Photographer Jodie House muses on Street, generations of photography, and the road shots not taken
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became a photographer?
I’m originally from Dorchester, England, where Thomas Hardy is from. I now live in Weymouth, a seaside town.
I had a bohemian upbringing. My mum, an amazing and free thinking person, brought us up as a single parent. In the 70’s it was tough being a single parent, so I was very lucky in that, with an absent father, my grandparents, Kathleen and James House, took on the role of “dad” and helped raise us. My sister and I spent a huge amount of time with them while my mum was working. Gran was a nurse, and my Pops was a scientist — they were amazing people. My Gran was a passionate hobby photographer, and I learned photography from her.
I lived as a traveler on the road for a long time when I was part of an underground 90’s rave scene, a collective of people who just wanted to dance. Later I got a degree in filmmaking, and I had a choice of doing the London thing, and that didn’t appeal to me. I wanted to do something in a smaller community, and settled in Weymouth because of my children in school, and those other things. Now I’m a community filmmaker.
Photography is quite a compulsion for me, as with all Street photographers, I think. I still shoot on the same camera I had when I was 13. In 2008, I got a new camera, I started shooting from the hip, on buses. I did not know what it was I was doing, that it was Street. Then you start realizing it’s a thing. I got really into it for the rest of that year, buying a lot of books.
You mentioned your time on the road, did you get a lot of pictures during this time on the rave scene?
It’s a big regret that I didn’t photograph during this period on the road. But from the ages of 17 to 22, I didn’t shoot as much. With hindsight, I see that I got distracted by not having enough money. It was very expensive to process film, and money was ridiculously tight. I didn’t make it a priority, which now sounds terrible, because it is such a priority.
Can you describe anything in particular, some of the things you would most like to have photographed, to see now?
Sometimes the thought process goes around and around. Sometimes I’m aware that I’ve lived, over the last years, a lot of my experiences down the lens. I’ve traveled, and done it all seeing it through the lens, for days on end. So part of me, when I’m thinking openly about missing out on shooting that particular point in my life, thinks that maybe it was a good thing, because then I experienced it. And would it have been different, would I have been different, if I had been an observer, rather then being immersed in what I was doing? But, saying that, being on the margins of society for a period of time, I suppose it’s of huge human interest. Many photographers have dedicated their lives to capturing people living on the fringes, which is how I was living.
There were many visual things about my home, I lived in a truck, I lived in caravans. There was no television, there was no nothing, and we were a community. So that in itself would’ve been interesting to capture. And there are some photos of us in those times, but mostly not shot by me.
Can you conjure up some of the images now using only words, like an original flâneuse could have done— without a camera?
One that sticks out in my mind is living in an old circus caravan, and my daughter was only a few months old. I didn’t have a bed for her, so we built a box bed onto the inside of the caravan. It was such a knocked together, survival kind of thing, but at the same time it was — Home. I have this vision of what it looked like, it was a very old vintage caravan with big red sofas, lots of oil lamps, big windows, then in the corner was this makeshift wooden cot thing, that’s what my daughter was in. It’s like, just trying to explain that to someone else now! Of course, I’ve talked to my daughter about it, and she laughs, she just says things like, “Oh yes, I had a bed made out of plywood!”
So those kinds of survival pictures are in my head. I remember there being storms, and one time, three of us women had to hold down one of the caravans so it wouldn’t blow off the side of this massive hill. So when I think about what that would look like as an image now! But I guess I was just consumed by the living, rather than the observing. The rave scene was incredibly visual, it was a time of freedom for a lot of people. That kind of anarchy has existed before, and this was a very special time when people rose up a little bit, it was my first experience in seeing that.
I remember the mornings being the most beautiful part of that time, the sun would be rising, everyone would be very bedraggled, and we would all be dancing in front of a massive sound system, with a thousand vehicles in one place — it was really magical. And then there were some very dark times, of being isolated — not being able to get food or water or warmth. I spent my pregnancy in a field — in a tiny caravan with holes in the roof and a missing window, with a gas bottle converted into a heater that didn’t really work. I was literally out in the field on my own, in the middle of nowhere, with nothing. I was cooking on an open fire, it was dark, everything was lit by candlelight. That sort of isolation is another image that has stayed with me over the years.
If there were one portrait of a person you could have now from those days?
Probably my best friend, Harriet. We were a couple of survivors in all this chaos. And we really looked after each other, right down to the bare bones — water and heat, everything was an effort, staying warm was an effort. She had my back and I had hers. Harriet’s face was always really, really tough, like she was always struggling to do something — like to help me, or others, or to stay safe herself. We are best friends to this day, and she is now a doctor in archaeology.
How do you find Street shooting in your hometown of Weymouth vs. abroad, or in London?
Europe’s architecture creates a nicer backdrop and framing. With British architecture, you have to work a little bit harder to put yourself into position, the light is different. There are different behaviors, although mostly people all have the same behaviors. But it’s a bit easier in Europe. I found America quite hard. Except in New York City, where with so many things to watch I was just like a kid in a candy store. But I was was with family too, and I would tend to just go off on my own, and it’s a bit hard trying to explain to people why you need to go off on your own to do this. I was a bit like a distracted child.
It’s about learning to love what’s on your doorstep, as many Street photographers have found. But also finding that space for yourself to go abroad. When I don’t take those breaks, I get cabin fever. It’s a bit of a running joke in my family, “Where is she going to go next?!”
In Weymouth, summer is heaven for candid shots, lots of color, and there’s nothing more British than a family at the seaside. The seaside has always been a big deal for my family, and for a lot of people in Britain.
The slower pace of somewhere like Weymouth is quite nice, because I have to find a narrative a little bit more. Here it’s a lot more looking, standing still, waiting — which is a good thing, because it gets you to think, to compose things with very little content, when you have very few choices. So that’s kind of meditative, it’s a real treat, it’s not isolating as some people could think.
But in a bigger city, I can kind of shut down, concentrating 100% on shooting. I can get quite a lot of adrenaline — it’s busy, there are a lot of people, the buildings are different. You are spoiled for choice in a big city like that. I just become kind of an excited child with a camera in my hand, and just like anybody who does anything with adrenaline finds, that’s quite addictive. But in London, you can also be a little overwhelmed.
You are exploring a lot of the seaside theme in your town.
Yes, it’s like everything British sort of comes together on the seaside in the summer months. There’s a certain kind of humor in it, when Brits seem to let themselves go a little bit. During the holiday season, Weymouth turns from sort of a stark place, to a very packed place, typically filled with British families on holiday, although we do get people from all over the globe too. If we look at old postcards and photographs of Weymouth in the summer from a hundred years ago, a lot of the behaviors are still the same. Packed lunches, families making sandcastles — letting themselves be the people they are at home behind closed doors, I guess.
You see generations of families interacting, and the colors are great. I was just listening to Martin Parr saying something about this today. How we are quite lucky here in Britain, where on the seaside people are like soap opera characters or actors in a play. I really feel that about sums up how it is in Weymouth, where every year it’s like the same thing again. It is like working within a known, but the shots are unknown — you do know that something is going to play out over the summer months, but you don’t know quite what you’re going to get — so it never gets boring.
In winter, locals don’t go to the beach, personally I find it very beautiful then. But there is the starkness — I think maybe winter can unveil, sort of a darker side of a seaside town, a contrast. There’s a lot of deprivation, a lot of drama in this area, and I think the beach kind of depicts that. I find a lot of loneliness, but also the people who still enjoy the beach, but in a different way. A lot of elderly people come here purely for winter, and they’ll just sit with their coats on in the bus stops, or on the promenade. There are characters with metal detectors, the beach structures are taken down, it’s just a lot more contrast than I really see in other towns. We locals see it, we know when winter is coming, there’s that change — that starkness. There are moments, and little bits of color, where people are just holding on — to summer, I guess? There are some diehards who are swimming every day that I’m there, and some people walking on the beach, which they won’t do in the summer, because in the summer locals tend to steer clear of the beach. They go other places, because it’s almost like the beach is not their turf anymore. Sometimes I feel like a tourist in my hometown.
Many of your photos are taken in the perspective from behind, is there a reason for that?
If I’m really honest, some of the behind shots have been a build up to having the confidence to shoot from the front. In some ways, the behind shots are me still learning about shooting forwards. But then, in that process, these shots started to feel okay. Something I really like about it is all the colors, and what people wear — someone can be wearing bright red shoes and a pink skirt, against that gray of the pavement it’s just brilliant. So it has become a conscious decision, to shoot those things from behind at times. But I’m still learning about shooting, and about the confidence to approach people, but not to intrude — so as not to change the image. I think there’s a fine line when you’re out there, between that candidness, and interrupting it, so that an image becomes something else. From behind can be non-intrusive, in the sense that they have their back to me. Also, sometimes there’s a lot of busyness, especially in London, where you want to find a frame, a little bit of calm, in that that busyness of the street, something with a clear background.
You talked about your grandmother, and her influence on you as a photographer. Tell us a bit more about that.
Our pasttime as kids was going through boxes and boxes of photo albums. Our routine was, Gran would send off her films during the week, and get her true print photographs of whatever she had been shooting back by the weekend. Then we would get all the albums out, and sit down and go through all the photos. Some of the albums are actually sitting next to me right now, because we still do it! She would say, “Should we get the photos out!?” And we could spend hours just going through the albums. So another kind of standing joke in my family, and even still after my grandparents have passed away, is “Everything is always about photographs.” And Gran and I would talk about photography — not in an academic way, or in a “her teaching me” way — just talk about the process of taking pictures.
My grandparents traveled a lot. Recently we looked in a couple of boxes that we hadn’t seen for a long time, we started to look at her travel images again, now with different eyes, I guess — sort of documentarian or Street photographer’s eyes. There are a couple of images there, and though she wouldn’t have known the concept of Street photography — but she was interested in humans — those images are like Street photography. She was using a very standard 35mm point and shoot.
Retrospectively, I think photography was the kind of distraction that my grandmother needed. Personally, I am a bit ADHD, and I find it difficult not to have 10 things to think about. Photography is the only one single thing that I’ve ever been able to focus on for a long period of time — it kind of quiets my brain. I’ve talked to a lot of photographers, many say the same thing, that photography is meditative, and supports positive mental health. Looking back at my Gran, I believe she had anxiety issues, and I feel the camera was a big part of her coping strategy. I think it was the kind of distraction that she needed, similar to how I use photography.
Any comments on female Street?
We have male dominated groups, then we have Women in Street. I find female Street is more supportive and nurturing, there is more room for discussion. To me, WiS doesn’t feel as segregated, I know people may be surprised, as I think it could be perceived the other way around. But I don’t know, it’s more nurturing. Other groups can have sort of blokey behavior, a lot of backslapping, more heated discussions. I’ve participated in events, taken workshops where I’ve had good experiences, no one has made me feel less because I’m a woman. While doing commercial photography work that certainly has happened. But not in Street, I have felt welcome. Still to me WiS feels, in a collective sense, more nurturing.
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