Conversations at a distance: Chris Hoare

Chris, at least 2 meters away from the lens. ©Álvaro Martínez García

I arranged to meet Chris across the road from my house. He asks me for the address and I give him instructions on how to find the way, but it’s pointless: he knows the street map of Bristol inside out. Chris Hoare is the sort of photographer who really wears his shoes out looking for images.

Hoare’s most recent project The Worst Poem in the Universe,  is the work he is most recognized for. It’s a kind photographic radiography of Australia’s social inequalities, and was one of the winners of the Carte Blanche at Paris Photo 2019. However, the current climate led me to focus our conversation on his lifetime relationship with Bristol, and with Bedminster in particular. These are the streets where Chris has incessantly strived to master his portraiture, through endless rolls of film, with images whose depth stems from the conversations and confidence earned before pressing the shutter.

Coincidentally, Bedminster is the area where I happen to live these days. It is the first time he comes around my house and I can’t let my friend in. We can’t high-five either. We respect the social distance that this evil pandemic has dictated, and start to catch up.

ÁLVARO MARTÍNEZ: Tell us, where was your practice at before this health crisis started?

CHRIS HOARE: Before the pandemic I was chipping away at a project that I have been working on for some years here in Bristol, where I have been photographing a high street for the past 5 or so years. Alongside this I was and still am finalising into a book my project The Worst Poem In The Universe. 

ÁM: Have these global circumstances created any positive impact in your routine? 

CH: I’m trying my best to find positives in this situation which isn’t easy, but one possible positive is that I have been able to photograph most days due to being a Deliveroo rider on the side. With every other area of work drying it up, it’s meant that I have been out on the bike more than usual and with a camera it’s given me a sense of purpose. This has at least allowed me to have a response to the pandemic, which as a documentary photographer, feels quite importantly psychologically – whether it will be any good I don’t know. I’ve opted to break personal conventions and decided to do it all on a point and shoot camera, which feels quite liberating in a way… we’ll see. I will add I’m doing this in a safe and responsible way, which is why I choose to use a point and shoot as it is a quick way of making images.

Other than that I’m like everyone else, trying to find a new routine and stay busy during these uncertain times.

Bob Winston, Barley Mow, East Street. From I’ll be there with a smile. ©Chris Hoare

ÁM: You’re currently focused on documenting the atmosphere at The Barley Mow pub on East Street. Is this an idea you have spent refining or were you naturally led to do it?

CH: I’m glad you said the word ‘atmosphere’, because this is what keeps me going back, there’s something about the atmosphere in small traditional community pubs that you don’t get in modern pubs. They always feel so lived in and the atmosphere encourages conversation.

The Barley Mow is a pub that I wanted to photograph in for a while, as I have been documenting the street that it sits on for the past 5 or so years. In all honesty it’s been mostly through lack of courage than anything else that it has taken so long, it’s quite intimidating to walk into a small community pub like that with your camera – it can go one way or another. Luckily, I had an archive of images of people who were familiar to the people in the pub, so this helped build a bit of trust and understanding when I showed them the images. Another reason is that I’d photographed in a pub further up the street called the The Old Globe, which has been closed now for a while and I always had regrets that I didn’t keep going back as much as I could have before it closed, so in a way I’m making amends on that.

I see this idea as just a part of a larger body of work though, but one that is important as it highlights many of themes that I’ve been dealing with over the years, such as tradition, community and culture.

ÁM: Any distant memories of this particular place, even before you started out taking pictures?

CH: No special memories of this place in particular, but the atmosphere reminds me of the football clubs that I used to go to when I was growing up. Which were all across Bristol and filled with similar characters.

ÁM: You have largely worked on your own city. What are the benefits of pinpointing such a specific space? Why this one in particular, The Barley Mow, when there are so many other pubs?

CH: I’ve focused on this pub in particular because of its relationship to the area I’ve been documenting, it is as much a community centre as it is a public house. The area is changing and a pub like this is what remains of times gone by, historically the area had close to 100 pubs, many of them remembered fondly by people that I have talked to. The Barley Mow is one of the very few remaining that are a reminder of the ones that have disappeared, it feels important that places like these are remembered, this is what I’m attempting to do with my photography.

From I’ll be there with a smile. ©Chris Hoare

ÁM: Some photographers have created bodies of work in cafes, pubs, taverns (e.g.: Cafe Lehmitz by Anders Petersen, Lisbon Taverns by Luis Pavao)…why do you feel it is so compelling?

CH: Yeah, I’d add to that Ken Grant, Tom Wood and early Martin Parr in this country – lot’s of others, not to forget Krass Clement’s Drum. It’s an appealing place to be when you like beer and talking to people, right? Add to that a feeling that you are recording a set of values you value yourself, such as community, friendship and belonging. It’s also a place where you can lose track of time in the comfort of conversation. I’m sure all photographers who we’ve mentioned have different reasons for being there though.

ÁM: Unlike your Australian work -where you face the challenge of portraying the idiosyncrasy of a whole country that is not yours- you now put the emphasis on a very specific local space, which is familiar to you. How do you experience those differences when you’re photographing?

CH: I mostly find it easier to approach people in a different country, especially such as Australia where I share the same language and humour (for the most part). Also, it’s helpful to have a time restraint as it pushes you in situations, as you know you won’t get another chance. Rather than when things are on your doorstep it is easy to put things off and find excuses. It’s not easy to make work on your doorstep, I’m not the only one that feels this way, but I feel like I have to make work in the city where I live, especially as it is where I’m from. Bristol is of course more familiar to me, but familiarity isn’t always the best feeling for making images – it depends.

From I’ll be there with a smile. ©Chris Hoare

ÁM: Some of the portraits you have taken have the name of the subject as a title. The way I see it, you create some sort of biographical excerpt of these characters, which highlights them amongst the transience and anonymity of society. Do you ever think of how these people are going to be looked at by the viewer, and of how an image is going to outlive them?

CH: I always try to make a note of the person’s name who I photograph, but sometimes it feels like the name isn’t all that important, instead it’s what they’re doing or something they have said. That’s my opinion, but I’m sure some people would disagree. I do however feel a responsibility for how people are going to be portrayed, this often comes down to choosing certain images over others ones, or where you agree your photographs to be seen. The goal with the work on East Street has always been a book, so at least with that I’ll have control. But I can’t control how people will read images, the viewer brings their own feelings and beliefs to them. But I guess I have always liked the idea of how an ‘image’ can outlive a person or a place, it’s this what forms part of my motivation for doing this particular project.

From I’ll be there with a smile. ©Chris Hoare

ÁM: I often think many of you subjects were really hard to convince to take an image of them, perhaps a prejudice. How have the locals warmed to you, is it something that has an extra significance when you get to photograph someone who is initially reluctant?

CH: There’s usually not any problems from the people who I photograph, if they say ‘no’ then it very rarely changes, sometimes I’ll push but it depends on the situation. For example though when photographing in The Barley Mow – or that type of environment – I’m there as a person before being a photographer, so most times it’s a few hours before I lift up the camera, by that point I’ve probably had a conversation about with the person I’m photographing. I definitely try to find strategies for convincing people and building rapport, It helps in a place like that being from Bristol and building common ground in that way.

ÁM: Do you find any portraits that you have shot difficult to look at? or that particularly evoke a deep emotional response from you?”

CH: Um, I have a few portraits that are difficult to look at, mainly because they don’t represent the people in them very well and they can read in a negative way, these images I choose not use as I don’t want to lead the viewer in the wrong direction and I want to honour the respect I have for the people in the portraits, especially when I’m asking so much of them.

ÁM: When things get back to normal, how much do you think it is going to affect your approach?

CH: One thing for sure is that it will be a while before me or anyone else can go back to spending time photographing in a pub and anything similar. Most of the work I do is portraiture, so my approach is definitely going to be affected for some time, but maybe it ends up helping my practice in ways I wouldn’t have considered before. Or maybe I’ll just buy a long lens.

From I’ll be there with a smile. ©Chris Hoare

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