David Severn- Photographing Working Class Culture

It’s all been a very slow burn. Nothing’s happened overnight.

I’m sat at a low table with David Severn, Nottingham based documentary photographer at the Photo Parlour, the film lab & community darkroom space where David has a desk. At 25 David has already had an impressive career receiving awards from the Royal Photographic Society and Magnum, and commissions from the Guardian, Monocle and the New York Times among others. Thanks Maggie, his widest body of work so far, illustrates the current state of coal mining communities in the middle of England. In front of me is my hastily-loaded camera and a fresh pot of coffee which will remain unpoured. We have things to talk about.

We can start from the start if you like?
The first time I got an editorial job was for the Financial Times Weekend magazine. It was a portrait shoot for the First Person section of the magazine, a woman who had a charity in her husband’s name. He was a Red Arrow pilot who’d actually died in a crash at an air show a few years before. That was my first editorial job and I kept working for the FT. If you get your foot in the door it becomes slightly easier to get jobs.

You become one of the colours in their paintbox.

Yeah. So over time I started getting a few more magazine jobs and then I got the City Arts commission.

The one that formed the bulk of Thanks Maggie. And that was a three month job?

It wasn’t three months it was bloody four weeks! It was insane. I don’t think I washed for a month. I can remember at the end of that commission, it was the Format [international photography festival] opening evening that night. I had no time to do anything- I turned up and met my friends and they almost didn’t recognise me! I remember them saying “oh my god what’s happened to you? Where have you been?” But that was that. The commission enabled me to add to the project and finish what I see as a chapter of it. I don’t really see Thanks Maggie as a project that I will finish, with Thanks Maggie that just is my work. I’ve been very lucky to be commissioned to shoot things that are relevant to what I’m interested in. If you’re careful about what you put out there then picture editors will commission you to do that.

So how did you get started? Why the camera?

Art was not really something I could get to grips with. I was clumsy, I couldn’t get the hang of light and shade with a pencil. I think I was quite creative-minded but I had no skill in getting anything on to paper. And then I was bought a camera as a gift- just a digital camera, a point and shoot from somewhere completely unromantic like Dixons. It was the ultimate plaything, I could get results and see them on the back of the screen. I must’ve taken pictures of flowing water and clouds for a year and a half. Ten ND filters in the middle of the day, all that stuff. I was obsessed with titling them with really long names- I think one was called something like End Of Days and then in brackets, My Inner Soul. I did all of that.

And then I saw some work by Todd Hido. It reminded me of my home town and walks home from hanging out with friends, looking at all these houses. I could relate to the idea of a suburban place. I was romanticising - which Todd Hido’s pictures are, they’re romantic- and I couldn’t get over the look of them. The pictures enabled you to kind of see in the dark and they had this beautiful quality, the colours. There’s a tonality. I researched and pulled up other names and I became really obsessed with the documentary style. I wanted to emulate it. I was definitely one of those annoying teenagers that asked “what camera?” which I still get at universities when I do talks. I don’t get angry when students ask those questions- it does matter to an extent. The format obviously matters as far as the aesthetic of the picture, but it doesn’t have any bearing on the idea. Ultimately it’s the idea.

How did you get the impetus to start Thanks Maggie?

Photographing Thanks Maggie was absolutely the last thing I wanted to do! I’d gone to an exhibition opening at Notts comtemporary and was introduced to someody who was also from Mansfield and had gone off to be an environmental officer on a small pacific island called Tuvalu. The issue that Tuvalu is facing is that they’re one of the first islands which would be underwater if the sea level rose and so as an effect of that the local fishing industry is suffering. She wanted to do an exhibition where she comissioned artists to respond to the changing landscapes around the closure of local industry. Which of course meant me going back to Mansfield and taking photos. I’d just moved away from Mansfield, to Nottingham. I’d moved to the city to ‘be an artist’. I was leaving my stuck-in-time, suburban, white, working class town behind where I thought I never fit in, that I was very angry and frustrated with. But it was the first time that anyone had offered me any money to take pictures. It was just money to buy film, get processing, all that. I decided I wanted to use film- it was the first time I’d gone and done that so of course I had to take the opportiunity.

Did that affect the work? The fact that you didn’t want to go back?

Probably in the end it made it better. I did quite quickly realise that actually I have a very valuable asset; an intimate knowledge of the area. My dad worked in the coal industry so I knew about it, I knew where all the pits were, I knew people in the town who could help me out so I could call on all of this for the project. The people I chose to photograph were actually character stand-ins for people I knew and loved growing up. I’m attracted to people and want to photograph them if they remind me in some way of maybe Aunty Barbera or the guy in the pub who used to give me sweets, or the club secretary in the place my Dad used to perform. People who shaped they way that I encounter the world.

That’s an interesting way of seeing things. So what now? You’re starting on this Worker’s Playtime project?

Worker’s Playtime is basically Thanks Maggie- it’s a second chapter which is to do with entertainment, theater & performance in working class communities. It’s completely a follow-on from the parts of Thanks Maggie where I touched on performers like my Dad who’s an Elvis Presley tribute performer, a lot of his friends on the club circuit who are vocalists, comedians, drag acts, ventriloquists even. A lot of them were also coal workers, steel workers, that sort of thing who were using their abilties as performers to make an extra income. There’s actually a really rich history in this relationship between manual labourers and performance which is what I’m looking at in this project.

How far off putting out another piece of personal work are you?

Quite a long way at the minute. The next project that I have in mind is much more contained- Thanks Maggie etc relied on me going to a lot of locations, doing a lot of research myself but with the project I have in mind a lot of the reasearch has already been done by somebody else. With a collaboration I can put something together a lot quicker. This is the thing- early on it feels like you’re really doing it because you’re making money from photography, you’re shooting all the time which is really great but actually as that increases you’re busier than you would be if you had a 9-5 job so it can be a bit of a hinderance to your own work. I’d have more time to work on personal projects if I had a job in an office! There are a couple of things in the pipeline that I may be putting out early next summer in the form of a series of photos but at the moment I’m grabbing everything. As much as I can. It’s great but it’s very busy.

More of David's work can be found at davidsevern.com