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Pretty Shitty City – Beauty Within the Familiar and Mundane

This is a series of street photographs taken in the City of Swansea, South Wales. This series is a glance at contemporary South Wales; it was shot over a period of about 8 months, on and off. None of the images are staged; these are all photographs of completely random situations I stumbled across while wandering around the cities in “flanuer’ fashion, reacting instinctively to events unfolding around me. I think this series counters some of the stereotypes that South Wales seems to be shackled with and portrays  the area in a different perspective, a place abundant with people from all walks of life, rich in history and a vast blend of cultures.

I’ve always been interested in art in some form or another, although there is no long history of art in my family, in fact, I can’t think of a single family member who has practiced any form of art. I can tell that my mother has a sort of subconscious eye for design just from the way the house was decorated as we were growing up. My father died in a car accident when I was three years old so my mother was a pretty dominant presence in my life growing up and was a major influence on my eye for design, pattern and colour. I chose to study art all the way through secondary school and continued into college. For one reason or another, I started to lose interest and drifted away from art while studying it at college. To be honest I think I struggled with the course material, the instructor constrained us to traditional painting and still life. I firmly believe that you have to be excited by your subject and your method of working. If you lack passion for your subject then your work will also lack that passion and appear bland or without any character or emotion. I managed to scrape through the course with mediocre grades, but my interest in art had dwindled until eventually I stopped practicing.

After becoming disillusioned with art I ended up working a regular office job and drifted my way through the next 5 or 6 years of my life, working a 9 to 5 Monday to Friday and drinking too much on the weekends. I was in a rut and something needed to change. I ended up purchasing a DSLR camera and dabble with photography over the next couple of years. I wouldn’t stretch as far as saying I was creating art, maybe some form of ‘retinal art’ as Duchamp would say; just something nice to look at with no meaning, and even that would be a push! I was taking photos of sunsets, mountains and waterfalls – all the cliché picturesque scenery type of stuff. I got bored of this very quickly, I felt my work lacked passion and originality and I was just doing the same as every other hobbyist photographer; and so in turn I was again starting to lose interest for photography.

It was then when I came across an advert to study a degree in photography (BA) with the Open College of the Arts – which is a long distance learning university. I managed to secure a grant and jumped at the opportunity. I firmly believe that the course is responsible for completely changing my outlook and approach to photography. It opened my eyes up to other genres of photography and photographers, perhaps most importantly street photography and the work of Martin Parr; who was a big influence for me creating this series. I was just completely blown away by his work and in your face style, I knew I had to try this for myself, and so I did.

I started carrying my camera with me wherever I went. I’d walk the streets for hours shooting anything that interested me, I see this as a time when I was honing my street shooting skills. It did take a while but I was getting happier with my images as time progressed. I think the biggest struggle of all when starting out is building up the courage to get close enough to photograph people; this is definitely a common issue for most of the street photographers I’ve spoken to. I had massive apprehension and was very anxious at first; I was worried how people were going to react to a stranger taking photographs of them in the street, whether they were going shout abuse or even react violently. Getting over this anxiety was probably the hardest thing to do in the process, but I was determined and overtime I slowly built up my confidence and kept getting closer and closer to my subjects. I’ve kind of developed a sixth sense where I can just tell whether someone definitely doesn’t want to be photographed – I’ve had a few bad  reactions but I find that just talking to the people and explaining what you are doing normally calms them down. I still get that little bit of apprehension for the first few shots of the day but I soon get into my stride and it becomes like second nature.

In all honesty there was no big plan for this particular series, it kind of came about by accident and it wasn’t until a few months into shooting that I had even decided to even call it a series at all – it just sort of manifested in to what it is over a period of time. I don’t like to discuss the meaning behind my work too much as I think it is important for the viewer to draw their own conclusions, everyone is going to have a different perspective. For me it is a form of escapism from the banality of everyday life, life in general seems to becoming more normalised and functional. I suppose these images are a way of me trying to find beauty within the familiar and mundane, I try to do this by capturing the juxtaposition of colours and patterns or simply by capturing human emotion. I never set any parameters when I’m shooting street, it is completely instinctive.

With a lot of my images I think I know what I’ve captured but when I get it back home and look at it properly over a few days, I start to pick up on nuances that give the images little shades of meaning. That’s one of the things I love about street photography.

I often get asked by people how I always seem to be in the right place at the right time. Of course there is an element of luck involved, but to me it’s all about looking; the longer you look the more you will see, the situations depicted in my photographs are happening around us every day. We just have to be receptive to them.

Street photography also helps me come to terms with my social anxiety, my desire to capture that one amazing photo overcomes my fear of social situations.

I’ve been doing street photography for about a year now and it has dramatically improved my situation – in-fact my anxiety is nearly non-existent, but I obviously get good days and bad days and I think this shows in my photos when I get home and look through them.

Matthew Roberts

Street Photographer from Wales.

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