Dr Paul Cabuts
Dr Paul Cabuts is currently the Academic Subject Leader for Photography for the University of Wales. Based in South Wales Cabuts explores the ever expanding genre of “Documentary Photography” with the core of his work focusing on the Valleys. The use of repetition and typological process plays heavily within Cabuts work as he explores the theme of cultural identity and surroundings within these small communities. His current work in progress, titled ‘Poles‘ explores the notion of an evolving culture that now, more than ever, influences the landscape of political and social change. With Poles being at the centre of Cabuts images we are presented with a typology of easily ignored landmarks in which they are featured with the upmost importance. “The photographs can tell us as much about their neighbours as about the poles themselves.”
‘The development of the cultural and political landscape within Wales’ seems to be a theme amongst your work, could you talk about your interest in the subject?
“I was initially motivated to take up photography through an examination of the differences between my personal experiences of living and working in the Valleys, and the way in which they had been represented in photography and other media. I found that the often two-dimensional and reductive representations of people and place did not accurately represent the richly diverse and vibrant culture that existed around me. I cannot pretend that my own work captures the complexity of an ever-changing society and culture. I do however attempt to disrupt the flow of imagery that often perpetuates a limited and often fictional view of the Valleys.
By making contemporary work with a focus on memory, personal experiences and a personal understanding of history, I am challenging long-established views propagated by dominant cultural and political forces. It is the case that the link between photography and politics in the Valleys has historically been strong. In the first half of the twentieth century, the society of south Wales was one of those most devastated through the vagaries of laissez faire capitalism and also, because of this, became one of the most visualized. The dynamics of this society and its associated politics attracted left-wing photographers from across Britain and Europe to document the impact of capitalism on society. Later, the Valleys became the subject for photographers and filmmakers responding to the emerging dominance of American culture, in particular the development of consumerism. Often sentimental in tone, many of the characterizations produced reflected a rapidly changing world and subsequently focused on traditional, not contemporary, life at that time. These images still have a powerful hold on the psyche of many.
As heavy industry disappeared (polite word for ‘was ripped’) from south Wales through the late 1980s and 1990s it became less easy to express cultural specificity. Post-industrial society became increasingly shaped by an expanding global consumerism that subsequently homogenized much around it. The strategies I apply when making work responds to this in differing ways – arguably more of a challenge than a response, albeit a modest one. Not least my survey, which has extended over two decades, continues to explore the residual, emergent and oppositional cultural elements relating to a society radically shaped by the systems and processes of continually expanding free market economies.”
Could you talk briefly about the process of photographing Poles. A typological survey provides viewers with the ability to compare easily, was this one of your motives for photographing this way?
“I have of course been aware of the capacity for the typological approach to provide fascinating insights into the unique qualities of even the most ubiquitous of structures. However, I was fascinated by the fact that when Bernd & Hilla Becher made their work in the Valleys they found it extremely difficult to suppress the surrounding landscape. It is the case that the dominance of the hills in the narrow Valleys often vied with the structures they were recoding. For me contemporary landscapes embody memory, experience and history so I have actively sought to give them equal importance to the structures documented in my own photographs. These two components provide differing points of reference, differing stories to be told – when brought together in the frame, and then within a series, they resonate with a new significance that they might not otherwise have had.
The poles in contemporary Wales support new and rapidly evolving communication technologies that carry significantly more private traffic than in the past. Accessibility to the digital transfer of knowledge and information has not only benefitted developments in commerce, but also challenged the stasis of inclusion and exclusion, continuity and change, emancipation and oppression – in short; it has potentially enhanced the capacity for political and social change. Whilst responding to the political, economic and cultural significance of these utilitarian objects, they are clearly placed in a context with its own culturally specific points of reference. These relations therefore suggest a particular place and time whilst referencing both local and universal concerns.”
What is your opinion of the current cultural landscape (photographic or otherwise) within Wales?
“These are interesting yet challenging times for Wales’ culture – certainly a good time to be a photographer making work in Wales. Multicultural Wales acknowledges its complexities and is certainly more inclusive than it has been in the past. The arts have continued to develop despite a largely hostile cultural and economic environment. Thankfully there are currently many interesting emerging photographer/artists in Wales and there is a confidence in what they do. The challenges remain. I believe it is important that photography should be used to promote individual and collective engagement in the pursuit of social justice within Wales and beyond. Photography can provide a voice that can challenge and enhance the society in which we live.”