Jason Wilde’s photo project Silly Arse Broke It brings together discarded handwritten notes that he has collected since 2003, around Clarence Way estate in Camden, London.
Many are records of everyday activity – functioning to remind, instruct, organize, and explain; there are lists, descriptions of journeys, and school letters; there’s grand political and philosophical statements, and nonsensical, mysterious messages; some are friendly or familiar, others attack and blame.
Wilde suggests that he is collecting these once-private documents in an attempt to record the transformation of this community. These salvaged texts act on the imagination to help create an open-ended narrative about the people that might have written them, and invite the viewer to consider this multi-cultural, inner-city estate as characteristic of the ever-diversifying society of 21st century Britain.
We spoke to Wilde about his work, and how he came to be a collector of these little notes …
Can you tell me more about your background – how did you first get into photography?
I left school at 15 and became an apprentice watchmaker which bored me stupid, so after trying my hand at being a labourer, a scaffolder, a courier (motor bike and lorry), a postman, a masseuse, a pen repairer, a picture framer and working in an industrial laundry, I thought I’d try photography. I completed 6 week evening course called ‘Getting To Know Your Camera’, swapped my car for a camera and then got myself onto a 2 year full-time photography BTEC, going on to do both a BA and MA in photography.
So you’ve been collecting thee notes for over ten years, what made you start collecting them and where and how exactly do you find them?
In an effort to tell a story about the Clarence Way estate I was making portraits of the residents and also collecting and photographing debris that I had found on the estate. Among the 30 odd pieces of debris were four handwritten notes which when I put side-by-side screamed out ‘project’.
Since then whenever I have been walking to or from my flat on the estate I have been on the look out for discarded notes. I find about 10-12 a year in a variety of places but mostly near the communal bins.
Have you found related notes, and have these led you to form stories? Or perhaps it’s the viewers who find connections themselves?
As it stands this is an ongoing project with two different edits, a defined book edit and an ongoing and open-ended exhibition edit. The book edit has a narrative that is defined by 50 images. The narrative is controlled by connecting elements within the individual notes, including symbols, words, themes and colours etc.
In order to alert the viewer to the fact that each note is connected to the one after, I have deliberately made the connecting element in the first four images of the book edit very obvious. The notes in the book edit also hint at a number of universal themes. It starts with the theme of love and ends by becoming a little dark in its mood. The book has yet to designed and published but an edit can be seen online.
Is there something particular about this area, or similar communities, that you felt needed exposure?
The Clarence Way portrait project did start out as an antidote to all the negative press that was being written about the estate, at the time and Silly Arse Broke It began with the same motive, but developed into something that goes beyond a simple political statement.
I still feel that the general way of thinking about these kinds of residential environments is very lazy and negative but that is no longer my main reason for continuing the work.
This project is one of a number of projects that I am working on that explores the idea of my local environment, which I define as the London Borough of Camden.
What made you choose to shoot them in this way?
Originally the debris, including the notes, were shot in various places on the estate (car park, balconies, lifts, door ways, stairwells, etc.), using available light and front on camera flash. The images produced were ok but looked too much like other projects that were being produced at the time. I then decided to take the notes into the studio and used lights and a medium format digital back with the idea to capture and foreground the details that one wouldn’t normally look for when reading a note – things like dirt, tears, handwriting, paper weave, stains, ink colour, blotches, and so on.
The notes were shot against a white background and dead centre of a square format, making them the focal point of the image. I was much more pleased with these images but still not completely satisfied as they still lacked something I couldn’t define.
The idea of using wallpaper as backgrounds presented itself, and, after a few test shots, the combination of note and wallpaper became the project. I chose to use wallpaper, not only because its colours and graphic elements make the images much more visually appealing, but because of the different layers of meaning they can offer. In the same way that the choice of wallpaper affects the mood and style of a room, it can have similar effect on my images of notes.
Wallpaper is vivid evidence of an individual’s taste and can often reflect the age, status or gender of a house, and suggest notions of class and taste. The wallpaper backgrounds anchor the work to the domestic environment, reminding the viewer that these are conversations between family and neighbours, taking place in and around people’s homes.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
All over the place.
Who or what are your creative influences?
Photographically I like the work of Anna Fox, John Davies, Mark Power, August Sander, Nadav Kander and Alec Soth, amongst others. Outside photography it’s an endless list of songsmiths, comedians and filmmakers. I’m attracted to people that make the process of constructing a narrative seem an easy one, in any medium. And I’m a massive fan of WYNC’s Radiolab.
Are you working on anything else at the moment?
Silly Arse is an ongoing project, but I’m also working on a variety of other personal projects.
Jason Wilde’s Free Portrait Studio (ongoing since 2010) has visited a variety of venues in the London Borough of Camden and set up a mini mobile portrait studio, with 1680 portraits being made of the visitors, creating an ongoing and unprecedented visual archive of Camden.
My newest project, Vera & John – Part 1 and Part 2 (on-going), is a simple examination of Vera & John, my mum and dad. Part 1 is a still-life study of the contents of their bathroom cabinet. I plan to ‘borrow’ and photograph the products that they use and keep in their bathroom cabinet over a period of 1 year using the advertising still-life aesthetic. (Work-in-progress images can be seen here). Part 2 is a collection of handwritten notes that Vera has written to John and left on the kitchen table for him to read when he gets home or out of bed, including instructions about food in the freezer, kids coming for dinner and hospital visits. I’ve been collecting these for a number of years and although they have all been photographed, the project is still under construction in terms of edits and backgrounds.
For England Under 13’s (on-going), I have visited 4 London Borough of Camden playcentres each year since 2009, and made a series of 200+ portraits of children. The aim is to make a series of images that give the viewer room to reflect on a child’s role within modern society and on our own relationships with children.
Since 2003 I have been photographing the bathrooms of family, friends and strangers living on the housing estates of London and its satellite towns, for I’ll Kill all your Fish (on-going). This series of still lifes explores the idea of the modern bathroom as a private place used by all members of the household for a variety of activities.
Im also working on an as yet undefined project, Estuary English (on-going), an exploration of the area known as the Thames Estuary with a large format field camera.