Ruby Ingleheart’s series They Slept in the Last of the Honey explores Pagan beliefs through the ritual and celebration of winter solstice. Focusing on the yearly celebration held at the Cornish festival Montol in Penzance, Ruby explores the effect of the change of light and seasons, and the strength of community in celebration and belief.
Kelly spoke with Ruby about working in the community, the photographic challenges and approach to an abstract use of light, as well as her future plans to work with other communities.
Montol, the Cornish community festival you photographed is a niche topic. How did you first come into contact with this community and what were your intentions when creating the body of work?
My dad lives in Penzance, which is where Montol is held every year, so I’ve been going for a while. I always found the atmosphere exciting and knew I wanted to make a film or photographic series about it at some point. They Slept in the Last of the Honey grew out of an interest in the idea of light after listening to a program on the radio called ‘Travels of the Mind: Iceland’. It talked about seasonal depression in Iceland as a consequence of the lack of light during winter which led me to think about our instinct to come together and celebrate during the darkest days. I began by researching into the scientific nature of light and the affects it has on our circadian rhythms which led onto researching the traditions, celebrations and beliefs that surround these themes. I decided to start with a community close to home.
Your photographs are fantastically stark and intimate. How did you build a relationship with the community to capture such a special celebration?
I’ve grown up going to similar celebrations, so I feel very comfortable in these sorts of environments. People put a lot of effort into making their costumes, so the majority are very approachable and eager to have their photograph taken. I asked a few people to pose for certain portraits but most of it was being invisible and responding to the crowds, musicians and dancers around the fire.
They Slept in the last of the Honey covers complex, abstract themes. Do you feel photography is an effective means of communication when discussing intangible narratives such as belief?
Something I learnt while making this project was to embrace the ambiguity photography can hold. It’s important to question ‘why is it a photographic project, rather than an essay?’ Photography can evoke certain emotions and moods that transcend language and this, in my opinion is what makes it so beautiful. Photographing Montol was a very visual and literal way of showing how communities respond to the changing of light. The full body of work had the images from Montol interspersed with photos that explored the more intangible aspects of the project, like our emotional response to the changing light. I think photography is affective in exploring a topic without it needing to be fully conclusive and lets people make their own visual connections between the images based on their lived experience.
Has the development of this project impacted your own belief system, specifically that relating to Pagan traditions?
Although the principle of Montol is rooted in the beliefs of Paganism and ritual, it’s also accessible to those that don’t resonate with these principles. The celebration encourages the community to come together; to play, dance and to connect with nature on the darkest day and this is something I believe in. In simplistic terms, Pagans believe that we are equal to nature; these concepts cross over with ideas I have previously explored for other projects and aligns with my interests in exploring the relationship between humans and the environment. I find it a fascinating topic and I’m intrigued by how different communities interpret and celebrate the beliefs and traditions of Paganism.
Your images are immensely powerful and give a real insight into the ambience and energy during that festival. How do you feel you achieved this so effectively and was it a conscious decision to capture the celebration in this way?
Something my lecturer, Lisa Barnard, would frequently push us to question is whether there was a synthesis between our photographic approach and the themes we were exploring. When approaching this project, I thought about how the limited light during winter could be translated in the aesthetics of the image. I experimented with using the little light that was available during winter and created very dark images, for example some of the earlier portraits were using natural window light which only highlighted the side of a face. I wanted to show a sense of the humans longing for the last of the light. The images for Montol, which are featured here, were taken with a harsh flash to exaggerate light. The flash revealed the sparks from the fire and the figures darting about. It was also heavily raining the night of Montol and I love the way the flash can visualise/illuminate this.
Did you face any challenges when creating the project?
In the early stages the project was very broad. When exploring such open topics, initially, it can be hard to pin down what you’re trying to say. For me, the biggest challenge was translating academic papers and scientific notions into something more poetic and visual. I found a workflow that was researching, responding photographically, more researching, more photographing. This enabled me to playfully respond to the research I was doing and prevented me from photographing the findings too literally. As you mentioned previously, elements of the project deal with intangible ideas, so a challenge was to visualise this in an interesting way. For me, the project provided a valuable lesson in the importance of starting with your own community and of giving yourself certain limitations.
If you had control over the interpretation of the project, how do you hope it would be received?
My intentions for the project were to document Montol as a positive experience which can spark joy and encourage people to come together in their communities whilst also marking change. I’d hope that the project allows people to reflect on our connection to nature and how the seasonal cycles affect us. I have concerns about our increasing disconnection from
nature, so to create a project that highlights the positive human interactions with nature and its celebration was important to me.
You mention that the project is ongoing, how do you see the work developing?
The initial project was for a 3-month University module. I’d like to continue photographing Montol and similar community celebrations and traditions. I enjoy the balance of more ambiguous images with the more traditional documentary images of the celebrations. The project would lend itself well to a book format as it could be made up of several chapters documenting different community celebrations. With the current pandemic, many of these festivals have had to be cancelled. I’d be interested to see how they continue, perhaps in an ironic way, through technology. For example Montol this year was cancelled and instead 6 people gathered and live streamed their small scale procession on Facebook.
Do you have any future photographic plans and are you currently working on any projects?
I was in the middle of a project in Portugal, working with communities in the Algarve, where many people’s livelihoods were devastated by wildfires. This project has been put on hold due to the pandemic but will be continued when possible.
I continue to be interested in working with communities and have enjoyed the limitations of lockdown pushing me to look and question who my own community is. I spent the first lockdown documenting my Grandmother, who lives down the road from me in a village called Mount Hawke, on her daily hour walk around the block. I created a film that focused on the impact of the restrictions, specifically amongst those who were classed as ‘clinically vulnerable’, on social connections between people.
I am currently working on a project as a film maker, collaborating with composer Jon Hughes and choreographer Simon Birch at Falmouth University, called ‘Hydrology’. Working with community dancers over the age of 50 in different locations across Cornwall, the film will explore abstract themes of water, boundaries, vastness, reflections, limitations, intimacy, cleansing and ritual. It will use projections and be presented as an installation in the coming year.
In this issue we feature photography and writing that explores belief through worship, mourning, loss of faith, superstitions and the possibility of other worlds.
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