I interviewed the photographer Den Elliot about his candid photos of a depressing seaside resort for Vice. Have a look at a sample of the photos at bananacake.org.uk
Den Elliot might never have ended up taking photos had it not been for a previous life as a conservationist. Before you reaching for your ‘stone the hippie’ rocks you should hear the way Den talks about his time spent wandering around the windswept crags and leafy forests. As he patters through tales of dewy dawns and solitary sunsets in his lilting West country drawl it’s almost impossible to imagine how anyone wouldn’t want to take photos of all the great stuff that gets served up by planet earth every day.
Except that Den didn’t actually reside in the Arcadian forests of wonder he spent his former working days conserving. He lived and grew up in and around Weston Supermare’s Bournville estate. Bournville consists of a group of high rise tower blocks and council housing built to serve as accommodation for a planned chocolate factory that never arrived to revitalize the area’s ailing economy.
Den’s time out in the fields and forests inspired him to put himself through a photography degree at Falmouth University where the work of photographers like Tom Wood and Donovan Wylie encouraged him to return to the Bournville of his youth and capture the spirit of community and resilience he had experienced every day growing up in the area.
VICE: What first made you think you wanted to take photos of things?
Den Elliot: Just being surrounded by all this stupidly nice scenery when I was working as a conservationist. That made me go out and get a cheap Fuji point and shoot just to kind of catalogue all this stuff I was seeing.
What were you shooting initially? Like, sheep and stuff?
There weren’t many sheep around actually. It was more all these massive open spaces with no other human beings in. It was really eerie. You could walk about for hours and not see another person. Just trees and fields and forsests.
You sound a bit like a Jack Johnson song right now. How did taking shots of ‘mother earth’ lead you taking shots of a Somerset shithole?
Well, I’d never even thought about going to college or University you know? I was just interested in going out and working. Taking photos of all this scenery made me actually want to go and study something and learn how to do it well. I went back to college and I thought it would be like being back at school but I was well into it. Learning all this new stuff.
Yup, learning can be ok. Shocking but true. Was it at college you began to develop your photojournalistic style?
I began to develop an idea of what I wanted shoot during my foundation. My lecturer there exposed me to people like Donovan Wylie, Chris Killip and TOm Wood whose work on Liverpool really made me realize I could go and shoot the kind of stuff that had surrounded me all the time growing up.
What drew you back to Bourneville? You know the chocolate factory never got built right?
Well that was part of the economic problem in the area. It was where I had a lot of memories bound up. The time I spent out in the countryside prior to taking up photography reminded me of my time growing up there in weird way. How you could be surrounded by buildings or natural landscape and still feel alone. Plus going back there and remembering things like the tin roof above the corner shop where I got off with my first girlfriend. Things like that made me want to go back and capture it all.
Some of the shots here feature characters who look like they might be a bit of a handful. Did you ever get any opposition from the scally wags you were pointing a flash at?
Well, to an extent I find taking pictures goes against my natural instincts. I am pretty shy and putting yourself in a situation where you are having to be really forward and very much in a public state at all times isn’t the easiest thing in the world for me but that makes the whole process more rewarding.
So no one chased you out of the estate for your camera?
No I tried to be accommodating and clear what was I doing. Most of the people in the photos were into it once they had got over their initial weariness. I also offered them prints of the photos once they were processed which a lot of people were really into. I really wanted to show the sense of community that the estate maintains. Outsiders might no see that. They might just see walking ASBO’s and dole queues or whatever but growing around up there I knew it wasn’t like that. I had some of my best memories there and wanted to portray that.
The photo’s have a weird ability to kind of make you heart plummet like a lead balloon pumped with sadness then leap with springs of joy in the same shot. How did you feel while you were shooting them?
It was great to be there documenting this place I’d grown up in but elements of it were saddening, the lives some of these kids were living. The sense of re-exploring my own childhood through them and these places was sort of polarized by my granddad dieing at the same time which put the whole thing in perspective.