Of rivers, rafts and rope swings and camp fires and pirates.

It is day one of the holiday. I have driven to stay with my mother for a night on my way up to the Lake District with my two boys. It’s quite OK to make the drive in one hit (as I will be doing on the way home), but it’s much nicer to break it up and spend some time with mother in the house I grew up in.

As this is the first day of a week of boys’ own adventures, most of which will almost certainly be spent swimming in the waters of Lake Windermere, it seems only proper to spend the day getting wet. A thin ribbon of babbling water runs through the top end of the estate I grew up on. It’s an otherwise unassuming body of water, hardly noteworthy. Its source is the runoff rainwater from Bow Stones Gate in the High Peak, a local landmark that I was always led to believe marked the graves of two plague victims from the 17th Century. The rain soaks into the grassy flank of Park Moor, Bakestone Moor and Dale Top and seeps down through underground runnels of peat and channels cut into hill side to collect in the basins around Wood Green and Booth Green. From there it is joined by more run-off from the Macclesfield Canal and then winds its way through Wood Lanes and The Coppice and Wardsend until it butts into the north end of the estate. When I first moved to Poynton, that area was all farmer’s fields.

Under normal circumstances Poynton Brook is about as benign a body of water as you can find but just recently following a deluge of rain, more in two days than has been seen before in many months, the stream graduated to a river, promptly burst its banks and then graduated to becoming an outright menace.

Less than ten days later the waters have subsided and Poynton Brook is back to its meek meandering self, It twists and turns through the sandy ground making mini deltas that then form small islands. These islands were the scene of many an improvised pirate adventure. We would strap wooden pallets together that we found ‘abandoned’ from the local industrial estate, combing them with empty barrels, lashed together with old bits of rope and twine that we either borrowed from our parents or else scavenged from the ground. Onto these precarious rafts we would then tentatively climb, our small bodies twisted into acute angles in a vain attempt to find our balance. A helpful shove would launch us into the deeper deltas and we would spend a few vainglorious moments deftly balanced between the reality of an improbably floating raft, prophetically made from flotsam and jetsam, and the fantasy of an admiral commanding on a full rigged British frigate, bristling with cannons, flying the White Ensign and sailing on the high seas to treasure and adventure.

We used to fish with our bare hands in this stream. Teams of us would find a good spot in the shade where Bullheads would hide under stones. We would squat down on our haunches in the water and gently lift the larger stones. If you were really careful the Bullhead would remain undisturbed on the silt bed, comforted by the shade. It was almost impossible to do this; most of the time the fish would immediately sense the movement of the water and dart away to another hiding place. With quick eyes you could follow their path and so move from rock to rock, playing a game of cat and mouse until you finally were able to lift a rock without disturbing the fish. Catching the fish, which were only about as long as your thumb, with your hands was even trickier but there was a successful method for doing this. This involved placing your cupped hands some distance from the fish and generally oriented fore and aft of the head and tail, and then slowly bringing them together until, if you were careful and terribly quick at the last minute, you could snap your hands together into a cup and have the fish trapped inside. From there we transferred them into buckets and from the bucket perhaps we let them go or, perhaps as small boys are want to do, we used them for dissection.

Nature wasn’t always on the back foot with us though; sometimes the leeches and lampreys that could also be found in the brook caught us rather than us them.

The thick foliage that lined the banks also made for great dens. The trees would grow over into a sort of bower and made natural clearings inside them that were unseen from the outside. I had my first kiss inside one such den, the Holly Bush Den as the girl and I who found it had called it. As we grew older we would make fires from the dead wood that was easily found, pretending to be living in the wild and scavenging for food. We would toast bread on sticks and marvel at the wood smoke flavour it would have as a result. We would wander farther afield, onto the southern side of the shore in search of rope swings, thickets to hide in, trees to climb and old outbuildings to make into fortified camps for use in wide games. It’s marvellous to think now about just how far we would roam at such young ages. I am sure, because I can date the events to specific years of primary school, that at the age of ten I would be happily several miles, numerous farmer’s fields and at least a dozen water crossings away from home.

At what point did we stop letting our children roam so freely?

Louis

I recently discovered the work of the very talented and inspirational @bryanschutmaat. I adore the work of his I have seen, especially his portraits of men in a more broken and vulnerable state than we usually see. This portrait is inspired by those portraits.
While not part of the 'Here Among the Flowers' project, this portrait of Louis is still inspired by the same values of fragile masculinity treated sensitively and with respect.

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Gregory - From the Greek word Gregorius Meaning Watchful and Alert

It’s very unusual that one of my subjects becomes a subject because they approach me rather than I them, but this is precisely what Lewis did. With an almost naive confidence he walked up to me, introduced himself and declared that having watched what I was doing he had decided he wanted to be photographed.

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His manner was immediately intriguing. He was wearing a black leather jacket with nothing underneath. His thick rimmed glasses looked like they might have misted over and he screwed his face slightly to compensate for the blurred focus. He had a ragged backpack on his shoulders and in his hand he carried a child’s foam cutlass that he confessed he had ‘robbed’ from a group of teenagers who seemed not to miss it.

I asked him what his story was and readily confessed to having been recently thrown out of college and that he was suffering from some sort of mental health challenge. He acknowledged that his mother suffered from bipolar disorder and that he himself had experienced high levels of anxiety and psychosis. His candour and honesty was immediately endearing and I was excited to photograph him.

He asked me my name. I introduced myself and in reply he told me that his surname was also ‘Gregory’ and did I know that it translates from the ancient Greek word ‘Gregorius’, meaning watchful and alert’. Despite being a self-confessed polymath and insufferable know it all, this was actually something I hadn’t been aware of before. As far as I am aware my name is simply the product of my mother’s fondness for the actor Gregory Peck. That it also foretold my proclivity for being both watchful and alert (after all what is a photographer if they are neither of these things?) is oddly serendipitous.

I asked him if he knew what I would need him to do in the photograph and again with remarkable composure and frankness said ‘yes, take my jacket of and sit among the flowers’.

Sometimes people are relaxed in conversation and then when you ask them to sit or stand to be photographed they become awkward and you can see the tension in their posture. I always try to find a way to translate that tension into vulnerability; I imagine that for the subject this can feel difficult or challenging in some way as the tension they are feeling isn’t something I’m looking to alleviate but rather capitalise on and use. With Lewis, his apparent confidence in his approach to me quickly translated into the ease with which he posed himself. It didn’t occur to me to try and reverse that dynamic until he spontaneously stretched his arms above his head. The resulting contorted shape was fabulous and immediately revealed the slight awkwardness and inner tension that I knew was bubbling under the surface but which was being so carefully managed.

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I always warm to subjects, it’s impossible not to really when engaging even a complete stranger in such a personal endeavour. But of course, some subjects I warm to more than other and I definitely felt this way about Lewis.

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Almost as quickly as he found me he thanked me and was into his next adventure. As he walked away, bag slung casually over his shoulder, I called after him to inquire as to how I might get the images to him.

‘I’m on Facebook’ he called back, and then turned his attention to the next engagement already unfolding around him.  

The Anima

I love the plurality of perception, the way that two people can look at the same thing and interpret the scene is two very different ways. For instance, a good friend of mine commented on the image below as follows:

I love that she is looking at camera, he is not. Speaks to me about a child's singular focus, and the parents always looking out beyond the edge - looking for danger, looking to the future, the past, the bigger picture.

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Much as I like this interpretation it was not what was in my mind when I took the picture, though I did direct the subjects gaze as you see here.

What was in my mind was the projection of the father’s anima onto the daughter. The anima is personified in the daughter and represented by her singular, intense gaze towards the camera, while the off camera look of the father represents his search for the anima and the male struggle to connect truly with it. The connection with the anima, especially the unconscious female archetype, is always just out of reach. 

Dad Bod

I have a ‘Dad Bod’; well what did you expect, I am a dad and I have a body ergo I have a dad bod. I’m not sure at what point that term started to pass into popular lexicon but I’m quite happy with what it means. I take it as a complement; it is perhaps the first indication that society is beginning to realise the contribution that fathers make to the raising of our children and the cost associated with that responsibility. You have less time for everything else, not least exercise, and the challenges and pressures of being a parent mean most of us succumb at some point to the occasional self-soothing, self-medicating drink or pie. Actually, it’s usually both and ‘occasional’ is an optimistic euphemism for ‘regular’.

My recent experience of photographing my first nude subject and seeing just how comfortable she was in her own skin, as well as my current project that focuses the gaze on such fine masculine forms as can be found anywhere, highlights the cost to self-esteem and ego of the dad bod. I know what my reaction would be now at the ripening age of 46, with what was recently described by one Tinder date as a ‘chunky’ build (otherwise known as the dad bod), to someone suggesting I just pop my top off and pose for a photograph. Hell would freeze over first.

Why? Why should I feel so self-conscious? I’m a relatively successful professional, well educated, debilitatingly intellectual but with a great sense of humour. I’m pathologically honest – something apparently in short supply currently – caring, sensitive and a reasonably accomplished photographer. I have achieved a high level of education, fathered two gorgeous children and, until recently at least, have been a committed and faithful husband. I have much to be proud of. Why then should I care if someone suggests I’m ‘chunky’ and it be the politest way they can muster to explain their lack of sexual interest?

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Ian is someone I first met several years ago when I first started shooting street portraits. His picture ended up in a slim book I self-published and he was by all accounts really very happy with it. He is an extraordinarily talented illustrator working for The Guardian, The Observer and The Spectator among other high-profile publications. He is an accomplished BMX rider, a father, husband and, in my opinion at least, incredibly handsome in a rugged and weathered way. If Ernest Hemmingway had fathered a child with Emily Bronte, they could have called him Heathcliff and it would easily have been life imitating art. Like me, he has so much to be proud of and so much to offer and yet he like me would rather swim with the sharks than have his dad bod photographed.

My project ‘Here Among the Flowers’ is at least in part an exploration of the pressures that weigh heavily on the male psyche. And while the main thrust of that project is to explore this by juxtaposing strong masculine presentations in a more feminine and vulnerable setting, nevertheless the weight on the psyche is never far from the surface and the dad bod is only ever a few children away.

Valerie - Brighton Pier

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.

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Grab n Go - Dreamland, Margate

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.

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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.