Paul Walsh is a British fine art and documentary photographer; his work often explores the relationship between photography and walking. He is also a founding member of MAP6, a photography collective of ten people working together exploring the relationship between people and place. I caught up with him to chat about how such an everyday act inspires his visuals and to discover more about his latest work for MAP6.
When did you first realise that walking was a creative and innovative way to generate ideas for projects?
From an early age I associated walking with a sense of contemplation, and it soon became natural for me to walk long distances in all kinds of places. In later years I joined walking clubs and through travelling, became interested in long distance hiking, where I would bring my camera to document my experiences. The combination of walking and photographing taught me to analyse my surroundings and to try and understand my place in the world.
During my studies in 2010 for a photography MA at the University of Brighton, I developed and shaped my practice with the help of my lecturers and peers. I was already well aware of walking artists such as Richard Long and Hamish Fulton, but it was whilst writing my dissertation that I discovered a vast history of walking culture and wanted to understand this through literature. Amongst others, writers such as Guy Debord, Rebecca Solnit, Iain Sinclair, Robert Macfarlane and W.G Sebald were, and still are, influential in my way of thinking. I discovered that walking wasn’t just about getting between places or being in the countryside, but it could be about meditation, exploring memory, politics and history.
During the MA, I met the other founding members of the MAP6 Collective: Mitch Karunaratne, Heather Shuker, Chloe Lelliott, David Sterry and Laurie Griffiths. They helped to shape my practice into a kind of pre-meditated approach to walking, which brings together in-depth research and planning, mixed with chance encounters due to the unpredictable nature of being in the landscape.
Considering the above and being a part of MAP6’s recent project Finland: The Happiness Project, how did you find walking influenced the photos you took for this body of work?
With each MAP6 project I work on I like to try something different. Whether this be using different cameras or using writing or sound. MAP6 is a space for me to experiment and bring new skills back into my own practice and I learn a lot from my colleagues. In previous projects, I mostly followed carefully planned routes, but for this project I wanted to let go, keep things simple and leave more open to chance. I met a number of people who were willing to participate in the project, and I simply asked if they would walk with me, they would choose the walk and we would talk about life in Finland along the way. It was great because I would not know where I was going or what to expect, either from each walker or where they were taking me. I prepared a few questions to discuss and recorded our conversations which I later used as text alongside the images.
One of the major difficulties was trying to stay engaged amidst complex conversations, whilst looking for photographs to document the places we walked through. Somehow between the places we passed through and the words we shared, the images emerged. In Finland, walking is the most popular outside activity and there is a vast amount of open space to explore, people really seem to value these two things. It was interesting to explore the idea of happiness through sharing a walk, it was a new direction for my work to go in.
As this work is specifically about Finland and its high ranking in the United Nations’ World Happiness Report for the most content nation, and given you’re a British photographer, what drew you to make a body of work around this?
When we begin a project we brainstorm about countries that could be interesting to make work about. We consider what is happening in the world, what places are unfamiliar to us and what places other photographers are making work about in order to avoid them. This time it was slightly different as we couldn’t help thinking about Brexit, and how it was dividing the country at the time. This led us to think about geographical dividing lines such as walls, or along borders and at one point considered working in Gibraltar. However, we felt that these subjects, and the very idea of Brexit was beginning to bring us down. At that point we began thinking about happiness, a subject that brought people together rather than dividing them, and a subject that was completely opposite to what we had been considering. This naturally led us to The World Happiness Report, which quickly led us to Finland, and at that point we became hooked. Finland seemed like a forward-thinking country where we could learn a lot.
What drew you to wanting to co-create a collective such as MAP6?
MAP6 began when a number of us met whilst studying the MA Photography course at the University of Brighton. We found that we each had particular strengths to bring to the group and over time we have each fitted into individual roles within the collective in areas such as web design, social media and marketing, publishing, writing and curation.
We soon realised that we should make new work together and decided that travelling somewhere to make work could add a sense of urgency and pressure to the process and contain the production of work within a strict time frame. We first went to Moscow and over six days we each came away with a small body of work which would be enough for an exhibition and a printed newspaper to share the work. Since Moscow we have worked in Lithuania, Milton Keynes, Shetland, Finland and most recently, Wales.
Generally, we will try to have one intense shooting phase a year and one exhibiting phase amidst monthly meetings. With each project, we try to use the images differently, from creating separate mini projects to bringing them together as a whole for a singular group project. Currently, we have ten members and continue to grow, but we are always open to collaborating with others as well. The basic core ideas we had when starting the collective are still there after ten years, to make a space where we can learn from one another, make new work, try new things and create opportunities. We also have a lot of fun.
To create your images; Deambulations, that contribute to MAP6’s project, how did you find and approach the subjects to walk with?
Finding subjects was difficult as it was hard to find people that would be interested and open to participate, as well as being available for the short time I was there. Word of mouth and meeting people online was the way I found some people, but I also reached out to local universities and found teachers who could help me locate participants.
As you’re aware, issue 13 of Loupe focuses on sustainability. MAP6 has many elements of sustainability running through it exploration of ways of living in different countries. What do you feel is most important and what do you hope people will take away from the work?
Our photographic project Finland: The Happiness Project is an exploration of why Finland ranks so highly in terms of happiness, according to the World Happiness Report. We gathered diverse viewpoints that show how Finland positively promotes healthier, happier and more fulfilling lives. Through the architecture, the design mirroring nature, the sustainable timber industry, the essential sauna culture, the sea as a place to gain perspective, and the healthy act of walking and being in nature. As well as personal comfort zones, and the link between landscape and national identity, illustrated with a study that ranked a city in Finland as the most satisfied. From these varying viewpoints, as outsiders looking in, we learnt something about Finland and how they sustain a prosperous, forward-thinking and happy environment to live in.
Some other things we discovered during our journey is that that people are generally content with what they have, they have their basic needs covered by an efficient and well-run government, and they are not a nation that needs a lot of individual wealth in order to be happy. We also discovered that there is a high level of trust within Finnish society and that there is an emphasis on maintaining a fairer society, with less of a divide between the rich and poor. People seem to trust those in charge as they believe that the government generally have their best interests at heart. They also strive to look out for one another.
Perhaps we were most fascinated by how Finns pride themselves on their fortitude, perseverance and getting through the difficult times together, they even have a word for it: Sisu, which can be understood as inner strength, a will not to give up and mental resilience. The work we made looks at various efforts that Finns make to persevere and improve things to be happy and to protect and enjoy their environment; which we could all learn from.
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Sustainability permeates every aspect of our lives and is now a necessity, not a choice. Human innovation, determination and persistence is more important than ever and will ultimately decide the fate of our planet. In this issue, through photography and writing we explore insect-based protein, space colonisation, childfree people, the importance of payphones, the world’s largest blanket bog, support for artists, sustainable photobooks and Universal Basic Income.
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