“This ain’t no puppet show”: In his award-winning body of work, documentary photographer Edward Thompson uncovers the “everyday uncanny” in and around the county of Kent
“The late, great photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson said that ‘all you have to do is live and life will give you pictures’ and in that sense that is what this work is about: life giving me pictures,” says Edward Thompson. The British photographer is talking about his long-term body of work, In the Garden of England, which has just been awarded a prize at this year’s Sony World Photography Awards. Thompson has been working on the series, which he describes as “a collection of photographs covering everyday life in and around the county of Kent”, for the past 18 years. If the description sounds unremarkable, the images are anything but.
Shot in Folkestone, Canterbury, Ramsgate and Margate among other places in Kent, the work brings together portraits of everyday people and landscapes, a subject matter that is on the face of it very ordinary: community gatherings, kids, families enjoying the great outdoors. These are all real moments, nothing is faked, says Thompson – a float with beauty queen wannabes or an old boy dressed in military garb seem innocent enough – and yet there is an undeniable sense that not everything is as it seems.
“I was always interested in the everyday uncanny,” says Thompson. “I love work by American photographers such as Diane Arbus and Joel Sternfeld whose images have a cinematic quality that often also subverts everyday life. My documentary work is about subverting reality through the nature of the photographic moment, but at the same time also showing reality.”
The majority of the photographs were made between assignments and self-initiated projects, says Thompson, whose work has been published and exhibited widely. Although In the Garden of England was conceived many years before Brexit, it is difficult not to view the work through a post-EU referendum lens. “Looking through the wider edit, I can see many of the themes that were factors in the lead up to Brexit – nostalgia, class, xenophobia, folklore,” he says. “These are inherent in the work because it was in the zeitgeist. Working as a documentary photographer chronicling the time you are in you can’t help but absorb the era into your work.”
Photography has enabled Thompson to live many lives and have many jobs, he says, and he never tires of what it might bring. “I’ve photographed in refugee camps in Lebanon and India and I’ve photographed billionaires. I was outside City Hall in London once when Boris Johnson was mayor and a guy, an ex-boxer, had a punch mitt attached to his hand with a blond wig glued to it. We talked for about 30 minutes and something he said stayed with me: ‘This is real life, this ain’t no puppet show.’ That is what I love about going out and photographing everyday life – I never know what I’m going to find, I never know what I am going to see. This ain’t no puppet show.”
The 2019 Sony World Photography Awards Exhibition is at Somerset House from April 18 – May 6, 2019.