The Rural Gaze was a day-long symposium organized by GRAIN, a Midlands arts organization ‘dedicated to commissioning, facilitating and delivering ambitious, engaging and high quality photography projects, commissions, events and exhibitions’ (GRAIN 2021). Twelve photographers were each given 15-30 minutes to present current projects and talk about their practice more generally. All were involved in rural affairs, whether farming practices, social conditions outside major cities, labour and seasonal work, climate change, ‘agribusiness’ or ecology.
This was one of the most interesting and informative events that I have attended. Not many of my peers are engaged in a project like mine, so it is easy to think I may have put myself out on a limb and made a poor choice of subject. In fact, I now realize this is a burgeoning field that plenty of photographers are involved in.
What I took from the day are these:
First, the day has really helped to place my project within current contemporary practice. I now know who some of my peers are in the wider world. I particularly warmed to the presentations by Murrary Ballard, Leah Gordon, Marco Kesseler, Matthew Broadhead, Guy Martin and Polly Braden. All are a few years into professional careers in photography, and they have websites and Instagram feeds I can follow. This is really helpful. In fact, simply watching how they made their presentations was informative.
Second, it became clear that land enclosure, exploitation and inequality are still hot topics, just as much as they were at the time of the Oxfordshire Rising of 1596. To this has now been added the matter of migrant labour – the seasonal workers from countries such as Bulgaria and Romania who pick and prepare many of the foodstuffs on which we depend in our supermarkets. And over all of it there hangs Brexit, described during the day as ‘a line in the sand’ that marks a decisive change in the way we treat our land and the farming labour force.
I liked Murray Ballard’s work in progress, a study of highly mechanized farming and seasonal workers in Lincolnshire (Ballard 2021, see Fig. 1). Leah Gordon has studied the enclosure acts and the commons for many years (Gordon 2021). Her list of sources will prove invaluable. Marco Kesseler had studied some of the waste and poor treatment of natural resources involved in agribusiness but set this in its social context, showing how it is driven by corporations and supermarkets which in turn are driven by our addiction to cheap food at, seemingly, almost any cost (Kesseler 2021, see Fig. 2). Guy Martin was very interesting on the darker sides of rural life: depression and ennui, particularly among the young, the anger and divisions around Brexit, and a surprising amount of crime mostly connected to the distribution of Class A drugs across what the trade apparently refers to as ‘County Lines’ (Martin 2021).
Third, most of the photographers pointed out the basic disconnect that fuels much misunderstanding of rural affairs. As a society, the English are raised on tales of pastoral calm and rural idylls that have never, in fact, existed. Rural life has almost always been hard and messy. Even so, we grow up with a romanticized view of the countryside from books, films and television, whether The Wind in the Willows, Countryfile on the BBC or the works of James Herriot. Corporations exploit this by creating brands with entirely fictitious back stories under which they sell factory-produced items with traditional rural scenes on the packaging. In the supermarket, you buy a chicken or a bottle of cider from a ‘farm’ that has never existed.
Fourth, much of what goes on in the countryside is hidden. In part this is because most of us now live in cities even though some 80 per cent of the land in England is rural. Remoteness and strict property laws conceal much from view. In part, however, more traditional social attitudes and perhaps shame drive many problems underground, particularly poverty, mental health, single-parenting and poor housing conditions. These are just as much of an issue in rural areas as they are in any city even though officials often deny it (see Cresswell 2014, 177-79).
However, there are two other factors here, I think. The first is that big business has every incentive to promote a pastoral fantasy rather than reveal the sometimes disturbing reality. Sales depend on it. The biggest farmer in England, who owns some 30,000 acres in Lincolnshire alone, kindly provides a lushly photographed example: https://dysonfarming.com/ (Dyson Farming 2021). There are no migrant workers picking cold cabbages in this operation. Governments too have tapped into our nostalgia about the countryside, as in the wartime (1942) poster ‘Your Britain – Fight for it Now’ (Imperial War Museum 2021, see Fig. 3). It is clear where power and wealth’s priorities lie.
The second reason is straightforward: almost all of us are hypocrites about this. We want the rural idyll and we don’t want the often impoverished reality even though, deep down, we suspect it is there. We want to think the countryside is place of wild, undisturbed natural things even though we also want cheap food and first-class roads, and we tolerate planning decisions that favour rural England as a middle-class playground for wealthy retirees and executive commuters. There is nothing new in this. It is a deep disconnect in our society that has existed for many decades, perhaps centuries. It is certainly not hard to trace it back at least to the trauma of the Industrial Revolution, the process that emptied the countryside of its people and then sold it back to them as a place of repose from the toil and smoke of cities and factories (see Taylor 1994 for a history).
‘The Rural Gaze’ has inspired me and also helped me to realize that my own project is multi-faceted. Farming and rural questions are much more nuanced that rich against poor, us against them, good husbandry versus ‘agribusiness’. One is considering a way of life with deep cultural roots. It has also made me realize that at the heart of my project there lies an enigma. The point was well made by Leah Gordon in her presentation who pointed out that Dürer’s ‘Monument to the Vanquished Peasants’, a sketch of 1525 for a proposed monument (Dürer 1525), can be read in two ways: does it invite us to mourn the loss of a proud tradition or celebrate the downfall of backward-looking troublemakers? Those are questions I have to ask about the life and times of Bartholomew Steer of Hampton Gay.
BALLARD, Murray. 2021. ‘Murray Ballard’. Murray Ballard [online]. Available at: https://murrayballard.com/ [accessed 24 May 2021].
CRESSWELL, Tim. 2014. Place : An Introduction. Second. Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley & Son, 177-79.
DURER, Albrecht. 1525. ‘Monument to the Vanquished Peasants’. Available at: http://thecityasaproject.org/2012/07/the-measure-of-turmoil-durers-monument-to-the-vanquished-peasants/ [accessed 24 May 2021].
DYSON FARMING. 2021. ‘Innovative Farming for the Future’. Dyson Farming [online]. Available at: https://dysonfarming.com/ [accessed 24 May 2021].
GORDON, Leah. 2021. ‘Enclosure’. Leah Gordon [online]. Available at: http://www.leahgordon.co.uk/index.php/project/enclosure/ [accessed 24 May 2021].
GRAIN. 2021. ‘GRAIN’. GRAIN [online]. Available at: https://grainphotographyhub.co.uk/ [accessed 24 May 2021].
IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM. 2021. ‘Your Britain – Fight for It Now [South Downs]’. Imperial War Museum [online]. Available at: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/20289 [accessed 24 May 2021].
KESSELER, Marco. 2021. ‘Marco Kesseler’. Marco Kesseler [online]. Available at: https://marcokesseler.com/ [accessed 24 May 2021].
MARTIN, Guy. 2021. ‘Pleasant Land (In Progress)’. Guy Martin [online]. Available at: https://www.guy-martin.co.uk/pleasant-land-troubled-land [accessed 24 May 2021].
TAYLOR, John. 1994. A Dream of England: Landscape, Photography and the Tourist’s Imagination. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Figure 1. BALLARD, Murray. 2021. ‘Ioana, holding a tray of calabrese (broccoli), Freiston, Lincolnshire, 18 March 2021’. From: Murray Ballard. 2021. ‘News’. Murray Ballard [online]. Available at: https://murrayballard.com/news [accessed 24 May 2021].
Figure 2. KESSELER, Marco. n.d. ‘Asparagus’. From: Marco Kesseler. 2021. Our Nature [exhibition]. Available at: https://marcokesseler.com/April-2021-Our-Nature-at-M-Gallery [accessed 24 May 2021].
Figure 3. IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM. 2021. ‘Your Britain – Fight for It Now [South Downs]’. From: Imperial War Museum [online]. Available at: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/20289 [accessed 24 May 2021].