Cassian Gray celebrates the postal service’s ability to maintain “our delicate fabric of society”
Completing his project The Posties while still a student, Cassian’s time with the Royal Mail taught him much more than a few photography tips.
- Lucy Bourton
- 18 January 2021
Across the creative industry it’s fair to assume that photographers are some of the worst hit when it comes to Covid-19 restrictions. After all, it's a medium that revolves around human connection, and even if portraits aren’t a focus, travel is often needed to reach a subject matter. The events of the past year have made it not only difficult to organise possible shoots for cemented ideas, but restrictions have placed a firm halt on possible inspiration routes when developing projects too.
This is particularly pertinent for those studying the medium, an effect felt by current Kingston BA Photography student, Cassian Gray. The barriers built up by social distancing have resulted in frustratingly little access to the facilities students are paying for, “a big issue, yet the pandemic has been unexpected and no one could have foreseen this happening,” the photographer notes. While tutors have been greatly supportive in shifting tutorials to Zoom, on-foot necessary explorations have been indefinitely paused. Yet confinements on his learning has had a positive effect, leading Cassian’s lens to focus on localities, and creating a much needed appreciative portrayal of our postal service as his latest series.
Intimacy, private moments and undocumented areas have all been longterm factors of Cassian’s approach to photography, despite the fact he’s relatively new to the medium. Recalling his route into the practice, he explains that actually, at first, it was music that held his creative gaze. A promising clarinet and piano player, at the age of 12, Cassian received a full music scholarship. Relocating from his home of London to a boarding school in Dorset, the pressure to make “music to the highest standard possible,” due to his performance linking so closely to his fees, took away the enjoyment of playing. “But it was from this that I discovered photography,” he tells It’s Nice That. Away from the stage and scrutiny, the private practice of photography became the perfect alternative. “Music and art have the ability to evoke emotion on a much deeper level than anything else,” he reflects now, “so I guess the emotive aspects of my musical past became merged onto my photographic practice.”
This experience has allowed Cassian to notice the quiet moments of others and celebrate them photographically. A great example is The Posties, a series championing Royal Mail workers, an idea he came up with in either the third or fourth lockdown: “It’s hard to keep track anymore.” The effects of the pandemic has shone a necessary light on occupations previously overlooked, and creatively, Cassian became fascinated with the iconography of the postal service, especially its bold red uniform. “Ironically, they are relatively invisible workers and rarely noticed, so I wanted the project to act as an homage to the millions of postal workers that keep our nation connected.”
Determined to keep as close to home as possible for obvious reasons, Cassian’s journey began at the Kingston sorting depot. He timed his visits towards the end of shifts “with the idea of photographing individuals and hearing their stories.” In turn, this routine became a regular ritual, heading over at midday for a meeting, a chat and a few photographs. After finding his local group, “I started noticing posties everywhere,” he says fondly. “They have such a presence that is so obvious once you consciously look; a red van zooming past, a distant figure pushing a red trolley, and even letters falling through the letterbox.”
In person the photographer also notes that all the posties were kind and warm, open to being “pestered by a young photography student”. One in particular, Claudia, became an intrinsic part of the project. Kindly helping Cassian to find subjects, or gathering together posties in the depot for group shots, her support leads the photographer to describe the resulting series as a collaboration between the two. As a consequence, Claudia has developed a keen interest in photography, buying her own 35mm SLR “and is now making beautiful photographs” herself.
The Posties offers a sense of the comfortable, a calm respect between Cassian and his subjects. The close-up shots don't feel intrusive, a necessary quality given that “the project is predominantly about the individuals, but their professions are equally important,” he adds. To balance these two elements, the series features a wide range of shots, from details where the logo is the shining star, to compositions that pull back and document the day-to-day work more broadly. “As the project progressed, I brought the focus towards the workers as individuals, making their portrait and then photographing a separate detail which links to their work,” adds Cassian. “This creates the duality within the series of the individual and the detail; pulling the viewer into the frame and allowing them to breathe.”
Having completed the series, Cassian reflects that spending time with these individuals has taught him far more than just some photography learnings. Being based in London for the lockdown periods – which when strictly shut down “can be a very lonely place” – working on this project personally enabled the photographer “to go out and speak to strangers again and make connections; there’s such a pleasure interacting with people and the camera provides a reason to do so,” he explains. “I would often leave the depot in such a good mood from the friendly conversations I’d had, and I like to think my presence had a somewhat similar effect on the posties.” But in terms of what the postal service more directly taught him, it’s simply the essential quality of their work and how important these individuals are “in maintaining our delicate fabric of society.”
A traditional job role “spanning back more than 500 years”, this year has seen more pressure placed on posties with the intense rise in online shopping shifting “their job roles from letter deliverers to parcel droppers and collectors.” During Cassian’s time with the group he also noted how necessary it is for this procedure to be done by a person and not an automated system. In facilitating “connection, delivering emotion, heartbreak and joy, sentimental value," those who pop by our houses each day are “the tactile linking mechanism between humans all over the country.” At a time where we can’t go outside, get the things we need at ease and even the act of handing over an object to a nearby friend is restricted: “The posties are crucial in maintaining the ease of living we have all become used to,” concludes the photographer. “I hope this project can in some way provide a spotlight for that much needed appreciation.”
Cassian Gray: The Posties, Houses (Copyright © Cassian Gray, 2021)
About the Author
Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019 she was made deputy editor and in November 2021, became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.