Reflective commentary – submitted with BoW assignment two images
I realise now that it has been very important that I have given myself time for full immersion into the Nomadic Community Gardens (NCG), the subject of my BoW. This has allowed stories and characters to emerge, which are already adding colour and depth to my investigation. Reflecting on the portraits I have taken so far has confirmed my suspicions that I still don’t quite know what I am working on. Is this a portrait of place or documentary about a community or a commentary on life in London in 2019? I would, however, like to keep my mind open so as not to limit my exploration too soon.
The timeframe for the Body of Work module has allowed me the luxury of being able to investigate the Nomadic Community Gardens with what mythogeographer Phil Smith describes as “exaggerated intensity” . Over the months, I have developed a strong connection with the place and its people which tugs at me when I am not there. And when I am there, I no longer experience it as a collection of visual snapshots but a living, breathing, ever-changing entity.
One thing that has become clear is that the desire for meaningful human connection is at the heart of the Nomadic Community Gardens and I believe this is a key part of my ‘grand narrative’. We city-dwellers are becoming increasingly alienated from each other, especially in the shade of the uber-capitalism of London, with less and less interdependence in our communities. The denizens of the NCG are drawn by the very primal instinct of humans to gather and talk, to make art, to share food, to sit by a fire with others. Many of them have previously felt isolated – in a social sense or in a spiritual way. The narrative that I want to portray visually is around the irrepressibility of the human spirit and relentless drive to build and decorate and modify and leave marks on the world, even knowing that everything is so temporary and fleeting. This is intertwined with the basic human impulse to connect with others in a way that can bring about social change and emotional well-being.
It has been a privilege to be so warmly accepted by this community. I have worked hard to not be intrusive but am nevertheless surprised to have only had a couple of negative encounters in the course of taking many hundreds of photographs. As rumours grew that the NCG would be closing sooner than hoped, my priority shifted to shooting as often as possible, whilst deepening my relationships with the core team and frequent visitors. Building up this trust meant it has, at times, been inappropriate to be constantly using my camera.
The development of the work over the last few months has been focused on portraiture as general feedback from my tutor, and others, has been that this could anchor the project. I am however still primarily drawn to candid portraiture for this project. Capturing people unawares as they relax and interact with this environment still seems to be the most authentic representation of the visitors which in turn, I believe, conveys best the sense of place and our connection to it. For the staged portraits, I have tried to keep them loose and informal and have aimed to capture the diversity of the regular visitors to the NCG. [I have not spent time, at this stage, with colour temperature and consistency as I would like to get tutor feedback on the style and approach before committing.]
I finally settled on a title for the project: ‘Between the Tracks’ which I feel captures the idea of the Nomadic Community Gardens being a liminal place. It is literally located in a triangle of derelict land between the tracks of two train lines. For many it is considered to be a ‘third place’ – not work and not home, where there is more freedom to be experimentally creative, to indulge in smoking a little weed or to drink more than usual (often straight from the bottle). One of the original intentions of the founders of the project was to provide a breathing space for local residents who may feel isolated and had fallen between the cracks of support systems. This title nods to that idea but also establishes an edginess which is appropriate to the subject.
I have reflected a lot on tutor feedback around the best light for the images but this has continued to be a challenge – I have not been able to access the gardens in the early morning or late evening on a regular basis so have not really been able to experiment. However, as I have come to understand the place better, I do feel that the images in full sun reflect the feelings that most visitors have about the gardens and this feeds into the mythologies that have emerged from the NCG. It has a joyful vibe, like nowhere else in London, and often feels like a weekend holiday destination. For many, it is pure escapism and evidence of the delusional narratives we create: that London is the best city on earth with a spotless record of inclusivity and tolerance. Meanwhile, the poignancy of the NCG’s imminent closure has been ever-present and tempers the feeling of it being a saccharine utopia.
The future of the space is still unclear. There are new owners who will be seeking planning permission to develop on the land, although this will likely take several years. In the meantime, they seem to be less tolerant of the ‘shanty town’ that has built up and have concerns over drug dealing and the noise. The gates have officially closed to the public but there is talk of a ‘members-only’ admission model and we have been able to get access on two occasions so far. As I have become a relatively well-known face since beginning this project, I’m hopeful of being invited to upcoming events. I may also be able to gain permission to photograph some of the dismantling of the structures.
If I am not able to access the space again on a frequent enough basis there are other strategies I can pursue to develop the work further:
- Contact some of the regulars and photograph/interview them in the ‘afterlife’
- Visit other meanwhile spaces/community hubs to create a typology
- Use existing images to construct collages as ‘relics’ or use photographic intervention techniques
- A more abstract approach to capturing the sense of the place
- Using digital manipulation to add new layers of meaning to the images
- Create postcards to track the extent of the network of visitors from overseas
I’ve had very few extra hours for research and so am planning to spend much more time on contextual studies over the coming months.
The artist I keep coming back to when I am immersed in the Nomadic Gardens is Robert Rauschenberg, particularly his ‘combines’ and aleatory approach. His commitment to multiplicity and the celebration of everyday objects, usually scavenged from his immediate neighbourhood, is a common theme in the NCG.
A few recent projects have caught my eye:
Buster Grey-Jung has aimed to capture the preparations for the Notting Hill carnival in his project The Parade. There is a cross-over of subject matter here as many of the denizens of the Nomadic Community Gardens are involved in Paracarnival – an organisation focused on inclusion and community support and therapy through performance, self-expression and creativity as part of a team. Grey-Jung’s work conveys the excitement and trepidation of the run-up to these events but also the diversity of the participants. The series is classic documentary and aims to raise awareness of this important tradition when many organisations are suffering from funding cuts. Grey-Jung was particularly drawn towards capturing the “‘between states where aspects of carnival culture seep into everyday life … — the vibrant, imaginative costumes and energetic dance routines, juxtaposed with everyday clothing in old community centres.” 
This is something I have experienced in the gardens too but for me, it is the surreal overlap of the sub-cultures (drugs, hip-hop, graffiti) with the gaudiness of carnival, which is startling and visually appealing. Carnival also ties in with the theme of temporality which underpins my work – the investment of time and energy into an enterprise that lasts just a few hours is staggering. This is mirrored in the street art but also the entire reality of the Nomadic Community Gardens. People keep building and tending and beautifying the gardens fully aware that one day – very soon – it will all be torn down. Grey-Jung is primarily a film-maker and I feel this shows in his still photography which feels somewhat flat to me.
Another recent project with some similarities to mine is Rijnwijk My District by Erik Van Cuyk. The subject is a ‘free state’ area within Arnhem gradually being demolished but where 13 families have refused to move out and others are squatting. Van Cuyk says “I have been immersed for a year in this locally infamous neighbourhood.”  The series combines documentary with portraits. It has an anthropological feel to it and provides a tender portrait of this community. The photographer shows us ordinary people living from day to day and gives us insight into a place we are unlikely to visit. From his bio on Van Cuyk’s website: “I focus on things that disappear or things that nobody seems to pay attention to. It feels like injustice to me that those things are not properly seen. To me there is no ugliness.”
In a BJP interview, Van Cuyk says “The atmosphere is like a war zone. Arnhem is a civil society with high social standards, but when you go behind the gate to Rijnwijk, it is not up to the typical Dutch expectations.”  This does not really come across in the work but instead, the focus is on what we all have in common as humans and a community that is thriving. I have not seen Van Cuyk’s photobook but from the publicly published selection of images, it does not seem as if the portraits relate particularly well to the photographs of place or of objects. This disconnect is perhaps deliberate to convey the unsettling reality for the inhabitants.
Laura Henno’s Outremonde explores Slab City in California, a squat of marginalised people with a post-apocalyptic Mad Max aesthetic similar to the NCG (but with less rain and mud!). Henno seems to have kept her distance more than I have been able to do but still creates intimate and dignified portraits. The images have an ethereal – and very ‘desert’ – feel enhanced by her mastery of light.
Looking as objectively as I can at these projects, I feel my work stacks up acceptably beside them. Being more aspirational though I have reflected on some work we saw in Arles which resonated strongly with me: Evangelia Kranioti’s The Living, The Dead and Those at Sea.
Evangelia Kranioti explores borderlines and human stories at these interchanges. It is an epic body of work with a bleak vision but rich aesthetic. People from the edges of society are put at the centre of the images to create a fascinating and elucidating parade of humanity. These images are monumental, revealing but still intriguing, and presented boldly for maximum impact. It shows that disparate images and stories can be grouped in such a way to present a vast narrative and even squalid subject matter can be visually sumptuous.
I am really motivated to further develop this work and am enjoying my forensic investigation of my choice of subject. I feel that I now need to establish some clarity with my ‘grand narrative’ and explore options to further develop the work. It is also essential that I get on top of my learning log which has a queue of half-finished posts and notes. I need to allow my exposition to be more rough-and-ready and not let ‘perfect be the enemy of good’.
- Man, C. & Signpost. (2012). A Sardine Street box of tricks : how to make your own mis-guided tour on main street ; a handbook for making a one street ‘mis-guided tour’, identifying your significant street, mounting your walk and collecting your own relics. Axminster: Triarchy.
- https://www.bjp-online.com/2019/08/notting-hill-carnival-an-inside-look/ (accessed 28.9.19)
- https://www.erikvancuyk.com/rijnwijk-mijn-wijk (accessed 28.9.19)
- https://www.bjp-online.com/2019/09/erik-van-cuyk-rijnwijk/ (accessed 28.9.19)