Over a period of two years, Roo Lewis photographed residents in Port Talbot, a Welsh town fascinated with folklore and storytelling
Off of an unsuspecting turning on the M4 motorway in South Wales lies Port Talbot, a town which, according to its arguably most famous native Michael Sheen, is flush with extraterrestrial activity. On the periphery of its tourist haven counterparts, polluted by an overbearing Steelwork and divided by a motorway, British photographer Roo Lewis set out to capture the pockets of magic that underpin a town fascinated with folklore and storytelling.
Titled Port Talbot UFO Investigation Club, Lewis’ monograph is not a study of UFO sightings but a documentation of the human spirit in a place often overlooked. Over the course of two years, Lewis unearthed a way of life punctuated with the eccentricity of small-town rituals and bound together by the camaraderie of patriotism. Unpicking the inner workings of the quirks and characters which form its tapestry, Lewis captures Miss Wales atop a mountain, Michael Sheen’s father Meyrick who spent decades carving out a career as a Jack Nicholson impersonator and Captain Beany, the man who runs the world’s only baked bean museum from his flat in Port Talbot. Captivating portraiture is met in equal parts by mundane serenity as washing lines buckle in the middle, Christmas lights twinkle on bungalows and the evening sun heading west towards Swansea drenches the town in a honeyed hue.
As the birthplace of the likes of 1920s Hollywood starlet Peg Entwistle, Anthony Hopkins and Richard Burton, what is it about this town that breeds the extraordinary? According to Lewis, it’s the tangible air of drive and ambition that clings to the place and above all, a desire to dream. Lewis’ acutely observant photography pens a winding narrative of human peculiarity, whether UFOs are the one thing that unites Port Talbot or not, everyone who becomes charmed by the rolling Welsh tongue is part of this ‘club’ – whatever it may be.
Below, in his own words, Lewis sits down with AnOther to share the story of his latest book.
“I put posters around town saying, ‘Have you seen a UFO?’ I probably shouldn’t have put my actual number on there in hindsight because I got a lot of calls. I enjoy the way we project our own views of the metaphysical world onto UFOs: some people go straight to God, some people go to Martians and some people simply say, ‘There are no aliens.’ I think it says a lot about a person when they express what they think existence is, we all look up to the sky and wonder. It’s about this idea of folklore, it’s not about finding the truth. I don’t care if it’s true or not – I love the story. I think any idea of faith or hope is what keeps us going.
“Port Talbot is hard to describe, it’s very weird. It’s surrounded by areas of outstanding natural beauty and it’s a scar in the middle of the landscape with the Steelworks at the centre. You don’t understand until you visit but there is this tangible thing you can’t put your finger on. There is an industry in the blood. The Welsh are the greatest storytellers too, I heard a lot of tales of George Lucas staying overnight in Port Talbot. Apparently, the cranes on the dock inspired AT-AT Walkers because the Steelworks is called Tata Steelworks so it’s just spelt backwards and you think, ‘Wow that's amazing.’ Then you realise Tata took over the steelworks in the 90s and Star Wars was made in the 70s. [Laughs]. I love storytelling, I think it’s how we understand life and the world.
“So many incredible people hail from the town. Anthony Hopkins, Richard Burton, and Michael Sheen all came from Port Talbot. Paul Potts and Diane Botcher live there too. There’s a drive and an idea of hope which orbits the place. A personal favourite resident of mine was Pancho from Dirty Sanchez, a skate show that came out on MTV in the early 2000s. As silly as it was, it was such a big part of my formative youth. I randomly saw him in town and his portrait was one of the last shots I did, I filmed him rowing a boat reading Clown In The Moon by Dylan Thomas. There is a wonderful rhythmic quality to the Welsh tongue which comes from years of evolution of sharing stories and a rainbow came out over the Steelworks while we were shooting, it was the wildest moment.
“Camaraderie exists in the air in Port Talbot, we all find a club of some sort. I photographed a modelling boat club in the book and it sheds light on that idea of companionship. You might not be able to communicate well with other people, you might not fit in but you find your niche, you find your club and you can communicate in a language you understand. I like that idea of having faith in something, a yearning to connect as humans with someone or something.
“I think it’s really hard to tell positive stories well, without them seeming a little bit contrived. It’s easier to tell negative stories. I want to celebrate the people in this book. We can laugh at the absurdity of it and that’s the point because it is an industrial town, I didn’t want to fall into the trap of making it look bad. There is a lot of mundanity but there is also a lot of beauty. It would have been a lot easier to photograph shopping trolleys in rivers. I’m not trying to say it’s something it’s not, I’m just trying to celebrate what it really is.
“I love the idea of looking up into the sky and dreaming, it’s all about the pursuit of something. I think that’s what we connect on, it’s our shared human experience and Port Talbot in itself is a very human story. There is this wonderful pub culture where people sit around and talk. I love meeting people and listening – talking bullshit is one of the most valuable things you can do. My perception of the town kept evolving over the two years, you can feel the energy, the sounds, the smells and the people but it’s not a utopia. I love it and love everyone I’ve met, I’ll always go back.”
Port Talbot UFO Investigation Club by Roo Lewis is published by Gost Books and is out now.