Photographer Sophie Green has spent the last few years documenting marginalised parts of society to reveal the beauty within them. While her subjects change, Sophie tries to present each image as honestly as possible: “I continually strive to keep my images as a representation of what I see through the viewfinder,” she explains. “I avoid retouching and just subtly balance the colour and exposure… If a frame isn’t interesting enough straight out of camera and you need to put a load of Photoshop layers on an image to make it interesting, then it’s not good enough.” This need for purity is evident throughout the London-based photographer’s body of work, whether it’s stock car racing, horse fairs, or portraits of her namesakes, Sophie’s style is honest, raw and intimate.
Making sure each frame is interesting depends heavily on her subject matter, and it’s where Sophie’s fascination with British culture and the nuances within working class subcultures can be played out. “Britain is great and I’ve never thought it necessary to go abroad or travel far to take pictures. I always want to make the most of my surroundings,” she says. “And there are amazing things happening in every corner of this country – you’ve just got to go out and find it.”
In order to establish those compelling crevices of society, research is key to Sophie’s work. “If I’m not making pictures then I’m thinking about making pictures, I find it hard to switch off,” she explains. “I have ways of working and researching different projects. Ideas sometimes come to me randomly but then other times something will inspire me, like an article, film, documentary or the internet and that’s where a project can take off. I like it when projects unfold in a very natural way. Research is a fundamental part to any project but I never want to turn up at a shoot with any pre-conceived notions, I really believe the most valid research is done while shooting and meeting people.”
Her latest project Gypsy Gold is a perfect example of this process. “My fascination with the quirks and eccentricities of travellers was born after watching the Channel 4 series, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. I became captivated by the heritage and traditions behind their lives and I felt compelled to go and discover their unique culture for myself.” Travelling to regional horse fairs up and down the country including Appleby in Cumbria, Ballinasloe in Ireland and Wickham in Hampshire, Sophie fully immersed herself in the community. “At the fairs, horses are traded, girls search for husbands, and friends and family from far and wide reunite,” she says. “The vibrancy and colours of the fairs are totally mesmerising – incredible faces, theatrical outfits, traditional horse carts, cockerel fights and fortune tellers. It felt like I had gone back in time and the whole series is a spontaneous, intuitive reaction to what I observed.”
Despite the spontaneity, there’s a sensitivity to her subjects that Sophie applies to all her projects. “I wouldn’t want to take pictures that compromise the integrity of the person I’m shooting. It’s important to honour and respect their lives and show them fairly. I wouldn’t want my subjects to feel that I’m voyeuristically taking pictures of them,” she explains. “Image makers are communicating a story and we bear the responsibility of that. I work in a collaborative way with my subjects to make the process a fair and balanced exchange. I seek permission from every person I photograph; the subject always has a choice whether they would like to participate. It’s a very intimate exchange between photographer and sitter and I am always so grateful to people who give me their time and trust.”
In Gypsy Gold, it was especially important to Sophie to exercise this care for her subjects due the attention many of the people she spoke to had been through in the past. “Travellers can be a fairly insular community and I did encounter problems getting people to participate – I felt there was a barrier but often it was because that person had encountered a bad experience with a photographer or knew someone else who had,” she says. “I heard terrible stories about how people had found themselves on blogs dedicated to mocking gypsy culture and even a girl who found her face superimposed on a naked body on a porn site. I had to work hard at establishing a trust and to portray my good intentions and purpose for the project to enable the individuals I met to let their guard down.”
The result is beautiful and avoids becoming a brash, gratuitous portrayal of traveller culture by honing in on the smaller details. The fashion, the hairstyles, the bits and whips and the market fakes all feature through close crops and considered portraits. It’s these elements and individuals that truly shape a community, rather than one, all encompassing shot, and it’s something Sophie kept in mind during the project. “Communities on the fringe of mainstream society are fascinating because they have their own rules and moral code. Travellers have been covered so much in photography and while shooting I was aware it could easily look and feel like a cliché – this concern heavily influenced how I photographed. Often I saw a good shot but it felt too obvious,” she explains. “I didn’t want Gypsy Gold to become a deep, intellectual narrative but to simply record what caught my eye and made me smile. But I hope these photographs provide an insight and allow the viewer to appreciate traveller culture in a new way.”
The narrative weaved into her projects is what makes Sophie’s photography so compelling and the way she presents her work further enhances the dialogue between her images. Similar to A Day at the Races, Gyspy Gold is displayed as diptychs. Formed during the edit, Sophie uses these pairings “as a way to tell a more complete story. The photos that make up the pairs resonate with each other and to me they tell a stronger story together.” The relationship is wonderful, as curling locks of luscious hair mimic dress ruffles, and the slouched posture of a woman emulates the natural fall of horse reigns. Sophie’s work goes beyond the articles and news coverage, the pre-conceptions and judgements and humanises the communities she captures: Gypsy Gold extends her investigation into British subcultures, and presents the viewer with a thoughtful conversation between photographer and subject.