Craig Easton - A Week in Nelson

A Week in Nelson is a mini series of portraits that Craig was invited to take in Nelson during a break in lockdowns. Here he talks about his photographic process, the misrepresentation of Northern England by the media and the importance of valuing the individual.

I was interested in revisiting Nelson to talk to people and make these portraits as part of my wider work in what have become known as ‘post-industrial communities’ across Lancashire and the north of England.

This part of the world was the centre of the Industrial Revolution and the engine for the great wealth generated by Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is where I live, and working in the media and the art world, I feel a real duty to represent the region in an open rounded way, always questioning how underrepresented and misrepresented Northern England can be.

I work with a big old wooden plate camera. It’s a slow process. An important aspect of it is the time it takes to set up the camera, a meticulous business that affords you the time to spend with someone and talk to them whilst you think about the portrait and how you might like to approach it.

I feel very strongly, that I want to represent each person as an individual, taken purely as I find them – I don’t see them as representative of any town or any identity. I’m not looking for ‘types’ of people to represent a community - say, ‘white working class northerners’ or ‘South Asian women’ - it’s the individual that I’m interested in, who they are and how they see their place in society.

Constrained by the pandemic restrictions - these photographs show mostly shop keepers and business owners. During the pandemic we couldn’t go into houses or spend time together indoors, so, by necessity, a lot of the work was done in the street, in doorways and entrances.

As with other (not all) projects in the region I chose to shoot portraits with the big camera on a tripod – it’s a way to try to capture the dignity in the person I photograph, it’s a process that we work on together, it’s not me wandering around with a camera photographing in a reportage style what catches my eye. It’s a collaborative process, it can take 10-20 mins to set up camera - it is cumbersome and there is time to talk and for us to get a sense of each other as two people meeting.

I’m aware, of course, that there are certain rights that you claim for yourself as a photographer and certain responsibilities that come with that - what I’m photographing is the person I’ve met and how I respond to them. It’s not definitive, but neither is it a stage-managed studio shot – these pictures are made in natural light in natural surroundings. And it’s something, I think, that as a viewer you have to try to be aware of - you have to think ‘who is making the photograph, who is editing the series of photographs, who is writing the caption that goes with the images’. It’s not PR, it’s not flattery, it’s a portrait - and it is possible for people not to like the way I’ve seen them, but all I can do is try to be honest in what I’m doing and in the way I shoot.

And thinking about how portraits are seen by an audience, I often produce great big prints, typically 54 x 44 inches. And there is a very particular reason for that - when you go to art galleries, National Portrait Gallery for example, and you’re looking up at big pictures on the wall, there are certain dynamics at play between the viewer and the viewed. I’m thinking of an enormous picture of Margaret Thatcher I once saw on the wall and thought, ‘isn’t this interesting, how elevated this is, how small I am in comparison as I am made to look up to this picture’. It made me think about that relationship between the audience and the picture, the ‘great and the good’ as we are led to believe - but the people I photograph aren’t often shown in important galleries, they are normal, ordinary, working class people and I’m determined that they should be presented and be seen in the same way, with the same pride and dignity afforded to the well-known.

It’s a similar process when you put portraits in a book - you’re also trying to affirm a significance and say ‘these people and these stories are important’. I really value the (sometimes brief) relationships I have with people I meet and photograph, and I think it’s important to acknowledge them, hear their stories and represent these communities, value them to the extent they should photographed and put in books.

I see my role as much as an historian as a photographer and in the same way that we look back on photographs made in the past I hope that in years to come people will look back on my pictures and think that is what Nelson or the people of Nelson were like in 2020.

View the A Week in Nelson

This series has been commissioned by In-Situ as part of This is Nelson, a project exploring contemporary Nelson which is funded by Pendle Borough Council with the support of the Nelson Town Deal Board, and which forms a part of the community conversations in the development of Nelson’s bid.