Article printed in CultureHUB Magazine
John Baucher is a photographer and artist from Tandragee, Co Armagh. He has travelled extensively with his work, dealing with broad and diverse subject matters. He creates work that explores themes of identity, self and belonging. His most recent series, ‘It Is Nothing New’ is an exploration of immigration, the title being both declarative and literal; immigration is nothing new, we’re all immigrants and immigration/identity is a theme that has been and will be explored for a long time to come.
Hi John, we’re so happy you could take the time to speak with Culture Hub. We know you’re incredible busy with your preparation for the upcoming exhibition, ‘It Is Nothing New’ so thanks for letting us gain an insight to the upcoming exhibit. You have previously shown a smaller collection of similar works at the Imagine Festival for Ideas and Politics in March, what makes this exhibition different, or is it simply a further exploration of the subject to a wider audience?
The response from the works shown at Imagine! was so positive, it seemed like a good idea to take the theme forward. Whilst the subject matter and the approach to the work is exactly the same as the last one, I’ve tried to make the images more creative in terms of the items use by the people I’m photographing. I’ve really asked the people I’m photographing to think of items that represent them and their journeys that might not be as literal as simply a family photograph or a piece of jewellery. Additionally, this round of the project, which is down to Eva Grossman at the Centre for Peace and Democracy Building for supporting an application to be involved in the CRC Cultural Awareness Week and to build further on the initial exhibition which they also supported along with Amnesty International,Community Arts Partnership and the Imagine! festival has meant that the exhibition could expand in scale and feature a much broader spectrum of people. The main thing I wanted to carry through from the previous exhibit to this one and any further explorations of this theme is the idea that purity is disillusioned, we are all mongrels, we’re all nomads who have arrived here from around the world, we’re all ‘immigrants’ of some sort or another. I want to break it down and strip back the constructs that we’ve put up around these issues in a benign way.
Being asked to be a part of Community Relations Week must be a huge compliment as a working artist, do you think that with how far Northern Ireland has come in the last few years in terms of positive community relations and relative political progress, it’s now the job of the arts and local artists to further bridge the gap that politics has already laid the foundations for?
I think there always has been a lot of subversive art coming out of Northern Ireland. There’s always been a commentary ongoing but it’s not always been picked up upon and maybe now there’s just more time to focus and more of a chance of it being noticed. What I think is really important and what I’m trying my best to do with this exhibit is to ask the viewer to question not only the journeys of the subjects, but also their own journeys. It’s become so common to hold these negative opinions of immigration but there are so many reasons for it; love, work, family, ambition. We really are more than capable of dealing with the influx of immigrants here, and especially in Northern Ireland, we’re used to these damaging polarised opinions, we’re no strangers to separation.
Your work deals with such a sensitive subject matter, immigration. Something it’s impossible not to be aware of at the moment. You say your work aims to ‘humanise the subject of immigration whilst drawing the viewer in to contemplate in a different light’ – you’re working in very emotionally raw and often difficult territory, do you ever find it hard to deal with the stories of your subjects, or does the fact the subjects are so comfortable with exposing their stories to you help drive your work forward?
I’m not often exposing many tales of heartbreak or trauma. Whilst I am very much hearing more than you’re actually seeing in the works, I’m not pushing for any really dramatic content from the people I photograph – this (exhibit) isn’t about that kind of blatant media sympathy that almost distracts from the fact that these are real people. I don’t want to stage a scene in which the viewer walks away full of pity, feeling detached from the subject – rather, I want to guide people with the subject matter. It’s collaboration between me and the subjects. The angle I take the photographs from means there is a level of trust and intimacy between myself, the camera and the person, and therefore that intimacy and trust is passed on to the viewer. I met one woman who had come from Greece, to Japan, to America and ended up here in NI, she chose this small glass sailing boat as her ‘item’ to represent the journeys she’s been through – that’s the kind of collaboration I look for with the subjects, for them to really think what represents their destinations and journeys whilst always retaining the anonymity of the subjects to ensure the project doesn’t cause them any individual exposure or cause for concern. Every collaboration is approached with an open view to see what happens and where it takes us. I spent about an hour to an hour and a half with each person; most of that time is spent talking. I’m only supplementing the images with location, but there’s a lot unsaid in the images, that I invite the audience or the viewer to explore.
It’s clear you’re really very passionate about conveying the message of inclusion and integration to your audience. You want them to understand the subjects are people and humans just like them and not this ‘brand’ of person they can’t relate to. You have said previously that your work is ‘intended as a balm in the face of rising right wing extremism’ – there’s something so poetic and soothing about the notion that you simply want to occupy a space in which your work can soothe and compensate for the often negative media discourse about the ‘immigration crisis’ – do you feel a responsibility to bring these sorts of stories to an audience that would otherwise only be exposed to this issue through (an often) right wing media source?
When I was asked to be in the exhibition for imagine, this idea came to me pretty quickly as a way to explore the idea of and the constraints around ‘immigration.’ It’s such a dense subject matter; it’s something with so much weight and so much obvious conversation around it that it seemed very worthwhile exploring in a much less weighty way. I didn’t want to make props of the subjects by simply sticking them onto a conveyer belt of shots in a photography studio. That would remove all of the familiarity and warmth of the images. I wanted to make sure that the images a) hid the identity of the person and b) felt normal and raw to the viewer. My work has always been about stripping back what I can offer and just making it as transparent and present as possible. I’m not interested in trying to drive big concepts or leave the viewer confused or dumfounded, rather I just want to get their brains ticking and perhaps engage them in something they may not necessarily already have been engaged with. The whole message I want the viewer to take away from the works is one of inclusion, understanding and to make it clear that diversity it what makes us human. It’s what we thrive on, it’s where every single strain of every single culture derives from and without it we would be people living in a very deprived, dry and bland society. (Im) migration happens; accept it, embrace it, because it isn’t going anywhere.