British Journal of Photography launches first-ever Portrait of Britain book

Laura Rutkowski

The PPA attended the British Journal of Photography's Portrait of Britain book launch and caught up with the photographers and their subjects to get the back story on the images capturing the face of a changing nation. A picture is worth a thousand words, after all...

Following an open call by the British Journal of Photography for its Portrait of Britain exhibition, over 13,000 portraits were submitted. Judges whittled that number down to 200 shortlisted images, crowning 100 of them winners. For the first time, the photographs were compiled into the Portrait of Britain book, published by Hoxton Mini Press. The nationwide exhibition, now in its third year, launched on September 1 across JCDecaux’s channel of digital screens. The winning entries can be viewed at rail stations, shopping malls, high streets and at Heathrow Airport.


“The Tea Drinker” by Crispin Lingford

This is Hasan and he was the kebab shop owner. As you can see from the décor and the ambience, he’d been working there for quite a long time – decades. Even the furniture is slightly dilapidated. It’s really preserved in time. I wanted to document the shop before it went.  He was starting to close down. He was not working certain days, but he would always be there no matter what. Even if he wasn’t open, he was at the back of the shop. He couldn’t leave it. This was the business that he’d built up.

On the day of the shoot, he said it was his last weekend in the shop and he needed to have an operation on his leg, so he was going away. We don’t know where he is unfortunately, which is quite sad. The shop has already been turned into another takeaway shop. The Daily Mail headline is there, An abuse of capitalism, just to further make a point. The title is “The Tea Drinker.” He kept offering me tea every half an hour.

A kebab shop is a feature of every high street up and down the land, especially after a night out on the town. If people saw a gentleman like this walking around, they’d know he’s part of the community.

“The General” by Nick Simpson

I was driving along Holloway Road and I spotted a very eccentric-looking gentleman and I screeched to a halt, leapt out, grabbed my camera from the car, asked him if I could take his photograph and he agreed. He was dressed in an extraordinary way with a homemade military uniform and I said, “Are you going somewhere special?” And he said, “No, just out for a stroll.” I’ve kept in touch with him – he’s a lovely chap.

“Tika” by Nirish Shakya

A lot of family and relatives got together for a special occasion and I wanted to take a quick picture. I wanted to show the diversity of a typical English family and challenge the notion of what that family could look like.

“Helen Mary Stronge” by Jennifer Pattison

Jennifer Pattison: Helen’s daughter Laura is my best friend and we’ve known each other for 30 years. She lives in the States and she is a super talented Stylist and Costume Designer and whenever we get together, we creatively bounce off each other. She had a short period of time when she was here in between jobs and she had been watching Top of the Lake. One of the actresses, Holly Hunter, had long grey hair and that was one of the inspirations – also Georgia O'Keeffe. We both really like her style and her paintings. She was photographed a lot by Edward Weston, so Laura was quite inspired by that. I said, “Okay, let’s do a shoot.” Helen’s like a second mum to me, so I said, “Let’s do it with your mum.” Laura did the styling and it was all pulled together really last minute. We went up to the chalk pits behind Helen’s house in Sussex. We just had a brilliant, fun shoot.

Helen Stronge: I’m hugely flattered to be featured in the Portrait of Britain book. It’s particularly wonderful because it’s Jen that’s taken the photograph and Laura styled it. I love that whole feeling of going off out somewhere and whatever comes, comes, and there it is. There’s the image. There’s the result.

JP: It’s always made 100 times easier when you have this complete trust and it’s like the camera is invisible. It’s very rare to get a really honest image where you truly capture a sense of someone and they’re not posturing or self-conscious and often you get that with people you know.

 “Son 2” by Tom Oldham

My entry is a very low-key, quiet image of my son after a beautiful day out last Christmas at Studland Beach in Dorset. It’s in this lovely, wintry end of day sunlight and it’s a different sort of thing from what I normally do. I tend to photograph quite high-profile sports or music people, but this was a pure one-off, so to have it selected is unusual, but a tremendous compliment to me and my little boy.

The book element this year was a massive incentive. I applied before unsuccessfully. It means a huge amount to be a member of this beautiful club among some huge names and some refreshingly new and exciting names that are producing astonishingly high-quality work. To be among them, I feel like I’ve hijacked it with a snap of my kid, I have to be honest. He’ll be proud to be in the book for sure, as am I to have him in there.

“Ian Borthwick, Emblem Bearer of the Barley Banna” by Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert

I was amazed when I found out there were 13,000 entries and one of my pictures got into the last 100, which is obviously a great honour. It’s exciting for me being a Scottish photographer. Sometimes Scottish photography doesn’t get championed as much as photography from other regions, so I feel that, with a couple of other photographers from Scotland who were also selected, I am flying the flag for Scotland. It’s great to represent. I came down from Glasgow for the party to see the book and to meet all the other photographers.

In 2012 through to 2014, when we were coming up to the Scottish independence referendum, I photographed in the Borders region of Scotland. I looked at all of these ancient festivals, which are called Common Ridings, that date back 200 years. One even goes back about 500 years. My portrait is a gentleman holding a barley bannock with a pickled herring nailed to it. People immediately say, “What’s that all about?” Even if you were to ask that gentleman, he would actually struggle to give you an answer, because the traditions are really lost in the mists of time, to use a cliché.

“Old Age Doesn’t Come By Itself” by Rhiannon Adam

My grandmother, who was her in 90s, died recently. I realised I had pictures of her when she was younger and she was more active, but I didn’t have any pictures showing what she really looked like. It’s the hardest thing to photograph the people you love. I never took many pictures of my grandmother facing the camera, because she’d wriggle, she’d laugh, she’d pull out her false teeth – she’d do anything to disrupt it so I wouldn’t post it anywhere. I find it much easier to stop someone on the street and ask them to pose for a picture and I somehow get the most honest images that way.

There were two rooms in her sheltered accommodation. I was in the other room and she’d gone for a rest. She always used to make lunch and tea in this housecoat and she’d been doing that since I was a kid. She was always really well put together – she ironed her clothes every single day even in her 90s. She was lying in the bed and she looked like the grandmother I always knew, but then she was aging and losing her independence. I wanted it to be a tender moment, to be able to remember those little things, the in-between moments that you lose when someone passes.

It’s been really nice since she’s no longer with us to be able to see her popping up on screens everywhere, because suddenly it’s almost like she’s taken on a life of her own. I get to see her on my daily commute. My grandmother came from a very small town in South Wales in Maesteg – it’s hardly a blip on the map. No one knows it, it’s not famous for anything and yet here it is appearing in London.


“Isaac” by Matt Grayson

Matt Grayson: Barnardo's commissioned me to take some photographs for their 150th anniversary book and Isaac was selected from the case studies. We met a couple of years ago. It’s important to get the charity’s name out there and show the fantastic work that it’s done. It’s also important to get Isaac’s story out there, because he’s an incredibly inspiring, powerful young man. He makes videos and he does incredible stuff, including sky diving, skiing and he was selected to hold the Olympic Torch.

Isaac: Being in the Portrait of Britain book and having a disability is quite a big deal. It is a huge honour and a great experience to have my story shown to more people and to represent people with a disability.

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