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Interview – Will Hartley

July 28, 2012

We featured Will Hartleys work after visiting the ‘Urban Nomads’ exhibition at the Emporium in Bristol. After being impressed by his imagery, we decided to drop him an E-mail to find out more about his practice and approach to photography.
If you missed out on our previous post, or want to find out more, make sure to keep reading….

Firstly could you please introduce yourself and your current position within the photographic industry?

My name’s Will Hartley, I’m 26 years old, and a freelance documentary photographer best known for my work about a close-knit group of squatters in London. I’m based in Cardiff and I’m Publications manager for Third Floor Gallery.

How did you first gain an interest in documentary photography?
Who and what was your initial inspiration to pick a camera?

I was always interested in doing something with film or stills from a very young age. When I was around 13 I had a little camcorder and used to film everything, mainly me and my friends skateboarding, I wanted to make skate videos but didn’t know how to edit or have any software either, so in the end just had loads of tapes with footage on.
A few years later I got into documentary photography when I saw the book by Richard Billingham called ‘Ray’s a Laugh’. It was about his family and it has always left a lasting impression on me. I realized I hadn’t been photographing my family much, or even at all and it was also not long after my dad had died that I noticed I hadn’t taken any pictures of him.
He was an older dad than usual, fathering me at the age of 72. He died when I was sixteen and suffered from Alzheimer’s the years leading towards his death. At that time I was taking pictures in a studio of my friend with pegs on his face. My twin brother laughs at me now, because It’s true I had missed an integral part of my life. So now I photograph as much of everything as I can.

We recently visited the Urban Nomads exhibition and were really impressed with your work,
Bristol has always had a strong squatting scene, how did the exhibition come about, and how did you first get involved with the scene?

The Exhibition was organized by photographers Jessica Keethelan Brady and Cariem Bitsios. I had met Cariem in Devon. And a few years later he contacted me and told me he was squatting in Bristol and putting on an exhibition, and asked if I’d like to be involved. I thought it was a great idea and I was proud to be part of it.

I became involved with the squatting scene around 2005 when a few friends started to squat in London. They invited me up to a social event in a space in Tufnell Park, I was fascinated by it, and so the next week I brought my camera with me and ended up getting mugged on the way there. Luckily I had my medium format camera and people always think it’s a pile of crap so they just nutted me in the head and took my money and cans of beer. I got to the squat and met up with some people who are now some of my closest friends, from then on I followed them and this new scene came into my life.

As a documentary photographer, squatting obviously makes for a powerful subject,
Did you initially photograph from an outsiders perspective, or have you always lived amongst the houses that you have photographed?

I didn’t set out to make a body of work on squatters I was just photographing my friends. It wasn’t something that I thought of doing after reading or seeing it on TV, and then got access into. It just naturally happened as I went to squats and made more friends and was very much apart of what was going on in my pictures.  I was interested in the people and places and where it led me. It’s not just the finished product as a photo that I like but the life experiences photography brings, whether they are good, bad or unhealthy, it was a great time of my life. Nearly everything’s been done before, but I wanted to make these kinds of pictures for myself.

There are obviously a number of negative stereotypes of squatters, and it is a way of life that is often misunderstood. Your images all have a very raw and honest feel to them, but do you feel you have had to treat the subject with some sensitivity in regard to the exploitation your subjects and their situations?

Yes definitely, sometimes I think the projects more about my friends than squatting. And I found this very hard to deal with; whenever I heard or got any negative views on the subject I really took it personally. But I have learned that this is how it is. I also understand that squatting isn’t always positive, things that get brought up in the press are usually to do with glamorized stories of trashed homes and million pound mansion takeovers.
I found my self in some situations that I wanted to photograph but didn’t, and in hindsight if I had, I may have lost the trust of some people. But I also found that people knew me as taking pictures of them whether they were brushing their teeth or in bed with each other. So it only became normal for them.

Your images from in between dreams have earned you acclaim as a documentary photographer, and your work was subsequently featured in Arles. Has this affected your process or approach to work in any way, and what are your aims for the future?

It has definitely boosted my confidence massively. It’s nice when you work on something for so many years and then people start to like it. I really have to be thankful to everyone I have photographed who have been so open with me. It has taught me to follow my heart, and know that I can work the way I want to and its okay.
For the future I just am going to keep on doing what I feel is right.

Whilst browsing your site, I noticed you have started to work with multimedia projects.
This seems to be an increasingly popular output amongst documentary photographers.
Is this something that you intend to continue experimenting with, and how important do you feel it is to contemporary photographic practice?

Yeah I think its great for photographers, its expensive to have exhibitions and it’s hard to get your stuff published so with multi media you can show your work to a much wider audience.
The Multi media piece on my website was a recording from my project ‘Lawrence hill’ a story about a couple in and out of homelessness in Bristol. Yasmina reggad from photo festivals wanted to use the work in a projected slide show called ‘travelog’ and asked if I had any recordings. Near the beginning of the project I was sleeping on the floor in his flat and his brother was talking to himself like this all night, I didn’t really sleep well, but had my Dictaphone on me so started recording him.
With the help from my friend I cut it up and made a little 2 minute short recording that I found worked well with the pictures and gave it some atmosphere.
I tried a similar thing with ‘in Between Dreams’ but I didn’t like it, I realized it was the silence in the pictures that I liked and putting anything over the top was too distracting. Maybe I will do it again one day and it will work but I guess it’s all trial and error. I think I will definitely keep on experimenting with multi media and its something that I want to use more.

You graduated from the prestigious documentary course at Newport in 2008,
How important do you feel a photographic education has been in aiding your current career?

Before Newport I never new there was a method to storytelling, I just figured you put a load of nice pictures together and it somehow worked, I wasn’t very good at approaching people, but you were forced to because you had to make a project. I didn’t find it easy, they were very critical about my work for a long time, and I used to not understand, but if they just said they liked it, its nice, I would never have pushed myself to prove that I was serious about what I was doing. I always have Newport lecturers in the back of my head when I take pictures or I start new projects, so it has left a big impact on the way I work now. Although being annoyed at the time, in hindsight, if they meant to or not, they really helped me. It completely depends on the person, if you know what you want to do you will keep on doing it weather in education or not. I did some hospitality work after I graduated from Newport and felt very lost, after a year I really thought I can’t stand this I need out, I moved to Bristol with more various jobs, but just kept on shooting and entering competitions and so on. And now I work freelance, mainly photographing families in a studio. I’m still not where I want to be but for now it works fine.

Much of your work takes on the square format, are you passionate about analogue photography?
What would we see in your current kit bag?

On your website, you also have a link to ‘The Dice Project’,
Could you please tell us a little more about the project, the space and your intentions as a collective?

Yes I’m very passionate about analogue photography. For my personal work anyhow, I’ve always taken my best pictures with film and I feel I can work with it better, I enjoy the surprise of it, I take a picture with a digital camera and straight away I look at the screen and dislike what I see, but that might be because I am in the present moment looking at what’s happening in front of me, and film brings back the memory’s and feelings from the past when you see it later on. I like that with pictures.
I want to start a new project with a digital camera because it’s cheaper and I want to give it a go. I’m always up for trying different stuff out but so far I have found better results from film, I have a Bronica SQA medium format camera which I shoot most my projects on, a Nikon f80 35mm, and an olympus mju ii, which can be handy at times. I also have a Canon 550D digital camera that I shoot mainly bands and events and stuff with and I help my friends with some film work sometimes.

The DICE Project is a collective of me, Paul Corcoran and Bartosz Nowicki. We started in 2011 and have just had our first solo show ‘encounters’ in Dublin as part of photo Ireland festival, which was great.
I found it hard sometimes knowing what to do with myself once I left University and wasn’t surrounded by other photographers. So since I have been in the DICE project I have found it a great way to ask for advice and help when I’m not too sure what to do with something, like a project or competition or book idea. We are constantly exchanging emails on ideas and sharing pictures. Our intentions are to just grow as a collective. Working as a group on projects and exhibitions together.

Do you have any other projects/ exhibitions that we should be looking out for in the future?

I haven’t got any other Exhibitions coming up at the moment, but I am always shooting as much as I can and have lots of ideas for some new work.

I have a few other projects; one in particular is around a period of time where I was living in a flat in Newport. I was also spending time in west wales and Bristol and Cardiff. I have all these pictures and I want to put them all together because it’s about the situations I was in that were very similar but with different groups of people. I have a few from the flat in Newport on my website under ‘Clarence palace’. I just have yet to sit down and work out how I’m going to put it all together.

I also have a project about my family, I guess it’s the first long-term documentary project I started quite a few years ago, but it seems to be never-ending and I’m not sure it will ever finish. It was initially the reaction to my father’s death, and so began taking pictures of some members of my immediate family, I wasn’t constantly photographing them as we all went our separate ways for a while. But I would take pictures when I could.
In 2011 this story I had of my family took an unexpected turn when we unfortunately lost my older brother. I took pictures as best I could but it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, It’s weird calling it a project, but this is the only way I could deal with the situation and my photography helps me through it.

Big thanks to Will for getting involved with this interview, to see more of his work check out /

Don’t forget to also check out the The Dice Project and Third Floor Gallery

Keep you’re eyes peeled for some fresh interviews coming up and as always keep your submissions coming in to

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