Fourteen years ago, photographer Jamie Hawkesworth boarded a train to Land’s End, Cornwall, otherwise known for being the westernmost point of England. His goal was to traverse the local terrains, which are populated with granite cliffs and maritime grasslands, snapping pictures of the country’s raw beauty. The journey soon became part of a much bigger project, one that would take 13 years to complete, in which Hawkesworth would travel across Britain to document the island’s landscapes and the people that inhabit them.
“I realized that if I just walked around and painted landscapes and portraits, then I’d very quickly learn how to use my camera and get to grips with developing the film,” Hawkesworth told Atmos, describing the nascent years of the project as an exercise in photographic technicality. He had just swapped a degree in forensic science for one in photography and was looking for subjects he could practice on.
But the British countryside would become a recurring subject that kept drawing Hawkesworth back for over a decade. The end result is a well-rounded, curatorially-considered book, titled The British Isles and published by MACK, that charts the histories and the evolution of the terrains that make up his home country.
“I would leave my house and just walk around. That’s how it started,” said Hawkesworth. “I would always set myself a task [to go to a place] where I hadn’t already been.” The task has led Hawkesworth to remote locations like Shetland Islands, the northernmost point of the British Isles, and the Inner Hebrides on the west coast of Scotland as well as multiple rural and urban stops across the Midlands, Wales and the south of England.
“I don’t know what I was thinking with hindsight going all that way to the Shetland Islands for absolutely no reason,” said Hawkesworth who lived in east London at the time. “I remember being at home and thinking, Right, I’m going to the furthest point north I can go. The next day I packed my bags and left.”
Throughout the series, Hawkesworth captures the symbiosis between natural environments and the industrialized, built-up spaces that are increasingly taking hold. In Hartlepool, northeast England, for example, Hawkesworth turned his lens on large, abandoned industrial structures that stretched across the beach and into the ocean. The structure traverses Hawkesworth’s photograph, creating an illusion of infinite extension well beyond the frame. In another instance, Hawkesworth captures the skeleton of an old house overlooking the ocean. Dissipated and destroyed, the run-down building serves as a reminder of the transitory and arbitrary nature of human expansion into the English countryside.
The British Isles is full of such instances, moments in which Hawkesworth reminds the viewer of the ever-shifting power dynamics between humans and nature. In yet another photograph, Hawkesworth turns his eye to a lonesome figure walking on a cliff-top across the large stretch of green. The person, barely visible among the shadows cast by the surrounding rocks, is small and indiscernible, diminished further by the epic green hills and vast horizon around them.
Throughout the years, landscape shots offered Hawksworth a photographic hideout, especially when he found he had little luck with the portraits he had hoped to shoot on a particular day. “I’ve always been curious about the places I visit, and so I started taking landscapes and still lives. They could be of trees, puddles, an open landscape or something as mundane as a bench,” he said. “It keeps your spirits high, especially when you’re walking around and you haven’t found someone to photograph. It can be incredibly frustrating. In that sense, the landscapes are always there [for you to photograph].”
The British Isles may span a tumultuous decade filled with political and social unrest across the UK, but much of the social commentary—on topics like austerity, referendums and conflict—implicit throughout the book only became apparent to Hawkesworth after the photographs were taken. Oftentimes, any social critique that he has since inferred was accidental, a byproduct of a particular moment in history that Hawkesworth has managed to capture.
“The book contains a lot of history but, to be honest, I wasn’t really thinking about it at the time,” he said. “It’s only afterwards when I look back on the pictures, [whether it’s the] the extraordinary light or the vast coastlines, that I might spot something else, something [bigger].”
Documenting the open landscapes continues to be central to Hawkesworth’s practice. Beyond his work on The British Isles, Hawkesworth recently travelled to the Antarctic to photograph the region’s snow-covered landscapes and cold, dry terrain for a book—due out in September—that celebrates the 200-year anniversary since the continent’s discovery. But when asked if he considers his steadfast commitment to documenting a natural world that may look vastly different just ten years from now a form of ecological activism, Hawkesworth hesitates.
“To be honest: no. But that’s only because, if I did, I probably wouldn’t take them in the first place. I would be so overwhelmed by what that really means—the destruction of these places,” he said, adding that he is primarily driven by emotion and intuition when deciding on a photograph. “Having said that, some of the most iconic protest images can come out of bodies of work that didn’t set out with an agenda. To me, [those] can be just as powerful.”
The book launch for The British Isles will be taking place this Friday, August 6, between 4pm and 6pm at Dover Street Market, Haymarket St in London.