The increasingly globalised world, with its constant free flow of information, has produced new rules and visual cultures. One effect is that many cities – economic hubs and living spaces – start to look the same on the surface, once you remove the linguistic markers seen on shopfronts and billboards. Image searching, one of the fastest and more reliable ways to look at places at a great distance, tends to bring you results sorted by relevancy – hiding just as much as it shows. Therefore, it becomes even more important that we see art projects that go beyond the sleekness of new media and the seemingly unstoppable growth of urban development, in order to show precisely what it takes to build these infrastructures.
Polly Tootal’s body of work is one that explores these in-between spaces, precisely capturing how bizarre the world can be through the seemingly banal scenes she captures. The London-based photographer, who studied under Magnum photographer Mark Power at Brighton University, struggled for a few years in finding a creative path. “I was far too shy to start a career in photography and I had absolutely no idea what to do,” Polly tells It’s Nice That. After a stint working as a photography assistant and a location scout for commercials for a few years, Polly eventually found her voice by combining environmental and landscape works.
Influenced by the New Topographic photographers in America and Germany in the 70s, like Lewis Baltz and the conceptual duo Bernd and Hiller Becher, Polly started looking at similar places in England: “manmade spaces, banal corners of towns and cities, the non-place we travel through every day,” she says. Shooting across medium format to digital, she produced the ongoing series Somewhere in England, an exploration of the England that people wouldn’t normally see.
“I was focusing on corners of England as a way of forcing myself to find an interesting narrative or aesthetic close to home,” Polly explains, adding that it started becoming more difficult to get excited about that work over time. “I made a decision to be less precious and just let my work evolve naturally."
The result is a project that looks at similar in-between places in Dubai, a city that’s facing a high volume of infrastructural development. The Hands That Built This City, shot over two trips a whole year apart, shows Polly’s work at its finest. “Wherever I go away, I look at maps to find out what the terrain and streets look like, normally because I’m drawn to the outskirts of cities, the strange in-between places and no man’s lands,” Polly notes. The photographs, depicting construction workers among their tenements and labour camps, have an unreal quality to it, mostly coming from Polly’s choice of using direct, hard lights in the daytime.
“People come over to work and are promised higher salaries than they end up getting. Their passports can be taken away and their families can’t come, they normally can’t afford to have them visit or return home for years,” she explains. “The labour camps are usually on the outskirts of the city and are communities within themselves, mostly men living in accommodation of up to eight people in one room, without proper plumbing.”
As with many marginalised communities living and working in these liminal spaces, one thing that emerged was a sense of shared struggle and community as a form of new social support. But being in such situations often come with paranoia, derived from a desire to protect each other. One night, Polly was lost in the lights and colours of the scene when she was photographing an unusual queue of men in a doorway – she was suddenly crowded by a group of men. “’Here are our papers, show us your identity,’ they asked. They were frightened we were the authorities," she tells us. After a few minutes of arguing with her assistant, the crowd calmed down and their tone of voice changed. “Two kind men walked us to our car and told us we were photographing a queue of men going into a brothel,” she explains.
Despite the bleak subject matter, Polly’s photographs lean more towards the poetic side, far from the disaster tourism that can plague some documentary photography projects. “I get quite tired of photography that looks the same,” she says, “I wouldn’t ever want to completely make up a scenario; my interests lie in how bizarre this world is in reality, and my role as a photographer is to find it and capture it in an engaging way.” Polly’s measured approach to this project reflects the complexity and densely layered politics of these scenes in the globalised world today.