Continuing our season of themed content exploring National Identity, Luke Das interviews Photographer Tristan Poyser.
Interview by Luke Das –
The Invisible In-between – An Englishman’s Search For The Irish Border features in our Issue 10 centrefold. Tristan Poyser’s project depicts his own remarks towards Brexit. The images of the unseen Irish/UK border were exhibited at Belfast Exposed Gallery, Format Festival, Derby Photo Fringe, and Hull International Photography Festival. Tristan is also a board member at Redeye, The Photography Network.
Luke Das: This latest loupe issue is themed National Identity. Where are you from originally and do you identify with the photographic tradition of your home?
Tristan Poyser: I grew up in Derby, which locally is described as the starting place of the industrial revolution, I lived here until the age of thirty. Initially I studied Ecology and then became interested in photography. Which led me to a masters in Biological Photography. It’s always been there in my family history, my great grandfather from Long Eaton photographed an old cooperative he started, while I also grew up around my uncles amateur photography. Subconsciously photography has been a constant in my life
LD: That is a diverse academic background. How did your photographic enquiries progress from the sciences towards the arts?
TP: Through my appreciation of Ecology I always wanted to work with David Attenborough, some peers from my masters did actually go on to work on Blue Planet but it was something I never explored. After studying, I worked in Greece for an NGO and then back in the UK for a charity, which led to other opportunities. However from a young age and taking long walks with my dad I’ve always been interested in the outdoors, naturally I am a landscape photographer. Because of my ADHD it’s important I benefit from my work, working with landscapes gives me that time to myself.
LD: Where did the idea for The Invisible In-between – An Englishman’s Search For The Irish Border come from?
TP: Initially I was interested in making work responding to the European referendum. The vote was so momentous and unexpected, as a photographer I felt I wanted to respond. I’d visited Ireland before as a tourist but I have no Irish connections. I couldn’t understand how someone could vote for changes that affected a place they’d never seen. My mum for instance owns a house in France and has a niece who lives in Germany with her husband. There was no rhyme nor reason for her to vote leave. I thought that others might have voted quickly without considering the impact.
LD: Did you seek any advice to develop the piece?
TP: I’m currently aiming to work in academia and have been teaching at the British Academy of Photography. I wanted to take my time with the work, respect the subject matter and create an authentic project. So before starting, I got some advice from Irish academics. Garrett Carr from Queen’s University, Belfast was great because he’d just published a book called ‘Walking the Land’ in perfect timing around Brexit. I was then introduced to writer and poet Connor O’Callaghan, who was born on one side of the border but lived on the other. I spent time walking the area that he is from and even stayed at his mum’s house! I also contacted Jacqui Devenney Reed, a photographer and journalist from near Derry/Londonderry. In 2018 we both attended the Remote Photo Festival themed on reframing the border, and walked the area near Derry/Londonderry together.
LD: It is impressive that you spent two years photographing the full length of the Irish border. What did the practicalities of making the work involve?
TP: The project was never about trying to capture beautifully light images, but instead documenting what was there – often overcast with nothing extraordinary. As an Englishman I didn’t feel like I had the right to be walking along the Irish/UK border. All the land was private, so I was constantly trespassing. With the history of the area I felt uneasy and kept a high visibility vest everywhere. Once I fell asleep in my van in an inappropriate place and six armed policemen knocked on the door at 10.30pm. There was always some tension felt because people were tired of the press coming to the border and misrepresenting them.
LD: It was a novel solution to represent the border with a tear in the images. It’s a subtle act which represents uneasiness, tension and separation. You did this yourself and asked the public to participate. Their written comments underneath the photograph’s are insightful. Are there any specific ones that you recall?
TP: Initially I approached people that stopped me while I was walking the border but there are a few other people I remember. I was in a Subway in Belfast where a guy wrote about the IRA, knowing the circumstances he still gave his full name and where he was from. A favourite contribution was from a group of students from Switzerland at the Belfast Exposed Gallery. They drew a picture of a head with a brain and a caption coming from it stating ‘The Only Borders Are Here’. They actually responded to my social media post and I try to credit people where I can.
Gathering participants thoughts and the torn images became a process of portraiture. Some wanted to use scissors but I insisted on tearing the images, to capture the physicality of their reactions. Because there are no watchtowers or fences you cannot see the border. Even if there is a natural boundary or river it’s not visible. I needed to show it somehow, my wife gave me the idea through her opposition to tearing an image. It was an uncomfortable process, I went through great lengths to scan each negative, treated them as fine art prints. Then I tore them!
LD: Is there a statement about national identity in the title of the works?
TP: It was important to include ‘Englishman’ as the project was aimed at the decision of the UK government to cast the EU referendum vote. While also commenting on identity through my belief that a reason the leave party were successful is because the English don’t have the same sense of identity as the Irish, Welsh or Scottish. Even though there is some guilt felt from British Colonialism, the other countries are able to shun off their involvement and cast the blame towards the English. There’s also negative associations with St George’s flag that don’t exist in the other four nations such as; hooliganism and football. I wanted to make those that identify with being English aware of their actions, whether from Liverpool, London or anywhere.
LD: Where has it been exhibited so far?
TP: My first solo show was at Belfast Exposed Gallery, which was fantastic. It also coincided with the initial Brexit date on March 31st 2019. Exhibited using a traditional hang in a light space the pictures were A3 in size and framed (mainly due to the manipulation and tearing). I like to pair them in diptychs, some collaged on purpose. There are three towns Pettigo, Belcoo and Blacklion with communities split by the border. These featured in a corner frame, so that each side was made to face the other. Because of my science background, I never considered myself to be an artist. However in this context I am very particular in presenting my photography.
LD: There’s potential to expand the project, exploring different directions. What plans do you have for the future of your practice?
TP: Did you know that Hadrian’s Wall is not on the actual border? The Scottish border is another twenty miles north, it goes from above Carlisle to Newcastle. Surely, we should know where Hadrian’s Wall is because it is a national monument? My aim is to photograph the Scottish and the Welsh borders, preferable before Scotland has another referendum. I would like to produce a book but I will hold off until I have finished those projects first!
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Luke Das is a lecturer, writer and photographer with an interest in traditional image making techniques. His works pay homage to photography from the past and present.