Then There Was Us

A Human Approach to Documenting Society with John Bolloten

2021-10-22 – Interview

Bradford, UK, Society, Community

Being firmly interested in photography for around ten years now and viewing it on a daily basis ever since then, I can only recall one photographer who has documented Bradford in a way that has really caught my attention. Last year I managed to get to the Don McCullin exhibition at Tate Liverpool, where I saw the huge collection of McCullin's work from the 60’s and 70’s that documented industrial scenes from towns in the north-west. Earlier this year I was introduced to a photographer based in Bradford who continues to make gripping work no matter what he’s documenting and shares similarities in his work to the great Don McCullin. John Bolloten has documented everything from local cricket teams, to homelessness and drug users. Building a remarkable amount of trust with these people and documenting them in a way that is honest in his approach, I got the opportunity to catch up with John and speak about his career in photography.

JT: Can you give us some background about yourself and how you got into photography?

JB: I was born in Brighton and moved with my parents to Edinburgh when I was 9, then moved to Bradford when I was 18 in 1983 and I never left. I always liked photography but I can’t say I was really into it. I was more interested in music, reggae in particular, and had a long career involved in that. During a decade-long retirement from that world, I was hungry to do something creative and decided to buy myself a DSLR at the back end of 2008 when I was almost 44. I taught myself and after some years, started to find my way in it. The last few years I have been able to carve something of a niche out for myself with the type of work and images that I shoot.

JT: You started photographing at the age of 44. How do you feel all the years of building up inspiration from various avenues has affected what you wanted to photograph when you picked up a camera for the first time?

JB: I think that by coming into photography later in life has been an advantage. I have been through a lot of challenges in my life and I am able to approach what I do with the viewpoint of someone older. I am 56 now but in my head I still feel that my mind is really fresh, like someone in their 20s maybe. I am very passionate about photography and the work that I am doing. I have always been somewhat manic so I shoot a lot and cram loads of things in whilst at the same time holding down a job.

JT: Your work has been described as “documenting people and subcultures that exist on the margins of society”. Can you tell me what interested you about documenting these themes?

JB: Pretty much all of my photography is around people and scenes that are not part of the mainstream. I did a few projects at the grass roots of society in Bradford and much more in-depth work around injecting drug users, grime music and currently bare knuckle pit fighting. I also have other ongoing work that I cannot talk about at this time. For me personally, ever since I was taken to Scotland as a kid and having a very difficult childhood which led me to having problems with drugs, I have always had a feeling of being some kind of outsider in society. I am somewhat socially awkward and feel much more comfortable connecting with people with my camera. I must be reasonably good at it because I have got into some really deep scenes and people seem to be comfortable and accepting of me being there.

JT: In your series titled ‘Nothing To See Here’ you have described the close relationship that you built with Gary and Maree over documenting their lives consecutively for 8 months. How as a photographer have you built this trust with the people you photograph?

JB: Working with vulnerable people with drug dependence, homelessness and mental health issues is a very controversial subject in the photography world because many people think that it is always a case of the photographer somehow exploiting people for their own gain. Much of the time those critics have no real idea as to the realities of life at the very bottom of society and wouldn’t ever get their hands dirty by spending a long period of time deep inside it. I spent five years of my life documenting this world and a group of around two dozen people within it. It was all done in my spare time and without any backer or even anyone to support me. At the heart of all this work is trust. One just cannot turn up with a camera and start taking these images. I had a very close relationship with the people I photographed that often took a long time to develop. I collected 18 life stories and these are all told in people’s own words and will fill a substantial portion of my forthcoming book This is Not a Life, It’s Just an Existence. With Gary and Maree, I had met them in the early period where I was shooting a lot on the street and after the first volume of this work, Nothing to See Here, had been published, I wanted to my photography to become more personal and intimate. They both kindly let me into their lives over an 8-month period where I made this book Love Story. Tragically, Gary died in January and I attended his funeral with Maree so we could say goodbye to him.

JT: I’m curious to whether photography has been used as a form of not only documenting but as a replacement for problems which you had earlier in life, almost as if photography has been a form of meditation. Would you say this is true and if so have you introduced photography to the people you work with on a daily basis and have any of them taken an interest in it?

JB: I can’t say that photography for me is a form of meditation, but it definitely has a positive impact on my mental health and I try to shoot daily if I can. Because I have an addictive personality then it could be fair to say that I am addicted to photography. I need to channel my energy into things that are creative, productive and constructive and I immerse myself deeply into all the projects I am involved in. Intimacy is at the heart of all the different projects I am doing and I need to be close to people, so most of my work is shot with a wide-angle lens.

When I was out working a lot with injecting drug users as a photographer, I did get some old digital cameras donated which I gave to people for them to document their lives and do something creative. However, it turned out to be unsustainable mainly through the cameras getting lost.

JT: You have photographed non-league football teams and cricket teams and then as you mentioned above, bare knuckle pit fighting and drug users. How has your relationship as a photographer differed between these groups and do you approach each subject and theme that you work with differently?

JB: I usually approach all my work in the same way. The hardest part is actually starting something new as in all these pieces of work, I didn’t know anyone at all when I began. The most complicated and complex aspect was working people who had drug dependence and homeless issues – not surprisingly. However, I always take the approach of being honest and genuine about what I am doing and being a human being. It is common being with people or in places and not actually taking any photographs. As I have progressed and developed over these last years, I now find it much easier to scope out a whole piece of work in my head now and envisage it as a completed project.

When I started working with drug users I was coming at it from a more street photography angle and as that work progressed I became much more focused on doing a body of work, personal and intimate, and also collecting people’s own life stories. Now I approach everything as a documentary photographer but with the smarts of someone who is used to being on the street and can work there without fear. When I went to my first bare knuckle event I literally didn’t know anyone there but after speaking to a few fighters I quickly worked out in my head what this work is all about. It is about the people who do it and why.

JT: In your work surrounding drug users and the people who sit on the margins of society, I’m curious to know whether you’re making this work for a reason that has an endpoint?

JB: First and foremost, I make the work for myself. I don’t have any commissions or backers or anyone funding me. At the same time it is also because I believe that this work has a value especially in relation to having a record of how we are living in these times. When I was doing the first part of my work with drug users I literally didn’t know anyone in the photography world, but I knew that what I was shooting was important. With austerity, Brexit, and Covid-19 lockdowns we are living in a truly extraordinary period of time and there is a wealth of things to document. These latest lockdowns I have probably been doing more work than I usually do but that is through the many connections I have built up over the years. All of my work I will approach with an honest, compassionate, empathetic and non-judgemental attitude. If people who see my work end up having a more empathetic feeling towards less fortunate in society then I will be satisfied with that outcome. You will probably never see my stuff in major galleries or collections, either because people like me cannot get access into that world, or simply because my work is often too uncomfortable. However, for all of the criticism, bitching and sniping that I have faced, the people I work with never seem to have any problem with what I am doing. So go figure!

JT: If you could document anything in the future, what would it be?

JB: Right now I am not thinking of any other possible projects to do as I have ongoing work in the bare knuckle pit fighting scene that will take a few years and I am still shooting amongst young people up here in West Yorkshire who are doing grime and associates rap music. I also have another ongoing piece of work that will last throughout this year which I cannot talk about right now plus I am putting together my big book This is Not a Life, It’s Just an Existence which will take a few months. I will also release a new zine soon of various photos I have taken abroad over the last decade. That’s enough for me to deal with for a while.

Thank you for reading

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John Bolloten

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