OpenWalls Arles: Nicholas White explains the relationship between his camera and his surroundings

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Nicholas White is based on Dartmoor National Park, where he pursues projects that examine our relationship with our landscape, and the way we interact with our natural spaces. Since graduating from Plymouth College of Art several years ago, Nicholas’ work has been featured in a number of publications, including British Journal of Photography. He has been commended as Landscape Photographer of the Year, has won positions on two Magnum Photos workshops, and has been shortlisted for the World Photography Organisation ZEISS Photography Award for his project ‘Black Dots’. A portrait from the project has also been shortlisted for this year’s Portrait of Britain exhibition.

Nicholas’ interest in nature informs all of his work, taking him away from his familiar surroundings, into bothies dotted around the UK, and now to the Southern Carpathian Mountains of Romania, where he is documenting a new European Wilderness Reserve. We spoke to Nicholas about his work away from home, in light of our OpenWalls theme, ‘Home & Away’.

Glencoul, Northern Highlands, Scotland © Nicholas White

How did you get into photography and how has your background influenced your approach?

All of my childhood holidays were spent on Dartmoor National Park, where I’m now fortunate enough to be based. I was in the scouts and later the cadets, so being outside in all weathers was very much the norm for me. Photography slowly embedded itself into this lifestyle, as I began documenting my various trips. Over time, photography became my sole reason for leaving the house. Now, all of my work is in someway connected to the land.

Can you tell me about your key concerns as a photographer?

My existing work investigates our interaction with wilderness in various forms, and is deeply connected to our complex relationship with natural spaces, from documenting small mountain bothies in the United Kingdom, to capturing the rebirth of European Wilderness in the Southern Carpathian mountains of Romania. This relationship manifests itself in a number of ways; from recreational to scientific, historical to environmental.

John at Strabeg, Northern Highlands, Scotland © Nicholas White

What was the starting point for your project Black Dots?

Black Dotshappened somewhat accidentally. I had been looking into some hiking routes in the Highlands and was searching for alternatives to traditional camping. I discovered bothies on an online forum and became slightly obsessed by them. It wasn’t so much the physical buildings that I was drawn to, it was the people who gather in them, far from any roads or towns. I wanted to discover this “community of strangers” and over the course of the three years it took to complete the work, I became one of those strangers!

How did shooting away from your home environment change how you approached creating the work?

With Black Dots, some of the locations required a six hour hike to reach, often in foul weather. When the bothy comes into sight, there’s a huge sense of relief and excitement and it’s easy to let those emotions convince you that you musttake a photo immediately! I got into the routine of letting the novelty of each location wear off – I’d unpack my sleeping bag, set the fire up, and change my wet clothes. Then, I’d step back outside with the camera and consider what would make a good photograph.

I’m trying to adopt the same approach with my current work in Romania. Of course, when you’re visiting somewhere that contrasts greatly from your usual surroundings, you’re on a sort of photographic overdrive where everythingbecomes fascinating. You have to allow that to pass, in my opinion, before you begin to make good images. It’s certainly a constructive exercise to shoot away from home, as it presents a different set of challenges; principally, the unknown.

Achnanclach, Northern Highlands, Scotland © Nicholas White

Can you tell me about the latest project you’ve been shooting?

In 2017, I was awarded the Royal Photographic Society Environmental Bursary. I decided to use the money to begin work on a new series in the Southern Carpathian Mountains of Romania, documenting the formation of a new European Wilderness Reserve. Romania is home to almost half of Europe’s population of Wolf, Lynx, European Brown Bear, and Europe’s largest contiguous forest, but in recent years illegal logging has threatened this delicate ecosystem. I’ve been working closely with an organisation who are purchasing large tracts of wilderness in order to protect it for future generations. The land holdings will eventually be returned to the public domain for permanent protection in the form of a National Park.

I’ve made several trips now, with a Summer one scheduled in the next few weeks. It’s an incredibly difficult subject to photograph – in my experience, National Parks are either there or they’re not. To create one from scratch seemed ambitious at best! The more time I spend with the rangers however, the more I’m beginning to deconstruct the abstract nature of such a project. I hope that my photographs can act as an archive of sorts, documenting the rebirth of European wilderness.

You’ve been successful in a number of awards through the years, how have they helped your career? Do you find the process of entering awards constructive in itself?

Competitions can be incredibly beneficial to your career, as long as you enter with a ‘nothing to lose’ mentality. I’ve seen so many photographers become totally crushed by not making shortlists and it’s really devastating to see. It’s important to remind yourself that, if you don’t win, it doesn’t mean by definition that your work is bad. As soon as you understand that, the whole process becomes a lot more enjoyable and you begin to understand the benefits. For me, the process of entering is hugely constructive – often you have to make a much tighter edit from a larger body of work, and then write about it in under 250 words. That’s a great challenge, and forces you to consider how different images talk to one and other, and how you, yourself, talk about the work.

This is your last chance to apply to OpenWalls Arles 2020! Submit your work responding to the theme ‘growth’, and you could be part of a group show at Galerie Huit Arles alongside Les Rencontres d’Arles 2020. Deadline: 25 July 2019 23:59 (UK time)

Sandy’s Canoe at Peanmeanach, Ardnish Peninsula, Scotland © Nicholas White
Strabeg, Northern Highlands, Scotland © Nicholas White