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Our focus on wellbeing took a huge leap forward in and following lockdown. Creativity seemed to take centre stage with many of us finding time to slow down, bake, paint, create.  Claire Griffiths talks to Manchester-based photographer, Tristan Poyser to talk about his past work and current residency in Fleetwood combining nature, photography, and mental health.

On a warm May afternoon, I meet Tristan Poyser at the ever-popular Upside Down cafe to talk about his residency of community workshops at Rossall Beach Observation Tower as part of The Bay: A Blueprint for Recovery.  I have followed Tristan for a while and heard him speak at Manchester’s Redeye Photography sessions, following his work in lockdown which captured disposable face masks and experiences of a temporary job he was forced to take during strange pandemic times.

Poyser studied ecology and environmental biology before moving onto an MSC in biological photographic imaging, graduating in 2003 from The University from Nottingham. He tells me his inspiration was David Attenborough and mostly visual, falling away from theory to be drawn wholly to photography and visual language.

On graduation, and after spending time on a wildlife conservation project as part of his studies on the Greek island of Ikaria, he returned to the UK where he was commissioned to work on a community project with young people exiting care. The brief was to create aspirational images, staged perhaps to offer hope and resilience.

Now working as a commercial photographer for 17 years and currently lecturing at The University of Cumbria, his work has naturally moved towards people, community, and socially engaged practice. I asked him about the term socially engaged photography and what it means to him:

“The term socially engaged photography, can mean many things to many people with lots of nuances. To me socially engaged means facilitating and empowering the people you are collaborating or working with to allow them to tell their own narrative and to represent themselves through either their own work or if needed the photographer or artist facilitating the project. This means that the participants have authorship and copyright or at the very least co-authorship and copyrights. It also means that the people your working with should be part of the design of the project you’re facilitating.”

Our conversation leads him to chat about personal struggles, and how he has used photography to work through grief and other difficult circumstances such as learning to live with ADHD. He suggests he does not think of himself as an artist and his commercial work can often be found in architectural journals.

He tells me his real joy is being drawn to project-based work such as The Invisible In-between: An Englishman’s Search For The Irish Border or  Masked: a Portrait of Amazon – the latter being a lockdown inspired projects. I get the sense of an incredibly hardworking photographer, who asks questions through his practice, creates connections and far-reaching storytelling.

Some of our conversations swings towards his time working for Amazon in lockdown and the images that he created alongside the temporary job he was forced to take. The photographic work consisted of images of people of 120 different nationalities who he met while working night shifts. The Amazon workers hold signs of what was missed when the pandemic held us captive and raise questions about the personal risks taken in low-income jobs.

It was during this time that his regular exercise routine fed into his interest in biophilia, the innate theory of the human condition, and the need to connect with nature. An opportunity to slow down, and breathe, it was a connection many made in lockdown. Blackpool, for example, looked very different without visitors. The sea seemed even more expansive, the roads clear and the streets clean.

Poyser began to take his medium format camera to the space he ran through, slowing down the photographic process to almost pay homage to nature, and the changing seasons, creating a connection to bird song and taking back ownership of the place while documenting the exact same spaces through their seasonal changes.

We chatted about the film photographic process as a series of experimentation and letting go, mistakes as a way to release, a way to accept things going wrong.

While photographing Philips Park in Bury, Poyser connected with Jenni Lea a Nature and Wellbeing officer from The Wildlife Trust who looked after the area uncovering further historical information, including that the space had been used in 18th-century naturalist studies.

Together they created a series of community workshops using mobile phone photography to uncover the wellbeing elements associated with photography. The resulting images were staged with the community in Philips Park, creating an almost new landscape and as part of the Prestwich Arts Festival exploring elements of social prescribing and how we can explore green spaces to benefit mental health.

The Phillips Park sessions explored the Five Ways to Wellbeing, connecting to people, physical activity, learning new skills, giving back to the community, and being present (living in the moment) which kickstarted Poyser’s new relationship with The Wildlife Trust’s The Bay wellbeing project, stationed at Rossall Point.

Over the course of eight weeks, Poyser hosted photography workshops to encourage Fleetwood and Wyre communities to experience coastal nature using cameras. The sessions culminated in AQA awards for participants and aimed to raise confidence, problem-solving, connection, and learning new things. In July and August, the images, featuring collages, cut outs, and traditional photography will be shown as an outdoor exhibition at The Lower Lighthouse in Fleetwood to create a legacy for further community work. Keep your eyes peeled on their Facebook page for more info.

Talking to Poyser was inspiring and there is so much more I could say about his practice and the unfolding of his work which seems to flow naturally from one project to the next. His next project is related to the Scottish Borders and will explore identity, perception, well-being and post-industrialisation.

To follow him and find out more about Poyser’s work visit tristanpoyser.com
THE BAY offers free to attend nature and wildlife events. To find out more visit. www.thebay.org.uk/events
As well as nature and wellbeing sessions via self-referral or referral through NHS or social prescribing. 

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