The Port Talbot Bypass was Wales’ first motorway and the first part of what would become the larger M4. Conceived in the 1930s but finished in 1994, the M4 provided a much-needed economic link between England and the historically depressed south of Wales. It served as a major upgrade to the previous main route between the two countries, the A48, which offered motorists a slow, often perilous journey along winding roads. When the 4.5 mile long stretch was opened in 1966, the town was still experiencing a boom period due to the nearby steelworks, which employed close to 20,000 people. Issues with traffic had been worsening due to an increase in motorists and a growing shift to road based shipping routes. Traffic jams through Port Talbot were a common sight, made worse by a railway crossing that periodically halted traffic, making simple trips across town burdensome.
Thus, the bypass initially proved to be a miracle for dispersing traffic and speeding up trips between Cardiff and Swansea. Over 400 men had toiled since 1963 to meet the deadline set by the Welsh Office, coinciding with the 1966 Royal National Festival, held in Aberavon. Partially rising over the town on pillars, the bypass was hailed as a major engineering achievement for Wales, even thought to one day become a tourist attraction. Behind the fanfare laid the fact that over 200 houses, three churches and several schools had been destroyed to make way for the motorway. Despite the advances, the bypass has left a lasting effect on the physical and psychological landscape of Port Talbot.
In the years following the opening of the bypass those living near it had to adjust to the realities of their new situation. Noise and pollution levels were elevated, as well as incidents of tires and other parts falling from over the motorway’s edge. While some improvements were made to raise the motorway barrier to increase safety levels and reduce noise, they were slow coming. While initially accepting the situation as necessary for progress, residents fought for the installation of double glazed windows or compensation from the Welsh Office, during the late 1980s reconstruction work. These requests were subsequently denied, with any housing improvements being left to owners and tenants.
Today Port Talbot remains forever changed from the town it was during the boom of the 1950s and 1960s. As the M4 expanded, more motorists began to simply drive around the town rather than through it. Within several years businesses along the old high street and town centre began to close due to the lack of business from passing motorists. Additionally, as construction continued on stretches of the M4 in the 1970s, much of the town centre of Port Talbot was destroyed and repurposed, leaving little of what residents had known before to be a bustling community centre. The short sightedness of certain design features in the motorway also began to appear, as the cost saving two lane sections soon grew congested. While most will only ever see Port Talbot from above, residents must still confront signs of the motorway’s effect on their town on a daily basis.
In March 2016 Tata Steel, who currently operate the steelworks, announced plans to sell their entire UK operations. The move potentially threatens the remaining 4000 jobs at the steelworks, the loss of which would be catastrophic for the economy of Port Talbot. Negotiations for a new buyer are currently stalled, leaving the future of Port Talbot’s steel industry and the town itself shrouded in uncertainty. The closure of the steelworks could mean the final step in a complete transformation for Port Talbot, taking it from a bustling icon of mid-century progress to a virtual ghost town. To drive the M4 in south Wales is to experience one of the most important technological achievements in its post-war history. Yet the town where it started, the gleaming icon of industrial strength, remains literally and metaphorically bypassed.
Nick St.Oegger is currently completing a Master’s program in documentary photography at the University of Westminster.
You can see more of Nick’s work here and his ‘Bypassed’ project website here.
‘St Davids is a city founded on the desire for seclusion. As the United Kingdom’s smallest city, both in terms of size and population, it shelters on the most westerly tip of Wales, surrounded on three sides by vast expanses of open water, where the last shards of land stand strong against the crashing waves and perilous currents of The Bitches. It is a landscape that has been shaped by nature and in turn has shaped the inhabitants of this community, who have learnt to live and adapt to its remote geographical location in quiet solidarity.
The writer, Thomas Mann saw in solitude something that “gives birth to the original in us, to beauty unfamiliar and perilous”. The return to my hometown after four years away has enabled me to consider St Davids and its people through fresh eyes, examining their relationship with the landscape and the connections and fellowships that have formed within this tight knit community. The people that live there have a connection with one another that goes far beyond just a postcode. They have a patriotism for the place. This book aims to give voice to some of the individuals that inhabit the landscape, and the stories they have to tell’.
What is your relationship to St Davids and why did you undertake this work?
I have lived in St Davids since the age of three, but having spent the majority of the past four years away at University, I came back to the area as if with a brand new pair of eyes. I was revisiting the places that I had grown up and had completely taken for granted, with a new sense of understanding and appreciation. Growing up in such a secluded part of the world had its positives and its negatives, and for me it didn’t really offer what I wanted out of life. The project all started with my neighbour Dai and my relationship with him. He has spent his entire life living within a three-mile radius of where he grew up, with no real interest of living anywhere else. For him, St Davids offered everything he wanted in life, and he used to tell me all about his life and his experiences growing up here. This project was an exploration of my relationship with the place that I grew up, and how it has impacted not just my life, but the lives of every individual that lives there, and my changed perception that came as a result.
Is St Davids being so secluded reflected in your photographs?
St Davids is about as far West in the UK as it is possible to go. I remember whenever my dad used to give people directions when they came to visit us he would say, “Just keep going West until you reach the sea. If you hit Ireland, you’ve gone to far.” It is a very secluded place in terms of its geographical location and amenities, but I don’t think socially it is a secluded place to live. Everyone here looks out for one another and there is a very tight community. I think it would be difficult to feel completely isolated and alone in such a small community.
St Davids, and Pembrokeshire in general, is a very beautiful and picturesque part of the world, and so it can be very easy to fall into taking quite clichéd images. Of course, images are cliché for a reason and that is because they are aesthetically pleasing, but I wanted my images to show a different side to St Davids that goes beyond just the natural beauty of the landscape and show something that people won’t have necessarily seen before. I wanted my project to focus on the people that live within the landscape, and how it has impacted them and their lives. I wanted to show an alternative viewpoint of St Davids from my perspective having grown up there, and one that I think, is a more truthful representation of the place. Whether that has been a success or not, I don’t know.
Who are the people in your photographs?
Living in such a small community of less than 2000 people, you tend to know pretty much everyone there to some extent, but I think that photography is an incredibly powerful tool that can, at times, break down barriers between people and enable you to have a connection with them that you wouldn’t have if the camera were absent. The majority of the people that feature in the project I know, whether that be on a personal level or just by recognizing their face, but with each person that I have photographed I learned something completely new about them and about the community, which I think has really made me appreciate St Davids a lot more. Every person has a story to tell, and I see it as my responsibility as a photographer to tell their story and capture their lives in this moment of time.
What did you experience by photographing your hometown?
Coming back to St Davids and spending a prolonged period of time there, having spent the past four years in big cities where there are thousands and thousands of people and so many opportunities, has made me view the place in a completely different light. It is a surreal thing photographing the places that you have grown up with, with the intention of creating a body of work. Ordinary things like housing estates and parks that before I would just pass by without a second thought, I began to view in a very different way and I began questioning everything. I was learning new things about the place I grew up that before I knew nothing about – folk laws, UFO sightings and original plans that saw Brunnel’s Great Western Railway terminating there. It was fascinating to learn so much about the area and to hear the stories that people had to tell.
Are you aware of other photographers who have worked in St Davids?
Ed Sykes is currently working on a fascinating project, ‘The Witnesses’, based on events in 1977 in an area of Pembrokeshire approximately 15 miles away from St Davids that became to be known as The Broadhaven Triangle. Across the region people saw strange lights in the sky, UFOs and alien figures in the landscape, and the project examines these anomalies and the paranormal narratives that captured the publics imagination 40 years ago. It is an ongoing project and is certainly something to watch out for.
Do you have any future plans for the work?
I don’t really consider the project to be finished. I have photographed 48 people over the course of the project, but there are 1891 people living in St Davids. Once I have photographed them all and heard all their stories, that is when I will consider the project finished.
Short stories from Wales exploring aspects of absence, fear, love and loss with Gwyn, Hazel, Philip, Elizabeth and Ray.
Tell us about the work and what you are trying to achieve with these photographs?
Absence, fear, love & loss is a continuation of work that explores the common themes I am drawn too within my photographic practice. Whilst researching another project I had been working in North Wales it became apparent that the themes, absence, fear, love and loss were surfacing in the people and places I’d made links with in this region. On a whim, I decided to go on a road trip to North Wales and see if I could explore these themes a little deeper and try and make a reactionary piece of work with what I encountered.
You’ve coupled the 5 people together in segments, what is their relation to each other?
The five people photographed in this work are pieced together as a collection of four short stories, with some of the individuals knowing each other and some not. The aim was to correlate some of the nuanced routines of each subject and the memories they might consider as they went about their day.
In story one, we have Gwyn, who lives alone and has a busy social life. But as is the same with many people of age, their social activities often act as delicate distractions to experiences of absence that permeates this stage in aged lives.
Gwyn has lived in his hometown for many years, and has an active social life with trips to the allotments, the town centre and social club. What interested me were the moments between these endeavours. What was Gwyn remembering whilst walking to and from these social engagements? How did the environments Gwyn engaged with influence his memory and in turn, reflect a visible and tangible sense of absence?
In story two, we have Hazel, a mother and grandmother who is busy with the errands of life and going about knitting her new grandchild a woollen blanket. She also carries a small piece of fabric that she has had since childhood and has slept with it close to her lips almost every night of her life.
To me the sense of fearful nostalgia and calming comfort the fabric brought to her was a physical incarnation to safety, and an example of a coping mechanism to fear. The correlation between her endeavour to make a knitted blanket for her grandchild and the piece of fabric she held in her hand since childhood was, in my opinion, a sub conscious desire to imbue safety. What were the fleeting memories and feelings Hazel remembered whilst holding this fabric or knitting this blanket? How would these physical objects provide protection from fears? These are the questions that struck me whilst working with Hazel.
In story three we have a couple, Philip and Elizabeth, both of whom are retired. Philip works obsessively on his classic cars and Elizabeth dotes on his comings and goings in a marriage that echo’s every aspect of a decades long relationship.
There is an overwhelming presence of love and time reflected in the lives of this couple, with the longevity of their relationship being the visual catalysts to questions about their mortality. What would one do if one were to leave before the other? How would it feel to be left behind?
It occurred to me that this is an understandably ignored but present question within the annals of a relationship and something I asked myself, when photographing Philip and Elizabeth.
And lastly, in story four we have Ray, a father of one, who’s wife Jean passed away a decade ago. Rays life was irrevocably changed with her death, and the three pictures in his section are an attempt to distil his overwhelming sense of loss. I felt that his part had no need for many images, as his life seemed to be consumed with the impact of this loss, even ten years on. Whilst observing his life I was struck by how visual his loss was.
It was almost as if he’d numbed any questions I might ask myself about his thoughts or memories, as they were so visually written all over his face. It felt like the encapsulation or definition of loss itself.
Over all the body of work is not intended to be overtly melancholic but an attempt to photographically interpret the correlation between ones personal environment, circumstance and memory. I accept that it does sway towards a sadder vein of a given narrative, but I would hope that it provides the viewer with an insight into a collective of emotions experienced by all.
What are your plans for the work?
At the moment the work is a precursor to a larger body of work I am creating that focuses on fear as an over all subject matter and hope to show all the work together at some point in the future.
Join Huw Alden Davies on Friday 11th December from 7pm to 9pm at The Elysium Gallery in Swansea for the launch of his exhibition and accompanying book ‘Prince’. Huw Alden Davies’ new publication explores the lines of photographic and illustrative story telling, using an arrangement of photographs and short texts to create a detailed portrait that forms a dramatic, and often humorous study of the artist’s father, a bi-product of a generation, and his slanted views of the world.
‘Although there is an old adage that “A boy’s best friend is his mother”, to which I can attest, it is also a right of passage that a boys father becomes his first Hero, and my Hero was a Prince. Known as Prince, my father (John Alden Davies), has been recognised by this namesake for most of his life. By his friends, his family, and by all that have met him, and although, to him this was simply a name, to a boy with little knowledge or care in the world, this was colossal.’
‘My father was royalty, not like Prince Charles, who to me was a man that married a Princess called Diana and peered inanimately from a plate on the dining room wall, but a real hero, a hero like Prince Adam of Eternia (except without a ‘Battle Cat’, or a sword). And although time inevitably reveals the disillusion of childhood, some things just stay with us, and my father, through all our differences, he remains a fascination.’
‘This project is not only an attempt to reconnect with this childhood notion, but to try and record and capture the essence of a man and his eccentricities. Through photographic and illustrative story telling, using an arrangement of photographs and short texts, this is a detailed portrait, documenting a side unknown to others, exploring the physiological or even cultural elements that inform the image that should have once been my role model.’
A new series of photographs by photographer Tom Johnson exploring Merthyr Tydfil opens on Wednesday December 9th at Box Studio in London at 6.00pm (rsvp only) . The work is shot in collaboration with stylist and Merthyr native Charlotte James.
‘An industrial sprawl nestled amongst rolling Welsh hills, Merthyr Tydfil became tarnished with a negative reputation due to the devastation and decline caused by the closure of the mines in the 1980’s. Like many towns across Britain, it stands as an example of the socioeconomic hardship experienced by traditional working class communities in the post-Thatcher era.’
‘This series aims to challenge the common misconceptions and judgments surrounding an extraordinary place and puts the spotlight on Merthyr’s proud history, strong community, vibrant characters and exciting young talent; committed to promoting a positive image for the future. The pair sourced subjects via social networks, street castings and James’ friends and family, styling them in fashion pieces and photographing them in situ, anywhere from bus stations to the local Labour Club. Blending a love for documentary and fashion, pieces were selected to complement and emphasise the subjects’ character.’
‘Merthyr Rising’ is at Box Studio (12-7pm), 1-3 French Place, London, E1 6JB from Thursday 10th December to Sunday 13th December. The exhibition features twenty large scale images and the accompanying Merthyr Rising Zine is available to purchase here. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for any enquiries.
Tom Johnson lives and works in London. His work has been featured in An0ther, DAZED, Its Nice That, VICE, Hunger Magazine & The World Photography Organisation. He was the subject of a documentary made by VICE for their series ‘Picture Perfect’ and has been shortlisted for the D&AD Next Photographer Award.
Charlotte James is a London-based fashion stylist, she is the fashion editor at large at Crack Magazine and has worked with titles such as i-D Online and Wonderland, and artists including Big Sean and Little Dragon.
‘My work explores this shadowy world of cages, vans and feathers that is occupied by the pigeon fascination. Rarely seen, the racing can become an unglamorous sport whose actions and rituals are opaque to most of us, but behind the surface there is the connection between man and bird, the fancier selects and creates his pigeons.’
‘From birth he rears, trains and has faith in the bird. When race day arrives he selects and sends away his pigeon, this pigeon represents him and his skill, with potentially thousands of pounds at stake he eagerly awaits its return. However it is not simply the money that motivates them, to be a fancier is to understand a whole version of life in scale. Sex, competition, flying, hope, winning and losing. It is these elements that create the hobby, flying therefore becomes a metaphoric act, an act in which the fancier is completely immersed.’
‘These pigeons selectively bred over generations are capable of speed, grace and beauty. Motivated to return by survival, desire and love for their spouse. The man must wait for his hardy grey bird flying across seas, fields and cities, across rooftops and treetops through wind and rain, to get back home. It is then milliseconds that can make the difference between champion and loser.’
‘My project is named in honor of William of Orange, a British Intelligence war pigeon that in 1945 was released from the Frontline in France with an SOS message. He made it back to England in a record time resulting in 2,000 soldiers lives saved. For his efforts he was awarded the Dickin medal, the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross. He was then retired and became the “father of many outstanding racing pigeons.”’
Fergus Thomas is a 21 year old documentary photographer in his final year at Newport, University of South Wales. His practice focuses on the relationship between man and the natural world.
Join us this Thursday 12th November at 6.30pm at Carousel London for the opening of our ‘Made in Wales’ exhibition. The exhibition features new work by members of the collective as well as 27 photographers who’ve shown work on our blog.
Triin Kerge’s work ‘Cymydog’ allows us to nosy into people’s front rooms on one street in Cardiff. Triin is also known for her work ‘Kodukoht’ (Place of Home) which reflects the changing tastes and seasons in Estonia after gaining independence from 50 years of Soviet occupation in 1991.
‘For this project I was curious to meet my neighbours and observe the houses they lived in from inside. I was interested in finding out about the people who lived in these houses through their home surroundings and their use of the space. By knocking on each door on my side of the street I was seeking permission to photograph the insides of my neighbours front rooms, following the street from one end to another, choosing to use the same angle – the view of the room with the window showing the street outside.’
‘Through the process I met all of my neighbours and I got the real sense of the community I am living in and am part of in my daily life. Most of my neighbours were very welcoming and happy to take part of the project, yet the blank pages in the book represent the houses that for one reason or another didn’t wish to take part. With this project I wished to comment to the complexities of constructing a sense of place and how even if given the same geographical position within the city, it varies from house to house, even though all the houses are on the same street.’
Triin Kerge was born in Estonia and is now based in the UK working as a photographer having graduated from The University of South Wales, Newport in Documentary Photography. Her most recent bodies of work are around the theme of home.
You can hear Triin talking about her work at the Documentary Photography Graduate Exhibition here.
Whichever way you travel through Nelson it’s hard not to notice the open air handball (‘Pêl-law’) court that is situated on the high street. The listed building is the last surviving handball court in Wales and is testament to a sport that was once hugely popular. It was built for the entertainment of miners, following the miners’ strike of 1858 and has been continuously played on since its construction. Handball is played using a hard, leather-cased ball and using the palm of the hand the ball is hit against the front wall before or after it had struck the floor once. Similar to squash without the rackets, the object is to keep the ball out of the opponent’s reach but inside the bounds of the court and play continues until a competitor fails to return a ball. ‘Eton Fives’ was played at grammar schools in Wales but varied greatly from the working-class, often professional, game of handball that was played throughout Glamorgan.
Bobby Brain, Welsh Handball Champion 1982.
In the nineteenth century handball was played in the yards of pubs in front of betting spectators. At Nelson (circa 1860) Henry Roberts, the landlord of the Royal Oak, built his own bigger court to poach the lucrative handball trade away from his rival landlord at the nearby Nelson Inn. The new court proved popular and the game in Nelson flourished.
The Nelson Handball Final in 1949 with scores chalked on the front wall in traditional box tallies. Matches marked this way gave rise to the term ‘winning by a long chalk’.
Lee Davies, Welsh handball champion 1990’s and World Champion 1997.
Nelson handball doubles players in 1985.
In May 1995 the first European Handball Tournament was held at Nelson and was attended by American, Belgian, English, Irish and Welsh teams. The Eton Fives Yearbook (1994-95) commented, “admittedly the weather was excellent, but I would ask you to envisage a court situated right in the middle of a Welsh village, with a local pub literally on the left hand side of the court and a row of terraced houses on the right, and the main road and shops behind. On Finals day you could mingle with the local spectators. We saw the soul of handball in Wales this May. This year the court there became the centre of village life. We saw the game as it was originally devised, a street game, a game of the people.”
Former Nelson handball secretary Howard Jones.
Lee Davies, Welsh handball champion 1990’s and World Champion 1997.
With thanks to Kevin Dicks whose book ‘Handball. The Story of Wales’ First National Sport’ will be published in 2016 by Y Llolfa.
James O Jenkins is a photographer working for a wide variety of clients and publications. He has exhibited widely and in 2012 he published his first book ‘United Kingdom’, a visual study of traditional annual UK customs. James is also co-founder of Portrait Salon, a Salon des Refusés for work rejected from the National Portrait Gallery’s Taylor Wessing Photographic Prize. James is one of the founding members of A Fine Beginning.