Behind the Photograph - Julia Fullerton-Batten

Photography on a Postcard is back for its second year as the official charity partner of Photo London. The exhibition includes over 500 photographs - each an edition of 1 - generously donated by leading contemporary photographers. World-renowned photographer Julia Fullerton-Batten has kindly donated work to this year’s auction. We met with her to discover more about her work and the stories behind her photographs!

Genie, USA, 1970 - Julia Fullerton-Batten

What makes a great photograph for you?

What makes a great photograph for me, is when I look at the image and think, “Wow! I wish I’d shot that!” It will evoke a special feeling, an emotion. I definitely appreciate images that are different to those we see every day and am not at all drawn to cliched stock imagery or banal lifestyle types of images.

Your photographs have a very detailed and often emotional story behind them (such as your series Feral Children, 2015) - how do you decide which themes/stories to investigate and capture?

I get inspiration from anywhere - observations of the world around me, news reports, reading books and magazines, visits to museums and art galleries, cinema, casual conversations, meeting people, etc. I will select one based on its appeal to me personally and have a gut feeling that I can make it into a successful project. ‘Blind’ was inspired by my father-in-law gradually losing his sight, my sadness for him and the realisation how precious sight is to us all, especially photographers. Being myself a mother I could easily relate to the tragedies of the ‘Feral Children’ cases. Curiosity was behind my choice of ‘The Act’, why some highly educated women would exploit their bodies and their sexuality to engage voluntarily in the sex industry. All of these projects were to take a topic and through various episodes expand that single theme into a narrative of a number of ‘visual stories’.

After reading her book “The Girl with no Name” an autobiography by Marina Chapman, I felt that I had to make her story into a photographic project. I was surprised no one else had as it’s an unbelievable story even if many have chosen not to believe the details Marina tells about her tragic early life. In fact, many publishers refused to touch her book because they thought it was untrue. Her story starts when she was five years old and was kidnapped then left by her kidnappers in a Colombian rain forest. She survived in the forest by copying the behaviour of a band of capuchin monkeys who befriended her. Several years later she was discovered by hunters, but they sold her into a brothel as a young servant girl, later to become a sex-slave. She was fortunate to escape and then lived on the streets with other homeless children. Her life changed when a friendly woman rescued her. She was adopted by a daughter. More relatives sent her to Bradford in the UK where she now lives, married to a British scientist and has children.

There were other equally heart-wrenching ‘stories’ that I chose for this project, but Marina’s story is the one that was central to my idea for the ‘Feral Children’ project. I was delighted to meet Marina in person a few years ago when Vice Media interviewed us. The reaction from the press to this interview was overwhelming and I was interviewed non-stop for 3 weeks by other media agencies including one with BBC radio.

The aesthetics of the people depicted in your work are vital to the story you are conveying - how do you find the right models, clothing and props?

Finding the right models, clothing and props is crucial to the success of my shoots. I devote a lot of time in the casting process to ensure that I find the right people for the role I want them to play in any of my stories. I meet prospective models personally to explain the shoot and determine if that person is the right one for the role. Beauty is not the major criteria, more character, personality, engagement with joint aims, and chemistry.

I pay especial attention to what the models wear; for example, it is important to find the right clothing for the era of the story I am telling. I and my stylist will search through charity shops or hire vintage clothing. It is important to have a fitting with the candidate before the shoot.

Props are for me an essential asset. They have to be relevant and proportionate. I will often spend days searching through various prop houses, but I am very fortunate to live in a city where there are many of them. There are not many other cities here in the UK or abroad that have the huge London warehouses full of all different kinds of props where I can just meander and choose anything I fancy, budget permitting of

course! If I can’t find what I am looking for in the prop houses I will spend days, weeks even, on the internet and in charity shops searching for that elusive item. The right period tents for my ‘1814 Frost Fair’ shoot was one frustrating search until I found the ones I needed. Mediaeval tents were easy to find, but very few were available for the early 19th Century.

I suppose I am fastidious in my reach for perfection in my planning, but I have found that it usually pays off in success of the final image.

The Thames Whale, 2018 - Julia Fullerton-Batten

Your series Old Father Thames, 2018 was predominantly captured in London. Tell us about your experience of working on-set. How do you organise your shoot location?

The ongoing ‘Old Father Thames’ project came about because I have lived in the proximity of the river since I came to the UK as a 16-year old. One day about three years ago when I went mudlarking with my family on the foreshore of the Thames at low tide, I had an epiphany moment. I realised not only the importance of the river in my life – my career as a photographer, my marriage, my children, but also the significance of the River Thames’ history, customs and traditions to London, England, and indeed to the world.

In this instance my approach to the individual stories had to be different to that of my other projects. Whereas previously I could create my own idea of settings and events here I am recreating actual events that have taken place over centuries. I have to ensure that everything is as authentic as possible – in period, location, costume, props, etc. This attention to detail and to scale means that some ‘stories’ are beyond my capability to shoot them authentically enough.

In the Port of London, the river is tidal and rises and falls by 7 metres twice daily. I have to obtain permission from the Port of London Authority to shoot in any location along this stretch of the Thames. The Authority is very strict on where I shoot and how I handle the situation on the river at low tide. I am obliged to instruct my team of models, stylists and assistants before each shoot about the hazards they could encounter - slip/trip, broken glass, syringes, raw sewage on and around foreshore and the risk of Weils disease through contact with animal and rodent bacteria.

The tidal nature of the Thames severely restricts the time available for the shoot to 4 – 6 hours, including setting up, carrying out the shoot and then removing everything afterwards. Careful pre-planning is needed, knowing when the tide is low and for how long, and arranging the logistics accordingly.

The complete immersion baptism image was shot on location at Cricklade in Wiltshire, 100 miles upstream from London, and on a non-tidal part of the river. Here the difficulties were of another nature as I and my assistants were standing waist deep in the river dressed in full body waders. I held my super precious Hasselblad securely with a tethered lap top precariously mounted on a tripod next to me. My assistants needed great physical strength and great care to manoeuvre flash-lights on stands and heavy batteries around in the water.

I’m amazed that considering the number of times I’ve combatted the tide and deep water I haven’t yet lost any equipment, props, assistants or models.

Do you have any exciting projects coming up you can tell us about?

I have just finished shooting the story of the 1814 Frost Fair of my Old Father Thames project, both as stills and as a short film. This captures the last time when the River Thames froze over completely between London Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge, a fair was held on the ice with an elephant walking across the river. It is my largest project to-date and there is still a lot of editing to work on. You are likely to see the first images in a couple of months and the film shortly afterwards.

I plan on taking a break for a while to shoot other interim projects before shooting more stories along the Thames. I have ideas for these interim projects and more ‘Old Father Thames’ stories , but I’d prefer not to divulge them just yet!

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