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Coalville Photographed

Chris Mear

Born, raised and currently living Leicestershire (UK), Chris Mear has been making photographs over the last decade about the industrial history of the English landscape and its people, exploring its past and present. Mear uses his photography as a way to understand the social, economic and physical impact that the time of de-industrialisation, which coincided with his own lifetime, has had.

Within this decade, Mear began to work with a local photographer he had discovered online; this meeting of artists eventually led to a collaborative project, Mear losing then recovering his photographic mojo and, ultimately, a series of videos and wonderful “shared” photobook produced by Mear. This interesting and unusual take reminded us of the importance of collaboration and working together with other artists — without competition, not a race to the top, but shared progress, failures and successes.

Read the full story below:

What’s your story?

I was born in 1990 as the coal mining industry was coming to an end. I grew up in a mining village on the Leicestershire/Derbyshire border in the middle of England. My childhood home stood directly opposite what was the main entrance to the village’s coal mine, but all I remember was a huge field with tall grass; tall enough for me to lose myself in my imagination on a daily basis.

One day when I was playing in that field, I fell over a large brick that had the numbers “1919” carved into it. I remember finding it super exciting and incorporated it into the scene I was acting out that day; I think I gave it the role of a bomb, most likely because an unexploded bomb had been found in that field weeks, or months, before. Me and my grandma had been evacuated to the community centre to feast on pop and cobs and gossip for a few hours. When my Mum called me in for tea though, and as with every other fantasy I acted out in that field, the brick was as good as forgotten forever.

Years later, after my failed football career and after many other childhood dreams had fizzled out, I somehow stumbled onto the path of being a twenty-one year old aspiring photographer… though that’s not very poetic either is it?

I’d just graduated and received a bursary from the Snibston Discovery Museum in a nearby town called Coalville. Alongside the mentorship and experience offered with the bursary I was expected to simply write a proposal for an artwork in response to the museum. Simple enough — except that my writing is horrendous. Back then it was even worse.

Around this time is when I began to become aware of the social and geographic change that had been occurring all around me since the day I was born. As the frustration with my writing took hold, I decided to do what I was beginning to feel was all I could do; just shoot my project and let the words write themselves as it all unfolded.

For a good couple of years, I’d known that I wanted to photograph people but I’m naturally shy, painfully so, and up until then I’d never got over that barrier. But for some reason — maybe the pressure of feeling like I had to produce something for the bursary — I pushed myself.

I sat down with my grandma and made a list of all the old miners she knew, then I grabbed the phone book. I took several deep breaths and gave them all a call. This process soon led me back to my childhood village, just around the corner from my childhood home to the home of a former miner who once worked down the pit that eventually became the field that I loved so much.

He told me so much. It was a wonderful, simple, pivotal moment in my life but the thing that really sticks in my memory is what he told me about the day the demolition at the mine began. Although I didn’t record his words exactly, the story went something like this: he managed to get permission to enter the demolition site and have a look around. Inside one of the colliery buildings he noticed a brick above the door, one that looked familiar to him. It was a brick he used to pass under most days, a brick that had the number “1919” carved into it. He asked if they would leave the brick behind for him, and they did just that. He promptly forgot about it and went on with his life.

So that brick became the final piece of the village’s coal mine. Grass I remember so fondly grew around it, slowly obscuring it from sight and inevitably leading to one of my more significant childhood stumbles just a few years later.

So realising this story was really the catalyst for an increasingly serious and real belief that perhaps I could make something out of photography.

I was interested in narrative, trying to make stories from the real world, but up until that point I’d struggled with it. After that point, my work just started to happen very organically. I was bouncing from one picture to the next. I think that’s when you know you’re onto something; when you find solid ground with every step. It’s not often like that but when it is, it’s magical.

What kind of photography are you interested in?

I like photography that subtly lures my mind into a journey. A narrative. Something that captivates my imagination past more than just one photograph.

I think if there is an art to photography now, it’s that. Because anyone can take a great shot. The photography that usually succeeds, for me, draws on many different genres. It doesn’t restrict itself. It makes a visual poem out of the chaos of reality. And it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Talk to us about your collaborative ‘Coalville Photographed’ project.

To properly explain Coalville Photographed I need to go back a bit.

In 2014 I came up with a book-based project called Just Passing By and I was lucky enough to be able to convince the museum in Coalville (the one which awarded me the bursary) to fund a six month residency for me. So I photographed the town and its people, I recorded their thoughts and feelings about the place and how it had changed, and after the residency was completed it all came together as a book.

I’m a big photobook kind of guy and the idea of narrative was high on my agenda, so I was looking for new ways to try and create that in Just Passing By.

While doing some research, I came across a Facebook page entitled Coalville Photographed and it greatly intrigued me. I introduced myself to the author, Graham Ellis, and asked him if I could join him when he went out to photograph content for his page. He said yes, so that’s what I did.

The idea at the time was that I would photograph him photographing a Coalville location and then ask him for his thoughts, ideas, feelings or relationship to that particular place. My aim was to produce an alternative narrative, or perspective, of Coalville that would conflict and contradict my own.

It was an effort to address the problem of perceived objectivity from a medium that can only ever be subjective. To present two different points of view simultaneously. But the museum didn’t really fancy it and told me to leave that idea and crack on.

But I kept going out with Graham. I liked his company, and my thoughts about my project with him continued to appeal to me. After the residency finished and died down, however, I got a bit lost and became disillusioned with photography. I was pretty much done with it to be honest.

One morning, we were out at an ex-colliery site and he was photographing some red berries. I wasn’t photographing anything, but he was so excited about these bloody berries. As he was making the shot he was talking, just a mixture of technical commentary and personal chit-chat, but it just made me smile. And then I started to film him — as you do!

I just stood back, shut up and observed him. It was like I was studying him really. I allowed myself to just disappear. I really admired his unpretentious, passion and enthusiasm for photography. Every other Thursday morning became the perfect retreat from the world of concepts, artist statements and networking that I was beginning to feel drenched in. It was an exercise in not taking it too seriously, but making serious work — with a wink and a smile.

The Coalville Photographed zine came about because I wanted the work to physically exist in the world. Something you could touch. I feared it getting lost in the vast, random, craziness of the internet, so I started to think about how could do that.

After we shot the eighth film, I got my photographic mojo back. During this time, I realised that I was able to be more “invisible” as a photographer than I could as a camera person. When I filmed, people always seemed to play up to the camera — but when I photographed I could give the illusion of switching off, relaxing, and that made the person in front of the camera relax. That’s when they really reveal something.

I decided then to make a series of photographs alongside the films, because I felt the photographs offered an additional insight. Making the zine also allowed me to organise a book signing event with Graham at Coalville Library. There was no lofty ambition and it was sort of tongue in cheek but it was great, just a little personal boost for both of us I think, and that should never be underestimated. And we made the Leicester Mercury newspaper! We donated a copy to the library too, and I found it recently in the ‘Local History’ room. That made my day.

How did it all come together?

Looking back, I was interested in his motivation for doing the Facebook page. I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with social media and I’d been keen for some time to make work that addressed that unease in some way, and here I had an opportunity to make work about photography, social media and Coalville. It was a perfect opportunity to channel my thoughts and feelings into something creative really.

The ideas around photography and subjectivity continue all the way through, but new things kept cropping up along the way. There’s a lot going on when I think about Coalville Photographed! I’m hesitant to delve too far into them though because I want to leave the work as open as possible to subjective interpretation.

Why does the subject of post-industrial transition interest you and why is it important to you?

I always say it stems back to that field and the desire to understand the land I used to love to play with and on. I don’t know if it sounds daft but I genuinely get excited by that coincidental little story about the brick. It was the way that that ex-miner took the initiative to save the brick and then later display it that really inspired me to start photographing my perspective of the post-industrial landscape.

All of these photographs and little books are kind of my equivalent to his brick, and hopefully someone will trip over them one day! But, when you can find a personal connection, or story, to a place, or a universal topic — deindustrialisation, in this case — no matter how small or stupid it might seem to most people, it can be really exciting and inspiring. And, without sounding too serious or cliché, life-changing.

Especially so in a post-industrial place like this where it’s easy to say that there’s nothing here, the glory days are over… A kid can grow up and easily get depressed with the lack of jobs and opportunities and things to do, and I speak from personal experience. But finding a little connection and then building something creative on it can make even the most boring and empty landscapes feel like somewhere you want to stay and explore.

It doesn’t even really matter if anyone looks at or likes my work anymore, because through making my work I’ve created somewhere I want to be. And I’ll always have that now.

On the subject of de-industrialisation though, it’s important to continue to explore the effects it continues to have on a town like Coalville because it is still having an impact even though the mines ceased production almost thirty years ago.

In Just Passing By I photographed the town and it’s people, but I also recorded their unedited thoughts and feelings. It was a bit of an odd position in a way because it was partly funded by the people who make the decisions that so many local people are angry about and feel let down by, and yet because I was working through the museum I was far enough removed to be able to let the people say exactly what they wanted and I could get away with recording it in print.

On top of that, about half way through the residency it was announced that the museum had to close. This sparked even more emotion in the responses I was receiving.

I’m really proud of that book. I’m glad it exists. It expresses a lot of anger, sadness, and sense of abandonment — but it’s expressed with a dry, melancholic sense of humour that could only come from Coalville. I hope that it records how Coalville felt at that moment in time, because they haven’t been listened to.

What’s next?

Who knows? As my grandma says, “tomorrow never comes” so I’m just enjoying the therapeutic quality of talking to you about all this right now. I’m re-evaluating my Coalville work though; it’s ended up being three separate projects over the years but I’m now seeing them as one. I’m working on a book dummy to bring it all together. I won’t be self-publishing again though, at least not for a very long time. I’m over that craze!

Also, I’m quite excited by the pictures that I’ve started making lately. I’m trying to become more zen, in my life as well as my practice, and my approach is changing quite a lot. My thoughts about photography, my desires to do “projects” seem to be changing too, so it’ll be interesting to see what I do with my pictures next. We will see.

What are you recommending today?

READ: Hide That Can by Deirdre O’Callaghan

WATCH: Synecdoche, New York

LISTEN: You Want It Darker by Leonard Cohen

Tell us about one photograph that has influeced you.

Hide That Can by Deirdre O’Callaghan.

I was at college one day — I would have been 19, I reckon — and I was editing some pictures and getting typically frustrated with them and myself. I noticed this book on the table behind me. A lone, bearded ginger man chewing on the hair of his moustache, hiding his eyes with his stained green hat and yet still somehow connecting directly with me.

It’s probably the most comforting photograph I’ve ever seen, and probably my favourite when I think about it. So I picked it up and just devoured it, cover to cover. I must have wasted the whole college day sat in the same spot studying it, but it was the most worthwhile and educational day in my educational life.

It was funny, it was brutal, it was devastating. It was real. It combined text and image in a way I’d never seen before. It listened to the subjects, which made me listen to the subjects. The photographer was invisible and the medium of photography was irrelevant. Not only did it educate me on so many different levels, but in that moment, it made me feel less alone. Pretty extraordinary for book, eh?

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