Ed Gold on photographing isolation and preserving cultures

Opening tomorrow at Colchester’s Firstsite gallery, Ed Gold: Other Worlds brings together four decades of the photographer’s documentary work, including never before seen images from his series, Nowitna. We spoke to Gold about the theme of isolation that threads through his oeuvre and his purpose as a documentarian

M’Hula Crew, Country Folk, 1999, Digital print, Dimensions variable
M’Hula Crew, Country Folk, 1999, Digital print, Dimensions variable

Photographer Ed Gold has spent the last four decades documenting communities. His portfolio is diverse and features people from different parts of the world, from his home town in Essex to Afghanistan. But all the communities he chooses to study have one thing in common; isolation.

People fascinate him, but “particularly ones who want to be self-sufficient and independent of the on-grid system,” he says. While he acknowledges the richness of mundanity and regular urban or rural life, he’s found himself gravitating towards the marginalised groups of people who live on the fringes of civilisation or are cut off in some way. “I’m excited by danger and surviving it,” he says. “I like the challenge of hardship and being able to experience raw wilderness and nature.”

“I’m concerned by traditions and cultures becoming extinct so want to preserve the history of these communities for centuries to come.”

In one of his series, Afghanistan Bed Spaces, Gold documented the lives of British soldiers. He lived with the Battalion Parachute Regiment (2 Para) at their home base in the UK and joined them on duty in Afghanistan, even accompanying them on patrols. He attempted to get a real sense of what it’s like to be a member of the regiment and spend lengths of time separated from the rest of the world.

Afghan National Army soldier, Checkpoint Milat, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, 2011, Digital print, Dimensions variable

With his Patagonia series he explored the lives and homes of communities of Welsh decent living in rural South America. These aren’t merely surface explorations – and Gold typically spends several years on each series of photographs, embedding himself in the daily lives of his subjects. 

David and Sky Atchley, Nowitna, 2017, Digital print, Dimensions variable

At present, Gold has been exploring the Alaskan wilderness, where he’s lived on and off for almost a decade. Earlier this year he spent three weeks with the Atchley family. He lived with them in their small log cabin out in the snow-covered hinterland and involved them in the crafting of his documentary.

“All members of the family were concerned that they should be portrayed as being themselves in the photographs and that nothing should be staged or contrived,” he explains. “All three of them were keen to be interviewed and wanted to share their attitudes and feelings but were camera shy. A lot of reassurance was involved on my part and photographs were made as events unfolded naturally.”

Romey Atchley, Nowitna, 2017, Digital print, Dimensions variable

The Atchleys were just one aspect of Gold’s ongoing Alaskan adventure. Among other things he’s spent time being part of a four-man seal hunting crew on a small open boat and been charged by bull musks a couple of times. He keeps detailed written notes or voice recordings of his experiences and observations, which have become an important aspect of his practice.

“I’m passionate about giving a voice to everyday people whose lives usually get overlooked.”

Gold approaches his craft like an ethnographer, but documenting the lives of communities is just one aspect of his work. Protection and preservation is as much of a focus. “I’m passionate about giving a voice to everyday people whose lives usually get overlooked,” he says. “I’m also concerned by traditions and cultures becoming extinct so want to preserve the history of these communities for centuries to come.”

Blaze King, Nowitna, 2017, Digital print, Dimensions variable

Gold’s work in Alaska isn’t yet complete, but he already has his eyes set on other parts of the world and other communities.

“Next I am documenting The ALCAN, the Alaska Canada Highway, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, by motorcyle,” he says. “It’s a 1,350 mile remote road with a lot of history, characters and stories. Then I will be journeying to Australia’s remotest community in the Gibson Desert. I have already studied Inuit and Athabascan lives and wish to compare those to Aboriginals who have the oldest continuous culture on the planet. My greatest ambition is to document The Pitcairn islanders in the south Pacific, Diego Garcia, Siberian Inuit, Mongolians, the list goes on.”

Corrie Locke, Country Folk, 1992, Digital print, Dimensions variable

Around 100 photographs from Gold’s various series have been brought together for an exhibition at Firstsite gallery in Colchester – from his earliest series, Country Folk, which documents the lives of rural people in Essex, Wales and Scotland, to his most recent pictures from Nowitna.

Gold’s photographic works will be accompanied by extracts from his diary and by sound recordings which, says the gallery, offer “a further narrative and a deeper, more intimate engagement with the subjects than the images alone can provide.”

Ed Gold: Other Worlds is on view from June 17 to September 17, at Firstsite, Colchester.

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