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The Homo Neanderthalensis Issue

Somerset Nights

Den Elliott might never have ended up taking photos had it not been for a previous life as a conservationist.

by Den Elliott
02 March 2008, 12:00am
PHOTOS BY DEN ELLIOTT

Den Elliott might never have ended up taking photos had it not been for a previous life as a conservationist. You should hear the way Den talks about his time spent wandering the windswept crags and leafy forests. It’s impossible to imagine how anyone wouldn’t want to take photos of all the great stuff served up by Mother Nature every day.

What’s unusual here is that Den lived and grew up in and around Weston-super-Mare’s Bournville Estate. Bournville consists of a group of highrise blocks and council housing built to serve as accommodation for a planned chocolate factory that never arrived to revitalise the area’s ailing economy.

Den’s time out in the fields and forests inspired him to put himself through a photography degree at Falmouth University. Studying the work of photographers such as Tom Wood and Donovan Wylie encouraged him to return to the Bournville of his youth and capture the spirit of community and resilience he had experienced growing up in the area. Oh, and he also take photos of some absolute rotters with snarling dogs.



The girl in this photograph is one of the kids who would often shout over to me in the street asking to have their picture taken. She was part of a gang of kids who hung out ouside the Londis supermarket literally every day, from sun up to sun down.

Vice: What first made you think you wanted to take photos of things?

Den Elliott: Just being surrounded by all this stupidly nice scenery when I was working as a conservationist. That made me go out and get a cheap Fuji point-and-shoot just to kind of catalogue all this stuff I was seeing.

What were you shooting initially? Like, sheep and stuff?

There weren’t many sheep around actually. It was more all these massive open spaces with no other human beings in them. It was really eerie. You could walk about for hours and not see another person. Just trees and fields and forests.

You sound a bit like a Jack Johnson song right now. How did taking shots of Mother Earth lead to you taking shots of a Somerset estate?

Well, I’d never even thought about going to college or university, you know? I was just interested in going out and working. Taking photos of all this scenery made me actually want to go and study something and learn how to do it well. I went back to college and I thought it would be like being back at school but I was well into it, learning all this new stuff.

Yup, learning can be OK. Shocking but true. Was it at college you began to develop your photojournalistic style?

I began to develop an idea of what I wanted to shoot during my foundation. My lecturer there exposed me to people like Donovan Wylie, Chris Killip and Tom Wood, whose work on Liverpool really made me realise I could shoot the kind of stuff that had surrounded me all the time growing up.

I first met these guys on a cold, rainy day in November. They had made a great little go-kart and were bombing it down the ramps that led to the flats above the shops. They were so dedicated to the job they stopped paying much attention to the presence of the camera.

What drew you back to Bournville? You know the chocolate factory never got built, right?

Well, that was part of the economic problem in the area. It was where I had a lot of memories bound up. The time I spent out in the countryside prior to taking up photography reminded me of my time growing up there––how you could be surrounded by buildings or natural landscape and still feel alone. Plus going back there and remembering things like the tin roof above the cornershop where I got off with my first girlfriend. Things like that made me want to go back and capture it all.

Some of the shots here feature characters who look like they might be a bit of a handful. Did you ever get any opposition from the scallywags you were pointing a flash at?

Well, to an extent I find taking pictures goes against my natural instincts. I am pretty shy and putting yourself in a situation where you are having to be really forward and very much in a public state at all times isn’t the easiest thing in the world for me, but that makes the whole process more rewarding.

So no one chased you out of the estate for your camera?

No. I tried to be accommodating and clear about what was I doing. Most of the people in the photos were into it once they had got over their initial weariness. I also offered them prints of the photos once they were processed which a lot of people were really into. I really wanted to show the sense of community that the estate maintains. Outsiders might not see that. They might just see walking ASBOs and dole queues or whatever but growing around there I knew it wasn’t like that. I had some of my best memories there and wanted to portray that.

The photos have a weird ability to kind of make you heart plummet like a lead balloon pumped with sadness then leap with springs of joy in the same shot. How did you feel while you were shooting them?

It was great to be there documenting this place I’d grown up in but elements of it, like the lives some of these kids were living, were saddening. The sense of re-exploring my own childhood through them and these places was sort of polarised by my granddad dying at the same time, which put the whole thing in perspective.

I spent quite a lot of time photographing in and around this shopping precinct, as it’s one of the estate’s focal points. The dog was left outside and seemed nervous so I figured the guy would get an earful when he came back out but I didn’t expect to catch such an interesting interaction between them as I did.

I’d go past this pub on the way into the estate every day. The kid with the dartboard was the son of the man at the bar. Whenever I pointed my camera at him he’d drop his bottle and give me the thumbs-up. It reminded me of being a kid and my granddad taking me to the pub on Sundays.

I found this weird arrangement of furniture behind some flats one day. I pre-focused my camera and waited for someone to pass by and cast a shadow onto the wall. I like finding an angle or location that interests me and waiting for someone or something to come into it and make it come alive. I think this is something I learned to do years ago while photographing conservation protests: attempting to predict which way a situation will unfold and being ready when it does.

I was walking around in the cold and saw these kids up on a flat roof having a water fight. I ran across the road and up the steps to the rooftop but they noticed me and said they wanted a shot huddled together. I brought some prints back with me next time I was in town and gave them each a copy. I tried to give a print to all the people I photographed on Bournville.
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Volume 15 Issue 3
Somerset Nights
Den Elliott
Weston-super-Mare