Jamie Hawkesworth takes us on a photographic journey around The British Isles
For the past 13 years, Jamie Hawkesworth has been trekking the length of the British Isles documenting just how surreal reality can be.
The idea of “Britishness” is difficult to define. There are clichés, of course – pints of lager and packets of crisps, The Great British Bake Off, and chats about the terrible weather – but few who actually live here can identify with them passionately. This sense of Britishness is outwardly portrayed, but the concept of actually belonging here is another thing entirely. On the topics that actually matter, it is a nation divided; one half often feels like it’s shouting the terrifying truth of the damage being caused, while the other shuffles over to close their blinds on anything other than the version of Britishness they’ve inherited.
You might wonder, why then have photographers always seemed to gravitate towards capturing this country? Images of Britain by Martin Parr, Vanley Burke and Tish Murtha, through to more recent examples like Chloe Dewe Matthews, Steve McQueen and Charlie Kwai, have often grappled with this topic, yet it remains one visited time and time again. The most recent to take on the subject being the famed and thoughtful photographer Jamie Hawkesworth.
A Suffolk-born photographer who found the medium via a forensic science degree, Jamie has grown to be recognised as one of today’s greatest image-makers, creating work for the New York Times, Vogue and Alexander McQueen. Beloved for an ability to inject warmth into seemingly any subject matter, Jamie’s most recently released work is The British Isles, a 305-page book acting as a photographic survey of his home country. The book has no foreword, no annotation and no judgement. It is simply a portrait of Britain as Jamie saw it in each moment – and perfectly so.
The British Isles has been teetering away alongside the rest of Jamie’s practice for the past decade. Never planned or calculated, the book is the culmination of years worth of trips. Some are commissioned and there’s the odd collaboration, but most are taken on solo journeys by the photographer. The majority of these missions were also spontaneous and in fact, research rarely plays a part in his practice anyway. “I must say, I completely avoid any kind of research just because I find the idea ‘of an idea’ really daunting I suppose,” Jamie admits. “If I did research a place I’d think right, who might I find there, or where might I go? I’d probably never leave somehow and I just wouldn’t end up going. I’ve always found the best thing to do is get out and explore.”
And so, the first stop from Jamie’s doorstep in London would always be King’s Cross or Euston station. In the early hours of the morning (“to make the most of the day”) he would look up at the timetable “and pick a place I liked the look of on the board”. Mostly it was a place he had never been to before – Bridgend in Wales for instance, or the furthest point north possible, Unst, one of the Shetland Islands. These instinctual trips proved “to be really fruitful,” recalls the photographer. “I just went to these places with no ideas and I’d come back with pictures I really liked. I enjoyed that process. It was quite a simple process, really.”
“I’ve always found the best thing to do is get out and explore.”Jamie Hawkesworth
Always travelling by train allowed for Jamie’s instinctual moment in front of the timetable to continue. Using public transport means he hardly ever had to think about where has going. After all, “If you drive to a certain extent you have to have a plan, whereas a train just gets you there,” he explains. “Public transport too – as with some places I would have to switch to catch a bus – would take you to the places you wouldn’t necessarily go in a car, which would take you the quickest route. Buses will literally take you around the houses, which was a good way to explore places and jump out if I saw someone.” The British Isles even has a nod to National Rail in its pages via a photograph of a carriage during sunrise, highlighting the reserved ticket seat stubs Jamie came to resent – “as I never pre-booked, obviously”. “It’s a picture I’ve always loved,” he adds, “it just reminds me of being on a train, with a Snickers and a cup of tea.”
Upon arriving in a location though, Jamie is the first to admit he spent “a lot of time thinking what the hell am I doing here?” Walking around an unknown place with a hefty camera and tripod, and only your own thoughts for company, began to weigh on the photographer intermittently. When asked what he would think about, he admits it was often “just really boring, normal things,” or in longer stretches, he would begin to compare himself to other photographers; like when in the Shetland Islands “it was pissing down with rain, and I was just in my head with 100s of different photographers, thinking about what they did and why they did it.”
The practice of photography, as Jamie has come to realise, is “a very high and low feeling” – one that’s exacerbated when on a lengthy trip to essentially nowhere. “But then you’ll find someone, take a portrait of them and have this kind of adrenaline rush,” he says. “It will be really brilliant and then, for an hour or two hours, you won’t find anyone. I think that’s part of the charm.”
“Reality can just become the most surreal thing very quickly.”Jamie Hawkesworth
Yet once Jamie would spot someone or something, these worries or comparisons “would completely disappear.” When a subject catches his eye, the photographer describes himself as becoming “incredibly excited and so I sort of run towards people with a massive grin on my face and say, ‘please can I take your picture?’.”
It’s easy to imagine this exchange when, as a reader, you grow to know the characters featured in The British Isles. On that rainy day on the Shetland Islands in Unst for instance, it had taken Jamie two ferries and two bus journeys to get there in the first place. The local bus dropped him off at the town hall where, amazingly, they were hosting a pony competition. A young girl (who actually came last) “looked really amazing from afar so I asked her parents if I could take her portrait. She took this big horse helmet off and her hair was incredible.” It’s the only portrait Jamie took on the trip despite its distance, yet remains a real favourite. “It was one of those moments where in reality it’s a nightmare,” he adds. “You’ve got this really heavy camera and you are completely soaked, but now when I look at that photograph I’ve got a really lovely feeling of that time.”
Other destinations offered further unplanned surprises. In Hartlepool, just between Middlesborough and Sunderland, Jamie found moments to grin about in both landscape shots and portraits. On arrival it was the coast that drew his attention: “At the time, [Hartlepool] had these huge, abandoned industrial factories that sprawled into the ocean – I had never seen anything like that in my life. I remember walking around thinking, I can’t believe this exists,” he recalls. Later, in a more residential area, the photographer turned a corner to another surprise: two boys had “pulled their mattresses down from their bedrooms onto a patch of grass outside their house, and were just jumping up and down,” explains the photographer. “I could never imagine that. You just can’t even make it up – which is so part of the charm of walking around in reality. Reality can just become the most surreal thing very quickly.”
Throughout the book’s 100s of photographs, there are countless stories like this that Jamie can reel off. When flicking through its pages it’s often a minute detail that brings back a memory. Take the photograph of an older woman leaning on a railing with her heels kicked up – a movement that evokes a sense of abandon in the way the position “of her feet are like she’s 14-years-old”. Others are close to the photographer for more sentimental reasons, such as a few shots from his hometown, Ipswich. One is of a fence to a football field, mended by the locals with string to stop the ball rolling into the adjacent road – “An extremely normal thing but, for me it gets to the heart of such a normal thing that is somehow extraordinary” – and another from Christchurch Park where a younger Jamie spent his youth.
More recent photographs come via a celebrated commission for British Vogue, where the photographer snapped a group of key workers – a midwife, an overground train driver and Waitrose employee – for a set of covers in June of 2020. Approached with the same frame of mind to his self-driven, joyfully aimless trip across the UK, Jamie travelled to each subject alone on his bike during the lockdown. It was a commission that “felt like such a lovely continuation of the spirit of what I was doing.” London, where Jamie lives now, is also featured – but not overtly. There is an everydayness to the way he captures locations in the capital that are usually so recognisable. Despite this, images of a bus driver waiting to switch with another, teenage girls looking at their phones besides a station, or even the scaffolding outside Stratford shopping centre somehow manage to evoke a sense of wonderful familiarity.
“There’s no real order or system, which, weirdly, is much closer to how it was in real life.”Jamie Hawkesworth
This sense of familiarity is left up to the viewer to interpret as they browse through The British Isles. As a reader you go make discoveries pretty much as Jamie did, not only on his journeys but in the making of the publication; considering only 20 per cent of the book had been printed before the lockdown of 2020.
Retreating to the studio while Covid-related restrictions were in place, Jamie printed around 600 portraits, most of which had been sitting in boxes waiting to be unearthed again. Developing each photograph one by one, opposite his darkroom is a large white wall where, over time, portraits of locations visited began to take shape. “I slowly started to print and place one after another and, say after a week or so, you’d suddenly see the whole of Hartlepool,” he relays. “That was the most exciting thing, how this wall each week would just build and build. That’s how I slowly started realising that this was a project that had potential.”
Planning out the book first came in chronological order of places visited, but “once I started to mimic what I actually did in reality, it just felt boring,” explains Jamie. In turn, the 305 photographs featured in The British Isles hop around the country spontaneously: “That was when the project really started to come alive, when you were bouncing around the country and bouncing around in time,” he says. “There’s no real order or system, which, weirdly, is much closer to how it was in real life.”
Jamie Hawkesworth: Image from The British Isles (Mack, 2021). Courtesy of the artist and Mack.
Jamie Hawkesworth: Image from The British Isles (Mack, 2021). Courtesy of the artist and Mack.
Each image was also developed by hand by Jamie – an approach that has the same level of care Jamie holds behind the camera. “To me, that felt like I was being sensitive and celebratory and very happy about the place, as opposed to anything negative, judgemental or making some kind of assumption,” he explains. “For some reason, I told myself that if I print these pictures really warm it won’t feel like that. It was my way of thinking that in a cheesy way, if I was giving these pictures a lot of love with the printing it kind of felt like I was doing the right thing.”
It’s these details of care that Jamie hopes readers of The British Isles take away the most. With no text featured, each person or location is given the space to be seen individually – an aspect Jamie feels “is really important… so you can interpret however you feel about it.” Releasing a book about Britain, especially a portrait of it, will undeniably be considered in a political capacity given the ever-growing divide and difference of opinion that continues to burrow through our nation. With this in mind, “I guess I am saying I don’t want it to feel like it’s my idea of the British Isles,” says Jamie, “it’s just what is happening, somehow.”
Most of all, The British Isles is a celebration of people and place, but also a testament to the power of photography and where it can lead both the persons in front and behind the lens. “On a more personal level, I like the idea that The British Isles comes across from a person who really enjoys taking photographs. Just the joy of photography, the joy of being curious and what comes out the other end of that.”
About the Author
Lucy joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In October 2016 she became a staff writer on the editorial team and in January 2019 was made It’s Nice That’s deputy editor. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about new and upcoming creative projects or editorial ideas for the site.