The Rock: A look at life in Gibraltar in the midst of Brexit

As the little-understood British territory marks its National Day, we speak to photographer Luke Archer about capturing Gibraltarian identity in the face of an EU Referendum result that its people never wanted

If you thought that the whole Brexit saga wasn’t already confusing enough for us Brits, spare a thought for the people of Gibraltar (aka The Rock). Despite sharing a border with Spain, it has actually been a strategic British territory since 1713. Its population also remains proudly British, with referendums held in 1967 and 2001 both coming out 90% in favour of remaining, and its National Day on September 10 being one of the most widely celebrated holidays of the year.

Gibraltar has recaptured the attention of the outside world recently in light of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. Photographer Luke Archer has been particularly drawn to the Gibraltarian struggle, as its people grapple with the idea of leaving the union it is physically attached to despite 96% of them voting to remain. Here, Archer tells us about his photo series documenting what it means to be Gibraltarian today.

Top image: A block of flats competing for the best flag display on National Day; Above: The rock of Gibraltar looms over the North Front Cemetery
Catlan Bay on National Day 2017, some families secured their pitch by placing umbrellas in the sand up to two days before

Creative Review: What drew you to focus on Gibraltar for your latest photo series?
Luke Archer: I have family who live on Gibraltar (they are expats not Gibraltarian) and I often visit in the summer. However, I normally only get a glimpse of Gibraltar, flying in and out of there but spending more time in Spain. I had always wanted to explore Gibraltar more thoroughly and I knew it would make an interesting project. My decision to undertake an MA in photography was to dedicate myself to a long-term project, something I hadn’t done since my undergrad degree. Considering the Brexit decision and its potential impact on Gibraltar, it felt like the right project at the right time.

CR: What has your experience of working on the project been like?
LA: The project has been both amazing and extremely challenging. I naively thought that as it is such a small country I would be able to photograph it all! In fact, due to its strategic location there is so much history that has shaped it over the years. There are also a few contradictions to get your head around. For example, it is very nationalist and proud of its British status. In the UK we might associate that [viewpoint] with the Vote Leave camp, but Gibraltar voted to remain in the EU by over 96%.

The practicalities of shooting the project have been great, the Gibraltar Ministry of Culture has been amazing at helping me secure portrait sittings and I have been surprised at how willing people are to help. I think local people recognise that they are often misunderstood and are responsive to someone who wants to better understand what it means to be Gibraltarian. Coming from London it’s surprising how friendly and welcoming the people are, I think that’s the benefit of good weather and a short commute!

National Day Celebrations 2017
National Day Celebrations 2017

CR: How would you describe the style of this project?
LA: For me, this is the first time I’ve looked at my work as documentary photography. In the past I had always wrongly associated documentary work with being embedding with your subject. Instead, I’ve realised that it’s about being out in the real world responding to what you see, and it can be through quiet and composed imagery. For me, working in this way it isn’t about capturing decisive moments, it’s about being able to build up a body of work that creates a sense of place and hopefully informs the viewer, while being respectful of the subject matter.

CR: What do you think the photos tell us about Gibraltar’s relationship with the UK and Brexit?
LA: It’s a tricky one because with photography it can be hard to get beyond that surface impression of ‘this is what something looks like’. That’s why accompanying text is important; I have included captions with the images on my site and I’m planning to develop the project into a publication that will include quotes and interviews with the people I have photographed. I believe that through a combination of image and text, photographers can tell a much richer story, tackling complex subjects such as international relations.

As it stands I think I’ve shown that Gibraltar is between a rock and hard place, so to speak! It’s fiercely British – as is evident in the images of its National Day celebrations – but it is also physically connected with mainland Europe, with thousands of Spanish workers crossing the border each day. It is in a unique position where it has to work with both sides, and both the mainland UK and Spain have had a huge influence on its identity.

Pro-British writing in Gibraltar
Anti-British writing in the neighbouring Spanish town of La Linea

CR: What do you want people to take away from the project?
LA: I hope it sparks people’s interest in Gibraltar. It’s a country that a lot of people know exists, but have no idea about what the reality is on the ground there. I think many people assume it’s a load of Brits abroad and the negative connotations that come with that. I hope people appreciate how unique it is in terms of the landscape, history and culture. For fellow Brits, I hope that by showing the complexities of Gibraltar it also reflects the complexities of being British. In this age ‘Britishness’ is not easy to pin down, and I think we are better because of that.