“Good results come from a good journey”: Charlie Kwai on his documentation of a changing Britain
The London-raised photographer has left the safety net of the city to photograph in Southend, Margate, Blackpool, Great Yarmouth, Skegness and Clacton.
- Ayla Angelos
- 29 September 2020
Charlie Kwai’s skill in recording life has made such an impression on us, that we’ve seen his work pop up on multiple occasions here at It’s Nice That. From photographing the crossroads at Piccadilly Circus, the stars and fans of the Bafta red carpet, the flirtatious enclave of London’s Chinatown, or even the city boys in his book titled Overtime. It doesn’t stop there, though; he’s also documented Ghanaians burying themselves in the sand to escape from the heat, and he was one of our Ones to Watch way back in 2016. It’s safe to say that we’re big fans, and his most recent series is just a small example of why he keeps on coming back.
The London-raised street photographer has returned with a new project that goes a little further outside of his comfort zone. Known for typically lensing his immediate surroundings of London, this time he’s turned to the expanse of the UK, a place that he’s often overlooked as a subject, not least a place to visit. “I’m a Londoner and Londoners don’t travel outside the M25, let alone their own postcode – so jumping on a plane has always been an easier concept compared to travelling anywhere else in the UK,” he tells It’s Nice That, describing this usual process as “ignorant” and one that’s resulted in a subject matter too close or far from home. “Most of my work is made in locations where cultures, beliefs and people are as far from what I know as possible – all with the aim to better understand different traditions and people to try to influence new ideas of these locations.”
One major issue of finding comfort within your immediate surroundings is that, in his eyes, this can only build on the stereotypes. “The problem with both the places we’re from and where we aren’t from, is that we live by stereotypes and make huge assumptions of people across society,” he says. This is due to the ways in which culture consumes information, whether that’s through the media or through the people that we meet; either way, it’s an occurrence that can dangerously lead to misrepresentations and “false beliefs” of those around us.
“The more I learn about the world,” he continues to explain, “the more I realise how little I know of where I’m from and the more I struggle to relate to people around me. Things like Brexit and the societal division that came with it gave me the push to leave the London bubble in search of answers, and to connect with my fellow Brits for the first time.”
Think of this new project, then, as his own personal quest, one that’s seen him spend the majority of the last year making his way around Great Britain photographing all sorts of different places. Only just for a day or two, he’d delve into the location, converse with his subjects and immerse himself fully in his new environment – the result of which has seen a collection of six supplements of his work in the UK. With an end goal that hopes to document the changing nation of Britain over a period of time, Charlie’s work is set to change with each new location and photograph that he takes. “The shape the project has taken is not what I planned it to be from the beginning and won’t be the same once I finish – if I ever do,” he says, noting how he wants the supplements to serve as conversation starters and markers of the changes around him.
Although beginning the project in 2018, the first six supplements were taken over the course of last summer in Southend, Margate, Blackpool, Great Yarmouth, Skegness and Clacton. Each weekend was filled with a trip, and upon arrival, he would commence his search for “honesty in all the towns” he visited. In comparison to his previous works in London, Charlie tells us how he actively engaged more with the people that he met – as opposed to meeting the typical Londoner who usually doesn’t want to talk or listen to a stranger. “I didn’t just snap and walk off,” he adds, “almost every image I captured created a conversation – introducing myself and explaining my intentions. I’d say in every case, people were very welcoming and open to what I was doing. It just meant I shot a lot less and talked a lot more.”
The crux of Charlie’s work is travel, so of course, the current pandemic is set to raise some challenges. “I’ve barely taken a photograph this year – interacting with strangers at close quarters is what my work is about – and this just isn’t possible in the same way.” Yearning for a time when he can travel and take pictures again, rest assured that as soon as a gate opens he’ll be out there on his next trip – “good results come from a good journey,” he finishes.
Charlie Kwai: UK Supplement, Weston (Copyright © Charlie Kwai)
About the Author
Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and has continued to work with us on a freelance basis. She has spent nearly a decade as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.