David Campany in conversation with Edward Thompson
Edward Thomson, In-a-Gadda-da-England, self-published, 2022
“For 20 years I’ve worked as a documentary photographer. I’ve photographed everyday life in England, predominantly in Kent, but also around the country. Looking back over the photographs certain themes have revealed themselves: nostalgia, the rise of nationalism, the bizarre, protest, moments of serendipity with strangers and the sublime of the everyday.” – Edward Thompson
Debossed photograph and gold foil text
296mm x 296mm
David Campany and Edward Thompson, in Conversation
David: Edward, you mention in your introduction your search for “the soul of England”, but then switch things a little to a search within yourself. There’s something in the tone of your photographs, veering between affectionate and distanced, that reminds me of Bill Brandt’s photography of the 1930s, particularly his book The English at Home. The English often seem faux-naive, trapped in class rituals, sleepwalking, unaware or uninterested in the wider world beyond and their place within it. Whose England is this?
Edward: In 2002 I was using photography as a way of exploring. Seeing places and witnessing lives I wouldn’t normally encounter. That’s where the search for a country’s soul and the individual soul meet. You don’t learn about yourself in isolation. From the beginning I set out to subvert reality. Not through constructed fine art photography, as seemed to be the trend when I was a student, but through the documentation of everyday life as observed by a documentary photographer. Through timing and chance you can make the everyday seem like something more, something mythic. To imbue normality with such focus and significance that it elevates its meaning. The comic book writer Grant Morrison said that ‘Life + Significance = Magic’. When I photograph I look with intent, in a way I believe I am imbuing significance into everyday life.
The ‘veering between affectionate and distanced,’ comes from my need to go and photograph people versus the awkwardness I experience just before I start photographing. I think there’s something very English about that. Before I begin photographing, even the most mundane thing, I feel like I am in fight or flight mode. I’ve learned over the years to method act through this fear and it has held me in good stead when in the middle of screaming rioters or encountering far right protestors. For me photography is a struggle and yet I’ve done it for twenty years. I think that paranoia, that inner drama, has helped me to photograph some interesting moments that also contain dualism. Whose England is this? It’s ours and it’s theirs. It’s my conscious and my subconscious.
David: Do you like your soul? Do you like the soul of England?
Edward: Well right now it’s a little hard to like the soul of England isn’t it? There seems to be strong polarised forces at work, nationalistic narratives, division, the channelling of hatred away from those responsible. I think recently with Covid we have seen how ignorance can be weaponised. I have hope for the future, but I think we need to try and conquer our fears, or at the least not let those in power use our fears against us. As for my own soul, well I am an oddity in the world of art and photography as I am a committed agnostic. I think my ability to believe is at the core of my ability to conjure. When you shoot with photographic film it is an act of faith as until you develop the film the photographs exist in a state that is both brilliant and terrible. It’s like Schrodinger’s film camera.
David: Do you feel there are signs of a non-fearful English nationalism in your photographs?
Edward: As in a way of being proud of our English identity without it becoming something sinister and threatening? Yes, for sure there are. In this photo book there are depictions of family gatherings, beautiful moments in everyday life, public art works and climate change protestors. I try and start and end the book positively (birth, family, growth) with a dive into a nationalistic underworld in the middle. The diptych of a crashed car with an England flag and the photographer looking on opposite is like me at the scene of the crime, looking bewildered and damaged. I spent three years dipping in and out of photographing the English Defence League so whenever I see an English flag it conjures up some emotions in me that most people might not have. I think, like a virus, that’s probably tainted how I see my country’s flag. I don’t know if something totemic, like a flag, can ever be reclaimed. But a country is more than a flag.
David: I’m currently living in the US, a country that is either beginning, or knows it must begin the difficult but necessary reckoning with its own past as a slave state. By comparison, England seems a long way from dealing with the consequences of its colonial past, a past that shapes absolutely everything about contemporary England and Englishness, which is why the concepts are so fraught, so full of occlusions and denials. But it’s coming, and at least on a subconscious level England knows it. Do you expect your photographs to be looked at in the light of this?
Edward: When I take photographs I know it’s a moment now, but I am also aware that the photographs themselves will become history. I spent some weeks with the photographer Sergei Chilikov when I was a student. We would go out photographing and he would point at a shop window and say ‘museum!’ He would then point at the road and say ‘museum!’. I think what he was suggesting, at least the way I interpreted it, was that with documentary photography the whole world is your museum. You are able to show people what you saw in it. A photograph exists outside of time and therein lies its inherent magic. I think most people have forgotten that. When I photograph I feel omnipresent. The photograph of Nigel Farage in the book laughing in front of the giant word ‘Good’ is ironic. It is made whilst I was conscious of how some people will see that moment looking back at it.
David: Are you optimistic about the future that will look back at the image of Farage?
Edward: I think with time we, humanity, generally end up looking back and seeing the right side of history, don’t we? It’s just always difficult in the moment. I hope the person reading our conversation in 2041 can see the irony of the Brexit Party all laughing at the word Good now that humanity has learned we are better together and how to love one another. I do, however, have a slight paranoia about some future frontpage of the Daily Mail where that photograph is used to celebrate the glorious beginning of Brexit…. No, there is no way that’s going to happen. Even if it did, I wouldn’t sell them the photograph.
David: What you say does point us to the fact that there is not going to be one way to read these photographs. Ambiguity is part of their power and their risk, no?
Edward: People see what they want to see. This is always the way; the photographs reflect the viewers own prejudices. In the past I’ve had the same photograph co-opted as memes by both far-right and far-left groups. It’s a common issue in documentary photography. In the beginning I aligned myself to make the ‘one image tells all’ photographs that came out of the British documentary tradition of the 1980’s. A day spent having beers with Richard Billingham in Margate when I was 23 years old changed my approach. I mentioned the iconic image of his late father pictured with what looks like a giant bottle of beer and his mother looking sternly at him, I was surprised when he said that it was his least favourite photograph. This made me re-evaluate what I thought about photography. Diane Arbus once said, a photograph is a secret about a secret, the more it tells you the less you know. If there is ambiguity in the photographs, I hope the sequencing and placement of photographs within the book helps to convey my own feelings. There are certain pairings of images that aim to be reflexive, but two diptychs are worth mentioning as they are connected. The first is of St George walking along a high street paired with a St George tattoo on the back of an E.D.L protestor. The second is of British Tommy living historians paired with a tattoo of a Poppy on another E.D.L protestor. In both instances I am trying to break the third wall of the photo book – giving the viewer the impression that the people in the photographs are aware they are in a photo book. That they are looking across onto the opposite page and that they are somewhat unimpressed by what they see. They are now able to look out of England’s past, both its mythology and history, to lay judgement on the present and those that take their iconography for their own misjudged purposes.
David: Were you photographing what made you feel ambiguous?
Edward: I know they made me feel something at the time. It’s like recognising something you don’t know yet, like déjà vu. This is what I think is a bit like sagacity, not knowing what I am looking for with my camera until I find it. I think there’s some value in that. It is like a way of being humble. Being open to experiences and what may happen, and within that space, finding what you were meant to find.
I was never a fan of press photography or assignments where you had to point the camera at ‘the thing you are supposed to photograph’. I prefer to rely on my own perception and instincts. Maybe there are certain moments that are ambiguous and defy a clear explanation and that’s what seemed interesting to me, but in myself, even in the anxious hyper-active state I’m in when I photograph, I am very focused and confident. The photograph of the boy blinded by the sun in this book, for me, echoes a famous early career photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson of a small boy looking up, his back against a wall. It’s uncharacteristic of Cartier-Bresson’s work, it’s not a decisive moment at all, it’s something else. It’s not easy to explain. The difference in content between a postcard and a novel.
David: For all its common use as a medium of supposedly functional communication, the medium’s forte may well be how it allows a photographer and a viewer the opportunity for mixed feelings. A fixed image but an unfixed response. It’s interesting what you mentioned about the editing and the sequencing of the book being a way of structuring those mixed feelings, if not exactly resolving them.
Edward: Indeed, ‘a fixed image and an unfixed response’. I’d say this goes even further in that our response to a photograph is always unfixed too. The photograph, with its ability to freeze a moment in time, renders the viewer the ability to look back again and again over the course of their lives. We change and so our response to the photograph changes. It’s like reading the same book over and over again during your lifetime. You will notice different things. One of the last photographs in this book, of the writing saying ‘I love you forever’ had a deeply personal meaning for me. When the photograph was taken in 2009 it was the 2nd anniversary of my father’s death and that is the spot where his ashes were scattered. To me, it was like a message from beyond the grave. Re-visiting that photograph in 2016 it took on another meaning – the sea mist over the English Channel is now obscuring the coast of France, the graffiti has become a love letter to Europe in post-Brexit Britain. Now viewing the photograph since 2019 I am now a father to twin girls and there they are standing on their scooters looking out to sea, perhaps where my own ashes will be scattered one day.
David: How far into the years of shooting were you before you began to think about making a book? Did the prospect of making a book inform the kind of photographs you were taking?
Edward: This book started five years ago when I moved back to Kent. I started with an edit of my best work shot in the county but after the referendum I saw a connection to the themes in my previous photo-essays to many of the catalysts of Brexit: Nostalgia culture, the rise of populism, our still ever-present class system and xenophobia. This then guided the edit of my archive. There’s a lot of new work made in the past five years, that’s how it really came together. I think a book just about Kent would have still been relevant, but I wanted to do something that really reflected the current climate. Many of the key images in the book were made in London and other counties, so it had to be England as a whole. I’m trying to say something more than just this is the garden of England. That’s why the book is called what it is. But it isn’t a Brexit book either. Over twenty years my visual style has stayed the same, so photographs made in 2021 look like they could have been made in 2001. Some of the photographs look genuinely anachronistic because they are of re-enactors or retro-socialisers. But many of the photographs in the book seem like they were photographed during different decades. The Miss Faversham float photograph could have been from the Eighties, the Extinction Rebellion protestors from the Sixties. This ties in with my philosophy of being able to photograph outside of time. I am conscious that the photograph I make will exist separately from our ongoing timeline, at the moment I capture the photograph I am also outside of time. If you can exist outside of time then the past, present and future become one.
David: What was the last image you shot for the book?
Edward: The very last photograph I made that is in the book was photographed this year (2021) and is of the topiary man. It is actually very near to where I live, which is probably why I never got round to photographing it before. As I was taking the photograph a passerby stopped to chat, he told me that the man who planted it and pruned it for 30 years had just died. For me the topiary sculpture is mythological, it hits that British folk horror note too. It’s the Fat Controller, its Bertie Bassett, it’s the Green Man. I think it is a worthy edition to the book as its indicative of that kind of British eccentric, a person who starts doing a crazy thing one day which they end up doing their whole life.
David: It’s interesting that in myths of national identity around the world there is a place for the obsessive outsider who carries on indifferent to what’s going on around then. Maybe it’s because it’s kind of noble in a blind way, but it’s also insular in its disregard. But the obsessiveness of the observational photographer is different because it does require a world to photograph, even if it’s only to mirror back the observer’s obsessions. After working on your project for such a long time has it been difficult to bring it to a conclusion and let it go?
Edward: This series had to finish to allow me to make new work. I have three very esoteric photography projects I want to work on. One I’ve been waiting nearly 10 years to begin. I’d like to start making documentary films too, I think thats a logical progression. But this kind of photography will always be my first love. There are photographs in this book of my next-door neighbours, close friends, my late father, that’s how close I am to some of the work. Letting go is difficult, but I think Covid and the global pandemic has made us enter a new epoch. All of the work in this book made from 2002 – 2020 is from that former time.