Diversity, empathy and authenticity: the Portrait of Britain shortlist 2023

The Portrait of Britain vol. 6 book is kindly sponsored by JCDecaux
© Mark Griffiths

Portrait of Britain returns with a shortlist of 200 photographs that celebrate the country’s unique heritage and diversity

Jessikah Inaba, Britain’s first Black and blind female barrister. © Naomi St Juste.

There is a touch of Gandalf in the wise, determined stare captured by Mark Griffiths on a rain-drenched day on the outskirts of Merthyr Tydfil. The portrait of Phil Duggan, a former coal miner who worked at the Merthyr colliery all of his adult working life, encapsulates the sense of stoicism and pride the Welshman feels about his community, and his determination to make it a better place to live for future generations to come. 

It is one of 200 photographs shortlisted for the 2023 edition of Portrait of Britain, and one of many that convey a sense of resilience – a fitting theme for all that we have come through in the years since the annual book and exhibition was initiated eight years ago.

In another picture we see Naomi St Juste’s portrait of Jessikah Inaba, capturing an informal smile that subtly disrupts the finery and tradition of her professional clobber, and which belies the force of will that made her Britain’s first female Black and blind barrister. These two photographs, like dozens others in the shortlist, reference the formal aesthetic of historic portraiture, providing a plinth to honour exemplars of our communities that would otherwise go unrecognised. 

There are more familiar faces too – such as an improvised portrait of Sir Ian McKellen striking a camp pose for Frederic Aranda moments before taking the stage as Mother Goose at the Duke of York Theatre in London’s West End. Don Letts, Lily Allen and Ian Wright are just a few of the other sportspeople, musicians, actors and personalities who feature among the 200 shortlisted portraits in the accompanying book, Portrait of Britain Volume 6, published by Bluecoat Press.

For the most part, the subjects are everyday people: those who may be invisible in our communities, yet have nonetheless lived extraordinary lives. They are people such as Muriel Tridinnick, who served in the Women’s Royal Naval Service during World War II, and who is the most senior subject here at 103-years-old, seen gracefully posed in her room at the care home where she now lives, photographed by Hannah McKay​​.

A particular favourite is Muir Vidler’s portrait of veteran publican James Clancy, which transports us to an iconic bar in Glasgow’s Southside, little changed since its 1960s heyday. The impeccably dressed owner of The Laurieston maintains an ever-watchful eye on proceedings, even when photographed at half-mast as he returns up from the cellar. Another is Betty Oxlade-Martin’s touching portrait of two young friends, Ruby and Emma, photographed at an animé convention, supporting each other to express themselves to the camera.

Muriel, Age 103. © Hannah McKay.
Lark, an hour after her birth at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital. © Luke Johnson.
James Clancy, The Laurieston Bar. © Muir Vidler.

The book is sponsored by JCDecaux, who will stage one of the UK’s largest annual public art exhibitions in the new year featuring 100 portraits from the shortlist, as it has done since the inception of Portrait of Britain. The 100 winners will be announced on 08 January 2024, as they go on show on digital advertising screens located in high streets, shopping centres and transport hubs across the country, accompanied by the latest edition of Portrait of Britain in book form.

Volume 6 is the first made in collaboration with Bluecoat Press, the photobook publisher that in recent years has focused solely on the work of UK-based photographers, including that of Tish Murtha, Jim Mortram, Markéta Luskačová’ and many others. It is therefore an obvious partner for Portrait of Britain, especially after it was acquired by 1854 Media, publishers of British Journal of Photography, 30 years after it was set up by Colin Wilkinson in 1992. It is now run by Tom Booth Woodger, who aims to diversify the range of artists and works that Bluecoat publishes.

Portrait of Britain captures the quirky, the mundane, the here and now of the extraordinary everyday in which we live.

– Mick Moore, CEO and creative director, British Journal of Photography and Portrait of Britain volume 6 judge

"Charlie" from the series Wee Muckers – Youth of Belfast. © Toby Binder.

Portrait of Britain was launched in the tumultuous months ahead of the June 2016 Brexit vote with a callout for images that reflected the country’s unique heritage and diversity. British Journal of Photography invited submissions from both amateurs and professionals in an initiative that sought to reveal “the many faces of Britain,” devoid of the divisive political rhetoric of the day.

Conceived as a site-specific public art work through which the British public would encounter versions of themselves on JCDecaux’ nationwide network of digital advertising screens, the first edition went live just weeks after the vote to leave the European Union, and was seen by millions of people up and down the land.

In the febrile years that followed the UK’s exit from the European Union, and cataclysmic series of events that seemed to shine a light on our divisions and inequalities, Portrait of Britain continued to provide a more nuanced picture of national identity than we often see in the press and social media; an alternative space to reflect on who we really are.

It also remains an important public showcase for contemporary portraiture photography in all its many varied forms and practices, from formal studio settings – such as Zuzu Valla’s image of Lauren, part of a series that aims to “empower diversity through photography” – to serendipitous encounters with strangers on the street, such as Valerie, the dapper East Londoner captured by Freya Najade wearing net gloves, and matching sunglasses and jacket.

Valerie.© Freya Najade.
Lauren. © Zuzu Valla.

The judges were conscious to represent this diversity in their selection, but they also came with their own set of personal criterias, which helped to guide their choices. One of the eight judges, Tracy Marshall-Grant, a curator and producer who co-founded Northern Narratives, comments that she was looking for “authenticity and a real sense of personal empathy in the work”. It’s a sentiment echoed by another of the judges, photographer and curator Ronan Mckenzie, who says she is interested in “longer term projects rather than one-offs…. building on relationships with sitters and developing those relationships through imagery.”

It’s this platform to reach an audience of millions through the public exhibition that really makes Portrait of Britain such a unique opportunity, says Mick Moore, CEO and Creative Director of 1854, publisher of British Journal of Photography, while also giving space for the work to feature in a book for posterity. “It is in each other that we see ourselves and form our sense of place,” he says. “Portrait of Britain captures the quirky, the mundane, the here and now of the extraordinary everyday in which we live.”

Portrait of Britain Volume 6 is available to pre-order now on Bluecoat Press website.