On June 24th of 2016, the news broke out: the British had voted in favor of Brexit. Perplexed, the Franco-British photographer Ed Alcock travelled to his native country to investigate. A journey immortalised in his project Home Sweet Home, exhibited at Circulation(s), questioning the concept of identity through multiple media. Interview.
Fisheye: How did you start your career in photography?
Ed Alcock: I discovered photography through the British newspaper The Independent when I was around 15 years old. In the end, I decided to study mathematics — I think my parents were scared I was going to choose photography — until my PhD. During my last two years of studying, I began working for my university’s newspaper. At this moment, The Guardian and The Independent were both organising photography contests for students, and I won them both. This was a breaking point for me, and I quickly moved to Paris to work for The Guardian as a correspondent… And then for other newspapers (New York Times, Le Monde, El País…) afterwards.
What are influences?
I am influenced by documentary photography — which interests me because it does not look for staging and it favors images taken on the spot — and literature, in particular non-fiction novels. The writers of this genre (Delphine de Vigan, for example) often draw their inspiration from their own lives by transforming them into something more universal: a familiar approach, which can be found in my series.
How did you think of Home Sweet Home ?
I decided to overlap multiple “layers”. First of all my documentary images, which represented at the same time both Brexit and my own story, and then my questions on my place in Europe, particularly in France. Home Sweet Home could be viewed as a “making-of” since I am developing this series in real time. My procurement of the French nationality and my relationship with this country, as well as the evolution of Brexit, are subjects that keep evolving. As a consequence, my work changes along with current events. If I had to summarise my project, I would say that it blends in Great Britain’s history and France’s, with me in the middle of all this.
As a British citizen, how did you react to the announcement of Brexit in 2016?
I think that nobody really expected those results, so I was pretty perplexed. However, my British origins have allowed me to see things differently. My family comes from Boston, a small East coast town of England, where a lot of people voted for Brexit. I know those isolated English folks, worried about their country’s future, so I understood, in a way, this popular vote.
Can you tell us about the genesis of your series?
As soon as Brexit was announced, I immediately called Le Monde to ask them to send me to the United Kingdom. The idea was to realise the project as solely documentary, a road trip from Scotland to the South of England, and from Wales to London.
I think that one of the biggest mistakes that national and international newspapers committed was to retell the stories of people coming from big cities, who are satisfied with the European Union. So we left the day after the announcement, with the intention to try to understand what had happened in the isolated parts of the country. We travelled across 1,700 kilometers in ten days, stopping here and there, without any exact itinerary, meeting people along the way.
Did you go back to the UK afterwards?
Yes, we did the same itinerary again in 2017, after the Parliamentary elections which were disastrous for the UK Prime Minister Theresa May, who had just lost her majority. We came back to the exact same places in order to interview the same people. The idea was to go back a third time, in March 2019, for the Brexit announcement, however since it did not take place, the project was pushed back. Next step? Probably in May 2019.
You mentioned the overlapping of the “layers” in your project. Can you tell us more about it?
After creating my documentary images, I overlapped them with texts from a textbook produced for French middle schoolers in the 1950’s — at the time of the EEC creation (European Economic Community, ancestor of the European Union). This work, called Collection England, is redacted in English, and resonates with current photographs, a link between the beginning of the European Union and its end.
I then asked myself: “How does one become French?” While in 2016 the UK entered an identity crisis that was externalised through Brexit, France has also lived the same phenomenon. After the terrorist attacks, politicians such as François Fillon or Nicolas Sarkosy declared that “A real French citizen has Gallic ancestors“, an appalling statements for this era.
How did this statement inspire you?
I did a lot of research, and discovered that this sentence originates from the 3rd Republic. After the Revolution, France was still divided. Historians were looking for a figure (not a monarch) that could represent the French identity. They finally chose the Gallic, not really popular before that. Starting from this founding text — taught in France until the 1960s! — I overlapped portraits of my family over several generations, and of myself.
What have you learned from your trip to the UK?
I think that travelling to England so many times was insightful. I discovered with interest people’s rhetoric — those words they all repeated, as if they had learned them by heart. It had been almost twenty years that I had not come back to the country, and I was able to see the changes in the territory. London and its abundance, the rest of the country being neglected. England is a big fat lie. The English people pretend that everything is fine, but it is all false, and the inhabitants are exhausted. This was a very touching revelation to see this raw truth in the people with whom I however disagree with. A curious feeling of intimacy between people of very different political opinions.
© Ed Alcock / Myop