Shape of a Nation

Jamie Hawkesworth (b. 1987) has been documenting the people, architecture and landscape of Great Britain for almost two decades. In a period punctuated by referendums, political turmoil, division and austerity, his photographs provide a reframed image of the nation through its everyday places and people. Now, the culmination of this work is on display at London’s Huxley-Parlour. The British Isles includes photographs taken right across the country from 2007 to 2020. Each image is untitled, leaving the people and places captured to speak for themselves. Here, Hawkesworth talks about the process of creating the series, how it has shaped his perceptions of his home country and the craft of portrait photography.

A: Your first project, taken in a Preston bus station, is a collection of portraits taken over three years. How did that project come about and how has it shaped your work since? 
I graduated in 2009 and moved from Preston to London, then my old photography tutor asked me to come back for one weekend to make a newspaper about the bus station. He was doing black and white architectural photos, and he knew I was doing colour portraits of people so he asked me to do that with him. We set up a little shop inside the bus station and I was approaching people and asking to take their photo. We made 500 little newspapers and left them in the station so people could pick them up.

That was a really lovely project, and then later I heard that the bus station was going to be demolished, so I wanted to move back for a few months and spend more time there. I spent every day from 8am to 8pm walking in circles around the station – which ended up being the book. It was one of the first places I could really see how light moved around a space and how that affects the way people look, so it’s informed my work ever since. And approaching strangers is an incredibly nerve-wracking thing to do, and I fell in love with the awkwardness of it. Having a camera gives you an excuse to talk to people. I made a very conscious decision to talk to people and ask to take their picture, and that really informed The British Isles project because I spent the next 12 years doing just that. I learned pretty quickly that people didn’t respond as well when I said “I really like your face, can I take your picture”, instead I try and be really specific in what drew me to them, whether that be the colour of their hair or their shoes.

A: The British Isles surveys the people and landscapes that make up the everyday fabric of your home country. How has the project affected the way you view Britain? 
JH: The only thing I was interested in was exploring. I was picking places I’d never been before, sometimes I’d never even heard of them, and I’d get off the bus or the ferry and I’d just walk around. Whoever I bumped into, I’d ask to take their portrait and I wasn’t thinking of anything other than being in that moment. I really enjoyed the feeling of jumping on a train and not really knowing what was going to happen – and that’s as deep and as broad as it went in my mind when I was planning it.

A: You took the portraits of key workers featured on the cover of Vogue magazine in July 2020. Where do you see the role of artists in documenting historical moments? Are there any artists working in this space that you particularly admire? 
JH: From a personal perspective, it was a fantastic opportunity to still be taking photos at a time that felt like I may not be able to. I spend a lot of time in the darkroom so it was great to be out on my bike, with my camera in my backpack and then go back and print the images of this person I’d just met. I couldn’t imagine a better thing to have done with that time. Creating art is such a wonderful excuse to interact with people you usually wouldn’t speak to. There’s no way I’d have been interacting with a train driver at the height of the pandemic, but because of my camera, I had an amazing opportunity to meet this person who was working. It was a moment in time that was very special to be involved in.

A: Much of your work, from Preston Is My Paris to your fashion photography for Vogue, maintain an element of spontaneity and simplicity. How do these core ideas shape the way you work? 
I started in photography quite late, I was studying something completely different and I’ve stuck with the camera that I was given on my course ever since. I’ve kept the same tripod, camera and lens, and I’ve stuck with shooting analogue, and I really try and keep things simple. I find that if I try and open myself up to digital, and there are endless possibilities, things get confused too easily.

A: You often purposely leave out captions that contextualise your photographs with names and locations. How did you come to make this decision and why is it important to the work? 
It felt like an instinctual decision. I didn’t want to create this book and then under every image write “Hartlepool” or “Wales” or “Shetland Islands” because it felt like it takes away from the places. I was exploring the British Isles, so the title is a fact, and beyond that, where they were actually from doesn’t really matter. Once I arrived at a place, I wasn’t looking to discover or sum up what that place was like, so removing the captions was my way of holding onto the surprise of what I was seeing.

A: What do you want people to take away after viewing The British Isles? 
JH: I have no idea what I’d want someone to take away from it. Perhaps more than anything it’s nice for people to be in a space that celebrates the art of taking photographs and hopefully they enjoy that.

A: What’s next? Are you working on anything new? 
JH: I don’t have too many plans. I did make a short film about my grandad who is 95-years-old, and I’d like to make another one about someone else. I never stop taking photographs. I don’t set out to create a book or series, so eventually things just come together into a natural collection. I like working without a plan.

Jamie Hawkesworth: The British Isles is at Huxley-Parlour from 11 July – 10 August.

All images courtesy Jamie Hawkesworth, from the series The British Isles, 2007-2020.