On a dry, grey day several weeks before Lockdown 2, I take a train from south London to somewhere in Surrey and watch as the city thins out into suburbia and finally countryside, as houses are replaced by great expanses of green. Photographer Daisy Walker – bounding with energy and dressed in riding gear – picks me up from a small village station and together we head further into the country, winding down not-quite-a-road lanes, until we arrive at a stable. This is where Monty, the horse Walker rides once a week (thanks to a deal she’s struck with his owner) lives, and where the 30-year-old has been coming to escape the stresses of being a London-based creative freelancer trying to weather the storm of a pandemic.
Although a passion for environmentalism underlines much of her work, Walker is a fashion photographer by trade – having worked with brands like Stella McCartney, Vivienne Westwood, and Loewe. Her new exhibition, Reunion, is a way of bringing her focus on nature together with another of her work’s primary subjects: the female body. Supported by womenswear brand Ssōne – whose ethos of sustainability and responsible design colours everything they do – and hosted in their store on London’s Chiltern Street, Reunion is a personal rediscovery of nature. Comprised of a series of nude portraits and self-portraits, the project is what Walker describes as a representation of “the human and the environment being two equal parties in a relationship”.
At its heart is the idea of a return to nature. “I’ve always been connected to nature, but definitely felt that there was a closeness to it that I had lost, which I think is true of most people living in London,” Walker says, handing me a brush as we go to work on Monty’s shining chestnut coat. A horse rider since she was three, Walker was a competitive show jumper until she was 18, competing at a national level and spending every weekend without fail outside with horses, most of the time on her own. But when she left for university, she hung up her helmet and spent the next ten years out of the saddle. It took a pandemic (during which, despite being young and fit, a case of Covid brought her very close to hospitalisation) to get her riding again.
“I’ve always felt, and I think most people do, if something bad happens in your life, you go for a walk, or you do something to get outside. That’s why I think so many people have returned to nature during lockdown,” she surmises. “I also realised that there were parts of myself from my childhood that I had had to distance myself from, like horses, and so this time has been about just allowing myself the space to return to that.”
Although the project involved her stripping naked in the middle of a forest, Walker wasn’t fazed. “I feel such comfort in natural spaces, and such comfort now in my body, that being naked, the middle of the forest, with some lights and a mirror felt great.” That comfort with her body took time: several years ago, the photographer started shooting nude images of herself as a way to reclaim agency over her body and process the trauma of past sexual abuse. “When you look down the lens, you have no choice but to find beauty in what is there – that’s your job as a photographer,” she explains. “So you’re forced to see yourself more objectively and find beauty in whatever you see. And so I think it really was, unintentionally, a process of learning to love myself. It was a healing process.”
Reunion also saw Walker explore collage, making new images inside of the images she’d taken, transforming the body itself into a landscape. This experimentation was thanks to the complete creative freedom she was awarded by Ssōne, who she credits for being fully invested in sustainability as well as in creativity. “They just offered me an exhibition, there were no parameters at all,” she says of their work together. “It was just the most liberating, freeing thing.”
For Walker, the project also represents a shift in mindset away from the careerism demanded by the London fashion industry. Walker, whose independent nature is one of her defining traits, gave up an office job with a steady paycheck after saving up enough money to see her through the first months of her photography career and has been steadily focused on her work ever since. “We all live this sort of rat race in London being a creative, being a photographer – you constantly think, oh, I’ve got to be here, and I’ve got to make sure that all my time is based around, I don’t know, ’making it’ or whatever,” she says rolling her eyes as she reflects on the last few years. That “bubble”, as she puts it, has been burst by the pandemic: her sense of perspective has changed.
“You don’t have to be living that same lifestyle that we’ve all been living, working Monday to Saturday, or even Sunday, working evenings, never putting our phones down, never having any distance or space from social media, never having the moment to close the door and just focus inward,” she says, climbing onto Monty before we head together into a forest where, for the first time in months, I feel no interest in checking my phone. “Being in nature is the opposite of that.”
Reunion opens 15 December 2020 at Ssōne, 17 Chiltern Street, Marylebone, London W1U 7PQ.