Jim Mortram is a documentary photographer. That’s perhaps the easiest way to describe him. The images on his website – Small Town Inertia – gripped me like a vice for their gritty portrayal of lives lived in rural England. I was surprised by how quickly I cared for those people Mortram photographed. There is compassion and clarity in Mortram’s approach and it is a refreshing change from the synthetic and saccharine images we are all subjected to every day. Mortram has published a limited edition book called “Electric Tears & All Their Portent” – limited and sold out! Please follow Jim Mortram on Twitter.
1) Who are you and how did you get your start in documentary photography?
About six years ago I’d become quite insular. Working as a caregiver for my Mother in my family home; it’s an intense situation, quite highly stressed, with odd hours. Before you’re even aware of it, the ties you once had – friends and the connection to the outside word – erode. It’s a subtle shift, and by the time I noticed, it was too late to cease that evolution. I was loaned a camera by a friend and immediately knew I had to document people. The challenge was where and how. I live in a very rural, low-population part of East Anglia, UK; I was tied to my duties as a caregiver. Long periods away from home to shoot were out of the question due to both responsibilities and financially. I hated the situation. I wanted to escape, wanted an escape for everyone involved … I wanted to click my fingers and make my Mother well, Father freed of the pain of seeing his wife in pain everyday but there was no way that was going to happen. After having this effect me profoundly it was then a long road of rebuilding everything.
One relationship really helped pull me out of my shell and pull my photography into focus. It was because of a person close to me, 2 doors from the family home, in fact. I’d known W.H. since I was a child. In his late 80’s, I would visit often to hear his stories. Gradually I began to make portraits. He encouraged me greatly. The whole process was very organic and instinctive. He became ill with cancer, and I ended up being one of the last people to talk with him – certainly the last to photograph him. This experience really forged the understanding of why I had to document local people. I began to understand that everyone has a story; that they are all important. It also made me re-appraise my location and my relationship to it. I finally harmonized with where I lived. Where I had felt suffocated suddenly transformed into a place that was of the highest importance : Dereham, one of those small forgotten towns, with a distinct strata of the population that have also been forgotten.
I still work at home, caring for my Mother, that’s never changed, I don’t shoot for money, I fit shoots in and around duties etc. It’s a big balancing act but like water finds it’s way from mountains to sea, you find a way!
2) Do you have a sense of the documentary tradition – as in, have you studied it, or did this all come about naturally for you?
I’m an autodidact really, I studied fine art painting before being forced to quit early in my degree to return home to be a Carer. Regarding photography or documentaries I’ve always been aware of it and when I turned to it, it was a very natural extension of myself.
3) Why is it so important for you to document the lives in your own community?
I think this has been answered through the other Q&A’s : )
4) How do you cope with the emotional baggage that usually comes with working in this genre of photography?
I could not see myself working in any other way than long form. Without the time invested, on both sides of the lens, I think I would document in a much shallower, ephemeral way, so taking months, years to constantly document and share it gives the series context, there is a evolution within the lives, to tell any story you have to do more than read chapter one you have to read from the front to the back cover. That’s all far more important to me than how it might touch ‘me’ emotionally, even if it and often is quite really stressful or saddening and you know if it did not affect me, touch me … I’d really worry.
5) How do you go about choosing people to photograph? How do you get access into their lives? Why are they so eager to tell their story to you?
I just ask … or sometimes I’ll get a call from someone or someone who knows someone and wants to be involved. I always treat people, as I myself like to be treated. You can never feign nor fake interest in a person. I’ve never singled out people with an eye that they might make a good story for example; it’s a very organic evolvement. People are very giving and that humbles me greatly, my greatest debt is always to the person the other side of the lens. It’s such a great honor to be accepted and brought into another person’s life and given the access to document it. I’m sure I could work in a faster fashion but for me long form documentary is where my heart is. Often I’ll visit people and not even take an image, just talk and more importantly listen, and I listen more than I shoot. I have an equation that I always bear in mind talk more than you shoot and listen more than you talk and it serves me well. I break shoots up into periods of straight documentary and periods to shoot portraits, make interviews and shoot video.
Initially, for the people I work with it’s a way to have an opportunity, ANY opportunity to share their experiences and to be heard. It’s, I feel, a really empowering step for someone to make the decision to get involved, stay involved. It’s a way for many people to take a positive step, to maybe take some control where there might be a huge absence of any control in their lives. It’s also a mirror for many people, it might be the first time that they have paused for thought as every day is just surviving, enduring and when you live just to make it through one day to the next it’s often hard to distance yourself from that experience and take a moment for reflection.
6) Typically, how long do you spend photographing someone? When do you know you are “done” telling their story?
I’ll shoot a person, their story forever, I don’t think you can ever be ‘done’.
7) Your images are almost always black & white. Was that by design or were you limited to black & white film? Do you shoot in color?
I get asked this a lot and there’s a simple and fast answer and also one I might expound upon. When I started shooting I was using borrowed equipment, digital equipment, cameras, lenses and the monitor I had was broken, the colours were way off and no way to calibrate etc. so I turned the colour off and worked in mono. Mono suited me as I related to it having watched my Father hand develop images in the kitchen or the bathroom when I was young. My formative years were spent experiencing images in mono, newspapers, books from the library, most were featuring mono so that language was imprinted within me I think, the shapes within mono, the way composition is highlighted. I’ve never found a B&W image to be more abstract than a colour and I’m aware of all the arguments VS … likewise film VS digital … truth be told, from day one of shooting I’d planned to shoot colour (Film, medium format) portraits in tandem with the mono DSLR it was just a fact that I was not able to fund it immediately so I’ve had to wait a few years.
8) You’ve used social media quite effectively to spread your message. Which platform do you feel best helps you do that?
Twitter is amazing. On first glimpse it’s easy to see it as quite an ephemeral platform, fast, impersonal but if you apply patience and dedication the friendships and relationships that have evolved from Twitter have been so rewarding, I’ve met and become firm friends with so many incredible people via Twitter. I’ve never seen the Internet as ‘other’ to our non on-line lives, just different. It’s like photography (or anything else) you’ll get back what you put in and it’s only going to be as honest as your own intent.
9) I can see how one could feel a sense of satisfaction narrating the lives of your fellow neighbors. But, what do your subjects receive in return for their time?
I’ve never felt satisfied, I feel driven, obliged, motivated to make photographs and share stories the way I do. It’s all about addressing an imbalance, I find everyone around me is in a situation where they are subjected to prejudice or stereotyping, especially now via mainstream media and our current government. I have no satisfaction depicting lives, real lives lived that are sometimes filled with suffering, struggle … of course some stories feature great happiness, great strengths and endurances. As for the people I document, I never use the term or perceive anyone as a subject, I’d really have to ask them … were I to assume, I’d think as for me, it’s good to have someone to talk to, share with, someone to listen and often the people I’m working with know they are never heard, never noticed and want to be, want an opportunity to have their life experienced rather than have it written about in text or policy by some far away pen that’s no experience of their situation.
10) You were accepted into Aletheia, the documentary photography and film collective. How has that helped you personally and professionally?
It’s just amazing to be included with a group of such amazing documentary makers and afforded the opportunity to share work as part of a collective and a collective that shares a very similar world view.
11) What are your plans for Small Town Inertia? Have you been approached to create a book or a country-wide exhibit?
I just keep shooting and what comes along, comes along. If nothing ever happened I’d still do everything exactly the same.
12) You came at this from a very personal angle – your mom suffers from epilepsy. Is having a personal stake important in creating images and pursuing personal projects?
Having emotions and having empathy is important. I’m not alone in experiencing pain or struggle in life, in witnessing it. I’m not alone in allowing the sum of ones life to inform, to be fuel for ideas, to inform ethical or moral views, to be the compass, direction and engine.
I’m a big believer in the now, right now, to be alive in the now you can’t ignore the situations around you. Here in the UK right now … it’s a hugely volatile time, divisive … real fractures are appearing in society … and I feel compelled as you either to choose to ignore it and the lives situations around you or you feel it, experience it and react.
Documenting, to document “Something, such as a recording or a photograph, that can be used to furnish evidence or information,” is so important, important to the lives lived and important lest they now be forgotten.
Would you like to see more interviews such as this on Tiffinbox? Can you recommend other documentary photographers who are pursuing personal projects? Please do so in the comments section below. Your participation is crucial!
Lex Jenkins says
Terrific interview, possibly the most insightful and revealing yet with Jim. Learned a few new things myself, even after having followed Jim’s work and online commentary for awhile. It’s helped me to reexamine and further refine my own personal documentary projects along similar lines.
Lex -tell me more about your projects. I would be happy to interview you as well.