​Waiting for the picture: An Interview with Simon Roberts



10 minutes reading

Simon Roberts (1974, U.K.) first published the monograph Motherland ten years ago. It was based on his travels through Russia, meeting with the locals and documenting their lives in relationship to their landscape. That project led him to question his national identity through the lens of another culture, comparing his Englishness to the patriotism of the Russians. Since then he has gone on to publish two more equally critically acclaimed books, We English and Pierdom, in pursuit of an explanation, or at least an exploration, of what it means to be English. More recently, he was the official artist for the United Kingdom's 2010 General Election and later was granted access to the 2012 London Olympic Games. Here he speaks with us in an interview about landscape, national identity, the speed of modern journalism and, of course, the English.

Your images are typically broad shots of a whole scene, showing larger groups of people and more of the landscape, often described as 'taking a step back'. What brought you to use this style?

It really came from the work I was doing in Russia for the book Motherland, on a trip between 2004 and 2005. There I was exploring ideas around people, landscape and national identity, so the book was a mix of landscape and portraiture. I got quite close, face to face with the people that I met, so I started taking landscape pictures with a more distant perspective.

Then, when I got back to England and started to print the work large, the relationship between the viewer of the print and the figure in the landscape echoed ideas of history painting, and it made you the surveyor of the scene rather than part of the scene. I was surprised how the Russians' idea of national identity was more than just patriotism and was tied to ideas of belonging to the Russian landscape. Which to me was quite surprising because I was quite ambivalent towards notions of Englishness and my own relationship to the English landscape. So I went on a similar journey to what I did in Russia, but this time I spent a year travelling around England for the project We English. I wanted the photographs to echo that sense of distance and the viewers to have a bird's eye perspective over the landscape I was looking at. Taking that step back gave more opportunity for the landscape to take precedence, and then within that landscape to create these small narratives, or vignettes within the larger tableaux.

In 2010 you were the official artist for the general election in the UK, and to me what stands out in those images is the mob of journalists and photographers crowding around solitary politicians. They give the impression that the politicians weren't there so much for the people but more for the press. Did you plan the message you wanted to convey beforehand, or was it something that emerged while you were there?

No, I had a pretty clear idea what I wanted to do with the commission, because the idea was that you have special access to the three main party leaders, so you could become embedded and travel around the country with each of the leaders. I was very dismissive of that access and worried that I would become part of the press dialogue, part of that scrum. So I decided to take a similar perspective to We English, taking that perspective would always put me behind the press. What I wanted to do was to put into context what we were seeing in the news, in terms of these little press conferences and political theatre that was taking place and put it into the context of how it was orchestrated. So you could see the sheep pen in which the press were supposed to stand, where the security guards were and what the general public were doing, so you knew how many people there were there. I was interested in those peripheral moments as well as the British landscape and architecture. Little details that help to extend your visual references.

Well, architecture became very important when you photographed the 2012 London Olympics. You split those images into three distinct parts: the sports, the crowd, and the architecture.

There again, the Olympics were interesting because there were so many photographs created. I heard a statistic that within 90 seconds of Usain Bolt crossing the finishing line the Daily Mail picture desk had received tens of thousands of images of that moment. Each photographer had arrays of cameras set up on remote, all of them linked, so that within milliseconds of a photograph being taken they were transmitted to the picture desk. Yet all of the images were close-ups of Usain Bolt, so despite this deluge of photographs, they are all pretty much showing the same thing.

With all my photographs it was again about setting a scene from which you can begin to understand what else is going on. So with my picture of the 100m final, you can see all the cameras in the foreground with 600-700mm lenses, but you can also see the crowds, the lighting rigs and some of the architecture. For me, the ones which were particularly successful were the images where you get a sense of London, where you can see how the Olympic committee and particularly Locog (The London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games) branded London: how it was used as a beautiful backdrop, which they could then set the sporting event within and have these images transmitted around the world. Ostensibly it was a PR job on behalf of London and Britain and I wanted to get a sense of that.

You seem unimpressed with the effect of digital photography and in particular that deluge at the Daily Mail.

It's not so much the digital – for the Olympics I shot on digital – but it is more about that process of distribution. Which was something I was interested in my series The Last Moment and Ctrl+Alt+Del. We are all in this new phase now where everything needs to be recorded, yet everything is recorded to be immediately shared, rather than contemplated. We all have to show where we are in that moment, then have that moment liked and commented upon.

I studied human geography and did my dissertation on photographic representations of East Africa. What I did was examined the tourist literature and how it depicted East Africa, then I went on one of the 8 week tours and tried to map the experience and understand how their visual reference of the place chafes once they experience it. Instead of being challenged, they tried to recreate the pictures that they saw in the tourist literature. I remember being on the Serengeti and everybody was photographing at the same time. Nobody was in the moment, they were all trying to re-photograph a photograph they had already seen in the tourist literature to validate the experience they were paying for. So how much of our experience is different from what we've had a stereotypical idea of before? What is in that space between what we see and how we experience it?

In Ctrl+Alt+Del, where you photograph the back screen of the digital camera, there is this sense of loss and regret going through the series about the speed and ease of destroying photographic information.

I shoot very slowly and don't shoot a great deal of material. Like the image of David Cameron outside of the polling station for the election project: I had been there for 14 hours so I could set up my shot, make sure there were no roads closed off by police, all so I could get exactly the frame that I wanted. But, because I was shooting a 4x5 camera with film, by the time that David Cameron had walked out of the polling station and got in his car, I only had time to take two photographs. In that same time a press photographer on a motor drive could have taken 200. I didn't need to take more than that but there was this element of luck as well. It was the same for the Olympics -- it was more about finding the location, then waiting for the picture to form.

Your series The Last Moment, where you scan and rework press images published in British newspapers to essentially remove a lot of visual information, seems like a counterpoint to your normal approach of stepping back to reveal more information about the scene. Is this also a way of slowing down the image?

With that, I was trying to create a barrier, to make the viewer do more work, and there is this element of confusion when you first see them. It is very difficult to tell online, because these things are supposed to be prints -- it's a very different experience looking at something 40 inches tall by 60 inches wide. What you first see is your eye being drawn towards the devices that are being used. You look first off at how many of these devices are being used at a time, then it becomes about elements of the devices, for example some people are using two phones at a time, the nail varnish on the fingers, the back of the phones decorated like cassettes. You know but are not quite sure of what they are all recording. Then the title gives you a little bit more of a sense of what you are looking at, for instance the GaGa one is just called Poker Face. When you read that, then you start looking and can see the translucence effect that I put over the rest of the image, and taking a step back you begin to see Lady GaGa's face emerge until you realise what it is you are looking at. So, what I'm trying to do is make you spend more time looking at the image, contemplating what you are looking at, thinking about the process, because these pictures are often made in a split-second and our time with them is another split-second.

This project was started at a time when Kodak was going into administration. Here you have a huge multinational company that was so tied to photography. The Kodak Moment was the birth of amateur photography.

Was this why you named the project The Last Moment, as a reference to The Kodak Moment?

They collapsed as a result of digital and they hadn't realised the effect that it would have. What the mobile phone has done is enable people to take a photograph and share it instantaneously. Three to four years ago, most digital cameras that you could buy weren't WIFI enabled, but mobile phones were! So the mobile phone basically killed the compact camera market because all people want to do is transmit an image. It's not about creating something that will sit in a photo album for relatives to see, it's something that people will see now. Everyone is continually positioning themselves in the moment. That's why it's called The Last Moment. Not just because of The Kodak Moment, but also because we are always recording that last moment, that here and now.

What do you think you've learnt about the English by examining them for the last 10 years?

I've learnt to love and hate my country in equal measure. One of the great things about doing We English was it took me to all these little places that I never really knew about. There is no doubt that it is an incredible country with some beautiful places but you can also see just how mundane and banal our high streets are. One of the great things for me about immigration is the colour that it brings to some of our streets. You drive around parts of Birmingham and Leicester and its quite extraordinary, the different elements of life there.

Simon Robert's 2010 work The Election Project is on exhibition in London, to coincide with the upcoming General Election, at Photofusion from April 10 till May 12, 2015.