Emma Evelyn Speight / Zufluchtsort
February 2017 Interviewed by Christiane Monarchi
Emma Evelyn Speight is a London born photographer with BA Hons in Photography from the University Brighton. In 2015 Emma completed her series Zufluchtsort, the result of an extended stay on a commune in France. These compelling images were awarded a Photomonitor bursary at the Photofusion Salon in 2015, and an extended edit from this project were recently exhibited at Photofusion’s Select exhibition in November 2016. Below, Emma explains what led her to immerse herself in this community, and shares the background to her honest and sensitive images of this singular place and the people she shared it with.
CM: What led you to Zufluchtsort, and made you decide to want to journey there to take photographs?
EES: I was living in Brighton, and had been working several day jobs since graduating three years before. I had become frustrated and bored by the same walk to work, the same bars and the same daily routine that was seemingly taking me nowhere but round in circles. I felt like I had lost touch with where I was trying to get to in my life, and so I knew I needed to do something which would shake up my concept of what constituted a ‘normal’ way of life. I wanted to be out of my comfort zone, and far away from urban living and this want lead me to a commune in France. By taking my camera and photographing my my environment, I was able to maintain some sense of familiarity. It gave me a purpose whilst I was there, and reminded me of my identity in a place which was predominantly alien to me. It was a journey that stemmed from a desire for personal exploration, but with the intention of making work which was about community, adventure and the unknown.
CM: I’m just as curious about your photographic process as I am about the sociological and indeed psychological enquiries you made in this project. To begin, how did you approach making images here, did you enter as a photographer or as a community member with a camera?
EES: I knew I was entering their community with the attention of making photographs, and so before I arrived I made it clear that I was a photographer and I intended on photographing their way of life. However, once I arrived, I initially took the stance of a community member. I wanted to feel comfortable within their space and wanted them to feel comfortable with me being there. I was aware that there was manual work that needed to be done in order to keep their community afloat, and I needed to pull my weight be able to gain trust and understanding regarding what was important to me. There were plenty of times where my camera wasn’t present and I immersed myself in their world, without distracting myself by visual considerations of the activities taking place.
One of the things that draws me to photographing people is the collaboration that is involved. Both photographer and subject need to let go of a certain element of control to allow beautiful, interesting and honest work to be made. To be able to relinquish as well as accept this trust and control, you need to be direct yet flexible with your intentions. I don’t feel I could have gone into their space as either ‘a photographer’ or ‘community member’; I needed to take ownership of both roles to be able to take the photographs I intended, as well as have the experience I desired.
CM: What kind of camera did you use in making this series, and how does that inform your work?
EES: I shot the series using a Mamiya 7ii which is a medium format rangefinder.
Film is expensive, and with the 6×7 format I only get 10 frames per roll and so it slows down the way I work. It forces me to think more carefully before I compose an image, and think again before I decide to press the shutter. It also prevents me from being distracted by the photographs I am making, and allows me to remain more present and focused on my environment and think about the moments I want to capture next rather than get stuck on things that have already passed.
Aside from this I love the whole process of not knowing, sending films to the lab and the excitement of getting them back. It retains a little magic in working. There are also those beautiful moments when you see something, and the light is perfect and your camera is ready and you capture it at exactly the right moment and you just know. Getting that negative back is the most wonderful feeling, it transports you right back to that time, place, and gut feeling you had. You have to wait for it though, and that makes it all the more special.
CM: How did the others in the commune interact with you, in terms of image making?
EES: They largely ignored me. It was strange actually, and quite rare in my experience but they seemed completely unfazed by me or the camera. People usually tense up, or start acting a little strangely, or start asking lots of questions but they did none of these things. There was one boy, who was also a photographer and so occasionally he would ask me technical questions, as he had limited experience with analogue but that was about the most of it. I wasn’t bothering them, and so they didn’t bother me.
CM: How did you know when the project was finished?
EES: I had given myself a month on the farm, and I always knew that after this period of time I would move on. I remember quite clearly the drive to the train station on my final day, and at this point I was unsure of the work I had made and how it would become relevant to my experience there. I knew that I has shot 500+ frames, that needed to be processed, scanned and edited but was yet to discover if the photographs would form a coherent narrative which, when read, would feel whole. It took me a couple of months on returning to the UK to understand the relationship between the images and realise that I had a body of work which was cohesive and could be shared, and in this sense the project then felt complete. However, as with all my work, I am constantly going back to outtakes, old scans and old edits to try and discover the little bits of gold which were missed the first time around. There is no reason why Zufluchtsort can’t be left open, with the potential of being taken in new directions and built upon, through its edit, its presentation or perhaps shooting in new environments which hold the same sentiment.
CM: What are you working on next?
EES: I have recently relocated to Manchester, and have been working on a small portraiture series, of people that I meet who have had an impact on my experience here. Allowing them to choose a location, whether its important to them or just convenient on the day.
My next big project is a little unsure still. It will be in the UK, either at the very top of Scotland or the very bottom of Cornwall. I hope to walk part of the coast and document the people I meet who show me kindness, the beauty of a landscape that I often overlook and the struggles that you encounter on this kind of trip. I am hoping that I will be able to begin this, this summer.
In ‘normal society’ we give away our responsibility to other people; doctors, teachers, parents, the people around us defined as ‘authority’, and with our responsibility we give away our freedom.
The community refused to relinquish their freedom, and so opted to hold on to the responsibility and carry it with them both physically and metaphorically, many of them choosing the life of travellers. Vegetables were grown from seed, water was collected from an under ground well and the house was constructed with advice from books and local farmers. They created their own community in a place where they had no authority to answer to, with time and space to do as they pleased. Some had stayed for years, and others for weeks but all were equal in accountability for the tasks at hand and all were equal in the rewards that were obtained from their completion. Neither praise nor orders were given, and the small isolated world on the farm was full of serenity, patience and always kindness.
About the artist:
Emma Evelyn Speight, a London born photographer, graduated from the University of Brighton in 2012 with a BA Hons in Photography. Having always suffered from wanderlust, Emma immerses herself in foreign environments to make work which explores what it means to find contentment and how this impacts on a wider community. She finds that by shooting exclusively on film, she is able to stay present in the encounter unfolding rather than focus on the photographs she is making, enabling the work to speak organically and honestly.