Photographing a Small Welsh Town Down on Its Luck and Short on Hope
Dan Wood lovingly documented Bridgend, his hometown known for an elevated rate of suicides
Dan Wood lovingly documented Bridgend, his hometown known for an elevated rate of suicides
The title of Dan Wood’s series Suicide Machine stems from a regionally publicized statistic that the town of Bridgend in South Wales experienced a high rate of suicides in the early 2000s. Wood grew up in Bridgend. Whenever he had photographed his hometown previously it was in the car-parks and built spaces shooting the local skate culture. His decision in 2013 to document Bridgend, therefore, was to take him down a different road.
Wood was seeing his town through a different lens — that of a husband, a father, and a person maturing and understanding the love-hate relationships people have with the places they grew up.
“The simple truth is that you can understand a town. You can know and love and hate it. You can blame it, resent it, and nothing changes. In the end, you’re just another part of it.” ― Brenna Yovanoff from ‘The Replacement’
In Suicide Machine, Wood is asking big questions: What does community mean? What impact does it have on myself, my family, and my own child?
The resulting melancholic images reveal a place in which community perseveres in spite of current economic stresses. These are people working hard to make a living, or making no living at all. For as much as there is “stuckness” in Wood’s photographs of Bridgend, there’s also a keen assessment of what exists beyond small town possibilities.
Are Bridgend’s residents coming to terms with the question of whether it is better to tough it out, despite the odds, or seek out greener pastures elsewhere? The next small town over or the big city might not provide the answers. It might even pose more problems? What to do is the perennial question. But the time we know or have made the leap, it may be too late. Stick or twist? The wait for a decision is a bittersweet, but familiar-feeling, limbo.
Q & A
Cary Benbow: What is the idea behind your Suicide Machine series?
Dan Wood: It all started with my audition of an old Hasselblad 500C/M. From somewhere I had the epiphany that I’d make a project about my hometown; and in colour.
Originally the project was going to be skateboard culture related, with long exposure night shots of the street spots that the local skaters frequent. The title, Suicide Machine was there from the beginning, and when thinking more about the project I realised that I’d already covered the skate scene in enough depth already. The idea was then stored at the back of my mind whilst I worked on another series.
DW: When my wife became pregnant with our first child and something clicked in my brain which made me start to think very differently about things — mainly being, shall we bring up our daughter here or shall we move away — probably overseas. So I formed a synopsis and photographing different parts of the town and also shooting some portraits. It felt so refreshing and new to be using the Hasselblad and colour film, but I was also contemplating our own destiny at the same time — should we stay or go? — this is what the project is ultimately about.
CB: How long have you been working on Suicide Machine?
DW: I’ve been working on the project for 3 years.
CB: Are you still adding images to it? Why did you decide to shoot color for this project? What has been the reaction to it from people from that area?
DW: I shot the last roll of film for the series recently. It’s time to move on to something new — which I’ve already started.
The work has been exhibited at three venues in the last year: Including Bridgend itself — thankfully the reaction was nothing but positive. I did receive some challenging remarks on Twitter about the title suggesting I was being “insensitive and glamourising suicide.” The attacks and attempts to drag me into an argument were ignorant; it was obvious that they hadn’t read the synopsis, only the title, which I refused to change.
DW: Colour was fundamental to the project, I just knew it had to be in colour. After shooting black and white exclusively for 10 years and had become incredibly bored with it the time felt right to switch and conveniently coincided with the start of a new project. I still enjoy making black and white prints in the darkroom every now and again.
CB: Do you feel the increasing expansion and widespread use/display of images through social media outlets like Instagram has watered down the impact that medium format photography has/used to have?
DW: Definitely. The majority of people view pictures on their phones these days, so for instance, if you’re posting medium format photos on Instagram they’re basically looking at a version of the photo that’s smaller than the actual negative, so the impact is undeniably affected and can’t be fully appreciated.
Medium format photography seems very popular once again, which is fantastic, considering the fact that film/development/processing is expensive.
CB: What makes a good photograph?
DW: A good photograph should ask questions and/or tell a story .
Aesthetics and intelligent composition have to be in there too. I have an eclectic taste when it comes to photography, I love raw/gritty work right through to fine art and minimalistic photography. It’s all subjective of course, and everyone is entitled to like whatever they want.
CB: What/who are your photography inspirations?
DW: I find that just being outdoors is great inspiration. I like to shoot street and road trip photography, too, when taking breaks from projects. My main source of inspiration comes from photo books, and I’m completely addicted to collecting them — it’s becoming a pleasant problem. Visiting photo exhibitions is something I find enriching and really enjoyable, too.
DW: I admire photographers that can make the mundane, interesting — it’s just so clever. That kind of gift can open up a whole new world, and i’ve been fascinated with unlocking it for a long time. Some of the photographers whose work I admire would be: Trent Parke, Stacy Kranitz, Alec Soth, Joel Sternfeld and Todd Hido.
To me, these photographers are ‘real life’ photographers (in the broadest sense) — they tell stories about real life, and they all have their own styles and methods in which they do it. That’s all I’m interested in when it comes to photography, it is real life and real people, that’s what I want the viewer to understand.
CB: What do you feel are the obligations of a documentary photographer?
DW: The obligations would definitely include honesty, sensitivity and non-exploitative. I see some styles of street photography these days that I find really intrusive or crudely voyeuristic. There are unwritten rules to documentary photography and a certain etiquette to follow. Most successful documentary photographers adhere to the etiquette, and I like to see that.
CB: In a recent interview you did with ffoton, you had a great quip: “With a digital camera, you’re always looking at the last shot, but with film you are looking for the next shot”. What importance has film photography had for you?
DW: Film is what drew me to serious photography in the first place. I was totally fascinated by the idea that a split second in time could be frozen onto a piece of celluloid and become a physical thing. It’s something that you can actually hold in your hand — this obviously comes from my materialistic nature.
But it’s always been about film: shooting, developing, printing, scanning, the cameras, I love it all, especially the pace in which you work. For some reason, digital has never interested me, it’s incredible for certain, and I do own a Nikon D90, but there’s no allure there for me to fully switch from film.
CB: Your work is specific to Wales, but do you feel your work makes a comment on a universal level, as well as the personal level?
DW: To me, Wales feels kind of neglected by the outside world, like we get the raw deal every time — the ‘nearly’ nation that’s living in the shadow of England and Scotland. Everyone is just plodding along with their lives. Art and sulture are something not to be taken for granted either, and we have to grab onto any hint of that as possible.
In regards to Suicide Machine, I’ve looked at many ‘small town’ projects over the last few years and it’s the same story everywhere. Small towns are suffering a dark depression at the moment — especially evident here in the UK, and probably even globally. Conclusively, Wales is much like so many other places in the world, and I do think it will translate. I really want people from all over to look at my Welsh projects and be able to identify with something in there.
CB: Do you feel comfortable categorizing your work as documentary, or using that label?
DW: I met somebody a couple of weeks ago that I hadn’t seen for a long time and when he asked what I was doing I said ‘documentary photography’ which resulted in a confused, perplexed look on his face (I’m almost certain that most folk are only aware of fashion/sport/wedding photographers), so I tried to explain that I tell stories through pictures and that there is such a thing. I think he got it, unless he was just being polite.
I’m happy being called a documentary photographer — I’m completely self-taught and still learning all the time. These days, documentary photography incorporates fine art photography. Great documentary photographers are really taking time to research and engage with their subjects, working slowly and carefully to achieve high quality photos that are technically, visually and intellectually perfect.
CB: What’s your opinion on the role of a photographer as publisher and what you think about the recent increased push for photographers to publish photo books?
DW: We’re in a golden age of the self-publishing photographer, which is wonderful, and I’m sure will be looked back on fondly if the trend ever dies out. There are so many admirable photographers creating beautiful photo books, which are pieces of art themselves. The only downside is the flooding of poor quality photo books by mediocre photographers, which can sometimes make it difficult to discover the good ones. There’s lots of fantastic little independent publishing houses popping up all over the place too, which is definitely another good thing.
I made a few dummy books over the last few years and really like the fact that the photographer has full control over how their book will look at the end result — there’s also absolutely no stigma attached to self publishing these days.
CB: What aspects of Bridgend do you wish to show to viewers through your portraits of residents?
DW: I always knew that I wanted to include portraits, in fact it was fundamental to the project. I wanted to show what the people of Bridgend looked like. At first, I focused on folk that were kind of stuck here for life, but as the project developed I became interested with the people who had left for a better life somewhere else. Bridgend is quite a small town so everybody knows each other in some way.
I’d never plan the portraits, it was always a spur of the moment thing if I felt the time was right. My camera was always with me so it was just a matter of getting that feeling and then asking the person if it was okay.
Over the three years, I inevitably ended up re-shooting the same person, either hoping for a better picture or because I had learned more about their circumstances and needed a fresh shot that consciously included the new knowledge I had acquired of them.
CB: Was your approach making images for this project organic, or did you have a brief of what you wanted to show?
DW: The project was around 90% organic. There was a brief but that kept changing slightly as time went by and the project matured. A project like this was a first for me , so I really wanted to see what would happen and where it would take me — I guess that was why the brief kept evolving too. But the main brief remained — what did the future hold for Bridgend, and would I want to bring up my daughter here?
Dan Wood is a photographer based in Bridgend, Wales. His work has been published by CCQ and Ernest Journal. He has participated in over 40 exhibitions both nationally and internationally; including four solo shows. Wood is a member of the Document Britain collective. Follow him on Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr and Flickr.
Suicide Machine is to be published by Another Place Press, a small independent publisher interested in contemporary photography that explores landscape in the widest sense — place, journey, city and environment. Order the book HERE. Check out Another | Place for a showcase of contemporary photography edited by Iain Sarjeant.
This is an edited version of an interview originally published by Cary Benbow at Wobneb Magazine