People: Interview with Photographer Simon Bray
Creative medium: Photographer
Hey Simon, tell us a little bit about yourself and your work..
Hey! I’m a landscape and documentary photographer based in Manchester. I also manage The Anchor Coffee House, which is owned by Vinelife Church, which is an absolute pleasure. I moved up here from Hampshire nearly 10 years ago to study music and now I take pictures and make coffee, which is a really nice balance. I’m married to Sarah, who studied textiles down in Falmouth and is now training to be a midwife, so essentially, two southerners living in Manchester who’ve taken their time working out what they want to do in life, but we’re getting there!
What made you want to become a photographer?
I’m not sure I’ve ever been asked that before! I’ve always enjoyed creating, and up until a few years ago, I’d thought I’d end up being a musician, but when I started experimenting with cameras I discovered that I see things differently to other people. I enjoy the process of creating something concrete that was tangible, a moment in time captured, but the photographer has license to create something literal or true or to create their own take on events through creative techniques. There is a huge responsibility on the image maker to create something that they can justify, but that depends on your motivation. My landscape work in inspired by God’s creation and I feel a need to capture that in images that I hope others can enjoy, which comes with a certain amount of artistic license. My documentary work requires a brutal honesty, that’s not to say I can’t work creatively and use metaphor in order to build a story, but I have a responsibility to tell the truth and not embellish anything because of my own motivations, and then my commercial work is created for someone else, so I have to understand what they’re seeing and interpret that through my images.
We love your current project The Edges of These Isles, what was the inspiration behind this project?
Thanks! Tom and I got to know each other whilst undertaking a Three Peaks challenge (Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike & Snowdon in 24 hours) and we’d both independently decided that we wanted to focus on landscape work, so we thought, why not go exploring together! We asked friends to recommend some of their favourite locations from across the UK, and over the past couple of years, we’ve been visiting them in order to create work that will be exhibited in Manchester at The Whitworth in September. So far, we’ve been up to Lindisfarne, Buttermere, Glen Coe, the Brecon Beacons and the Gower Peninsula, all of which have been inspiring and exhausting in about equal measure! Our final trip is the Causeway Coast in Northern Ireland next month, then it’s on to preparing for the exhibit and designing and printing the book. We’ve just started up an instagram account so everyone can see what we’re up to!
What has it been like collaborating with an artist on this project? Has this altered your practice in any way?
It’s an intriguing combination, not something that I’ve seen much before really. On our first trip up to Buttermere, I set up my camera by the water and took a few shots, then turned around ready to move on and Tom was just about getting his sketchbook and chalks out! So I ended up sitting in that one spot, watching the light to change, and the shadows move across the lake, giving me time to experiment with some different filter combinations, it really helped me consider the images I wanted to create. We also get to have these long winded in depth conversations on our huge journeys whilst listening to our niche ambient electronic record collections, which goes a long way to informing the decisions we make about the work we’re creating and how we want the viewer to engage with it. Tom work’s with homemade pigments, paint and wax to create these amazing, and often abstract, impressions of the landscape before him, which may well be influenced by a mountain ridge or the mist or a tone, where as my photography works on a much larger and more scale and is very literal, so I’m looking forward to our editing process and seeing which pieces work well together and how they inform one another.
Who or what has been the biggest single influence on your way of thinking?
I can’t draw on one influence really. I try and soak up as much photography work as possible, read journals, go to shows, have conversations with other photographers and people involved in photography, and each of those aspects will help build my understanding of the medium and inform how I create images. I’m always trying to develop my eye, my understanding of what a photograph can be and appreciating how the viewer may or may not respond, because my emotional attachment to an image that I’ve created can be vastly different from theirs. I try to avoid imagery that is on trend, I want the work that I go on to create to last a lot longer than I do, so I’m exploring different means to encourage a deeper appreciation of my subject matter that allows the viewer to truly engage. A lot of it is about educating yourself in understanding what has gone before you, being able to appreciate the constant evolution of photography and also why people connect with an image. The fact that an image from Ferguson shot by a bystander on an iPhone can end up on the cover of TIME tells you all you need to know about how photography is changing, and the new generation of photographs is appreciating that you can be just as inspired as an image your find online that someone with no public profile has taken, just as much as something by one of the greats.
What do you currently shoot with?
I’ve never been that fussed about gear. I’ve got a Canon 6D and a Fufi X100s which I can carry everywhere. I’ve toyed with film, I’m currently trying out my dad’s old box brownie with some medium format film, which is really new to me, but is helping me slow down when I take my images, which is something I’ve tried to do, but which digital just doesn’t give you space for. I think as soon as I’m shooting a documentary project that is just stills, medium format will be the way forward, to help me build a stronger aesthetic to my work and be more considered when working.
Your Loved and Lost project is really touching, what was the biggest challenge working with such an emotional concept?
Thank you. Loss is not an easy subject for most people to talk about, which is the reason I wanted to start the project, to open up that conversation. I’ve had to have a lot of meetings with medical and mental health experts, read up on the subject and process my own experiences, having lost my dad to cancer, in order to build the project to where it is today. The greatest challenge for me is working with the participants in order to gain a true understanding of the depth of their experience of loss whilst also making it a constructive and, if possible, a positive experience for them. I’m just about striking that balance, but I have a few ideas on how the process can be improved. If it can be a cathartic experience for the participant, that’s great, and if what they are sharing can inform and comfort the viewer, even better.
What are you currently fascinated by and how is it feeding into your work?
I’m currently working with a new collective (www.instagram.com/strandcollective) on a project about fashion, so I’ve got my head into the ways in which uniform forms identities and how people build their own uniforms for work or social wear in an attempt to stand out or fit in. It’s great to be working with a broad variety of other photographers, even though none of us started out with a strong interest in fashion, we’ve talked about it for hours together and those conversations have begun to inform what we’re researching and shooting, which is really exciting.
What are your top tips for people just starting out as photographers?
Keep exploring and taking images! I’ve spent years refining the type of work I want to take, the aesthetic I want to create with different styles of work and building up an understanding of the medium in order to try and create work that the viewer can connect with in a meaningful way. I don’t know if I’m quite there yet, it’s a long game! I’ve never studied photography, so I had to learn about the history, the work of great photographers and try out loads of different techniques through trial and error, lot’s of things didn’t work out, and it’s especially frustrating when a commercial job doesn’t go as smoothly as you’d like, but you learn each time and grow for next time.
All images are coprighted to Simon Bray