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. My experience so far tells me that the answer to this question is less important than the shared experience in the moment. The collectivism may well have deep roots but in that moment those roots are superseded by the shared experience; that some member of that group might have only met for the first time that morning makes no difference.
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.
I first met members of one particular 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 with others having joined them in that moment, lying easily on the beach and using each other as makeshift pillows or props. Time feels like it has slowed down for them; things are hazy and they are somewhere else. Their movements are drawn out, heavy and awkwardly deliberate, as if moving through thick tar. 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 one of the outsides who have joined this group in the moment. He 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 has the most intense look in his eyes, his pupils are like pin pricks, his philtrum is encrusted with dried mucus that 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. In that image, there is a numbness that is the result of the pain of battle. There’s an irony in the contrast with this image; here the numbness is chemical.
It’s easy to forget that the principle reason people do these things is because it’s fun; there’s a tendency to over analyse things, to try and find some metaphysical or pathological explanation for hedonism when in reality, the simple answer is ‘who wouldn’t want to feel this way?’ But still my thoughts run to the myriad possibilities that any one of these individuals might have experienced something in their lives that has caused them to want to numb themselves in this way. I know this doesn’t apply to Tom, but at least one or two of that group I have spoken to have hinted at such things. The result of those conversation is a strong desire to simply give the person a hug; to acknowledge their humanity and their value to society.