Simon Roberts (b.1974) is a British artist photographer whose work deals with our relationship to landscape and notions of identity and belonging. He has published and exhibited widely and his photographs reside in major public collections. His most recent monograph is Merrie Albion – Landscape Studies of a Small Island (Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2017).
How would you describe your work? I guess you could call me a visual chronicler of the human landscape; part artist, geographer, story-teller, ethnographer, picture maker. Photography is my main medium but I am increasingly utilising video and text in my work. Did you always plan to be a visual artist? I notice that you didn’t study Photography at University, so what led you to become a photographer? Whilst not officially studying photography I've always used a camera. I started taking photos at quite a young age - I did it in school. However, I didn't feel that I needed to study it at university and I was more interested in getting a grounding in the social sciences. When I graduated from the University of Sheffield (with a BA Hons in Human Geography), I realised that photography was still where my passion was and decided to try and make a career as a photographer. Interestingly, a lot of the work that I’ve made has been grounded within my academic training in cultural geographer. Was there a moment in your early career that you thought this is definitely what I want to do? When I was in school one of my neighbours came to give a talk about his career as a photographer and I remember thinking that it sounded like an exciting life. I was seduced by the idea that you could use a camera as a way of entering other people's lives and traveling to new places. It was a passport to explore avenues that you wouldn't normally get to access. At the same time I was also interested in cinema and whilst doing work experience at a film studio in London, the Director of Photography I was shadowing said in that in his experience some of the most interesting film makers had come from a photography background. And so that's why I started initially taking pictures but then over time realized it was a powerful tool in its own right.
Photography is not just about illustrating other people's ideas, it’s about communicating something that you're interested in. For me photography it is as much about what it is what it is that I have to say about subjects as it is about the content of the image. Do you think that entering and winning this kind of awards and grants were a launch pad for you into the next 'level' of photography? From the outset of my career I realised how competitive the industry was; how we're all trying to find ways of getting our work noticed. One of those ways is through entering competitions. One of the first competitions I entered was the Ian Parry Award, in 1997, which I was fortunate enough to win. Looking back, it was certainly one of the key stepping-stones in my career; as a result of the award I began freelancing for the Sunday Times Magazine, one of the sponsors of the awards.
It’s good to remember that entering a competition isn’t just about winning but also getting your work seen by a selection of judges who are often key industry figures. So even if you don't win, to have a well-known picture editor, art buyer, curator or agency director become more familiar with your work is a good first step. So this is a bit of a hard question as it is always subjective. What do you think makes a good photographer? To my mind a good photographer is someone who has something interesting to say about the world. For me photography is not purely about aesthetics or illustration someone else’s ideas. It's about a concept and about educating me on a subject, rather than just creating eye candy. One of the problems I have about photography today is that it’s being dumbed-down by social media, for instance, creating images purely to function on Instagram. Often these photographs don’t offer anything other than a few seconds of visual delight before swiping to the next! So you talk about using photography as a visual communication of things that you're interested in - so what and who are your influences? Do you have any photographers influencing you or is it more things that are going on socially economically politically that you read about? I draw on all kinds of inspirations from photographers through to filmmakers, painters and writers. What the writer David Mitchell terms the creative ‘compost heap’. Of course, the more that you explore the medium and understand its history, the more your interests and influences change. Whilst I grew up looking at the new color photographers in Britain like Paul Graham and Anna Fox, over time I found the work of the New Topographics and then the Dusseldorf School in Germany. And how do you decide that you're going to start a new project? What would what would be the deciding factors to begin something? First of all I have to be excited about an idea. Another element of consideration is whether it has been done before and if it has, then how can I say something different. I do a lot of research prior to shooting a project and once I’ve come up with an idea, I will then look at what else has been done around that subject to see whether it's worth me investing a lot of time, creative energy and money into taking it forward. I’ll also start taking some initial pictures to see whether the photographs are working. If they are, then I’ll pursue the project. And so what are you working on at the moment? I’ve just finished a series of video portraits of sixteen year olds, part of a commission where sixteen photographers have been asked to make portraits across the country. Photographer Craig Easton conceived this work following his engagement with sixteen year olds at the time of the Scottish Referendum. It was the first, and as yet only, time that this age group were given the vote. He went on to invite a group of us to collaborate with young people across the country to make a visual vox pop. Sounds like a really interesting project, did you interview just Scottish teenagers? For my series I chose to look at those young people who identify with a religious faith, to see if their life views provide a different set of answers to the sense of hopelessness and disillusionment illustrated in recent surveys. When researching the project, I was struck how within a few square miles of my studio in Hove could be found dozens of places of worship, including churches, chapels, synagogues and mosques. My conceptual approach to the commission was to create a series of video portraits of individuals in their place of worship. My portrait subjects would pose for the camera for several minutes, remaining as still as possible in a similar fashion to mid-19th century photographic portraits. The portraits are shot in vertical format for HD plasma flat screen monitors, sized at a near 1:1 relationship between viewer and subject. Initially the portraits appear as still photographs, however, on closer inspection the viewer can see subtle movements in the sitter, such as a blink of the eye or tilt of the head. These long portraits become simultaneously mesmerising and unnerving. And what questions did you ask them? In addition to filming the portrait each sitter offers a short monologue where they talk about their current life situation, their hopes, dreams and fears. Also, I wanted to respond to a 2017 British Social Attitudes survey that revealed that the generation gap on religious affiliation is widening, and whilst there is irreligiosity in all generations, it appears young people are driving this change. I wanted to question this finding, and ask why some sixteen year olds saw a religious faith as a context within which they can live their lives. What struck me from interviewing each person was how confident all of them were, and how they had a strong sense of identity and security. The series is currently on show at Belfast Exposed gallery in Belfast until 21 December 2019. The Bar-Tur Award has a student section aimed at those who are studying in further or higher education. For those who are trying to make a career for themselves trying to do what they love do you have any advice? I would say generate your own projects and remember that ideas are your currency – the more ideas you have, the more likely you are to find work and be able to create new projects. Another tip is that editing a strong series of photographs is really key and it’s often when students who enter competitions often fall down. Also, always read the guidelines. It never ceases to amaze me the number of people who enter awards and don't fulfill the requirements. Finally, trust your intuition and encourage your curiosity! So I've just got two technical questions to ask you. The first one is what was your first Camera and what do you use at the moment? My first camera was a Canon AE1 and I'm currently using a Phase One IQ180 digital back with a Cambo Actus camera system. For more information about Simon’s work visit: www.simoncroberts.com