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Small Town Inertia. A seminar with Jim Mortram

This event was an intimate seminar with Jim Mortram, famous for his “long-form” photographic essays about people living  in his community in rural Norfolk.

Jim Mortram produces strong black and white images, sometimes gritty, challenging, intimate even, but always considerate of the subjects. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Though a respected, working photographer, Jim remains a full-time carer for his disabled mother.  Jim’s background makes him eminently qualified to understand the problems others are having in life. He says about his life and his work…

  • “There is a slow erosion of everything you want to do in life. You become insular, cut off and isolated.
  • I found a reason to stay alive. And I found it in my community.
  • A friend gave me a camera. There was something about having a camera and doing something different that gave me a reason to be out.”

The people Jim works with are the people in the community in which he lives.They live within 3 miles of his home.

Jim explained to us about his own background and how seeing life from that angle developed an understanding and empathy which enables  a close relationship with the subjects of his stories. He experiences the lives of the people in his pictures from the inside. After all, he’s lived it. He still is living it, at least in part. Shared experiences build a strong bond.

The relationships he develops are not for Machiavellian reasons. He’s not using his subjects. They become his friends, and he has a genuine desire to help and to get their stories out.

And, if his experience and his background don’t give him a unique perspective on those he pictures, then it certainly enables a rare, empathetic  insight to a section of society which Jim sees as becoming increasingly invisible, forgotten.

Ten years or so ago, Jim started taking pictures with the Nikon D50 donated by his friend. Subsequently, he befriended his 84-year-old (late) neighbour who Jim calls W.H; talking to him, listening to him and then taking his picture. This set the pattern for  the way in which Jim has worked ever since. Listening, talking, photographing, helping, often not using his camera at all.

“I don’t  Parachute in, take a few snaps and then leave”.

His images are produced by working with a social conscience, humanism if you like. It’s about trust. It’s about preserving  the dignity of the people he’s working with. It’s about getting their stories told. As Jim puts it…

“I work long-form’ with the people I am involved with on these stories.”

He creates his pictures to tell the story of and for the subjects. To give them a voice they lack in today’s  ‘vilification of those on benefits’ society.

His subjects are the marginalised. Some as a result of economics outside of their control, others by illness, mental or physical,  or disabilities but all are seen as outside of the general society – whatever that is.

Asked about the beauty of his images* and that relationship between beauty and the reduced means of his subjects or the hardships they are suffering. He said he wasn’t searching for beauty. He was looking to tell their story. Nevertheless, his background as a fine art student and his subsequent research into the greats of photography is evident in what he produces. Conscious or not the art, the natural talent and the compassion shine through. He still tells the story but, in my opinion, he tells it beautifully.

 

*There is a postscript to this piece. It’s written by Jim and clarifies his position. It concerns the concept of Beauty in his images.

“One thing I respond to, or that resonates within me is dignity, acknowledging it, preserving it, documenting it… there’s beauty within that, and within the truth, which can obviously be brutal, painful, joyous or within the moment, simply beautiful.

Personally, I find little other than endurance and dignity, beautiful within so many people suffering most every minute of their life from cradle to grave, often, to the complete ignorance of society around them. 

Beauty, though, is not sought, it’s just there, I figure it’s just to be seen, or ignored, it’s certainly not a prime causation for my making work, that is to simply be conduit for truths and stories and realities, I’ve never gone out to dedicate my life in the pursuit of making beautiful images… what it boils down to is, for me, really simple, photographs are, as I see them, a tool to perform a function, to hook the viewer, to slow them down enough so they might be engaged and engaged enough to read the story, to be drawn closer to the people within the stories, my role, part of it, is to function as a competent photographer making competent photographs, so they succeed as intended.” 
Jim Mortram December 2016

Jim’s website, Small Town Inertia is here.

Venue: Assembly House in Norwich
Date: Sunday 4th December
Time 15:00 – 17:00
Organiser: Wex Photographic
Attended by  and written by PDBarton

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