Featured Artist: Craig Easton

‘Sixteen’ is an ongoing project looking at the experience, dreams, aspirations and fears of sixteen year olds from all walks of life in the UK. Shot on a large format field camera, the project is a collaborative process with the young people: in each case they are asked to write a personal handwritten testimony to be presented at all times alongside the photograph. The idea is to give each of the sixteen year olds a voice without the filter of a journalists questions or interpretation. At 16 you are on the cusp of adulthood, but still legally classed as a child in many ways. You are starting to take responsibility for your future and (I sincerely hope) you are full of dreams and ambitions. Many young people of course can feel hope-less, frightened and angry, already disengaged from society. These dreams, ambitions and fears, I believe, are to a large extent dictated by your environment, your family, your gender, your economic and social situation, your nationality, ethnicity etc. I am interested in how each of those factors influences what you think you can achieve; how it defines your ability to fulfill your potential. This ongoing project (I will be inviting other photographers to participate going forward) is designed to explore the feelings of sixteen year olds at a stage in life where they are making big decisions for their future in a very uncertain world.

 Featured Artist: Craig Easton
Sony World Photography Awards, Somerset House,
21st April – 7th May 2017

Interview, Patrick Kirk-Smith
Pictures, Craig Easton

A Merseyside based former newspaper photographer has made the top 10 shortlist for the Sony World Photography Awards, from 227,000 entries from 183 countries. Craig Easton grew up in on the Wirral, and found his feet photographing the political world unfolding on his doorstep in the 1980s. Even while studying physics, his fascination for photography couldn’t be quenched, and he went on to work in documentary photography.

Now, in 2017, he has been recognised as one of the top 10 portrait photographers in the world, by one of the most prestigious competitions of the year. The exhibition, Sony World Photography Awards & Martin Parr, runs from 21st April – 7th May 2017 at Somerset House, and features images from shortlisted artists from ten categories. The winner has not yet been announced, but we got ahead of ourselves and caught up with Craig to find out more about what makes him tick as a photographer.

Hopefully, the following interview will be an interview with the winner of the Sony World Photography Awards 2017, but for now, it’s an interview with one of the most promising nominees:

What got you into photography?

Politics is the simple answer I suppose. I was at University in the mid-eighties, the height of Thatcherism, the miners’ strike, poll tax marches etc. I was becoming politically aware, not least coming from Liverpool after the Toxteth Riots and the “managed decline” policies being suggested at the time. I was photographing what was around me, student politics and demonstrations, and I started to get involved in charity groups and issues in the developing world. I became interested in what was going on in Latin America with popular movements making great strides towards greater social reform, land redistribution, literacy etc. I was studying physics, but spent a lot of time in the library devouring photography and art books, it became and obsession.

When did you start using photography as an art form, and what drove that?

I don’t know if I use ‘photography as an art form’, in many ways that’s for others to decide. For me photography is about story-telling and communication. It’s a way of exploring the world, how we live, our relationships, etc. Right from the start I was photographing things I cared about. It started with student marches, but once I left college I travelled for a year through Canada, the US, Mexico and Central America. I went to practice and it was there that I learned to look and to see in the sense that the late John Berger described in his books and I learned to translate that seeing into photographs. The mechanics of photography are simple, it’s how you look and what you see that matters – that’s why for a lot of personal work I still shoot on film with very simple large format cameras. I’m a documentary photographer, but my approach to documentary has evolved over the years. I started in straight news for The Independent newspaper in London, but I’ve always been drawn to landscape and over the years my work has split almost 50/50 between landscape work and portraits/people.

What do you find most captivating about your series, ‘Sixteen’?

The idea for the series ‘Sixteen’ originally grew out of some work I did on the Scottish Referendum in 2014. It was the first time that sixteen year olds were given the vote in the UK and I made a series of portraits of young people who would celebrate their sixteenth birthday on the day of the referendum, so they were the youngest people ever to vote in Great Britain. I was encouraged by how engaged with the process many of the sixteen year olds were, but also aware of the weight of responsibility some of them felt. In many ways it was their future more than anyone’s that was at stake in the decision that could break up the 300 year old union.

Following on from that project I wanted to broaden out the idea to explore how sixteen year olds right across the UK felt about their future and the world they were going to inherit. In a time of great political turmoil and concerns over the environment, global terrorism, economics etc. I wanted to examine what the future might hold for the next generation.

I quickly decided that this should be a group project and so got together a group of great photographers: friends, colleagues and photographers whose work I admire to flesh out the idea. We decided there should be sixteen photographers, eight women and eight men with each of us contributing in our own way. This first set of pictures that have been shortlisted in the Sony Awards are the original set that I shot to instigate the whole project. Going on from here, we hope to exhibit and publish the work of the whole group as the project comes together.

The central idea behind the project is to give a voice to the next generation to speak to us about their dreams, their ambitions, their hopes and fears for their future. We are shooting all around the UK with young people from all walks of life examining how your background, your gender, your ethnicity, your family circumstances etc. all influence what you feel you can achieve in life and how you might fulfil your potential.

What was your experience growing up on Merseyside? 

I grew up on the Wirral and spent a lot of time in Liverpool through my teenage years and into my early twenties. This was in the seventies and eighties when Liverpool was very different to the way it is now. Through my twenties and thirties I yo-yo’ed backwards and forwards between Liverpool and London. My work was (and is still) mostly commissioned out of London, first for The Independent and now for advertising, books, magazines etc. but family life is back on the Wirral and Liverpool. We moved back full time in 2008 and so my kids have grown up here too.

It’s already impressive being in the top ten, but what would winning mean for your career?

Oh, I really don’t know. I always think that people are being coy when asked these sorts of questions and say they don’t think about it, but now being in this position it’s true. Being shortlisted is a great honour and I’m delighted that it can start to shine a light on the project and give some impetus to the group. I can honestly say I’ve not thought about anything beyond the shortlist – there is some great work on there and just being recognised alongside photographers and work that I admire is fantastic.

Work from all over the world was submitted for the show, but how do you find your UK identity work sitting within the 227,000 global entries?

227,000? Blimey! Best not to think about it!

It’s interesting, I travel quite extensively with my work, but I’ve won a number of prestigious global awards for work shot in the UK. Maybe being so familiar with a place spurs me on to examine it more closely and hopefully find something more revealing, beneath the surface. Photography is all about the ‘surface’ of things, but it has a way of getting under your skin too. That’s what I aim to do.

I love to travel and work in other countries and other cultures, but I think that sometimes it can be too easy to fall for the exotic and much harder to photograph your own society and find what’s important to you, find stories you want to tell. I was delighted recently to be given the landscape portfolio award at the Travel Photographer of the Year for pictures taken in West Kirby! Up against photographers worldwide shooting in amazing locations, I’m especially delighted when it is photographs in my own community that get recognised. Telling stories about the society you live in feels authentic to me and can be an important contribution to the political debates going on in that society. I feel really strongly that the voices of ordinary people should be heard and so that’s why I work so much in the UK and why, with the ‘Sixteen’ project, I want the participants to share their views without the going through the filter of a journalists questions or interpretation.

‘Sixteen’ is an ongoing project looking at the experience, dreams, aspirations and fears of sixteen year olds from all walks of life in the UK. Shot on a large format field camera, the project is a collaborative process with the young people: in each case they are asked to write a personal handwritten testimony to be presented at all times alongside the photograph. The idea is to give each of the sixteen year olds a voice without the filter of a journalists questions or interpretation. At 16 you are on the cusp of adulthood, but still legally classed as a child in many ways. You are starting to take responsibility for your future and (I sincerely hope) you are full of dreams and ambitions. Many young people of course can feel hope-less, frightened and angry, already disengaged from society. These dreams, ambitions and fears, I believe, are to a large extent dictated by your environment, your family, your gender, your economic and social situation, your nationality, ethnicity etc. I am interested in how each of those factors influences what you think you can achieve; how it defines your ability to fulfill your potential. This ongoing project (I will be inviting other photographers to participate going forward) is designed to explore the feelings of sixteen year olds at a stage in life where they are making big decisions for their future in a very uncertain world.