Sebastian Bruno’s images for The Abertillery and Ebbw Valleys Dynamic offer a multifaceted view of a working-class community in the throes of austerity
Nestled in a picturesque valley in south Wales, the town of Abertillery is largely unremarkable, home to little more than a few coffee shops, a bakery, and a Wetherspoons pub. When Sebastian Bruno arrived there in 2015, his hopes for his three-month stay were simple: low rent, and a strong sense of community. What he didn’t expect was to find a project that would keep him in Abertillery for a further two years, and which continues to fascinate him today.
“Loads of great photographers have made work in the Welsh valleys, and so the idea was to do something different,” Bruno explains. “One of the strategies I thought of was to become the staff photographer for the local paper.” The paper in question, The Abertillery and Ebbw Valleys Dynamic, had first been published earlier in 2015 and, through regular columns including Sheep of the week, had become a surprise local success.
“It’s an area that has high levels of social deprivation, problems with mental health issues, and endemic poverty. But I think you can speak about those things while still making something that’s human, that has a light touch”
The paper’s somewhat unlikely editors, Tony Flatman and Julian Meek, immediately caught Bruno’s attention, and he soon began documenting them and their publication as well as the community they served. The photographer’s images from this time are now on display in a new exhibition at Martin Parr Foundation, Bristol, alongside archive materials and a mock up of The Dynamic’s paper-strewn office. The show offers an intimate view of small town life, during a time of both political and cultural turmoil.
“What I will normally do is have an encounter with someone, make the picture I want, give them my contact details and go,” Bruno says. By comparison, the photographer built a lasting relationship with Flatman and Meek, and this relationship came with a level of responsibility. “They are quite eccentric,” Bruno admits with a laugh, “so you don’t want to take the piss. But at the same time, you want to do something that’s got humour and nuance, like the paper itself.”
Through this combination of humour and nuance, The Dynamic’s distribution reached 5000 copies every fortnight at its height. Flatman never typed anything, Bruno recalls, instead he wrote each story by hand before dictating it to Meek. Meek, in turn, was in the habit of re-watching obscure 1960s comedies at his desk, which was littered with old cigarette butts. “If you spend an afternoon with them, you feel they enrich you in every sense,” Bruno says.
The photographer was also enriched by his relationships with the people of Abertillery, who – perhaps surprisingly – readily accepted his presence. The Dynamic campaigned ardently for Remain during the 2016 EU referendum, but the region as a whole had the highest Leave vote in Wales. Bruno, who’s originally from Spain, managed to move comfortably through the area, determined to present a narrative more complex than that often assigned to small, working-class communities.
“It’s an area that has high levels of social deprivation, problems with mental health issues, and endemic poverty,” Bruno explains. “But I think you can speak about those things while still making something that’s human, that has a light touch.” The resulting images are stark and not always hopeful but, by assimilating the language of The Dynamic, also present moments of community and humour.
“The Dynamic had all these articles that were very, very strong, very political, and they were dealing with a lot of social issues,” the photographer says. “And at the same time, it had Sheep of the week. But even the sheep would be used to talk about a conflict, or something that was happening elsewhere in the world – which is crazy, it’s great, it’s genius.”
The Dynamic is at Martin Parr Foundation, Bristol until 2 July. A book of the same name is out now (ICVL STUDIO)