"I started this as a personal journey because I wanted to become more comfortable with death itself and it’s something we all shy away from."
Could you tell us a bit about yourself. How long have you been a practicing artist and where did you study?
I was born in East Anglia near Bury St Edmunds and have been brought up in a laid-back country lifestyle. My parents moved around East Anglia and Kent a lot because of their various jobs. It feels like I haven’t settled in one place long enough to call home. I am currently living in the country in Crowborough, right next to the Ashdown Forrest.
My love of photography has to come from my dad, as a kid he was always taking photographs of the family with his 35mm SLR. He had a massive bag of lens and different filters he would carry around with him.
As soon as I finished school I wanted to go to Art College even though my teachers and siblings said it would be a mistake. I went to University for the Creative Arts in Maidstone and completed a diploma. I got to experiment with so many different mediums, but the one that blew me away was photography. From then on I got my dad’s camera and was constantly photographing and you couldn’t get me out of the dark room.
I then went on to complete my degree there, which pushed my practise even further and I really started to question why I was taking photographs. I was always interested in landscapes and the hidden history of certain places. The idea of absence and presence has always been the centre of my work. Instead of being interested in what was there, I was interested in what wasn’t. I continued to complete a Masters in Fine Art Photography at University for the Creative Arts in Canterbury and graduated in 2013. I am currently lecturing part time at West Kent College in Tonbridge hoping to inspire the youth of today and to continue my practise alongside.
The series “Chapels of Rest” reminds the viewer of the mundane backdrop of death, the possible bland formality of it. Could you tell us about this series of photographs?
I started this as a personal journey because I wanted to become more comfortable with death itself and it’s something we all shy away from. But for me this is something we all have in common. We are all going to die.
After death all of our bodies go through similar journeys but I wanted to see some of these journeys for myself. From the start of this body of work, I hit a few hurdles to begin with, as a lot of funeral directors wouldn’t allow me in because in their words: they are ‘private spaces’. But how can I not visit a place that I might end up in?
This intrigued me further and eventually I got a tour around one. This particular funeral directors was on the high-street in-between two shops selling local produce. I went to open the door but the door was bolted shut. For me this was a very unwelcoming experience and it felt they were separating themselves from the public. I thought a Chapel of Rest would be a small religious church with flowers and stain glass windows. But it was a small empty room with a single shelf, a cross and a tissue box. In the corner of the room was an old Winchester style chair that looks like it should be from my nan’s living room. It was such an uncanny experience so I had to visit more. I visited over fifty funeral directors over a three-month period photographing them in an objective viewpoint. Every Chapel of Rest was very different and uncomfortable to be in, not because there had been a dead person in the room, it was the space itself.
The works titled “Minutes” must of been challenging and hard to document. Could you talk about the thoughts you had behind this project? Was it problematic to get permission to take the images?
During this body of work I visited many crematoriums to find out for myself about what happens behind the scenes. I had been to crematoriums before but only to see loved ones. It had always eluded me, where does the body go after the curtains are drawn? Again I struggled with permission to even photograph in these ‘private spaces’ so this was very challenging.
One crematorium I visited was very different and they were very open about what they do and I got the chance to spend a day behind the scenes. I talked to various employees and they made me feel so welcome and comfortable.
This was a first. They were all so down to earth and more comfortable around death. They could actually have a conversation and not get uneasy. I spent a lot of time at this particular crematorium and they have changed my viewpoint on death and have made me feel more comfortable about it.
When seeing a cremation for the first time, I wasn’t horrified and I didn’t feel uncomfortable. I felt at ease, it was peaceful; the person isn’t there anymore. I don’t want to offend any one by these images and people shouldn’t be offended. Cremation is what we respectively do to our loved ones and these are photographs of that respectful act.
Tell us a bit about how you spend your day/studio routine? What is your studio like?
I am currently lecturing at West Kent College in Tonbridge four days a week and I spend my time there hoping to inspire students into creating meaningful projects. They also challenge me and push my work further. I don’t actually have a studio, but I have a study, which you could call my studio. This is where I spend my days off, unless I have a location to go and photograph. It has all my photographic equipment and pictures of inspiration on my wall. I have a pin board of ideas and visual images. I don’t come up with ideas of what I want to photograph every day. But it could be a conversation I hear or something I walk past. Something clicks in my head and I begin to jot down my idea. I have to research everything about a certain subject in detail first and each project takes numerous months to complete.
What do you hope the viewer gains/reacts from looking at your work?
Everyone can relate to this work, because we all have experienced death in some way. I hope this project will bring us all closer together and open up the taboo surrounding death with my photography by pushing the viewer into spaces where they wouldn’t ideally choose to be.
I hope the viewer gains more understanding of the journey of the body after we die. I know some viewers will find it hard to look at but this is what happens. This is real. The work intends to stop people in their tracks and to challenge their preconceptions of death.
How do you go about naming your work?
Naming my work is very important to me. It gives a clue to viewer of what the images might be about. In the project ‘Minutes’ each photograph has a slightly different title. The number corresponds to how many minutes the body has been in the cremator. If the viewer hasn’t identified what the photographs are about, they might wonder what the title is referencing. I want the viewer to really think about why they are titled that way. On the contrary ‘Chapels of Rest’ is self-explanatory and the title states what you are looking at. This is so the viewer is instantly captured by the work and starts to compare the different Chapel of Rests.
What artwork have you seen recently that has resonated with you?
I recently visited the National Portrait Gallery to see William Egglestone portraits. I am very fond of his landscape work and his use of colour is exceptional. Having not seen many of his portraits before I was blown away, especially with the image of his girlfriend Marcia Hare in 1975. The use of focus in this image is perfect and it looks like she is floating above the grass.
She looks so peaceful, still like she could almost float into space.
What does the future hold for you as an artist? Is there anything new and exciting in the pipeline you would like to tell us about?
I will continue to lecture at West Kent College and hope to start lecturing at university level in the future. I have a lot of ideas on my pin board. I am currently in talks with the MOD with photographing various military buildings. But this is in its earliest stages. Also I have started to experiment with cremating various objects but I have not finished this series yet. But I hope once either of these series is finished I hope to have a solo exhibition.
Interview published: 30/09/16