Month: March 2019

A Portrait of the Real Brexit Britain

© Danyelle Rolla

Documentary photographer Danyelle Rolla is proud of her roots. That much is clear from her portfolio, which reads like a guide to working-class Britain. Rolla grew up in Norris Green, one of Liverpool’s poorest towns – the type of town, she says, that the press misrepresents as a hotbed of crime and social decay. Out of frustration at this, Rolla has made it her mission to rewrite the narrative of the people and places that have shaped her, by photographing them in a more flattering light.

The photograph that won Rolla Portrait of Britain 2018 captures Dotty, an older resident of Norris Green, Liverpool, outside the local pub. She is sporting a perm that might be from the Eighties, with shoulder pads to match. In fact, many of the scenes that Rolla photographs could be from other eras: from kitsch village fetes, to groups of skinheads in bomber jackets. In her playful, sometimes garish, images, she captures a Britain that seems to be longing for the past.

This is the same Britain, Rolla’s photographs suggest, that voted for Brexit – a topic that is never far from her work. In her ongoing project Declaration of Independence, she photographs the residents of Boston and Skegness – the constituencies with the highest rates of leave votes in the UK – to better understand what Brexit means to them. We spoke to Rolla about photographing a divided country, and why Portrait of Britain is more relevant now than ever.

© Danyelle Rolla

What did you want to capture about your subject and modern Britain with your Portrait of Britain 2018 winning image?

My image, Dolly, was taken outside a local pub in my hometown of Norris Green, Liverpool. I took pictures because I was disheartened by the press coverage of the area. It started when I was trying to show a friend where I am from; I put Norris Green into a search engine and the images that came up were all mugshots, or pictures of abandoned housing and crime scenes.

This infuriated me, because the area is so much more than that. There are so many glamorous, interesting characters that live there, and I wanted to balance the biased imagery and empower the people in the community.

© Danyelle Rolla

Your series The Declaration of Independence focuses on Britain’s most Eurosceptic constituencies, Boston and Skegness. What made you want to document these places?

I find Brexit fascinating. I have witnessed first-hand the effects that being an EU member state has had on working-class communities, so I understand why people voted to leave. But what I do not like is the bitterness that has remained after the referendum. The escalation in hate crimes, increasing popularity of far-right groups, and the rise of nationalism scare me. I am documenting Boston in the hope that I can present an alternative narrative. I want to give an insight into how and why we find ourselves in this current political landscape.

What I am witnessing from doing this project is that tensions between social classes are becoming more fraught, like they were in 1980s Thatcherite Britain. One middle-class participant I spoke to about the project told me, “I don’t think [working-class voters] should have been allowed to vote in the referendum because they do not have the intelligence level to understand it”.

It is both fascinating and deeply troubling to document. I have never been an objective photographer; I don’t believe such a thing exists. The Declaration of Independence is as much about me trying to understand issues surrounding national identity as it is about documenting Brexit as it continues to unfold.

© Danyelle Rolla

Why do you think Portrait of Britain is important today?

Questions surrounding identity in Britain are incredibly important today. Brexit has demonstrated that the country is split. Tensions surrounding race and class, and the rise of nationalism, need to be showcased to promote discussions about the discord the nation is feeling.

What was it like to win Portrait of Britain?

Hearing the news that I had won was very exciting. Getting my work published and promoted through the British Journal of Photography social media channels was a first for me. I will definitely be entering again this year!

© Danyelle Rolla

What have you been doing since you won? How has the award boosted your career?

Since winning Portrait of Britain, I have been nominated for the Royal Photographic Society’s Hundred Heroines campaign, and I was one of the artists selected to be part of the 209 Women Exhibition, a 2018 initiative, marking the centenary of women gaining the right to sit in Parliament, by inviting female photographers to take portraits of the 209 current female MPs.

What advice would you give to someone thinking of entering Portrait of Britain 2019?

Do it! You cannot win unless your work is seen, and who knows what that could lead to?

Future generations will look to Portrait of Britain 2019 to see the face of the nation in a historic moment. What will it look like? Enter your work today!

© Danyelle Rolla
© Danyelle Rolla

A Portrait of Queer Britain

© Charley Williams

Britain, for all its charms, can be dominated by grey skies and gloomy headlines. So it’s uplifting to come across the work of Charley Williams, whose portraits of drag queens and LGBTQ party-goers show Britain as the joyful and free place it can be. Her work is rooted in Bristol, where she lives. This small city, in England’s West Country, is famous for being progressive, and it has a vibrant and liberating spirit that abounds in Williams’ work.

Dominique Fleek, the image that made the Portrait of Britain 2018 shortlist, captures a drag artist transforming into character. Williams tends to find her subjects in nightclubs and at festivals, and as such, her portraits explore a queer and carnivalesque world. Ahead of Portrait of Britain 2019, we spoke to Williams about how photography can tackle intolerance and can move us towards becoming a more open and accepting society.

© Charley Williams

What did you want to capture about your subject, and about modern Britain, with the portrait that you entered into Portrait of Britain 2018?

The subject of my photograph is Montell Cunningham, mid-transformation into his drag alter-ego, Dominique Fleek. One of the reasons I wanted to photograph him during the transitional phase was to capture both the masculine and feminine aspects of his personality. To me, he represents the ongoing cultural shift towards gender and sexual fluidity.

As an LGBTQ person of colour, Montell is a minority in this country and is at a much higher risk of attack because of his orientation and race. I only see a beautiful, confident individual who has as much right to be here as anyone else. Creating this work is my way of pushing back against hatred and homophobia.

I live in Bristol, one of the most progressive and peaceful cities in the world. It’s important to me that my work is seen by people outside of the city, to further push the boundaries of society.

© Charley Williams

Why do you think Portrait of Britain is important today? What do you think we’ll see in Portrait of Britain 2019?

Politics is dividing us more and more in this country; Brexit has us foaming at the mouths. Portrait of Britain is hugely important in demonstrating the diversity of our great country, and in bringing us all together despite our differences.

Hanging out with drag queens and drag kings is totally normal to me, but it may not be for everyone. When flipping through the Portrait of Britain book, I saw a lot of people that I would never encounter in my daily life. Photographs give us insights into the lives of people we wouldn’t otherwise meet. It makes me proud to be British. It’s a reminder that even if we have different beliefs, we are all British and, ultimately, we are all one.

© Charley Williams

What was it like to be shortlisted?

It still feels surreal! I am so humbled every time I see my copy of the Portrait of Britain book at my bedside. Having my work recognised by such a well-known organisation has really validated my work and given me confidence that I didn’t have before.

How has the award boosted your career?

I think the main change is how I perceive myself and my own work. I’ve really started to take my photography seriously and I spend a lot more time thinking about the reasons why I am producing the work that I do.

I still shoot a lot of drag events and have made a name for myself with my drag portraits. I am currently in talks with another Bristol photographer, Shelby Alexander, and we are planning to exhibit our work on drag queens together this year.

© Charley Williams

What themes do you like to explore in your work?

I have always been very interested in how we present ourselves to the world. I find it fascinating that we often try to reject labels, yet we also hold onto them when we want to define who we are.

My main focus is definitely drag. I will continue shootings portraits and drag events throughout the year, including Drag World, which is a huge drag convention in London in the summer. I’ve also got plans to shoot at some festivals this year – I want to explore the subcultures that only emerge at festival time.

What advice would you give to someone thinking of entering Portrait of Britain 2019?

If you’ve produced something that you are really proud of, just go for it. I thought that because I was using flash and shooting on digital my work wouldn’t be considered. It just goes to show, if you don’t put yourself out there you’ll never know!

Portrait of Britain 2019 is now closed for entries! Read about previous winners here.

© Charley Williams
© Charley Williams
© Charley Williams