Emma Bowkett and Josh Lustig, Director and Deputy Director of Photography, Financial Times Magazine write about this year’s theme and the the photographers they chose to illustrate it.
The feeling that we belong is one of the better things in life: belonging brings stability, safety, strength, purpose. It can insure us against calamity. It lifts us up.
But is it enough to belong? Is belonging essential to life? Are our ideas of identity and community inextricably linked? And if they are, what does it mean to have our sense of belonging threatened?
After all, we are more interconnected than ever. We can, at any time, interact with people from every corner of the world – and we see it as a good thing, because in many ways it is good. Yet the groups we form often isolate us. Sometimes they serve to fracture our relationships. In a world connected by social media, it sometimes appears that we exist in discrete, self-sustaining groups that only express the kind of things we want to hear, while beyond the scope of those echo-chambers, it is only the most extreme voices that command our attention.
All over the world the idea of globalisation is being rejected. Closest to home, the votes for Trump and Brexit, and the rise of far-right parties across Europe on a populist tide of nativism and isolationism, are indications that our world is changing radically. The apparently unquestionable virtues of a globalised economy are faltering while the gap between the haves and the have-nots is widening.
So, if we now live in a world where “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere” then what does that mean for our sense of belonging?
The photographers we brought together for this year’s PhotoEast festival each ask their own questions as to what it means to belong. Mark Power’s Shipping Forecast tackles that most ethereal and apparently abstract of national broadcasts. For those familiar with the BBC’s regular meteorological forecasts in the sea areas around the British Isles, Power’s photographs are an evocation of what it means to live an isolated, weather-ridden, island existence.
Nina Mangalanayagam examines her own mixed heritage in her project The Tangled Web of Belonging. Drawing on metaphor and portraiture, Nina’s work is an exploration of identity: what does it mean to be who we perceive ourselves to be?
Less metaphorical, much more concerned with the concrete, is Adama Jalloh’s Love Story, an ode to the environment that raised her. In her candid street portraits, Jalloh seeks to “capture the sense of charisma, joy, intimacy and sincerity in the people around me.”
Cian Oba-Smith’s work is similarly set in brick and stone. He travelled to downtown Philadelphia to document how one community is seeking to empower its young, black, underprivileged youth by providing horses and stables for them to care for.
Also from the USA, Matt Eich’s Carry me Ohio is a portrait of a much-maligned Appalachian community. “Post-industrial.” “Opioid- addicted.” “Poverty-stricken.” All of these pejorative labels seem easy to apply, but the work of both Eich and Oba-Smith reaches delicately beyond the limitations of these stereotypes.
Julian Germaine examines the tribal allegiances of the football supporter, with his portrait of Ipswich Town FC, while Alejandra Carles-Tolra’s Where We Belong looks at a very different group of obsessives: the themes of sisterhood, belonging and fantasy are explored among a group of Jane Austen devotees in the heart of the English countryside.
In Daniel Meadows’ Shop on Greame Street, the site of his pop-up studio in Moss Side, 1972, we revisit the diverse, vibrant and integrated community that was destroyed along with the buildings which housed them in the name of urban regeneration in inner city Manchester. David Titlow’s Eyeball! is also a record of a community now dispersed – Citizens Band Radio hands – pioneers of the first free form of communication belonging to a pre-internet world.
With Martha, Sian Davey’s beautifully tender portrait of her step-daughter, we are privileged to witness a girl becoming a woman. The teenager’s struggle to find a sense of belonging within her family, within her group of friends, and within herself, is laid movingly bare.
From the profoundly interior world of the individual we venture out into the physical world of fence posts, river banks and way-signs for Giulietta Verdon-Roe’s Border Walks: Scotland/England, which takes us from coast to coast along the apparently arbitrary line that dividesEngland and Scotland, examining the physical landscape that plays a part in shaping who we are as individuals and as a ‘nation’.
Seba Kurtis combines his own family narrative of migration with those who make the perilous journey from North Africa to Europe. Family portraits are mixed with images of island detention centres and fenced-off coastlines. Kurtis threw all his negatives into the sea. Those that returned to shore were worn, bleached and scratched, leaving a physical imprint of the salty waters on his images.
What all of them seem to show, in all their diversity of photographic styles, is that, regardless of the changing shape of our societies and despite our sophisticated communications technology, our sense of belonging comes from those same key places that it has always come from: our families, our friends, our landscapes, and the value we choose to ascribe to each of them.