What do people do in their leisure time? For some, the simple act of people watching is a hobby, but for Arnhel de Serra, it’s an art. His absurd photography captures everything from the tackiness of tourism to the welly-wanging nature of home counties Britain.
Hailing from a small Sussex village and born to Spanish and British parents, Arnhel stumbled upon photography as a “happy accident” after being lent a camera on holiday when he was 19.
He describes his work as “nosey”, which is exactly the way his practice began: nosing around his university library at (then-named) Nottingham Trent Polytechnic. After flicking through books on photographers such as Ansel Adams and Larry Clark, Arnhel unlocked a fantastical new world, thinking “this was what real photography looked like,” he remembers. Combining his early inspirations – Ansel’s landscape images and Larry’s portrayal of youth culture – along with Arnhel’s own wit, he developed a curious eye for capturing the eccentricities of human nature, on holiday and at home.
“I am always drawn to gatherings of people,” Arnhel says: visiting leisure events, waiting and watching for humorous moments to present themselves. Each shoot becomes a story, such as in the series Caribbean Cruise, where Arnhel spent time on the German cruise ship “Aida Mar”. A favourite image of his in this series was a breakfast scene, with German tourists tucking into their food while docked in the port. “I love the juxtaposition between the breakfast scene and a working dock, especially the detail of the forklift truck in the background,” he says.
In another series, commissioned by The National Trust, Arnhel wandered around the rural countryside of south Wales, hunting for shot opportunities. “I am fascinated by incidental moments,” he says. “The dog makes the image for me, by facing the other direction. It’s being open to the little details that sometimes makes for an enduring image." On his style influences, Arnhel names Jacques Tati’s silent films, such as Playtime: “he had such a gentle humour and razor wit. What fascinates me in his work is his use of mime”. In many ways, Arnhel’s images pay homage to Jacques Tati’s films – in the unspoken narratives, wit and subtle gags.
In his current project, Arnhel is turning his attention back to his hometown of London. Looking at the tourist culture surrounding Pall Mall’s Horse Guards Parade, he’s observing the mime-like contrast between the rigidly stood guards and the general public. “It is an interesting crossover where the public interact with soldiers on active service, heritage and tourism, and I love the visual contrast between how the general public dress themselves, and the ceremonial uniforms of the military,” he says. Combining his flair for capturing tourism and British culture, expect cheeky snaps that are sure to split your sides.