It is a truly wonderful place to be. Perhaps powered by the endorphins of their all night rave or perhaps by chemical induction (or more likely both) there is a strong sense of collectivism and love here. People are instinctively drawn to each other, clumping together into groups as if under the influence of gravity. It’s hard to know if the groups of people sitting on the beach are formed on the basis of long held friendships or simply the result of being caught up in the moment, of the shared experience of simply being there as the sun rises.
As an observer I feel like an outsider invading someone else’s space. The fact that I am there for Sunday morning and not Saturday night and I am on my own does seem to set me to one side. I don’t know if the apparent intrusion of a man with camera compromises any photograph I make in this situation, but I am happy to find out.
Having spent many Sunday mornings on Brighton Beach, I have found that some of these groups are indeed tribal in nature. Their collectivism is literal rather than spontaneous and metaphoric; they are living an alternative lifestyle, somewhat outside of the mainstream, subverting the conventional. It would be easy to judge this choice but one of my motivations for pursuing this project is precisely to engage with people whose perspectives, experiences and opinions might be radically different to my own; this is where the learning and insight is for me as a person. I have found that the motivation to photograph interesting people requires me to adopt an open and non-judgmental approach and that even if this adoption is something I have to contrive by force of will rather than by virtue of innate nature, the experience is positive and the result is lasting and hopefully makes me a better person.
Tom is part of such a group. I first met other members of this collective on the area known as The Levels in the centre of Brighton about a year prior to this photograph. They were camping in the field next to the skate park although in reality it was less of a campsite and more of a makeshift outdoor living area, as if they had taken the space and belongings of a house and turned it inside out in an exploration of negative space. Now on this occasion I meet the same group again, this time expanded in number, lying easily on the beach and using each other as makeshift pillows or props. Time feels like it has slowed down for them; they are somewhere else and their movements are drawn out, heavy and awkwardly deliberate, as if moving through oil. I sit down and join them to simply enjoy the moment.
The sun is now fully over the horizon and is pouring deliciously clean light onto the beach. Tom is sitting opposite me with thousand-yard stare towards the east focusing on an abstract point so far off it might well be behind the rising sun. He as the most intense look in his eyes, his pupils are like pin pricks, his philtrum is encrusted with dried mucus, which the group refer to anxiously as ‘polos’. He looks in my direction and I try to talk to him; he is responsive but struggling to talk. I really want to take his picture but I don’t want to do this without permission. We manage something like consent by simple gestures and he relaxes back into his stare as I focus the camera on his glassy eyes. Looking at him, I am reminded of the image by Don McCullin of the shell-shocked marine at the Battle of Hue. There’s an irony in the contrast of those two images; in one the individual is impassive through fear and terror and in this scene, it is a chemical numbness. My thoughts run to the myriad possibilities of pain that any one of these individuals might have experienced in their lives and which has caused them to want to numb themselves in this way. It’s entirely possible that their collectivism is the result of needing each other and wanting to escape something that might be equally as horrible as that experienced by the Marine in Don McCullin’s image.