Jamie Hawkesworth: ‘Everyone I photograph is as important as everyone else’

Images from The British Isles by Jamie Hawkesworth.
From his portraits of supermodels to suburban strangers, a democratic approach is key to the photographer’s work. He talks about capturing the ease and awkwardness of a situation and his new book on contemporary Britain

by Sean O’Hagan

Images from The British Isles by Jamie Hawkesworth. All photographs courtesy of the artist and Mack.

Sun 20 Jun 2021 10.30 BST

“Icame quite late to photography,” says Jamie Hawkesworth, “and I learned by going out and doing it.” That self-taught apprenticeship began in earnest when he spent countless hours hanging around Preston bus station forcing himself to approach strangers to ask if they would mind being photographed. The resulting work first appeared in a newspaper-style zine produced by the local creative collective Preston Is My Paris in 2010, and, in 2014, was published in book form as Preston Bus Station.

Since then, Hawkesworth’s star has risen and he is now an in-demand fashion photographer for the likes of Vogue and the New York Times, his portraits of models in expensive clothes somehow retaining his signature style, which is a defiantly traditional merging of documentary and street portraiture. On first glance, his pictures can often appear casual, even mundane, but they are informed by an acute attention to light and colour, as well as a quietly observant eye. He uses an analogue film camera – a Mamiya RB67 mounted on a tripod – and spends long hours in a darkroom making his own prints. The results tend towards the everyday sublime: ordinary people bathed in warm, natural light; landscapes rendered almost romantic through his fondness for deeply hued reds, greens and browns. “I don’t really know why,” he says, “but in the darkroom, I always want my prints to look and feel optimistic, even if they were taken on a freezing-cold winter’s day in the Shetlands.”

Hawkesworth’s new book, The British Isles, is Preston Bus Station writ large. It comprises portraits and landscapes taken over the past 13 years on his wanderings through various town centres, suburbs, rural villages and remote, sparsely populated islands. “For my personal work, I tend to set myself tasks,” he elaborates. “In this instance, it was simply, let’s see what Hartlepool is about, or Hastings, or South Shields. There was no agenda other than travelling to places I had never been to.”

Image from The British Isles by Jamie Hawkesworth of an older woman leaning against a bike rack.

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Two years ago he realised he had accrued a vast archive of images of contemporary Britain and, having printed around 1,000, set about editing them down. “It was a difficult process,” he says. “Choosing the portraits, in particular, was challenging because, as a subject, everyone I photograph is as important as everyone else.” This democratic approach is central to Hawkesworth’s way of seeing. At 304 pages, The British Isles is, on one level, a big statement, but he is wary of my suggestion that it is a portrait of Britain at a particularly turbulent, self-searching, time.

“I guess it cannot help be that,” he says, “but it is also a book about someone walking around Britain taking pictures. For me, there is really no bigger meaning, which is why I didn’t contextualise the work. There are no captions or names or locations, which leaves a lot of space around the portraits for people to bring their own interpretations to them.”

Image from The British Isles by Jamie Hawkesworth of two young men backflipping on some mattresses

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Hawkesworth grew up in Ipswich and initially studied forensic science at university in Preston before switching to photography. From the start, he followed his own path, preferring the slower, hands-on approach of analogue film and darkroom printing over the speed of state-of-the art digital technology. Unlike many traditional street photographers, he always asks his subject’s permission beforehand. “Initially,” he says, “it was approaching strangers on the street that was the hardest part of the job, but I forced myself to do it because it just seemed like the right thing to do.”

He reckons that around four out of 10 people agree to have their photographs taken but that many want to get it over with as soon as possible. “A lot of people agree, but they don’t want to chat too much or hang around,” he says. “It’s an interesting part of the process, because how we converse will often affect the picture I take.”

Image from The British Isles by Jamie Hawkesworth of a young woman on her mobile phone.

To this end, his book is also a study of easefulness and awkwardness in front of the camera and, as such, is redolent in places of the work of another quietly attentive British photographer, Nigel Shafran, who receives a nod in the credits. “When I moved to London, I rang and asked him if I could be his assistant, but he said, ‘I don’t use assistants,’ and put the phone down,” says Hawkesworth, laughing. They have since become friends.Advertisementhttps://e116066673691885dcf86d1727c9b75e.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

If The British Isles is an index of a modern, multicultural Britain in all its rich otherness, it is also a portrait of a place that is definably British in its myriad telltale social signifiers, from fish and chips to seaside fairgrounds, train platforms to corner shops. As with Preston Bus Station, there are a lot of people hanging around. “When you go out with a camera,” says Hawkesworth, “you are really at the mercy of chance. You can be constantly surprised, but you can also spend hours just waiting around. That’s why, when I did Preston Bus Station, I began shooting people from behind, making casual portraits that also gave me a break from having to ask people for permission to photograph them. I’ve just continued with that ever since. Likewise, the pictures of puddles or benches or whatever. It all becomes part of the narrative of waiting and watching.”

Image from The British Isles by Jamie Hawkesworth of a tatty shed.

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In the book, there are several portraits that seem more candid than the rest – two kids somersaulting on a pile of discarded mattresses; a blond girl with a lollipop in her mouth staring at her mobile phone. For the former, he happened upon the boys by accident on a street in Hartlepool. “I turned a corner and saw them, so I ran frantically towards them, shouting, ‘Could you please do that again!’” For the latter, he had just photographed the girl and her friends on the pier at Bridgend after a sandstorm. Moments later he noticed her on her phone and “ran in and took the shot”. It is this confluence of chance and choreography that makes many of his portraits, even the awkward ones, seem natural.

For Hawkesworth, his personal work and his high-end fashion editorials and campaigns are all somehow part of a continuum. He is, he says, constantly chasing “simplicity”, a word he uses often. To this end, he photographed Kate Moss for the cover of Vogue, while she was holidaying in India, arriving there with a suitcase full of clothes but without a stylist or a hair-and-makeup person. For another recent Vogue cover, he shot the supermodel Giselle just after she had woken up in the morning. These strategies “to hold on to the element of surprise” are crucial to his way of working. When Vogue commissioned him to shoot a series of portraits of key workers during the height of the Covid pandemic last year, he asked for no instructions other than the time and the place. “I just got on my bike and cycled to the location,” he says. “That way, things open up. For me, the idea of an idea is just impossible.”

 The British Isles by Jamie Hawkesworth is published by Mack (£50)

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