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By Emma Thom on

Video: Simon Roberts in conversation

Simon Roberts, whose We English exhibition is on display until 5 September 2010, returned to the museum yesterday to sit in conversation with Greg Hobson, curator of photographs.

The event is one of many organised by the museum to complement our temporary exhibitions, and yesterday began with Greg asking Simon why he took up photography.

When he was 14, Simon went on a family holiday to Yosemite National Park, California, and during their stay visited the Ansel Adams Gallery. Simon described the ‘extraordinary experience’ of viewing Yosemite through the eyes of Adams, which opened up the landscape and revealed elements which Simon hadn’t previously observed.

Simon studied Human Geography at Sheffield University—a useful framework for documentary photography. He described himself as a ‘transient person’ interested in exploring social issues; photography enabled him to adopt his preferred lifestyle.

Simon explained that he didn’t enjoy the ‘quick turnaround’ nature of newspaper photography, so he began working on his own project, following the career of a young boxer from Sheffield. This earned him the Sunday Times Magazine Young Photographer of the Year Award in 1998.

Motherland and We English

After a bad experience with a John Prescott photograph, Simon decided to take a departure from magazine work and produce his first major project, Motherland. Simon and his wife travelled across Russia for a year, cataloguing the landscapes and people they came across, trying to capture the spirit of ‘Russianness’.

Simon had preconceived ideas of what the experience would be, but wanted to challenge these stereotypes. Published images of Russia tend to focus on the despondent, and Simon wanted to move away from this, without trying to paint a ‘rosy picture’.

“I was trying to make the person complicit in the act of representation.”

During the event, Simon described his technical choices, logistical planning, and the obstacles he met along the way, including an undesirable camping trip, and several short stays in prison! Find out more about the Motherland project at Simon’s website.

Experiencing the ‘unbelievable sense of patriotism’ which exists in Russia led Simon to begin questioning his own sense of belonging, and this influenced Simon’s decision to being a similar project back home, We English.

Currently on display in Gallery One at the museum, We English is a very personal exploration of the English at leisure, which opens up a dialogue between people and the landscapes in which they choose to spend their free time.

Simon and Greg discussed technical aspects of the project, including the decision to photograph from an elevated position, and revisited the notion of representation. During his tour of England, Simon encouraged people to invite him to events all over the country, which helped build an audience, and acts as an archival document in its own right.

Simon presented a selection of the images, explained how he is fascinated by the editing process, and talked about the framing decisions he made for some of the photographs.

“We’re so saturated with images all the time so I try to create images where you’re rewarded the more you look at it.”

2010 Election project

Simon was selected as the official election artist for 2010, the results of which will be exhibited in the House of Commons this summer.

With this project, Simon took the idea of representation even further, by inviting people to produce their own images of what the election process means to them. These pictures will be displayed alongside Simon’s own work.

Simon used social media to generate as many photographs as possible in a short space of time, the results of which can be seen at the Election Project website. Simon feels that this process helped generate an archive of the political landscape created by the public.

After the discussion, Simon and Greg led the audience on a tour of We English to further discuss his work, and the images he drew on for inspiration.

Today, Simon returned to the Museum for a Portfolio Review Session, which gives aspiring photographers the opportunity to have their work reviewed by a panel of experts who offer guidance, a personal perspective, and advice on how to succeed in the field.

Find out more about We English or see what’s on at the museum.

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