A Portrait of Britain: 20 years of farming

Gavin from the series 20 Years of Farming © Harry Borden

Harry Borden’s winning image from Portrait of Britain 2017 is a testament to the farming community he grew up in

Acclaimed portrait photographer Harry Borden has captured an array of iconic subjects including Robin Williams, Ewan McGregor, Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher. His ongoing personal projects focus on subjects that particularly resonate with him and include Single Parent Dads and Holocaust Survivors, which was published as a photobook and shortlisted for the European Publishers Award for Photography in 2017.

Borden has received numerous awards for his work and been exhibited internationally, including a solo exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, who now hold many of his works in their permanent collection.

Borden’s selected photograph for Portrait of Britain 2017 is taken from his series 20 Years of Farming, which documents the community of farmers in which he grew up, existing as both a testament to this trade and a reminder of his childhood. Depicting Gavin, a champion sheep shearer, Borden’s image captures his friend two decades after he originally photographed him after first moving to London.


How did you create your selected portrait (above) and what is the story behind it?

My dad was a farmer and I grew up on his pig farm. The farm dominated our lives; feeding and cleaning 70 sows is a job without end! When I first moved to London to work as a photographer, I made a series of 10 portraits of my farming friends. In 2014, 20 years later, I returned to photograph them again.

Farming is one of the few occupations that remain relatively unaffected by technology. While most of us feel our lives becoming more chaotic, farming is not only a path of certainty but also a trade.  These men know exactly what they will be doing until they are simply no longer physically able to continue and that is both wonderful and terrifying.

Gavin, the subject of my selected portrait, is a champion sheep shearer and works freelance, travelling around farms in his pick-up. I shot his portrait on a Hasselblad digital camera whilst he was working for another farmer I know, Gary Palfrey.

© Harry Borden

Do you have any advice for future entrants about selecting a portrait to submit and, more generally, about getting into portrait photography to begin with?

Consider the theme of the exhibition when submitting: all three of my selected images for Portrait of Britain 2017 depict people who are part of the fabric of life in Britain today.

My love of portrait photography grew out of looking at the work of photographic masters such as Irving Penn and Diane Arbus and continued to evolve as I began photographing my family and friends. My simple advice would be to just take a lot of pictures. The more portraits you take, the more comfortable you feel entering people’s lives and making a visual record of them through photography.

Tony with Louise and Emma © Harry Borden

What do you think makes for a compelling portrait?

Intimacy. I try to make all of my portraits a record of the relationship I developed with my subject on the day. What I’m hoping to create is something authentic and true. I’m not interested in technique.  One must have control over the medium but it is important not to simply ‘stamp’ people with a photographic style.

Can you tell us about any particularly memorable experiences you’ve had whilst shooting portraits?

Photographing icons such as Baroness Thatcher.  This was a shoot that I thought would never happen. I was simply too young to photograph her in her prime. As the first female UK Prime Minister, she loomed so large over my childhood and then politically radicalised my generation. So, although I wasn’t her number one fan, it was humbling to see the Iron Lady succumbing, as we all must, to human frailty.

What do you think about the Portrait of Britain project?

It’s a great showcase for contemporary photography and a historic social document of 21st century Britain.

Portrait of Britain 2019 is open for entries! Looking for inspiration? Read about previous winners here and start thinking about your submission!

© Harry Borden

Janey © Harry Borden