If you’ve never visited Preston bus station, the most striking thing about it is the building itself. Unapologetically brutalist, the imposing structure was built in the late 60s and designed by Keith Ingham and Charles Wilson. For most people, that’s about as remarkable as it gets – it’s just a bus station after all. But for Suffolk-born photographer Jamie Hawkesworth it was the inside of Preston bus station that really resonated with him. With its constant stream of transient passengers, it allowed the photographer to build up a series of arresting portraits over four years that have helped inform and shape his career since.
“It was never about the building, but the people inside it,” Jamie explains in his dark room-cum-office in east London. “I just waited for someone to catch my eye. When I photographed them though, I never really liked talking to them for that long, not because I’m not interested but it started to get a bit strange. Most of the time people just want to get on with what they’re doing rather than chatting to a weirdo who wants to take their picture.”
The images taken, form the subject of Jamie’s first photobook, Preston Bus Station published by Loose Joints today, but the first iteration of the project came as a newspaper way back in 2011. The paper included colour portraits from Jamie, 35mm black and white shots from his old form tutor Adam Murray and the Polaroids of his friend Robert Parkinson. “Adam was still teaching in Preston, which is where I studied photography and he wanted to do a project about bus stations,” he explains. “So we all went down to the station one weekend and just put a sign up to say that we were taking pictures and if you wanted your portrait taken to come over to us. In the end we produced about 500 copies of the newspaper and just put them back in the bus station so people could pick them up and take them on their journey.”
For a while it seemed that was the end of it, but two and half years later Jamie heard that the bus station was about to be demolished. “The pictures I’d taken for the newspaper project became a really interesting point for me to bounce off from in terms of my work, so I thought it was important to go back before it got demolished and spend some proper time there.”
For the next month, Preston was Jamie’s home and he spent every day wandering the station taking pictures. “What’s amazing about Preston bus station is that it’s a big stop off point for the Megabus that travels from Scotland all the way down south and then back up again, meaning you get an array of different people coming through it,” he explains. “And what’s great about the space is that it’s built as one big circle so I could keep looping every day waiting for people to catch my eye.
“After I finished the project, I asked the bus station if I could stick the pictures on the walls because I loved the idea that all my pictures would get crushed when the building was demolished.” They agreed, but after some campaigning and a fight to grant the station Grade II listed building status, Preston bus station avoided demolition so Jamie’s peeling portraits still remain there.
“I thought that when the building got knocked down, that would be the end of it for me – I’d have closure. But that never happened, so because that bloody bus station didn’t get demolished, I’ve had to make a book instead.”
The book predominantly contains pictures from the second time he photographed the bus station. “Adam (my old tutor) has helped me put the book together… It’s been incredibly difficult to edit. There were six pictures I’d been fascinated with, but that’s not a book. So Adam and my publisher have had to drag me through the rest of the photos to make it into something. But there’s a couple of new ones I’d forgotten existed so it was worth it.”
Simply laid out, the textless book provides a visual narrative of Jamie’s time in the bus station all wrapped up in a big red cover. “When I first got this darkroom and printed these pictures I walked around London with them but kept them in a red rectangular box. So when designing the cover I thought it was a nice nod to transporting these pictures from the bus station to my life here.”
Jamie’s career in London has taken off considerably, with fashion brands like JW Anderson and Miu Miu, and magazines including AnOther and British Vogue lining up to work with him for his intimate and candid style. “When I did the Preston bus station photos the first time round, fashion magazines and stylists became aware of that work and wanted fashion stories that looked similar.” Jamie’s continued to get work in the fashion world since and manages to balance this with his grittier documentary work which has been featured in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. “I think it’s really weird when people separate personal, fashion, editorial and commercial work. I spend as much time on those projects as I do self-initiated. Walking round in circles in a bus station is exactly the same as walking in circles in my head working out a fashion story.
“I want my work to feel like one big complete thing. There is of course sometimes a compromise if one month you’re worrying about how you’re gonna pay the bills. But I think nine times out of ten, if it’s too much of a compromise I just won’t do it.” This confidence and awareness has worked for him and it’s Jamie’s ability to make anyone he casts his lens over a superstar that ensures a stream of work – whether it’s portraits of Ai WeiWei, kids at the seaside, or old folks in a bus station.
When talking about his style it’s less about the specifics for Jamie and more about the feeling. “I’d like to think my aesthetic is a very honest one. An image works for me when I can feel the photographer’s presence and it feels authentic. Even if it’s the most contrived thing in the world, if there’s an honesty about that, it can still be fantastic,” he says. This sense of transparency starts as soon as Jamie takes the photograph. “I think if it’s a picture of someone’s face, I feel like they should be aware that you’re there. I’ve always found it strange when a photographer doesn’t make themselves known,” he says. Jamie believes that half the picture is the subjects’ relationship towards the photographer and is what makes the image interesting. “I never used to think about how I can affect a photograph when I first started, but how you are, how you approach someone, even the camera you hold can change the picture dramatically.”
“But there’s always insecurity in what you create, although I think those doubts help to make it yours.”
Unlike a lot of photographers, Jamie stumbled across photography after a spell taking pictures of reconstructed crimes scenes at university. “I wasn’t passionate about anything apart from football back then, but even then it was just that I played it a lot. So when I came across photography I really got into it,” he explains. “I used to make myself go out and take pictures because then it felt like I was making the most out of photography and what I saw, so naturally people became the most interesting to me,” he says.
As the book signifies the end of his dalliance with Preston bus station and the hours spent cutting down stacks of prints to just 35 images, Jamie seems happy with the result. But niggling doubts still seem to creep in as we wrap up: “I’ll be happy if [the book] looks and feels good,” he says. “But there’s always insecurity in what you create, although I think those doubts help to make it yours. The ingredients of what you believe makes a good image, publication or whatever will ultimately help to make something that truly represents you.”