Britain can be an uncanny place, and a clear definition of what life is like here often escapes us. Anyone pushed to characterise life in the country would likely do its vast, unrepeated glory an injustice. That is why photographer Jamie Hawkesworth set out with his camera, not with the intention of creating a portrait of Britain, but simply to explore it.
His new book The British Isles – published by MACK – is an archive of 13 years spent wandering around British towns, villages and remote islands. When making the work, Hawkesworth would amble along to his local train station, and simply pick a new place to venture to. ‘All I wanted to do,’ he says, ‘was to go to a place that I didn’t know about, and see what I came across. The spirit of the book is really to go out and explore the country.’
Principally an in-demand fashion photographer working for the likes of Vogue, Hawkesworth's long-form work in The British Isles has helped to hone his eye for people’s unique sense of character. While getting used to photographing people, he would take these aimless strolls, soak up an atmosphere, and notice the subtler details of the British public: people’s gestures, the way they held their hands, their clothing. He would ask permission to take their portraits, with a success rate of about 40 per cent. ‘A lot of the people would say no, but I would keep walking until I found the next person that I found interesting. It’s hard to articulate, but sometimes people would just be looking brilliant. Everyone’s got something going on.’
The images have a celebrated sense of personhood, and flicking through them, every viewer will interpret them differently. Viewers will find their own signifiers that represent Britain today as they experience it: freshly bought fish and chips lathered in ketchup; seaside towns in varied states of construction; no-nonsense slogans on hardware shop windows; or perhaps the awkwardness of youth. We all see and experience Britain differently, and in this sense, Hawkesworth is merely an observer. ‘I almost want to say that finding a definition for British identity isn’t important to the work. It’s just about individual people living here.’
Yet, unconstrained by a need to define it, Hawkesworth seems to have found a diverse and buoyant Britain. ‘It was simply, “let’s see what Hartlepool is about, or Hastings, or South Shields”,’ he says. ‘The work comes down to everyday things. I think photography gives you an excuse to be in that normality, but to really appreciate it.’