Walking, Talking, Snapping and Thinking with Sarah Connolly from Avon Stories.

On 27th July I went for a 4 hour walk and talk with my good friend (and former student) Sarah Connolly, who runs the Avon Stories project, which sees her interview various artists, historians and other interested people about their connections with the river. 

This wasn’t an official Avon Stories walk, and I wasn’t being interviewed, it was more of a personal catch up between myself and Sarah, with fragments of Avon Story vibes in-between. Sarah chose the route. We are both photographers, and the tendency therefore is an innocent walk can be co-opted into a project quite easily.  Therefore what follows are some of the photographs I took (with my phone) during the walk, and some of the things we were talking about, and what it has made me think about in reflection a day later whilst writing this article.  We started and ended at the Arnolfini, (and I’ll ask Sarah for a map of the route we took which I can eventually post a link to here).

Quite early in the walk I became interested in the tents that lined the river along Cumberland Road and Coronation Avenue.  The vulnerability of them on the banks of a stretch of river that is notorious for its rapid rise, as seen last year when it flooded the area.  It is also a stretch that has had it’s fair share of drownings over the years.  The tents are also vulnerable to having things thrown on them from the high pavement above. 

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My awareness of this was heightened as that same morning I had read an article by Isabel Burnett in the Bristol Cable newspaper about the vulnerability of living in a van.  Sarah and I discussed the possible demographics of the people living in the tents, from the hardened homeless rough sleepers, recently arrived migrant workers, and ‘off-grid’ travelers.  In Isabel’s article she partly discusses life in a van from the perspective of someone who has actively made that decision.  The first programme I Directed for television was a documentary on youth homelessness in Bristol in 1997 for HTV, and my heart however goes out to people living in tents who feel they have no other option.  It seems relatively recently (to me) that tents have been popping up illicitly across the city, and I wonder how come it took this phenomenon so long for rough sleepers to adopt. Could they have been inspired by the refugee camps in Calais?  It’s probably not that simple, and maybe tents have always been here and I just haven’t been tuned in to see them? Sleeping rough in a tight corner of the city is more invisible than pitching up a tent on a patch of grass, which is obviously less portable. Rough sleepers tend to move around and not sleep in the same patch for too long, especially given some of the tensions that can happen between homeless people themselves.  A tent could start to feel like a house, like an anchor, and therefore a burden. It can become one more thing to worry about, when homeless people are well known for travelling light and not getting too attached to material items, which they know full well they can be separated from without much effort in a whole myriad of ways.

During the walk I became increasingly interested in the tents.  I didn’t take photographs of all of them, as I am conscious of how objectifying them is ethically dubious and can be part of the problem.  Yet I felt taking a photograph of some of them was my way of noting them, acknowledging them, knowing it needs much further thought and work.

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Walking down Cumberland Rd along the cycle path, it would have been a elephant in the room if we didn’t talk about the infamous Metrobus initiative that is carving up the whole city.  Call me cynical, but the phrase ‘white elephant’ springs to mind. (I won’t implicate Sarah in this, these views are mine.)  I hope is works, but at the moment it strikes me as a huge waste of money and making some irreversible (or at least hugely expensive) changes in the Bristol landscape.  The road works and structural changes across the city have been so extensive that I am surprised there haven’t been *many campaigns, marches, protests etc arguing against them.  (*I say many, but I haven’t actually been aware of any.  I haven’t researched into it, and maybe I’m just out of the loop and there’s protests everywhere that I’m unaware of?)

To make way for the Metrobus route along Cumberland Road, it was sad to see the steam train rail line half covered in tarmac. The beginning of the steam train route used to be down by the Create Centre, so I’m not sure what will happen to it now.  I’ve ridden on the train along that route with my children waving to people along the way, and I have also waved to children who were riding the train with their parents when I’ve been walking down the road, (most probably to go into Spike Island to see some art dahling!).  It was always a fun moment, full of smiles for all involved.  I suspect however that the Metrobus won’t have the same innocent nostalgic feel.  Waving to children riding on the Metrobus may have the effect of being labelled, to put it politely, a suspect. 

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Sarah was interested in the ‘accidental gardens‘  that were springing up along the route, parts of the area that was once used and now fallen into disrepair generated new forms of eco-systems developing, seeing nature reclaiming the land and stake its claim. According to Genevieve Lloyd (in her book ‘The Man of Reason: “Male” and “Female” in Western Philosophy’), the project of Western Civilisation has been the pursuit of men to conquer nature. (Within that discourse, which I will not discuss in length here, Lloyd follows the logic of how that in turn it saw the pursuit of men conquering women – men = culture / women = nature.)  Whenever I see sights as the one below I am reminded of the ideas of Lloyd, and am silently happy at the sight of nature reclaiming its space.

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Another development of the Metrobus has been the renovation of the old rusty bridge on the edge of Greville Smyth park into a bus route.  When the idea was first publicised a few years ago there were campaigns to try and reverse the decision, as the bridge was a popular cycle route, and I sympathised with their concerns.  I also thought the developers were crazy, as the bridge hardly appeared strong enough at the best of times to withhold the weight of a bike, let alone a bus, and hardly looked wide enough.  Now seeing how they have developed the bridge, I think I have to admit that they have done a good job, and I was pleased to see a cycle lane has been retained. (This is obviously being resigned to the fact that the Metrobus thing is happening at all!)  At night the bridge didn’t feel too safe to walk over alone, so hopefully now it will be brighter and more of a public route.  I’m not against change, and even if I didn’t agree with its premise, I guess the next best thing is to hope for a good solution in the outcome that has some compromises built in.  I wasn’t sure about it at the time I was walking with Sarah, but now reflecting on it, I like this new bridge, and wish it a prosperous future.  We were both surprised however that the bridge hadn’t been grafitti’d yet.  Only a matter of time…

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More tents, hiding in plain sight….

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Sarah took me (illegally) up the steps to the control tower on Brunel Way, (after a comedy moment when we tried to climb over a gate that wasn’t even locked!).  I was fascinated by the controls and lights (I didn’t get a photo of the lights sorry), and also in the map of the road system on their desk, (see second image below).  It would be interesting to talk to the guys, (I presume, maybe and hopefully wrongly, that they are men!), who work in here about what they do, and maybe more interestingly, what they see.

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Sarah inadvertently challenged me to try and take an interesting photograph of these pipes, (which she said most of the people she walks with take a picture of). Here you go Sarah….how did I do?  (Maybe don’t answer that Sarah!)  The student becomes the teacher….just the way it should be.

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After stopping for a coffee and food whilst sheltering from the heavy rain, (even though Sarah went out in it with her underwater camera), we continued the walk.  It was obvious that Sarah knew this walk and the sights really well, and she pointed out things to me and explained them, such as this structure which acts as a scaffold to support and hold boats up when you needed to work underneath them.  (I’m sure there’s a better way and terminology to describe that, I can’t quite find the right words at the moment, so hopefully that makes sense).  We both liked how the wooded mechanisms was both efficient, clever and also quite DIY, pleasingly not digital or highly commercially manufactured, but still with clear signs of knowledge, craft and history.  

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The photograph below is my homage to Paul Graham’s Paintings series, with a subtle (accidental) self portrait included.

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A few glimpses along the rest of the walk that don’t need commenting on…

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Three quarters of the way through the walk I realised I needed a shot of Sarah, and tried to snap her when she wasn’t aware.  Sarah isn’t the easiest of people to photograph without her noticing, as she is very chatty and tends to look at you when she is talking. (Outrageous, I know!)  Trying to get a shot of her whilst she is taking a photograph is near impossible.  Even though she was using a film camera, not digital, each time she took a photo she whipped it out of her pocket and returned it faster than Gene Wilder as the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles. See this YouTube clip to see Sarah in action.

This was most my most successful attempt at a candid shot of Sarah, which you can see was a complete failure as she caught me in the act, and my finger was in front the lens.  (I guess I’ll have to call it a partial self-portrait, the same as the Paul Graham shot with my feet.)

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This is Bedminster Skate Park, which I have fond memories of as a teenager.  Aged about 14 I used to come to over from Bath with friends such as Mike, Chris, Daz, Andy, and my cousin Sharon.  Some of us used to do graffiti at the time, (Mike still does it today), and I think for two years the skate park hosted a Hip Hop all-dayer, the most memorable time for me was when it featured The Wild Bunch, (who later become more famously known as Massive Attack), in around 1986.  I still remember seeing Wild Bunch members Mushroom, Milo, 3D and Daddy G around the decks and on the mic.  They were our role models at the time for both graffiti and UK Hip Hop.  Today the thought that we were that young coming over to Bristol from Bath on the bus is quite frightening, considering that our parents would not have had a clue we were there, let alone in a completely different city. As a parent myself now of daughters aged 16 and 13 years old, I can’t even comprehend how scary and dangerous this sounds, but at the time it was (and felt) completely innocent.  We wouldn’t even be hiding it from our parents.  We were just out.  Where we went wasn’t relevant.  I don’t want any of this to sound that any of us had neglectful parents, as none of us did. All our parents were actually quite strict. It was just a very different time.  We were trusted, and we (mostly) never abused that trust, and thankfully nothing went wrong.  This would have been long before the internet and mobile phones.  I’ve no idea how we even knew the event was going on, let alone how to find the place.  

It was during that period of 1985 – 1989, the early days of graffiti in the UK, that I first found the joy of both walking and photography, and also the concept of getting lost and not worrying about it.  Mostly with Mike, I’d come over to Bristol from Bath, and occasionally go to London, and we’d walk for hours looking for graffiti.  In Bristol we’d start in some familiar places where we knew we’d find new pieces, such as Barton Hill, St Pauls, Special K cafe, and Bedminster, but then we’d go off and explore the wider city to see what else we could find.  In London we’d usually head to Ladbrook Grove and Notting Hill first, and see where else we ended up.  (God knows where!?)  In Bristol in 1986 I found the Holy Grail for me at the time, a 3D piece that I had long admired from other people’s photographs and graffiti magazines, but I didn’t have a clue where it was.  Somehow me and Mike ended up in Clifton, and meandering around the streets all of a sudden there it was.  I had a Polaroid camera with me at the time, (aged 14, my first days of becoming a photographer), and with one shot left in the pack I took the shot below.  The coveted 3D piece, next to one I hadn’t seen before by UD4.  I made the decision to capture them both in the single frame, rather than only capture the 3D piece, as I already had a close up of it from a magazine. 

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This is just one of many graffiti shots I have from that time in my photo albums, from our early days of walking, photographing and getting lost at a young age.  Now as an academic I would tend to reference walking theorists and artists such as Hamish Fulton, Dee Heddon, Tim Ingold, and Nadav Kander, but really my inspirations stem from early graffiti photographers such as Henry Chalfant, Martha Cooper, and James Prigoff, as well as the Bristol and London graffiti artists themselves who were brave enough (with their illegal painting) to provide the temporary landmarks and ‘bombed’ spaces to help us navigate the city looking for free art.  These days, if I go to Bristol or London to look for art, I tend to go to the Arnolfini, Tate Modern, or some other gallery.  In those days, without wanting to sound like a cliche, the city streets was the gallery and we never knew who was exhibiting, or where.  No Google Maps, no apps, no phones, not even any DIY paper maps made by graffiti enthusiasts.  Just a pair of young teenagers getting lost in blissful ignorance, not realising how vulnerable we were.

I’ll end this in the same place I started, with a shot of the tent at the start of our walk.  It’s actually only now I’ve pasted it here that I realise it has graffiti behind it. This shot was all about the tent and its surroundings, but not at all about the graffiti, and when taking this photo it felt entirely normal not to look at the graffiti.  How times have changed for me.  However much more importantly, this is someone living in a tent by the river, how time have changed for society.  Should this ever be considered normal?

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Thanks for the walk Sarah.  Looking forward to the next one.

(C) Shawn Sobers – 2017

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