Earlier this year, we spoke to Harry Hall about his penchant for documenting people enjoying some of leisure’s greatest niches. At the time, he was capturing a community of fen skaters in East Anglia, catching them in moments of pause with tender portraits. Continuing on his work rooted in a world of reportage and documentary, Harry has taken his camera to photographing ploughmen and women in competition, making up his new venturesome series, The Sow Must Go On.
With a desire to capture the changing of the seasons, the competition presented the chance for Harry to tell another rural story. “I grew up in Suffolk and now I’m based in London, and maybe [in my personal work] I feel a responsibility to tell stories close to home or in the countryside,” he tells us. After some time traversing The Society of Ploughmans’ website, he became familiar with the competitions for the summer to autumn transition. “From the list I was able to contact some farmers and hosts directly to discuss my plans to create a portrait of a ploughing match,” he adds.
With the nature of close-knit community events, it’s no wonder when members become suspicious of outsiders with cameras, but Harry was adamant on building a rapport on his visit to the East Anglican branch of the Vintage Tractor and Engine Club. “They were really receptive to my interest and I had someone to refer to when I went up to people in the fields and asked to take their picture,” he tells us. “People are quick to see through fake curiosity, genuine interest will always help to build relationships quickly.” Much like his last personal series, The Sow Must Go On isn’t overly busy or trying to depict the technicalities of ploughing. They range from communal to familial with an air of mundanity. In one portrait of two young boys and an older ploughman, you get the feeling of ploughing and competitions as something to be passed down to the younger generations, a choice in documentation that perhaps stems from Harry’s relationship to farming through his grandparents.
Harry often achieves his natural but commanding shots, by intervening at the point of activity and asking for a portrait, or “repositioning someone in the light,” with the look being generally achieved through plain observation and action. “I like this because it often results in very authentic moments. I'll sometimes try and elaborate on what I’m witnessing visually by asking questions or asking to see the same action again,” he adds. In stark contrast to his commercial work, often shot in a controlled setting, with light and multiple scouts and breaks, work on the field presents itself with a unique set of challenges and a world of freedom. “You never know if the photos will simply remain surface level, ‘nice’ photos, or if a deeper story will form a narrative. It’s always objective, and is part of being a storyteller I suppose. The photos look great, but what do they mean and why are they important?”
Harry hopes that the project will lead others to look backwards. “I had the pleasure of meeting a 20-year-old called Sam, who got persuaded to buy his burgundy tractor on a night out. He told me ‘as a society, we need more gearbox and less Xbox’,” he shares. Both in his approach to documenting and immersing himself in the activity of these rural communities, you can feel Harry’s care for their preservation in every shot, which is something he hopes to continue. “I keep a list of interesting stories or communities on my phone which I refer to and constantly add to; there’s always a new project in the pipeline.”
GalleryHarry Hall: The Sow Must Go On (Copyright © Harry Hall, 2023)
Harry Hall: The Sow Must Go On (Copyright © Harry Hall, 2023)
About the Author
Yaya (they/them) is a staff writer at It's Nice That, with a particular interest in Black visual culture. They have previously written for publications such as WePresent, and worked as researcher and facilitator for Barbican and Dulwich Picture Gallery.