I was recently sorting out some boxes and came across my collection of National Geographic magazines. For some 25 years from the late 1980s my parents generously bought me an annual gift subscription for Christmas. Flicking through some of the early copies I rediscovered articles that greatly influenced my early photographic self and my notion of what constituted good photography. Back then I was taken by the romantic idea of the travel and documentary photographer, exploring and recording remote places and peoples, and exotic animals.
In the community woodland.
National Geographic photographers are famous for embedding themselves in the places and societies they are photographing, taking time to develop a deep understanding of their subject matter. But how deep an understanding of a remote tribe in the Omo Valley of Ethiopia, for instance, can a middle-class white American man get in three months? Ultimately, he will always be photographing the stretched ear adornments and beaded loin cloths; reaffirming our idea in the so-called developed world of what is exotic and different (I have friends who also believe that National Geographic is guilty of perpetuating old colonial notions of superiority).
I’ve photographed elephants drinking from the Zambezi river at sunrise. I’ve been threatened with a flintlock rifle by a Bedouin man whilst on assignment in the Wahiba Sands of Oman. I've lost a Leica, and almost my life, in a tsunami in Sri Lanka. But with time, my photographic interests have developed more towards my immediate environment and away from distant ones. Maybe it is a symptom of my age, but I have become content to wander my local neighbourhood and look for things that have previously gone unnoticed. The bugs in my own garden are as beautiful and diverse, and play out dramas of equal magnitude, as the megafauna of East Africa. It may seem dull to many people, but when a head of barley pops up in the middle of my local wheat field I want to be the first to see it.
Barley in the wheat.
The word ’Parochial’ is mostly used in a pejorative sense, which strikes me as a shame. There is a notion that the enquiring mind will always be seeking to expand its horizons. I would cite Gilbert White’s ’Natural History and Antiquities of Selbourne’, first published in 1798, as a strong counter-argument. White was a church curate and his book was about his own parish (hence it was ‘parochial’). White is considered to be our first ecologist; he described, as well as the individual organisms themselves, the interconnectivity of all the life around him. Purportedly it is the 4th most published book in the English language (there’s seven J.K.Rowling books alone that almost certainly trump it) but even if this is not true, ’Selbourne’ is, surely, one of the most important.
I was delighted when I first moved to Suffolk and discovered the work of the farmer-author Adrian Bell, and read the passage in his book, ’The Cherry Tree’ where he recounted how, in the 1930s, he decided not to repair his unreliable motorcar and instead buy a pony and trap in order to move more slowly through the countryside. In his words, ‘One’s radius both contracts and expands. That is to say, while the circumference of miles at one’s disposal is halved, their content is more than doubled. For quiet pace is like a magnifying-glass: regions one has passed over as familiar suddenly enlarge with innumerable new details and become a feast of contemplation’.
Examining the oilseed rape.
We must always be alert to the dangers of too narrow-minded an attitude, but there is a new significance to a life lived parochially, at least, in the physical realm. By reducing our sphere of movement we can dramatically reduce our consumption, particularly of carbon. Part of my motivation for starting the Suffolk Project was to reduce my own travel miles. Other than studio-based photographers, we’re not a very energy-efficient profession; by necessity we tend to have to travel. I may not be able to go to work on a bicycle yet, but that would be my ultimate aim. Through the Suffolk Project I also hope to highlight the work of local producers and service providers. Globalisation has been wonderful in many ways, but it is the key mechanism underpinning our profoundly unsustainable and polluting economic system. I believe localisation, carefully implemented, could be at least part of the answer. So is my outlook parochial? Absolutely!
Autumn sycamore in new woodland.