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This series of 7 images has been selected from ‘Cheltenham Folk’; a wider body of work comprised of over 40 portraits. I have sent the ‘Cheltenham Folk’ programme/booklet in the post to you as an additional physical entry to further illustrate the submission.
What began as a social media project, soon evolved into a social study set in my hometown of Cheltenham (England). Armed with a small Leica camera, I would take every opportunity, journeying to and from my studio in the town centre, to capture portraits of people I would see and meet in the streets. My goal with this series and study was to create a balanced picture of my hometown. Cheltenham is primarily known in the UK as the location of GCHQ (Government Communication Headquarters), the heartland of horse racing, and home to members of the upper classes. However, these perceived images do not align with my impression of the town. Cheltenham has a massive variety of people, culturally, economically and socially; the town contains the whole spectrum.
As a self-taught photographer, for this project I drew on inspiration from Bruce Gilden’s wide-angled distorted faces and Martin Parr’s ‘stolen moments’. However, my approach differed from those two icons of socio-documentary street photography, in that, while I knew it would produce a more dramatic result to photograph people who are ‘broken’, I felt it would be less respectful to the subject.
I am aware of the temptation to select images where those portrayed are not shown in the best light. I endeavour to remain steadfast in resisting publishing a picture where a person appears somewhat ridiculous. The image might prove more compelling, but it would be lacking in compassion.
I wanted to show the beauty and character in each person I met. There is something special about everyone regardless of who they are. Some had stories to tell and others were in a hurry. Some of them were homeless, some were wealthy, some were more educated than others, but most of them were just ordinary, everyday, working people.
I wanted to get close to the subjects, but without ‘stealing their image’ as some street photographers do. Conversely, I decided to address my fellow citizens directly, despite the risk of rejection that may have entailed. I had to be emotionally prepared for them to say no. It is not easy to be rejected and it sometimes affected me, but I just had to remind myself that it was not because of me, but more about them not wanting to be photographed.
It is natural for people to adjust their expression if they know they are being photographed, however, I had a technique for getting around this problem. By taking 15 to 20 pictures of the same person quickly, there was always one shot where they were not really posing, and then I was able to capture something unique about them.
After taking the photograph, I asked each person for their first name and used that as the title for the portrait, which I then posted to Instagram (@marksteenadamson). I made a conscious decision not to write down the person’s story – I was not aiming to produce a project like Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York, rather, I wanted to leave room for interpretations and projections. In this manner, each viewer can ask his or her own questions about the lives of those portrayed.
For this Cheltenham Folk series, I learned how to use a flash in daylight because I did not want to rely on the camera’s automatic programme settings, so I controlled the light with manual settings. It was tough to use the flash appropriately, because the proximity and the surrounding light changes the impact it has, so I spent long hours practising until I found the right setting. I even went so far as to fix the flash with tape, so the setting would not accidentally change.
My personal ambition was to have this project exhibited in an art gallery, however, as not all the people captured in these photographs were likely to visit a gallery, having the work displayed somewhere in public would be more accessible and visible. I wanted people to see the value in taking portraits of each other as we are; without over-preparing and without ‘after-effects’ like Photoshop and soft filters. There is, surprisingly, an inner healing in the authenticity of this approach, that we discover when we see ourselves just the way we are.
The series was exhibited at Chapel Arts Gallery and featured in various bars and cafés around Cheltenham. After gaining permission from the local council, six giant posters on hoardings advertising the exhibition were also put up in the town centre.
To my delight it was very well received by both the subjects and the audiences. So popular was the style of portraiture, that local celebrities like Dom Jolly have asked for their portrait to be taken in this style. One of the surprising outcomes of the project is the way it has highlighted the diversity of the population of this seemingly genteel middle-class town.
The exhibition was internationally acclaimed, and the work was featured in Leica Fotografie International magazine (November 2018). It provoked a local discussion around mental wellbeing and enabled a group to be formed in the South West including the Police Commissioner and Local Government to discuss the issue of mental wellbeing in young people.
All my photographic studies are self-initiated. Most are studies on toxic social issues, focusing on the human condition and identity. Some have also resulted in books and exhibitions. Behold The Man 2013, The Stations 2014 and Project PEEL 2015, are some other projects that I’ve completed, the rest are a work in progress and can be found at Marksteen.com.
When I’m not photographing, I am Creative Director at www.agencyasha.com.