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‘Like Living on an Island’ – A Photo Essay Exploring Life on the Gower Peninsula in South Wales

Like Living on an Island is a mini photography project that explores the relationship between the residents of the Gower peninsula, where I live in south Wales, and its coastline. 

Those of us fortunate enough to live on this wave-battered outcrop often feel like we live on an island, due to the fact that the beach/sea is never more than 15-20 minutes away.

I’ve tried to introduce my viewers to this omnipresent and inescapable fact in Country Buoy, where a lone life-preserver stands proudly in a field, as a scarecrow might do farther inland.

I like the minimalist aesthetic of this photo, which draws on symmetrical composition and all primary colours in a way I hope might intrigue a viewer and make them think about where they are – i.e. In the countryside or the beach? Or perhaps both?

It’s a very simple image, both technically and in terms of content, but one which says a great deal about my subject.

Ben Holbrook - Like Living on an Island - Gower Peninsula Mini Photo Project - Nov 2020-36
Country Buoy

Like many of my neighbours, I feel a strong pull to the sea and by photographing other people’s relationship with “Peninsula Life”, I better understand my own adoration of it. 

As with the subjects in Aunty Arrives, Ride the Lighthouse, and Woody in Wales, I am often stopped in my tracks by the beauty of the place.

In these three images, I have used fast shutter speeds (typically way over 1/1000) and a stealthy approach, which allowed me to freeze time and capture genuine candid moments. I also made minimal changes in Lightroom during the post-processing stage, so as not to alter the colours too much from reality. Combined, this gives the project a gritty sense of authenticity, portraying the reality of life on the peninsula rather than a romanticised version of it. 

Aunty Arrives
Ride the Lighthouse
Woody in Wales

I have also leaned on the rule of thirds (see Ride the Lighthouse and Teenage Trawler) and clean “figure to ground” (see Woody in Wales, Herd Immunity and Hoofing Homeward) to clarify my subjects and tell strong stories.

I also like to expose for the highlights in high dynamic scenarios, especially when I want to portray my subject as a silhouette. 

Teenage Trawler
Herd Immunity
Hoofing Homeward

Photos like Famous Four Go to Three Cliffs, Caswell Crush and Welsh Water Fight depict the sense of adventure that children and adolescents grow up with here.

I am drawn to these kinds of photos because they show that, even a world driven by technology and virtual reality, children of Gower still live as they did generations ago. 

Famous Four Go to Three Cliffs
Caswell Crush

Wild & Welsh, Hoofing Homeward and Herd Immunity demonstrate just how mercifully under-developed the Gower coast really is.

In Wild & Welsh, the ponies stare directly into the camera, into the viewer’s eye, hinting at the mutual respect that exists here between man and beast. 

Wild & Welsh

This project is greatly inspired by the documentary work of Steve McCurry, who shoots candid scenes of ‘figures in a landscape’ to tell strong stories and depict the interplay between people and place.

Other influences include 19th century paintings such as River Landscape with Washerwoman and Fisherman by Andrés Cortés y Aguilar, where the subject is neither the people nor the place, but the scene they create when combined.

I believe I have been somewhat successful with this approach in Gower Gandi and Famous Four Go to Three Cliffs

River Landscape with Washerwoman and Fisherman by Andrés Cortés y Aguilar
Pwlldu Bay, South Gower Walking Trail - Wales Coast Path - by Ben Holbrook from DriftwoodJournals.com
Gower Gandi

Conclusion

Though I feel I have made a strong start, I do not feel I have been successful in finishing Like Living on an Island or providing a complete portrayal of life on the Gower peninsula. 

I relied on prime lenses (for their speed and small/unimposing form factor) to help me blend into scenes and telephoto lens to create a sense of intimacy where I was unable to get close to my subjects, but I fear the overall tone is one of voyeurism rather than the “insider’s perspective” I was aiming for. I would also worry my viewers might read the project as being cold and disconnected. 

To combat this, and develop the series further, I would aim to photograph posed portraits of local people in in-situ – from dog walkers to fishermen – to give the place more of a “face”, and hopefully strengthen the sense of rapport between myself (the photographer), and therefore with the viewer of the work.

Thank you for taking the time to review my work and read the commentary. For more information about this project and my photography work, please contact me at ben@driftwoodjournals.com.

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Categories:Gower Peninsula Photography Talk Wales

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