There has been much debate over the last few years about what it means to be British in a post-Brexit world. For London-based documentary photographer Orlando Gili, the result of 2016’s EU Referendum was not only a shock, it also spurred him on to delve deeper into the idiosyncrasies of the country that he calls home.
The English’s unique love of leisure was the focal point of what would become Trivial Pursuits, his photographic study of what our pastimes really say about our culture and traditions, which has just been published in book form by Hoxton Mini Press.
Here, Gili discusses his journey from high-society events to big-name festivals and local fêtes, taking inspiration from legendary documentary photographer Tony Ray-Jones, and why our trivial pursuits will become even more valuable in a post-pandemic world.
Creative Review: Why did you decide to start the photo series in the wake of the EU referendum?
Orlando Gili: I was shocked and surprised when the Leave campaign won the EU referendum back in 2016. Having always been a Londoner, I had underestimated how fervent the desire was to break free from Europe. The results made me question what it means to be English. Leisure provided a prism to look at the nation, to capture the quirks and idiosyncrasies, that might reveal something deeper.
The desire for Brexit was largely driven from political actors in England, and so it was within these borders I decided to point my camera. The date for leaving Europe gave me a deadline to work towards, which was very handy for a self-initiated project.
CR: Tell us about the process of bringing the series to life – did you try to capture a broad range of stories?
OG: Initially the series began as a number of smaller editorial stories pitched to Vice and Lodestars Anthology, which helped give the project momentum. The intention was to cut across class in the pursuit of documenting the English. To bring together the countryside and the city, the ancient and the modern, the global and the local. I wanted to explore England beyond the M25 – although not entirely excluding the capital – to take pictures at places I hadn’t been to before.
From the outset I aimed to feature quintessential English high-society events, as well as all-inclusive mainstream festivities, whilst not forgetting smaller scale local fêtes and traditions. The project was in part inspired by photographer Tony Ray-Jones’ brilliant series A Day Off. Before taking any photographs I read Kate Fox’s helpful book Watching the English, an anthropological guide to English behaviour.
CR: Was there anything that surprised you when you compared your initial perceptions of English identity to what you discovered during the process?
OG: My initial perceptions of the English were largely confirmed by what I discovered in the process of shooting Trivial Pursuits. There was a stubborn commitment to having a good time, regardless of the weather; the willingness to dress up, given any excuse; respectful queuing; the sense of humour and importance of competition, governed by a sense of fair play.
Prior to shooting this series and living in London, I wasn’t aware how much the countryside springs to life around Easter, following a bleak three months of winter. Trivial Pursuits crystallised what I had guessed, that the English are quite good at organised fun, and we really need it. It gives inhabitants of this country permission to shed their shyness, let their hair down and really go for it.
CR: What do you hope people take away from reading the book?
OG: The photo book celebrates both the large-scale events that bring everyone together and the weird and wonderful occasions that you might not find anywhere else in the world. The range of festivities photographed, and the way they are paired and sequenced, highlights how similar we all are deep down, even if the outfits vary.
The pandemic has amplified my feeling that the pursuit of pleasure isn’t just a laugh, it brings people together – a deep universal human need that we have taken for granted for many generations.