The intimate honesty of Jamie Hawkesworth’s portraits of strangers

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“It’s a sort of honesty between you, the photographer, and the stranger,” says Hawkesworth, reflecting on the portraits that compose his latest publication, The British Isles, taken across the UK

For his latest photobook, Jamie Hawkesworth revisits 13 years of images of people and places across the British Isles. The project, beginning in 2007, found its logical conclusion last summer when Hawkesworth photographed key workers for the cover of British Vogue’s July 2020 issue. “There’s such simplicity when you go up to a stranger and take their portrait,” Hawkesworth explains. “It just felt like the perfect way to finish.”

Despite the polarisation of British public life over the past decade, The British Isles is a poignant reflection of Hawkesworth’s knack for seeking out the humanity of his subjects with tenderness and warmth. “A lot [has] happened over the last decade, but really, […] there was nothing on my mind apart from that I just liked going around, meeting people.” The book captures the broad church that makes up this country with over 200 or so photographs (condensed down from 1000 initial prints). While he was working, Hawkesworth admits he “wasn’t even thinking about identity in the UK or what it means to be British.” That lack of an explicit direction lends itself to the experience of the publication.

From the British Isles by Jamie Hawkesworth. Courtesy the artist and Mack.
From the British Isles by Jamie Hawkesworth. Courtesy the artist and Mack.

Hawkesworth has spent the past year in the darkroom, a place he says always comes with a “kind of comfort; that sheer simplicity of being able to print somebody”. However, the process of printing and selecting pictures for the book was less straightforward. “Sometimes I do 15 prints of just one person,” he explains, “it takes quite a lot of time to understand if it’s right. When you’re taking a photograph, it’s just a click, and then you can spend years trying to work out what it means.” The benefit of a project spanning over a decade, then, is being able to look back with a fresh perspective. “I realise now what time does to photographs.” ‘Errors’ that Hawkesworth would observe in the immediate aftermath of making a photograph, later giving way to new details and old memories. 

Jamie began organising the book chronologically. However, he found it too structured. “When you walk around a place you haven’t been before, it’s very spontaneous.” The sporadic nature of wandering around somewhere unknown inspires the book’s layout: “you go from someone in Hartlepool, then suddenly you’re in the Shetland Islands or the Outer Hebrides. I think that’s a nice way to navigate the work. You sort of jump around.”

From the British Isles by Jamie Hawkesworth. Courtesy the artist and Mack.
From the British Isles by Jamie Hawkesworth. Courtesy the artist and Mack.
From the British Isles by Jamie Hawkesworth. Courtesy the artist and Mack.

In some ways, British Isles feels autobiographical – as Hawkesworth says himself, “it’s a perfect body of work to show my experience of walking around the country I was born in”. But what does he see in the photographs, looking back? “It’s a sort of honesty,” he reflects, “between you, the photographer, and the stranger.” Indeed, it is in that moment, with his camera’s lens facing an individual that magical things happen, “without having to say too much.” And despite the fractious place in which the British Isles currently finds itself, Hawkesworth’s photographs speak volumes about the humanity that binds us together as strangers in a shared land. 

The British Isles is published by Mack.

Ellen Brown

Ellen is a writer interested in exploring art, photography and design in the context of broader political and cultural moods. She is also editor at NR Magazine, a fashion and lifestyle publication.