Scrapbook – Interview with Esther May Campbell

The Bristol Photography Festival is starting a series of interviews with local and international artists, photographers and professionals that will be involved in the festival’s programme. To kick off this new section, we are very pleased to share with you this conversation between Alejandro Acín (BPF Engagement and Education Director) and the local-based photographer and filmmaker Esther May Campbell to highlight her recent collaborative book and exhibition entitled “SCRAPBOOK”. The project includes a year-long photo club with the kids from the St. Pauls’ Playground. 

Esther works as a photographer and filmmaker. She wrote and directed SEPTEMBER, winning a BAFTA for outstanding film, as well as, ten other international awards. She directed Channel 4’s SKINS and a feature-length episode of BBC1’s WALLANDER. Her debut film, LIGHT YEARS, premiered at Venice International Film Festival. She created the onsite photography exhibition, WATER SALAD ON MONDAY – a piece recounting a year at a farm where adults with autism and learning disabilities worked. As part of Bristol’s Cube Collective, she collaborated on a community cinema project for displaced children. She is currently writing a film for the BFI, PETRICHOR, and runs Kitchen Table Photo Club for kids from her home in Easton, which will be part of the Bristol Photo Festival Autumn programme.

Alejandro Acín: I have always admired film directors for their drive and patience while making a film: long timelines, dealing with big crews, finding financial resources and all the rest… On the contrary, photographers seem to be perceived like lone wolves (even though we always work with other people); having the independence to make something from the beginning to the end, low technical requirements to produce the work, etc. I am very curious to hear how you navigate these two creative spaces but, also, how your filmmaking experience influences your photography and vice versa.

Esther May Campbell: Working in moving image requires empathy, imagination, sensitivity and collaboration skills, as well as, practical courage around budgets and schedules. So, stills do work to different degrees. But photography has always been particularly precious. It’s like coming home for me – perhaps because I had a camera as a child and loved watching people and light through a lens. Now it brings me into the present more, whereas so much of filmmaking is futurising, problem-solving, planning. And yet, this present time awareness is also crucial when filming – I have to be able to step out of the ‘planning-mind’ and sense what an actor, story, DOP needs at the moment. 

So, the skills cross over many times and in many ways. Finding a performance, or an emotion about to come through. Sensing light. Understanding what an image says, how a viewer reads a picture. Crucially the desire to make comes from the same source – a sense of wonder, a feeling for a story or emotion that wants to find a home or form. That home might come in a story made up of moving light, words and faces, but it might also be a single image or several in a sequence. I didn’t know when I began SCRAPBOOK that it would demand a chaotic collage, a multi-image approach – but somehow the energy of the Playground itself required it.

Both film and photography ask me to be present to the possibility of chance, change, disruption, so there is this delightful balance between planning and surrender.

Still photography brings me back into the world, positively affecting my day to day, whereas filmmaking takes me into fantasies, fears, battles. Both film and photography ask me to be present to the possibility of chance, change, disruption, so there is this delightful balance between planning and surrender. This is where they meet. This is what I love in them both.

AA: In previous conversations, we talked about your interest in storytelling, particularly the folk oral traditions as well as mythological literature. It’s said that moving-image is a more narrative medium than photography as time plays a different role. What’s your opinion about the storytelling capabilities of photography as a medium?

EMC: Of course, a still image can tell a story. And I spend more of my own time now looking at still images rather than watching TV or films, and I find narratives. I look at photobooks with a felt sense of time travel. I wonder and wander through its implications. There is power in not being given all the answers the way that narrative moving images might do. 

AA: It’s very common to find kids and youngsters as the main subjects or characters in your work, where is that interest coming from?

EMC: A mix of things. Firstly, children and their needs must be at the heart of culture. You probably know of seven generation stewardship – a concept urging the current generation to make decisions for the benefit of the seventh generation into the future (implicitly these are environmental, non-human as well as human concerns). Working now with the practical needs and inner worlds of children reminds me of this, daily. Also, personally, I found my childhood loving, strange and terrifying. So, I am to some degrees returning to my own edges. Unpicking how our environment affects our psyches, how we process and build layers of identity and protection. Where does our freedom go? What can our childhood freedoms do if allowed to grow and blossom – mythically and practically?

Where does our freedom go? What can our childhood freedoms do if allowed to grow and blossom – mythically and practically?

AA: Over a year you have been running a photo club with kids from St Paul’s legendary Adventure Playground, in Bristol, in a project entitled “SCRAPBOOK”. This is now resulting in a photobook and a citywide photographic exhibition displaying some of the images from the project in billboards and outdoor walls. It seems that collaborative strategies and the use of unconventional spaces to disseminate the artwork are very important elements within your practice, could you explain why and how does that affect your creative process?

EMC: First of all, during photo club, the children led me to new ways of taking pictures and conjuring images – so we were teaching one another. Meanwhile, there have always been interesting questions and challenges around authorship in photography, and I want to untangle some of these lines of thought through collaboration, collage, representing work in new places, overlaying it with the environment or another author’s hand, or the weather. I also want pictures to be seen. Books are cheap. Many images can be seen for a small cost as opposed to expensive prints or in galleries that feel exclusive to many people. Art pasted onto poster boards and to the city walls is accessible, while emotionally, the images I place outside also create ‘ghost’ layers of action, movement and faces where living humans and light has once been but are now gone. Personally, time travel is a central theme. I find time non-linear. It is creative, shifting and not at all causal. I have moments in which future and past seem to be with me in a liminal way. An image from the past shot on black and white analogue, pasted in the present to colourful concrete – somehow presents that experience.

AA: An analysis made by the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) estimated that there were 600,000 more children in relative poverty since 2010, with low-income families especially hard hit by austerity cuts such as the four-year benefit freeze and the two-child limit. Around £36bn has been taken out of the benefits system since 2010. Britain is now facing a very eventful time with COVID-19, but also with the new BREXIT reality. How do you see the future role of the Arts in this country? And how do you think this critical scenario will affect children’s imagination? 

EMC: Children’s joyful ability to imagine is key to our planet’s future. We have become so overloaded with information, fear and divisiveness we can’t imagine what we want, what the future might look like, how we might get there. Despair is endemic. Crucially, our grown-up, stressed-out brains are less able to play and imagine. Children must be given play spaces. Their bodies must be allowed to dance, wriggle, fall, explore along with their minds, in safe, held places. They will lead us. They will find new and ancient stories, paradigms, ways of thinking beyond the fixed parameters and assumptions of current over culture. I feel passionate about the job we all have to do here in protecting children’s rights to play – experiment with art, imagination, games and sports – and I see it amongst parents, peers and especially, at the Playground. 

St Pauls Adventure Playground was struck with an arson attack which burnt the structures the children play on. The Playground, already hit with the double challenge of austerity, and COVID 19 measures, now need to be rebuild after the fire. The Playground delivered a successful crowdfunding campaign to raise funds to repair. Now, you can also help their future by acquiring this photobook.