“Photography is not an intellectual pursuit. It’s about becoming a hunter – getting yourself into the right place at the right time,” says Ian Berry.
A member of Magnum Photos since 1962, Ian Berry knows what he’s talking about.
He’s worked as a photojournalist in Vietnam, Israel, China, Ireland, Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union (to name but a few).
But he’s perhaps most famous for his documentation of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre in apartheid South Africa, his photographic work the evidence used in the trial that eventually proved the victims’ innocence.
His current exhibition, The English at the Lucy Bell Gallery in Hastings on England’s south coast, hits a little closer to home.
Mostly taken in 1975, Berry conceived of the project as “a personal exploration of English life”.
To that end, he travelled the length and breadth of the country photographing young and old, rich and poor, city and country, home and work. Seen here, in 2015, the collection stands as a vivid time capsule, some aspects familiar, some very alien.
BJP spoke to Ian about his memories of the project and how the social landscape of England has shifted in the last 40 years.
What was the genesis of the project?
“At the time I had just come back from eight years in Africa and a couple in Paris, so I felt I had a fresh eye. Back then everyone was talking about Robert Frank’s The Americans, so I thought I’d do ‘The English’ to try to get a rounded look at the country, which proved to be rather tricky.
“If you’re trying to capture a real cross-section of the English class system you can go around with Meals on Wheels and ask to see into people’s homes; the middle classes are always happy to be photographed, but if you want to involve the so-called upper class they always insist on putting a damn horse in the background. But I did what I could and it worked out quite well.”
Did you plan to capture specific scenes or people?
“No. I’m an old-fashioned photojournalist. I just divided the country up geographically: there’s a natural evolvement just going round to the different areas and hanging around. I don’t set up anything – never do – I just get into situations. My feeling is that I grab the moment, if the subjects see me I smile, if they want to talk I talk. More often than not they tried to pretend they hadn’t seen me and went on their way.”
In the foreword to the book, you said “England is the easiest country in the world in which to take photographs.” Is that still the case?
“Certainly at that time. Today I’d probably change my attitude. There’s an old cliché: if you’re shooting in France they ask you what film you’re using. In Germany they look over their shoulder for the Stasi. In Italy they open their jacket and bare their chest. In England they look the other way and pretend they haven’t seen you.
But it’s trickier now, the English are getting like the Americans where everyone has legal questions about what you’re doing. You hear all these stories about people objecting when you photograph their dog or building, or you saying you can’t shoot in a shopping centre. It tends to put you off a bit.
In an interview with The Guardian in 2007 you said that your dream job would be to update ‘The English’. Do you still plan to?
I was asked by a publisher to do that. It half depended on them getting the plates from the original book, but when they approached Penguin they discovered they’d been destroyed. Times have changed and it would be much harder to do a project like this now.
When I was with Magnum in Paris, if I wanted to do something in Africa, they’d call and say “Ian’s going off to do this”, give me a couple of thousand dollars and send me away. That doesn’t happen anymore. I worry about all these photographic students coming out of university, especially the ones that want to be photojournalists. I wonder what the hell are they going to do? It’s much harder to make a living now.”
However I suppose that’s life, everything changes.”
Ian Berry: The English is showing at Lucy Bell Gallery, East Sussex from the 17th October 2015 to the 9th January 2016. Find more details at lucy-bell.com