Jason Wilde

Photographs / Guerns!


Guern [gurn]

1. a native of the island of Guernsey.

In 2015/16 the Guernsey Museums and the Guernsey Photography Festival invited me to become the artist in residence on the island of Guernsey with the idea of developing a project based on the island’s social housing communities. The Guernsey Museums and the Guernsey Photography Festival had come to realise that the islands states housing communities were under-represented in the recorded history of Guernsey. By focusing on the women and children living in these communities, the prime aim of the project was to fill a gap in the island’s visual record of 21st Century life in Guernsey and give visibility to a segment of the island’s community that is often invisible and misrepresented.

With Respect - An essay by Greg Hobson

Portraiture is the flesh and bones of photography, animating and humanising it. It was the first commercially successful photography practice and following the announcement of the invention of photography in 1839, Daguerreotype portrait studios proved phenomenally successful. The popularity of the process raced ahead of Talbot’s conceptually superior but aesthetically lacking process, and its success impacted not just on a public desperate to have their portraits taken, but on the supply chain of materials, studios and photography portrait artists. The process was so successful, it led to a frenzy described as ‘Daguerreotypania’, which is artfully described in Théodore Maurisset’s 1839 illustration entitled ‘“La daguerréotypomanie”.

Complicated and somewhat bitter rivalries between Talbot and his evolving process and the French government, who purchased the Daguerreotype patent from Daguerre, meant that rather than being free to use - as it was in the rest of the world - it was necessary to purchase licenses to use the daguerreotype process in Britain. This resulted in the commodification of photography and portraiture in particular, in many ways establishing portrait photography as a business-dependent practice, rather than one that was associated with a freedom of creative expression.

Shackled to the dependencies of the studio or commercial commission, portraiture grew into a genre that, with rare exception, could only be partial in relation to what it told us about history. This linear historical perspective would endure and be particular to photography in Britain, the legacy of which would be photographs of royals, celebrities and fashion models, rather than a truer reflection of the character of the times, as August Sander in Germany, or Lewis Hine in the USA would show in their work. Continuing into the late 1960s and despite occasionally startling portrait projects such as David Bailey’s 1965 Box of Pin-Ups, portrait photography in Britain appeared dreary and without purpose.

In the early 1970s a new generation of photographers, inspired by the energy of the 1960s countercultures and influenced by new American photography by Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander, and the MOMA New York 1967 exhibition New Documents in particular, began to overturn the photography establishment. An independent British photography culture flourished, which in turn gave rise to a new kind of portrait photography; one that conflated documentary and portrait practice to make photographs that had both social meaning and historical value. These new practices eschewed the traditionally condescending viewpoint of some documentarians - who were more interested in the spectacle of squalor - and embraced a more respectful, engaged methodology.

Daniel Meadows was a central figure in these new practices. He attended Manchester Polytechnic with a group of now influential and important British photographers including Peter Fraser, Brian Griffin and Martin Parr, with who he collaborated with. In 1972, Meadows established a free photographic studio in a former barber’s shop on Graeme Street in Manchester’s Moss Side. Opening on Saturdays through a period of two months, Meadows photographed the inner-city population of the local area, giving free copies of the photographs to his sitters and exhibiting the photographs in the shop window.

The Graeme Street portraits established a template for Meadows’ groundbreaking Free Photographic Omnibus project. For this, between 1973-74, Meadows travelled around England, running a free photographic studio from a double-decker bus which also served as his temporary home and gallery. The photographs he made on his journey are very special. Timeless, yet rooted firmly in their time; subtle, yet profound; they have grown from a genuinely heartfelt affection for the subjects. In these two bodies of work, Meadows redefined the possibilities of portrait photography and set new standards for how subjects should be depicted.

Curiously, despite the power of Meadows’ work, it is not an approach that has notably endured. Issues surrounding class, political agendas and the vagaries of Arts Council funding meant that work that was gentle and respectful of those at the margins of society was seen as insufficiently proselytising. Tough and edgy became synonymous with revelation and truth. Considered, collaborative and involved work was pushed to the margins in favour of a more brash depiction of the less privileged and poor.

Very rarely does a body of work surface that addresses this imbalance and shows how portrait photography can be liberating, meaningful and of lasting importance. Jason Wilde’s Guerns! realises all of these through a combination of his warmth for his subjects and deft use of the camera. London-based Wilde was commissioned in 2015-16 by Guernsey Museums and Guernsey Photography Festival to make new work on the island of Guernsey. Stereotypically associated with high levels of wealth, the banking industry and as a tax-haven, the realities of the constituency of Guernsey are quite different. Wilde was born on, grew up and still lives on a council estate, and his experiences inform much of his work.

For the Guernsey commission, he proposed to make his work with the island’s social housing communities to address the under-representation of these communities in the photographic history of the island and, to focus on the women in particular. Wilde’s experience was that women formed the backbone of these communities, binding them and giving them form, while their contributions remained overlooked and unrecorded.

Furthermore, he sought to involve the communities in the process of their representation, establishing a free photographic studio as well as photographing individuals and families in their home environments and frequently in the private domains of their bedrooms. In the spirit of collaborative exchange, all the subjects were offered a free portrait from their sittings.

Wilde’s photographs are a remarkably fresh and optimistic portrait of these communities. He has avoided the cliches of destitution and chaos, showing instead the binding properties of family and community. The work is joyful and there is a sense of ownership of the photographs from the subjects as much as from the photographer. In this respect, the photographs are an important testimony of the island’s states housing communities and history of Guernsey, as well as making a hugely important contribution to the tradition of documentary portraiture. Furthermore, by treating his subjects with respect, Wilde shows us how the power of photographs are revelatory, as well as a celebration of life in a cynical and suspicious time.

Praise for Guerns!

Daniel Meadows - “A multi-layered work, I think, you do a lot in 60 pages. Congratulations. I look forward to spending time with it, unpicking its many mysteries”

Helen Conlon, Fine Art Curator, Guernsey Museum and Art Gallery - “Being invited into people’s homes is a privilege that is earnt. Jason Wilde’s skill as a photographer is equalled by his ability to engage with his subjects, allowing them control over the process and gaining their trust. The photographs reflect this openness and makes the ‘Guerns!’ collection a valuable addition both artistically and socially”

Guerns! Bio
  • 2018, Photobook published by Butchers Hook Books
  • with an essay by Greg Hobson
  • 2016, BBC Radio Guernsey, Jenny Kendal Tobias Show
  • 2016, ITV Guernsey, News
  • 2015, BBC Radio Guernsey, Jenny Kendal Tobias Show
  • 2015, ITV Guernsey, News
  • 2015, Guernsey Museum permanent collection
  • 2015, Guernsey Museum, exhibition

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