Ashley Bourne photographs monks living the oldest form of monastic life in the West
The series, Benedict’s House, is a tribute to the remarkable beauty of the Benedictine monastery and those devoted to a spiritual service.
- Ruby Boddington
- 9 December 2020
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
Photographer Ashley Bourne is “interested in communities and groups of people that relate and identify with each other through a common goal, interest of pastime” and he uses his camera as a passport of sorts. “I love the places that photography takes me,” he says, “the people I meet and the experiences it has led me to.” Originally from a small town in the Black Country, Ashley spent “three great years in a pasty shaped bubble,” studying photography in Falmouth and is now settled in Bristol, where he lives and works.
Ashley’s practice is a curiosity-driven one, and he often revisits interests he had while growing up, “reconnecting with them through my work.” He remarks that this could lead you to think that his practice is very personal but, in actual fact, the projects and subject matters he pursues are far from linear. “I work on projects slowly and let them unfold over time,” Ashley explains. “I like to capture the characters I meet and hope that my projects evoke a certain sense of nostalgia, an element of history or imagination.”
Benedict’s House, a photographic look into monastic life which formed our introduction to Ashley’s work, is one such project. Like many of his series, Ashley’s investigation began with a memory – of a place his family used to visit on holiday in Tenby, Wales called Caldey Island. “The island, just off the coast, was home to a community of Cistercian monks in an Italian-style monastery that stands atop the hill,” Ashley tells us. “The monastery itself is completely private and no members of the public are allowed to enter, but you’d still catch glimpses of the white-cloaked monks wandering the grounds and hear the sounds of chant echoing through the halls.” As a child, Ashley was fascinated, and it’s a fascination which held his imagination into adulthood.
GalleryAshley Bourne: Benedict’s House
So, during his final year at university, Ashley began staying at several monasteries, living side-by-side with the monks and joining them in prayer, chores and at meals. He documented his time with them and the result is a meditative series which, despite its apparent quietness, holds your attention for the glimpse it provides into an unusual way of life. “I have a tendency to romanticise ways of life that are different from the norm, particularly when it involves the mystery and grandeur of religion,” Ashley says, explaining perhaps why we are all so interested in this kind of work. On what compelled him to investigate this way of life photographically, he continues that he “saw this quiet devotion to spirituality as something quite beautiful and wanted to make a series that saw tribute to that.”
Furthering this notion, the series takes its name from the Rule of St Benedict, the oldest form of monastic life to have survived in the western church. It’s a series which bears witness to those who dedicate their lives to the church, without passing judgement or prying in any way. Instead, you get the sense that Ashley wandered the halls almost unnoticed, capturing the monks at work and the remarkable beauty of the buildings they inhabit.
Visually, the imagery in Benedict’s House mirrors the slow and carefully-considered way of life monks lead. Peppered between portraits of the monasteries’ inhabitants are still life photographs which build up a portrayal of the world these characters inhabit. This process, of building a panorama through portraiture and smaller scenes is typical of Ashley’s practice; “I love the idea of building a world in a series of pictures and filling it with characters, however big or small that might be.”
On what his next subject is, Ashley explains he’s currently working on a project that documents lowbrow archers, bowyers and fletchers across the UK titled In Fields of Albion, some of which can be previewed on his website. “From the roving archer to the historic archery club of England, it’s a project that I’ve been excited about working on for some time now,” he says. Of course, progress has been slow this year, but Ashley had already made good ground. “In March I met a charming gentleman called Alan Harvey,” he tells us, “an 86-year-old archer who played a part in the excavation of the Mary Rose, a favoured warship of King Henry VIII. The excavation took many years and lead to the discovery of around 137 near-perfectly preserved Tudor longbows.” While he can’t share any more details, for the time being, it’s clear the series will continue Ashley’s keen habit of unveiling less-trodden and entirely compelling lifestyles and subjects, portraying them with care, nuance and awareness.
GalleryAshley Bourne: Benedict’s House
Ashley Bourne: Benedict’s House, Exterior Fog (Copyright © Ashley Bourne, 2016)
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor. Get in contact with Ruby about ideas you may have for long-form stories on the site.