In A Gadda Da England freely mixes time and place, finding connections between events and protests through the years
“I’ve done this for 20 years, walked around with a camera looking at everyday stuff,” says Edward Thompson. “I believe when you are working in that mode as a photographer, you can tap into the magic of the everyday. I look intently, I really zone in, and maybe, for a minute, I’m glimpsing a narrative.”
We’re discussing his project In A Gadda Da England, which collects images of England shot by Thompson over the last two decades. Largely, but not exclusively photographed in Kent, the south-eastern county where Thompson lives, it’s a very personal take on an era. There are images of cats and gardens and a shot of Thompson’s father. There are also photographs of far-right protests and Nigel Farage, leader of the right-wing Independence and Brexit Parties. Thompson didn’t set out to photograph nostalgia or the rise of nationalism, he says, but it was what was out there as he was working. “They say when you die your life passes before your eyes,” he comments. “Well, this is my life, it passed before my eyes and I photographed it.”
Thompson has spent four years editing his archive to make what is now a book [the kickstarter to get the project published is live). His edit involves diptychs and visual correspondences as well as an overall narrative, but doesn’t attempt to tell a neat story. In fact In A Gadda Da England freely mixes time and place, and in doing so reveals an eerie sense of prescience.
There’s a photograph of environmental protestors shot in London in 2012, for example, wearing the hazmat suits made familiar nearly a decade later by Covid-19; there’s a photograph of English Defence League protests in Birmingham in 2013 that presages the current debate over statues. Other images have a hazy timelessness, a shot of beauty queens taken in Margate in 2018, for example, looking like it could have been taken from any point in the last 50 years.
“The [concept of the] decisive moment is currently unfashionable, but if you’ve experienced it as a photographer you will know it. It’s serendipity and it’s magic.”
Thompson believes this vertiginous sense of time is linked with his approach to photography, and the act of simply looking hard at the present day. “The [concept of the] decisive moment is currently unfashionable, but if you’ve experienced it as a photographer you will know it,” he says. “It’s serendipity and it’s magic.” David Campany picks up on this uncanny aspect of Thompson’s work in an interview featured in the book. In particular, he focuses on Thompson’s feeling that he shoots in a heightened state. When I speak with Thompson the idea of the supernatural recurs, the title of the book (which comes from a psychedelic track by Iron Butterfly) like an incantation, for example, or photography itself “magic” in its ability to transcend time and place.
Perhaps this sense of the paranormal says something about how big and strange the world is, how far beyond human comprehension if you really try to engage with it, without falling on easy conclusions or lazy generalisations. Thompson’s book is open-ended and deliberately so; it’s also modest, claiming only to be a very subjective take on England in the last two decades. “There’s this question, is photography a mirror of the photographer or a window on the world?” he says. “I think it’s both.”
Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy