Homeward Bound

  • Photography  James Wrigley
  • Text  Anna Sanders

Time stands still in Wrigley’s ode to Widnes: a town that is, was, and will go on to be. The way a stream cuts into the earth around obstructions, the unmoving town both welcomes change, and stands in testament against it. Quiet images attest to a slower way of life, to a lingering industrial culture on which strong communities were built upon. Steam billows up from stacks, the backdrop to suburban landscapes and land waiting for development; boys peer from under hoodies and under cigarette lined streets; the lady at the local cafe grins with heartfelt sincerity.

There is an all-encompassing sense of history and community felt throughout this quiet, humble pean to where you are from. The poetic inflexions of Northern England’s deep rooted narrative are keenly felt in images that echo of pride, and of that instinctively familiar sense of home.

We spoke with James prior to the publication of his four-part series, about his heartfelt social documentary, and a town called Widnes.

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AS: There is something nostalgic about your images, both for a way of life and for the family home, was this a deliberate aesthetic, to capture that feeling of something lost to us?

JW: I would say that it was accidentally deliberate, I always knew that there would be an element of nostalgia within the work, in fact the project ended up becoming a somewhat retrospective on the town and the people in the series. In the early days of planning this series I wanted to create something that referenced the iconic eight towers from Fiddlers Ferry Power Station using them as a metaphor: the eight towers of widnes, rugby, family, industry and factories, community values and so on. I still kept a lot of those elements within the work, but in a much more considered narrative.

How has your time at University affected how you view your home town, has your view of the city altered?

When I left Widnes I honestly felt like I would never want to return. I had felt a huge lack of inspiration from the place and was desperate to just move to somewhere new, then I hit my second year at University and started to read a lot of photographic theory and essays on social documentary photography, thats when I started to view Widnes entirely different. I think a good way to explain it is that I finally understood my hometown and the people that live there. Moving down south, there is a very different attitude and sense of place and that was something I wouldn’t have even noticed if I hadn’t of moved away, and I was fortunate enough to see my home town from both an insider and outsider perspective.

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Have you photographed places that are significant to you, and if so was your intention to document your view of Widnes – or were you simply drawn to these places more so than others?

There are certainly places that have more significance to me over others, but each of the images have something in them that help reveal characteristics of the town, for example, the landscape images of Widnes in this series, most if not all have something that represent the town or its history. The inclusion of rugby posts represents the towns connection to the rugby league and if you look closely I don’t think that there are many images that don’t include factories or industry. In fact the last shot in the series used to be my high school before it got knocked down.

Are the people you photograph personally known to you, or do you combine images of family and people you meet to build the sense of community within your imagery?

Most of the people are not known personally to me, but towards the end I felt that it made sense and was appropriate to include my own personal connections. There was a lot going on at home at the time, family issues, the sort that every family will go through in one form or another, and it made sense for me to document these moments. It’s this mixture of family and people who I am not personally attached to that allow the images to express a sense of community.

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In publishing the project across four books, do you hope for each to tell a different story of Widnes, or are they intended as chapters in a greater narrative?

When I was sorting the running order of the images I wanted the selection to reference the state of the town. I photographed a stone masons in Widnes while working on this series, a family ran business, it had been there for years and pretty much every family will go to this mason, the court yard had grave stones everywhere, some new, some years old; when I was selecting the images I made the choice to spread the images from this one location throughout the entire series. I started to reference the back and forth of the town, its constrained sameness, its wanting to become something more that it will ever be, yet it still keeps some of its culture and community values. The four books are definitely chapters in a greater narrative, the series split nicely into sections based on location and theme, but I’m hoping people take their own perceptions on the split sections.

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Do you see the project as a continuous social documentary, or were the several months you spent photographing a significant time for you?

Both. Parts of the series have captured moments that were significant to me at the time, specifically some of the shots of family members, the last book in the series specifically focuses on that. I want to photograph through till the end of the year as it has been such a pivotal one in many ways so felt right to document the year as a whole and then decide on what the next steps with the series will be.

What projects will you be working on next?

Currently I’m looking to explore industry of the UK, what certain areas and towns are known for and explore the loss and rise of certain industries within these towns and counties.

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