Last Friday, people all over the world took a breather from hard-core reality to be swept up by the magic spell of love and beauty surrounding the Royal Wedding. We wondered what London-based photographer Jon Mortimer had planned for the day. He told us he was on his way out to shoot a few street parties in connection with both the event and an up-coming book about the English entitled The Madness of St George. What follows is Jon’s heartfelt take on his countrymen and his and their responses to the day.
Can you give us a little of the local flavor. How did the whole sense of moment impact you personally?
This whole Royal Wedding to me was about the little stories that in the grand scale of life are the biggest you can find. I wasn’t really that interested in the big ceremony…but what fascinated me was the community angle. The working people of the nation, in these arduous times could quite easily have turned around and said “Hey, come on, we’re all struggling to make ends meet with the financial crash and the sorry state of the economy here, losing our jobs and scraping around for scraps of money and you Royal folk are splashing everyone’s cash on a big unnecessary knees up,” but they didn’t.
In fact the event had quite the opposite effect. Why? I have no idea but it actually brought everyone together and lifted their spirits far above their worries of everyday life. And this feeling on the day, of unity, community and kinship had the most powerful effect on me. I remember standing back a little at one point, looking across the street scene in front of me and thinking: “this is actually beautiful.” I had no idea really why this was happening but I just knew it felt like a wonderful moment.
In an earlier email, you stated: “I am fascinated by the way the English people are embracing the occasion.” What about their “embrace” fascinates you?
Although I approached this with an open mind, there was inevitably the question in the back of my mind: “Why do Royal Weddings bring the nation together and stir up so much loyalty in the common working Brit?” Everything that the Monarchy stands for could be seen as divisive. The notion of a group of people that is held up as our betters purely by the chance of birth should grate with the average working man and woman. But it doesn’t.
And here it was clear to see that a whole nation was being lifted and cheered by the Royal Wedding in an atmosphere reminiscent of the stories I have heard about the street parties of the early 1950’s when the Queen was crowned just after the end of World War II. Maybe it is our chin up attitude to difficult circumstance or maybe we just like a good old knees up and a beautiful Princess. I still don’t have an answer to my question but what I do know is that within those street parties on Friday afternoon a whole host of communities arose from their arm chairs and met the neighbours. Can that really be a bad thing?
How did you prepare for the shoot?
The idea for photographing the street parties came about during research for my latest book project about the English and their eccentric traits. I felt that the street parties being arranged all across the land were a particularly English phenomenon. They may not have invented them but they do them very well. So I started researching where they would be. I wanted to cover a few to get a good cross section but I obviously needed them to be all in one area for logistic reasons.
This research was more difficult than I imagined. For various reasons local councils didn’t seem to feel the need to publish lists…so I had to start trawling through Facebook pages, asking at local pubs, calling friends and knocking on doors. Eventually I found four wonderfully friendly and inviting streets that welcomed me along for the ride.
The main one I covered was quite a big affair with around 200 people but still had a wonderful community spirit with everyone from the neighbourhood and the pub and the church and the school all working together and linking arms to bring the community closer. And not just for the day but creating new bonds and friendships that will run and run.
What is your approach to shooting?
When I shoot my documentary pieces and actually even my portraits I like to work in a relaxed and low key way. With documentary I don’t want to be noticed, or actually I don’t want to stand out as a photographer is more the point. So I don’t have a big zoom lens, I generally work with a 35mm wide angle and no flash and I talk to people and listen to their stories. The more connection I have with my subject the better the images I will end up with.
Sometimes we are all too keen to start snapping every where we go, but if we don’t actually have an emotional link to that moment and place then our images are going to be soulless. So…the experience was important and wonderful too, like being at a mini wedding reception that you knew was being lived out thousands of times over, all across the land and at that very moment, a fabulous feeling of family and community.
For many the Monarchy really sets England apart. After this experience, how does the whole idea of “The Royals” sit with you?
Ideologically I should be very cynical about the whole thing. The Monarchy in theory should divide the nation and can only really be negative in the assurance of class differences and privilege lorded on a family purely by the accident of birth. And this is where my fascination kicks in. If truth be told, after my experiences this weekend at the street parties in the backroads of this merry England, the Royal Family appears to be the one thing that is binding the people of this nation together. Creating the idea of Community in far better ways than any modern day voted in political idea of a Big Society could ever do. My eyes have been opened and my cynicism sucked dry. The whole project was all about the little stories within the local communities and as it turns out, these stories have joined together to form a much bigger story than I could ever have imagined.
Next Post: Information about Jon’s online, interactive courses at The Compelling Image