Your Town – One Year On by Simon Martin

Portrait exhibition

This month at Ideas Test sees the return of photographer Simon Martin, with his insightful long-term project documenting Sittingbourne and its residents. Your Town – One Year On is a continuation of the project Simon worked on at No.34 last December. This time he is in residency across two consecutive Saturdays, and once again inviting people into No.34 to share thoughts and opinions on their hometown, with his characteristic warmth and care.

On Saturday 2nd December, Simon Martin arrived and transformed No.34 into a temporary portrait studio! This time he photographed participants against a striking blue backdrop (last year’s background was yellow, some of you remember). Simon has an incredible knack for capturing people’s personalities and the results are on display for everyone to see in the Window Gallery, proudly right at the front of the building. The images naturally draw people’s eyes in; the portraits all pinned up in a uniform fashion each accompanied by some text written by each person depicted.  The blue hue brightens these dull wintery days. In the screening area just behind, Simon has curated a display of some of his other photographs of Sittingbourne taken over the past few years. His work creates an immediate rapport with visitors, giving a sense of familiarity through identifying places that they know. A couple, who happened to be passing by, spotted Simon’s work from the window and quickly popped in for a chat.  It turns out that Simon had photographed their car – a classic MG model – some years earlier.  Despite the time that has passed they instantly recognised Simon and his photography. An example of what a great impact photography can have by capturing a singular moment that resonates for years to come.

Simon’s projects often centre around capturing ‘a snapshot of time’ – here, that snapshot is focused on Sittingbourne, documenting as the town’s developments continue and grow. ‘Change is inevitable, and in some cases necessary, but the way places are developed is something that interests me. How much say a community has in how their home is cultivated into a space for future generations’, Simon expanded when we asked him about the ideas surrounding the exhibition. His interest in Sittingbourne is embedded in his own sense of identity as a result of growing up here. Simon conceived the idea as early as 2014, when he moved home from studying in London. ‘Finding a drained sense of familiarity towards my home town, I felt the need to document its change and the parallel change of feelings I had towards it,’ Simon explains. Creating work at No.34 around this concept continues to inspire Simon, largely because it’s a long term project which means ‘the desire to make work for it is always there’. Simon also tells us he is considering beginning a ‘study of the same subject matter to my current living space in Gravesend as it is facing similar situations and attention from developers’.

A row of portraits
Photo credit Kyra Cross

Your Town, the first instalment of this ongoing long-form exhibition at No.34 in 2016, was a great success.  It truly gave space for the public to articulate different attitudes towards Sittingbourne. His approach to this residency remains the same now, in part because of how pleased Simon was ‘with how people interacted with the whole process and managed to vocalise their feelings through the work’.  Repeating the simple temporary studio set-up as 2016 for Your Town – One Year On enables open expression of thought, giving people the freedom to speak as plainly, or elaborately as they would like. ‘Photography unfortunately is not a stopwatch’, Simon notes, but the supplementary writing his subjects provide does help to create an ongoing archive of opinions. Simon’s gentle encouragement and aesthetic direction generate candid comments and fantastic photos. ‘Asking someone to be photographed and placed next to their opinions can be quite an intimidating thing,’ Simon admits, ‘but I think people are showing their true thoughts and feelings and want their voices to be heard’.

Some members of the public who participated in Your Town 2016 have returned to contribute to Simon’s exhibition with fresh reflections. There are plenty of new faces too; those new to Simon’s work, new to this style of collaborative participation, but also those new to the area – perhaps having moved to Sittingbourne relatively recently. Those who have lived in Sittingbourne their whole lives reflect their personal histories with ease in their comments, but what unites all the participants is their sincerity. It is these ‘genuine and honest writings of the sitters’ that Simon believes really allows the work to be so appealing and accessible.

Portrait pinned up on the wall
Photo credit Kyra Cross

The project offers something special – having your own words displayed under a professional photograph of yourself encourages a sense of ownership. In turn this hopefully encourages other inhabitants of the town to consider positive ownership of the place where they live. ‘The statements people are writing are very personal in some cases but can be relevant to so many people in the town,’ Simon explains. He is an artist who is truly invested in encouraging people to collaborate in the creation of his work, and Simon aspires to ‘do more work like this, where the residents are more involved with the making of the work, in an attempt to capture a true sense of people’s feelings and connections to Sittingbourne.’

We asked what Simon hopes people will take away from visiting his exhibition – ‘a sense of community, and a thoughtfulness they may not have had before towards their hometown,’ he replies. It isn’t often that we pause to reflect on our home towns, wherever they may be, but this project wonderfully reminds us to take a look at where we live and perhaps appreciate more about it. Simon’s residency continues on Saturday 9 December so feel free to drop in to No.34 between 11am-2pm and share your reflections of Sittingbourne.

It is completely free to sit for a portrait. Simon even offers a printout of each portrait that can be taken straight home!

If you would like to come and see Simon’s fantastic exhibition for yourself you can visit Your Town – One Year On during No.34’s opening hours. The exhibition will be up until 9th January but please note that No.34 will be closed for Christmas and reopens on January 2nd 2018.

If you are interested in Simon’s other work, you can visit his website.