Beyond Words

Chris Harrison Interview

The project was originally called ‘I Belong Jarra’ but has been published as ‘I Belong Jarrow’.  How do you feel about that?  What can you tell us about your own feelings about belonging/not belonging to Jarrow?

When I came up with the idea, it was titled ‘I belong Jarra’ as that is how we pronounce Jarrow. As the book became a serious proposition I realised that anyone googling Jarra would come up short, so I decided for clarity's sake to amend it to Jarrow.  It felt a bit strange changing the name but also a natural part of the process of going from my handmade Dummy to a properly published Book. 

My feelings for Jarrow remain strong, I never felt like I didn't belong there, I sometimes felt like an outsider but that is a natural state for a photographer.  But I always felt like I belonged Jarrow. I never understood when people would say “Oh I’m from ‘Bogchester’, I hate the place and can’t wait to get away” as if a place is responsible for your unhappiness, as if you should have been born in Venice except for some unhappy Cosmic Accident. I have come to realise that that is a very bourgeois conceit.  When I go back, it’s strange how quickly I feel at home but there is a distance now having lived so long abroad (including England!).  That’s something that can be painful and it’s a lot to do with coming from a place with a strong cultural background, something my children think is like life on Mars.

The images are all colour and it’s noticeable how many of them feature clear blue skies.  Is this a conscious attempt to subvert the ‘grim up north’ portrayal of your home patch?  (Your work has, for instance, been contrasted with Chris Killip’s.)

The colourful pictures were a happy accident.  When I got there the weather was glorious for a month, to the point that I struggled to get a shot of a rainy day. However I did want to fight the ‘grim up north’ stereotype. I remember as a child thinking that the first day of the Somme must have been terrible because it was black-and-white and very grey looking too. I know now that it was a glorious French summer’s morning when the men went over the top, but they only had B&W film - though I think it would have been even more poignant if it was in full colour. Somewhere that has stuck with me and I am a dedicated colour photographer. I also wanted to catch that wonderful clear Northern light we have in Jarrow now. I think Chris Killip’s work is amazing and he is the pinnacle of a long development of concerned documentary in B&W that then was washed away by New colour documentary. I think in some ways I prefer his work to what came next, though that is a subject for a different discussion.

Over how long a period were the photographs taken?  Is the published work a selection from a very large portfolio or were the locations and people largely pre-planned?

I have been working on the project on and off since I left Jarrow in 1987, mainly in my own mind. I had taken photographs there before but somehow the time was never quite right. Finally the stars aligned and I knew it was now or never. The Photographs themselves were taken very quickly, I used about 8 weeks in total to shoot, and 43 years on the research.  Jarrow is not very big and I wanted the work to be immediate. After a while I started to see it the same as any other visiting photojournalist would then I knew it was time to stop. From deciding to do the project to it being published to its launch has been 2 years of near constant work. If its not all consuming you're not doing it right.

I am quite choosy about my work so there is not much fat so to speak. There are a lot more photographs ( I edited from about 300) but I would say there are perhaps only another 20 that could have made it into the book after I had done the serious editing.

I had no plan for the photographs. I literally walked around Jarrow with my camera over my shoulder a la Chris Killip and photographed what I remembered and things that were in the places or stories that I remembered. The portraits are all people I knew from back in the day, it’s all very autobiographical. It’s a Diary of a memory.

How has the work been received in Jarrow?

People seem to think I have trod the fine line between love and hate very skillfully.

Many of our customers are interested in the process of getting a photo book published.  What led to the book being published by Schilt and what can you tell us about the process from inception to publication?

I had the idea for the project and within 10 seconds decided that it should be in book form. Once that decision was in place I started shooting images whilst all the time thinking how a book would look. I was lucky to take part in the Northern lights Masterclass at the Noorderlicht Gallery in Holland and was helped by a great set of fellow students and some great industry experts who really encouraged me. Once I had the initial form of the book worked out I made a really strong dummy with a book binder in Oslo. The work was printed on double sided inkjet paper. I then went to the Lens Culture Folio reviews in Paris and met Maarten Schilt who liked the work and, because he could see what it would look like finished, took a chance on me. From there I worked with a designer in Oslo who helped polish the whole thing from my concept and organised it into a form the printers in Germany could understand. There is a lot of work involved in putting together a book like this though I think mine was in some ways very straightforward, and now I am involved in promoting the work which is in some ways the most important part of the process as I now can use this to do something new. 

You have worked as a professional photographer in Norway for many years.  What took you there and how do the photographic industries/cultures of Norway and the UK compare?  What can you tell us of your own current working life?

My partner is Norwegian and we have a young family so it seemed like a great place to be a family in. I live right by the Forest so on a weekend I am like Ray Mears. I have to confess that Norwegian visual culture took some getting used to.  There is some really interesting work being done by people but the best seem to have had some input from outside. I work for a few different Advertising and Design Agencies as well as direct clients, doing - bizarrely enough - very technical work with lots of Photoshop etc - the polar opposite of my personal work. I share a studio in downtown Oslo with a really talented photographer Mona Ødegård who helped edit the book, she does amazing Street Photography though she would hesitate (as all good Norwegians do) to assume that mantle. My days are spent trying to balance demanding clients, demanding children and my demanding conscience saying I should be doing more of my own work.

Thanks very much, Chris, and the best of luck with the book.

See here for book details or to purchase.


 

 

 

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