One day Caitlin Chescoe walked into her father’s room and saw him stood there wearing a suit with a blue-and-white apron. “I thought it looked very odd and, as he was trying to explain it, I became even more confused,” Caitlin recalls. Her father then showed her masonic certificates, yearbooks, regalia and photographs from the 1930s that had been passed down by his grandfather. “I found these fascinating.”
Her father was a Freemason, a member of an organisation that can trace its origins as far back as the 14th century. While for many the fraternal community is shrouded in mystery (a particular episode of The Simpsons probably hasn’t helped), for Caitlin this was just a part of life growing up. “Dad would always ramble on about having to learn ritual lines for lodge and going for dinners with other members,” she says, “but I didn't really understand what he was talking about so just brushed it off.”
When she grew up, Caitlin moved from the Island of Guernsey to Bournemouth to study photography at The Arts University. On graduation, she moved to London to begin assisting and worked with photographers such as Jo Metson Scott and Linda Brownlee. But she was always on the lookout for a personal project that she could call her own. “One day we were all sat in the kitchen and it just clicked,” she explains. “This is the perfect project with the perfect access to areas that others don’t have.”
The result is Freemasonry, an ongoing and expansive documentary project stretching across stunning portraits of modern Freemasons and still-life photos of the “beautiful and unusual” regalia and paraphernalia of the secretive rites and rituals, as well as found archival imagery and detailed interviews with the sitters. Caitlin’s original aim with the series was to try to “understand why being a Freemason means so much to my dad,” she says. “This is something that he is incredibly passionate about and takes very seriously, that only a select few will have ever experienced. We have three generations of Freemasons in our family so I wanted to know why it was so special to them.”
Her father introduced Caitlin to many Freemasons in both Guernsey and London, and also helped explain many of the arcane rites and rituals. But Caitlin has brought her own considered and thoughtful approach to the series. She shoots a variety of analogue and digital, which tends to “slow down the pace a bit”, she says, and so plays music to put her subjects at ease. There was always a bit of a sense of occasion as well, as “It is a rare thing for Freemasons to have their photographs taken whilst wearing their regalia,” Caitlin points out, “so this meant it was special for them too.”
Caitlin would also script and prepare questions beforehand, and record her conversations while the shoot was going on, “so that I could concentrate of photographing in the moment and write up what we spoke about afterwards to then research it later.” The series also includes their testimonials, which address some of the pre-conceptions that many people have about Freemasons.
Caitlin’s aim was not only to pull away the veil of mystery that covers much of Freemasonry, but also to show how diverse a community it really is. “I wanted to show that both men and women, of all different ages, from different religions and backgrounds could become Freemasons if they were asked to join,” she explains. Looking through the series, you have to say she achieves both aims without labouring the point too much – most viewers will be surprised and will learn a lot about “the brethren”.
What’s lovely is that Caitlin, too, has been learning as she’s gone. “I didn’t quite know what to expect and came away with a lot of homework, but from here I was able to work out what I was most interested in shooting more of,” she explains. “I really found it surprising and intriguing that women could also be Freemasons as I thought that it was exclusively a male pastime!”
The project is still ongoing, but like a lot of things this year, Covid has meant it’s on hold for now. But Caitlin says she is keen to pick it up again when the time is right. And the learning will doubtless continue. “It is important to make work about who you are and where you’re from,” she says, “and for me this work has given me a better understanding of my family’s history in Freemasonry.”
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Caitlin Chescoe: Portrait of Nigel Chescoe from Freemasonry (Copyright © Caitlin Chescoe, 2020)