Robin Friend photographs the Guy Fawkes Night celebrations in Lewes, while exploring the fragility of today’s social frameworks

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The annual Bonfire celebrations are captured in dark monochrome, as they link to the greater narrative of British existence

In the monotony of routine and repetitive narratives of tradition, the extraordinary facets of our surroundings often blend together, transforming into the deceptively mundane backdrop of everyday life. For photographer Robin Friend, our collective habit of overlooking the bizarre is what drives his artistic practice. His previous book, Bastard Countryside, highlighted the relationship between Britain’s rolling pastoral landscapes and its unkempt wreckage. Continuing to expose the tensions at play in cultural habits, Friend’s new work, titled Apiary, focuses on Guy Fawkes Night, an evening of explosive celebration particularly renowned in the town of Lewes, where he currently resides.

Annually celebrated across the UK on 05 November, Guy Fawkes Night loosely commemorates the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Positioned as radical Catholicism successfully being snuffed out by the state, its historical context has been bent, re-molded, forgotten and appropriated over centuries, resulting in a generalised Bonfire Night. “While many people attend to watch the night unfold, the historical and cultural reasons behind its existence become more obscure and ambiguous with every passing year,” Friend reflects. “In many ways, it has generally become a night to be able to protest and have one’s frustrations heard.”

© Robin Friend 2021 courtesy Loose Joints
© Robin Friend 2021 courtesy Loose Joints

As families and friends gather to engage in the collective catharsis of protest, one thing is certain: fire is essential to all of their interpretations, and its chaotic luminosity is the protagonist in Friend’s photographs, whether a bonfire, its reflection in onlookers’ eyes, or sparked remnants dropping from the sky. The sundown celebrations have been heavily documented by photojournalists over the years, hundreds of images alight with the orange glow of burning effigies.

In stark contrast, Friend’s images are monochrome, filtering out the night’s overpowering noise, quietly linking the celebration to the greater narrative of British existence that results in the perpetual need for such a riotous night. “The fire in Apiary links the book, in many ways, to Bastard Countryside,” Friend explains. “Our ancestors were able to master fire, which set us on a path to the Anthropocene and began our journey of separation with nature, and the collision of the human and the non-human.”

© Robin Friend 2021 courtesy Loose Joints
© Robin Friend 2021 courtesy Loose Joints
© Robin Friend 2021 courtesy Loose Joints
© Robin Friend 2021 courtesy Loose Joints

“To be honest, Apiary is not necessarily about Bonfire Night. I was more interested in using the night as a backdrop to explore some of the themes and ideas I’ve been thinking about and struggling with over the past decade.”

Sequenced together in a new book published by Loose Joints, Friend’s cinematic images offer a shadowy back-and-forth between the individual and collective experience, the libertarianism that somehow manifests out of democracy, only to leave us frantically searching for community. Friend agrees that his goal was to situate Guy Fawkes Night as a small slice of a greater whole.

He explains: “To be honest, Apiary is not necessarily about Bonfire Night. I was more interested in using the night as a backdrop to explore some of the themes and ideas I’ve been thinking about and struggling with over the past decade.” With Brexit, the rise of far-right populism in Europe and North America, mass protests and violence in Hong Kong, the last few years have laid bare the fragility of democracy.

“I see Apiary as a prelude to Bastard Countryside in many ways, as both pose dystopian questions: What happens to society when it breaks down? What happens when our freedoms disappear? Democracy is far more fragile than we’d like to acknowledge, and Apiary explores some of these notions by posing the question: What if? It’s not the final curtain, but it’s a peak behind it, to check in and remind us to look after this delicate thing we often take for granted.”

Robinfriend.co.uk

Apiary is published by Looise Joints, and is out now

Cat Lachowskyj

Cat Lachowskyj is a freelance writer, editor and researcher based in London. Prior to pursuing a career in writing, she trained as an archivist in Toronto, developing research on colonial photography albums at the Archive of Modern Conflict. She has completed residencies and fellowships at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Ryerson Image Centre and the Rijksmuseum, and her current research interests involve psychoanalytical approaches to photography and archives. Cat’s writing has appeared in many publications including Unseen Magazine, The British Journal of Photography, Foam Magazine and American Suburb X, and she has held editing roles at both Unseen Magazine and LensCulture.