I thought it would be good to write a short piece on the Portrait of Britain book as I have been working through ‘reading’ some of the images that are included and also because it is the first time I have had work included in a publication like this.
Portrait of Britain is a competition run by the British Journal of Photography, this event is run each year and is now in its third volume. The project is essentially building on the ideas borne out early in the 20th century in that it looks to bring together photographs from many contributors across the United Kingdom to build a modern identity of the residents of the UK. Much ni the line of Mass Observation but without the extended drive for written, video or audio contributions.
The project requests contributors to focus on portraits of everyday people and encourages the addition of a short contextual paragraph to accompany each image. This is promoted through social media and various media outlets garnering over 10,00 responses in 2020.
I decided to partake this year as I felt it would be good practice in the process of presenting work, an opportunity to seek outside validation and promotion and finally because my work during 2020 was much more reflective of current events than my previous submission to Uni or competitions.
First I would say that the premise of the book is sound but also a little mass market for the desired outcome. By that I don’t mean to demean or undermine the work completed by any of the photographers and producers of the book but to highlight the fact that this is a commercial endeavour and this can influence the production time, quality and final outcome.
Overall the vast majority of images contained within the book are interesting often highly adept and without doubt carefully curated to ensure the balance between commercial appeal and breadth of vision.
However, due to the wide reaching promotion of submission the standard of contextualisation does vary widely. At one end you find a carefully rafted paragraph and title which corresponds, supports and develops the visual but at the other you are left lacking any detail whatsoever or perhaps any paragraph at all.
I do understand that in some cases the purpose is that the image is intended to be viewed without prompt or influence but there is a correlation between the photographer and the type of contextualisation. For some examples the non-photographer will perhaps write with more bias but also more humility and emotion whereas some of the professionals leave no words to match, especially in the case of studio shot celebrities, as if we already know about this person but are only presented a veneer as publicity or a visage of intimacy.
My finals thought on this book are duplicitous in that I appreciate the opportunity to view the work of relatively unknown photographers each sharing their own experiences or vision of the life in Britain. There is so much I have taken from seeing the different scenes, people and styles. Theres a very good balance of race, gender and ability and whilst there are several stereotypical views of Britishness there is also a fairly representative mix of city life and and alternative life. This unfortunately undermined by the overall message of the book.
When I finish reviewing the book in it’s entirety I come away with a feeling of progressiveness and acceptance, a sense that if it wasn’t for the coronavirus then Britain would be the mythical ‘green and pleasant land’ we expect.
And that is the main issue with all publications of this sort. What is the main driver behind its creation and curation? A reader may recognise the fact that there are images included which cover the Black Lives Matter movement and the associated protests, that there are images of individuals from lower wealth brackets and people both infant and pensioner, but, and this is a big but, the tone of these images is diluted through their presentation and infrequency. We see nothing of the issues of homelessness, abuse, division, poverty, collusion and ineptitude. The images of the BLM protests are framed and processed in a way which militant-ises and historises the images, both diminishing and distancing the impact. The images of travellers and highlanders are mysticised in a dreamlike fashion whilst the deaths from covid are only recognised by the few masks seen across the collection and barely two sanitised portraits of nurses.
If anything the issues we face as a nation are the symptoms of the British ability to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ This book is essentially presenting the idea that everything will work out in the end don’t worry, look how proactive we are. Instead of showing us the reality of our situation we are further fed the exceptionalism that causes many to either not recognise or fail to understand how we have come to the position of widespread systemic sexism and racism and at this point over 90k covid deaths. One protest does not make equality exist, just as one photograph shouldn’t confirm it does but with the inclusion of the negative side we are in essence dismissing existence through exclusion.