Red, White and Winter Blues: A Seasonal Rant by Peter Dench
Winter can be a gloomy time of year. Not only in terms of the weather, but the general mood of the nation seems to take a step toward the negative.
In this latest piece for PhotoBite, photojournalist, author of the Dench Diary & England Uncensored, A1: Britain on the Verge, PhotoBite contributor and all-round good egg, Peter Dench, contemplates the drive that keeps him swinging his legs out of bed each morning to create new work, regardless of [often relentless] criticism.
I try my best. I do my job as well as I can and often give the work I produce to another creative professional who does their best. We collaborate. These are collaborative times. What have you got that I might need? What skills can I offer you in return? Let’s create something marvellous for the public to share in and enjoy?
In January 2018, I exhibited my reportage, A1: Britain on the Verge at the Art Bermondsey Project Space (ABPS) in London. I managed to secure funding to shoot and print the project. ABPS provided the gallery space, frames, installation and curation. The press were notified and a launch night was scheduled. Caption cards and posters were produced. Invites were designed and sent, staff were hired, wine was served, people came. The production of an accompanying book was negotiated, free for the 300+ visitors to the exhibition. It was a triumphant collaboration, we all did our best.
I hung around the exhibition to see who came and hear what people had to say. One elderly chap said there was an apostrophe used incorrectly in one of the 67 captions. Another remarked, “The frames are a little bowed.”
I checked the online coverage. Seadog, from Newcastle, commented on the Daily Mail online, “I wonder why nobody thought of taking so many pointless, talent-less snapshots before.” After an A1 interview live on the BBC World Service, Clare, an award-winning writer and director based in Wales tweeted, “… no shots of people in Wales… how can you claim to document Britishness + miss out an entire country!?” I tweeted a reply, “I’m expecting this to be a 5-10 year reportage. Brexit hasn’t really begun yet. Give me time! Perhaps we could collaborate on a Welsh chapter; open to suggestions. Let’s creatively pull together to document these extraordinary times?”
Several people pictured in the A1 reportage got in touch to say how much they enjoyed it. Several people pictured in the A1 reportage got in touch to complain, including Molly. “A number of people have emailed me this morning to let me know that my picture is being used on the BBC website. I would ask you to remove the picture of myself… the woman smoking in the suit. I do not give you permission to use my photograph for any further promotion or exhibitions. Please confirm that you have taken this photo out of your portfolio and out of your promotional work.” I replied to Molly. “By taking the photograph in a public space for an editorial reportage, I was operating within the law as an accredited member of the UK press. However, I appreciate your discomfort with the photo and will take your comments into consideration when further promoting and developing the work.”
After I was interviewed on Sky News about how and why the British, when travelling abroad, often fail to learn a few foreign phrases, I offered some possible historical explanations. I was subsequently accused of being a colonialist. When I published THE DENCH DOZEN: Great Britons of Photography Vol. 1, a Scottish photographer and member of a collective of all Scottish photographers, complained there were no Scottish photographers in the book. A visitor to a signing of the book, advised Britons was spelt incorrectly and the book, which took five years from pen to press, was too expensive. A recent piece in The Guardian about the story behind ‘My Best Shot’ roused over 100 online comments including, “I’d have smacked him in the nose,” “I don’t rate people who take photos of other people for a living,” and my favourite, “I am surprised he still has [a] pair of teeth. Arrogant and untalented little squirt.”
In the long dark months of an often financially bereft winter, I wonder, why bother? It was with this darkness in mind that I climbed into the back of a black taxi en route to Edinburgh Waverley railway station. The cabbie from Musselburgh asked where I was from. “London”, I said. The city that I have lived in for 22 years. The city I have chosen to live out of all the cities in the world I have visited and where I will probably live out my life. The city I have decided to raise a family and call home. “I hate London” said the cabbie. I asked why? “Pollution” he said, “too crowded and too many foreigners,” he added. I asked where he was from? “Musselburgh,” he said. “I hate Musselburgh,” I said. “The boredom of living there would kill me before the pollution in London. There’s few decent restaurants and the people are narrow-minded.” I added. The cabbie didn’t reply. I gave him a healthy tip. I didn’t feel great.
As daylight starts to stretch agonisingly towards spring, I start to remember why I bother. What a privilege it is to be a photographer; to create, to travel, to see, to learn, to live. That for every negative there’s a hundred positives. Clare from Wales, Molly from London, Scottish photographer from Scotland, Seadog from Newcastle, Musselburgh man and all who ride with him, will soon be blanched by summer and the shoots of collaboration will bloom – charge the camera and go again, until next winter.