It’s always a privilege when an artist completes a residency at No34, so we were rather spoiled when photographer Simon Martin completed two terrific 2-day residences in December of 2016.
Every month this year, the Window Gallery at No.34 has been filled with fantastic art work so it was no surprise to see Simon’s exhibition gather a great deal of interest. In fact the title alone caused fascination; ‘Your Town’ invites people, pedestrians and passers-by to invest some ownership in the place they call home. Simon, who grew up in Sittingbourne, envisaged the project as a “short, sharp way” of getting people to start thinking about the town.
“It is yours; it’s not something that is getting built for you, you can dictate what’s supposed to happen.”
With no shortage of opinions about Sittingbourne, Simon listened attentively to each and every person who popped in, all the while endeavouring to remain neutral himself. Simon commented afterwards how interesting it was to have conversations with so many of Sittingbourne’s current residents. Society today can often feel quite shut off so “any excuse to stop someone and have a conversation is quite entertaining”.
When asked what he imagined his project would produce, Simon openly and honestly admitted that he expected to encounter some annoyed or angry people. “I didn’t want to bring up the development specifically”, Simon remarked, “But I think everyone’s thinking about it and everyone’s ready for it, so it’s been hard not to mention it.”
Having grown up in Sittingbourne, Simon mentioned it was exactly that – the process of growing up – that contributed to his changing perspective of the town. Moving away to study, it was returning as an adult and starting to create work that led Simon to start this more personal project. “It seems silly to photograph a place that I’m from and not even question my own kind of inhabitancy there.”
As a result, time became an insightful part of the project because of the contrasts it provided. The time it took Simon to take each portrait against the bright yellow was relatively short but the process, the conversation, often unearthed historic memories. The speed with which the walls were filled with photographs drew more participants in, meaning the breadth and depth of total time covered grew more and more extensive. Uncovering personal pasts of the town and combining them with people’s hopes for Sittingbourne’s future was eye-opening. Simon hopes to return in fifteen, sixteen years time to do this all again.
Aware of the visual and also the social influence humanity can have on the history of any particular place, Simon acknowledged that it has been interesting attempting to capture both “the actual changing landscape and the face of the people that live here and how it is”.
But capture this he has. The portraits are all full of life and a great representation of Simon’s distinctive photographic style. His subjects are well lit, stylised but not always smiling. Instead, he catches them deep in thought, perhaps pondering the future of the town or maybe something much simpler, like what to have for tea. Combining this with the written statements paints a powerful picture.
It’s easy sometimes to only see Sittingbourne with a negative viewpoint but Simon’s photography seeks to subvert that, capturing its many different facades. We asked Simon for his own hopes for the town and, like almost all of Sittingbourne’s residents, he hopes it changes for the positive.