This is a portfolio of 20 photographs by Ben Holbrook, for the benefit of Falmouth University admissions team.
Please kindly note that these are not necessarily my “best” or “favourite” photographs, however I do feel that they illustrate and support the points I have made in my personal statement, and broadly represent my style, approach and technical ability when it comes to photography.
Should you have any other questions regarding myself or my work, please do not hesitate to email me: email@example.com.
Figures in a Landscape
I adore Steve McCurry’s ability to capture serendipitous moments and tell complete stories with a single image. I myself am, perhaps to my detriment, more inclined to shoot series of images to tell my stories, yet I still harbour a desire to create images that stand on their own.
I would highlight McCurry’s ‘figures in a landscape’ style of shooting as the biggest influence on my work. With this I aim to convey not only a sense of place or a sense of people, but a sense of how the two interact and co-exist (please see portfolio photos 1 to 6 for examples).
1. Chasing Summer (Delta del Ebro, Spain, 2018)
This candid photo perfectly illustrates my approach to photographing ‘figures in a landscape’, telling a story of how a landscape and its people interact with one another. The Delta del Ebra is one of Spain’s largest and most beautiful flatlands (famous for its rice industry) and, rather than just telling of its peakless topography, I wanted to show how it might make you feel as a visitor. Its vast openness makes you feel small and free, young even, while the flatness makes you want to run wild. More than being simply a pretty picture, I hope this image instills a sense of intrigue in the viewer and inspires them to find out more – or even visit this beautiful part of the world for themselves.
2. Paperback Positano (Italy, 2018)
Shot in Positano, Italy while on assignment for Ryanair (to promote Naples and the surrounding areas), I took this photograph to tell a more individual story of everyday life. It doesn’t paint the same awe-inspiring vision that most travel photos of Positano do, but it does give a more intimate sense of how real-life unfolds there. Again, not just a pretty picture, but an authentic insight into one of the world’s most hyped destinations.
3. Modena Meanders (Italy, 2018)
Modena is famed for its russet-red and burnt-mustard streets and I wanted to provide my viewer with a sense of what it might be like to travel (or even live) among them. I value this photo because it hints at the pace of local life – yes, people in Modena get around the city by bicycle, but they do it on shopping bikes, not racers! Isn’t that exactly the sort of place you want to go for your holidays? See my full ‘Modena Meanders’ project here.
4. Welsh Wanderers (Gower peninsula, Wales, 2020)
My ‘figures in a landscape’ photos tell tales of people interacting with their environments, or in this case, how they do not. The Worm’s Head is a tidal island on the tip of the Gower peninsula where I live in south Wales. It draws people from all over the UK, but only a few manage to make it out to the island itself. I have included this photo because it shows how many people feel and react after walking the couple of kilometres out to the causeway, which you have to cross to get to the island: a sense of resignation, or perhaps contentment – “This is close enough.” I also like that this image gives us a glimpse of contemporary Britain, while inviting the viewer to imagine for themselves what the two protagonist may or may not be thinking. I want my photos to leave you with questions as well as answers, and I feel this photo achieves that.
5. Checkmate (Normandy, France, 2019)
In a sense, the ‘figures’ I include in my landscapes are avatars for you, the viewer. But I don’t only want you to imagine how you might feel if you were in their shoes. No, I want you to imagine how this particular person is feeling, to transport yourself emotionally as well as physically. Even though we can’t see this subject’s face, we can still elicit emotion from his posture. Oh, and I also like the leading lines of the boardwalk, which lead the view out to the castle.
6. Lake Bled Dreamers (Slovenia, 2019)
I took this candid photograph while on assignment in Slovenia for Singapore Airlines (in-flight magazine). The framing is a little off (I only had a split second to capture the boy’s hand pointing up at the castle), but it definitely packs in a lot of story. I think we all dream of living in a fairytale, of escaping to magical faraway lands. With this photo I hope to give my viewer the good news that: “You can live your own fairytale adventure! All you have to do is travel to Lake Bled in Slovenia.” I have also included this photo in my portfolio because I feel it helped me illustrate the fact that Slovenia is a romantic destination for couples who love nature, which was one of the key messages the airline wanted to deliver to their passengers. In other words, this photo delivered in terms of what was outlined in the brief.
Notions of Normality
I’ve often felt disconnected from the world, detached, like I don’t belong to any one place. As a result, I am fascinated by the concept of normality, how the humdrum of everyday life varies from person to person, culture to culture.
And though I am fiercely dedicated to the pursuit of escapism (reading fiction, watching films), I view photography very much as a tool for confronting the world head on and navigating new cultures – my camera is a vehicle for exploring different realms of reality (please see portfolio photos 7 to 11 for examples).
7. Sidra y Fiesta (Asturias, Spain, 2019)
Taken as part of my “Green Spain” story for Singapore Airlines, to promote the lesser-known regions of northern Spain, this photo evokes the raw sense of hedonism that one might feel at an all-night summer fiesta. I included it because I feel it successfully illustrates the immensely important role that ‘sidra’ (hard apple cider) plays in local life (in Asturias). But I didn’t want to simply photograph the product itself. Instead, I wanted to show the cider in context, to create an image that transports you, the viewer, directly to a hot and sticky fiesta, to make you want to go there to live it for yourself.
8. Mercè Madness (Barcelona, Spain, 2018)
My blog, Driftwood Journals, has frequently been cited as one of the best blogs about Barcelona and Spain. I believe this is a result of my passion for the local culture and way of life, which I portray and celebrate with images like this. I also believe it’s because I have always tried to dig deeper into the many different cultures of each region. In Catalonia, for example, the Catalans celebrate their national day, La Mercè, with explosive correfocs (fire runs) and fire-breathing dragons. This photo takes you straight to the heart of the action, while hinting at just how crazy, passionate and fearless the Catalans can be – dancing in the face of danger with their flag flying proudly. I’m always trying to say: “Barcelona is so much more than sunshine, beaches and tapas.” And I feel I have said it quite loudly with this photo.
9. That Neapolitan Hubris (Naples, Italy, 2018).
Also taken while on assignment for Ryanair, I have included this photo because I believe it succeeds in demonstrating what I mean by revealing different ‘notions of normality’. Coming from the UK, it is hard to imagine riding a motorcycle with three people on it, or without a helmet, , or with a helmet-less child in front of you, or while smoking a cigarette. But in Naples, where life is a seemingly endless ballet of bravado, this is an everyday occurrence – as portrayed by this photo. Technically speaking I could have done with a faster lens (and shutter speed), as the light was poor and the subject moving fast, but I am happy with the story this photo tells, even if I did fail to nail perfect focus.
10. Petra Postcard Seller (Jordan, 2018)
I was sent to Jordan to promote a new route by Ryanair and photograph the beauty of Petra. However, what really struck me was the affect that tourism was having on the local culture. Having asked our guide and fixer for insights, he revealed that many local children drop out of school to work as camel/horse riders and street hawkers, making money from the thriving new tourism market. Though, he explained, it was their own choice, I couldn’t help but feel these children were being forced to work as they were. With this photo, of a dusty young boy who should so clearly have been at school, I feel I was able to share the underlying sense of sadness I saw while there, and hint of the reality of it all. I leave it to the viewer to decide whether it was my guide or my camera that was telling the truth.
11. Petra Coffee Break (Jordan, 2018)
If you look for photos of Petra on Instagram, you’ll find endless photos of beautiful young people posing on the martian-red cliffs overlooking the iconic Treasury. It’s a compelling image, one that makes you want to jump straight on a plan and go to Jordan. But in my opinion, this doesn’t really tell anything of the full story. I wanted to document the reality of what I saw and tell the story of how Jordan’s relatively brand-new tourism industry has so quickly changed its people and landscapes. Working in the travel industry, I am all too aware of the negative impacts tourism can have on a culture. And though I was excited to be in Petra – currently the number one destination on Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travel List – I couldn’t help but feel that, as a country, Jordan wasn’t prepared for the sudden influx of tourists it was presently receiving. Somehow this caretaker’s face and demeanour, as he perched on a wall during his coffee break, his bucket and brush resting next to him, invisible to all the selfie-hungry tourists, expressed exactly what I sensed. To me, this caretaker is a far more accurate representation of tourism in Jordan than all those beautiful young Instagrammers posing in front of the Treasury.
I am compelled by the vivid and abstract work of street photographers like Saul Leiter, Joel Meyorwitz and Alex Web, who create visual poems and incomplete stories that invite you to imagine your own narratives. This approach inspires me to work with colour and light as subjects in their own right, to make images that delight and intrigue in equal measure (please see portfolio photos 12 to 17 for examples).
12. Pool Boy (Gijon, Spain, 2018)
Though the ‘pool boy’ himself is ostensibly the main subject of this photo, I would argue that it is the vibrant colours and light that take the lead roles in this photo. I like that this image so boldly draws on a palette of primary colours, as well as the subtle layering and abstraction. Is that a window in the top right or a reflection? Is the pool inside or outside? Why is he in there all alone, in the dark? And why was I, the photographer, there to capture it? Like a poem, this photo dances gently on certain nerves and emotions, and elicits a sense of wonder while leaving room for the viewer to write their own storyline.
13. Hands of Humility (Ljubljana, Slovenia, 2019)
If the primary goal of a portrait is to capture the essence of a person’s character, then I believe you can take a person’s portrait without revealing their face. In this atypical portrait, I wasn’t purely trying to reveal the character of the cyclist, but of the Slovenian people as a whole. This image hints at the Slovenian’s passion for the environment and eco-friendly approach to life – they cycle everywhere, and always have done. I also believe it is suggestive of their humility and warm nature: the bicycle is a form of transport, not a status symbol. With my ‘visual poems’, I want to encourage you to look again, to look deeper and longer. To look at the details, the moments between moments.
14. “Hold My Beer” (Asturias, Spain, 2019)
I’m a great believer in the notion that fact is often stranger than fiction. As a photographer you are more finely attuned to this, and with a bit of luck you have your camera with you when evidence arises. Sadly I don’t have photos of me shooting the gun myself, from this mountaintop bar’s patio area with those thirsty locals, but I certainly got enough to illustrate my story.
15. In Calm or Storm (Asturias, Spain, 2019)
I haven’t chosen this photo because I think it is an excellent photo, but I do consider it to be an intriguing photo, a photo that sets the imagination ablaze. You may wonder who this brave swimmer might be, and how she became so committed to her ocean-going regime. You might wonder what it would be like to be her daughter or husband or father, or to be her very self. Don’t they worry about her? And just how long has she had that beautiful gold-trim swimming camp? I have included this photo in my portfolio because, like a poem, it leaves enough room for you to climb inside yourself. To immerse yourself in another reality and, even if only for a moment, escape and suspend your own. What more could you ask for from a single, still image?
16. Gondola Goblins (Slovenia, 2019)
A writer could write an entire novel based on this one image but I can almost guarantee it wouldn’t be as crazy as the story that unfolded just after I took this image. Sometimes, however – quite often actually – I want my photos to remain as enigmas. To reveal only the tiniest glimpse of the life I’ve lived, while simultaneously showing everything you could ever need to know. Like a poem or a song, sometimes the more opaque a photo is, the more we are able to connect with it and make it our own.
17. Isolation (Gower peninsula, Wales, 2020)
It was our last walk on the beach before lockdown, the final day of freedom. We were told we could no longer see the people we cared for or do the things we loved, and we had no idea how long it would last. As a nation, a race even, we were filled with fear and cast into a shadowy world of loneliness and isolation. I’d taken my camera to photograph our dog on the beach, to photograph our last sunset, but it was this image of a man standing alone between light and dark, cradled between heaven and hell, that seemed to capture how it felt to surrender to life in lockdown.
I am greatly inspired by the raw and vivid work of realist photojournalists like Martin Parr and Fred Herzog. To me, Parr’s humorously observational book Last Resort perfectly demonstrates the importance of immortalising ‘nowness’, and reminds us that only posterity and the passing of time can reveal the true value of a photograph or body of work.
Though I can’t claim to have documented the ‘nowness’ of my time with such aplomb myself, I do often create images that I hope will be of interest to an audience some 100 years down the road (please see portfolio photos 18 to 20 for examples).
18. Divided Devotees (Jerusalem, 2018)
I was on assignment for Ryanair, who had a new route to Israel, and learnt so much so quickly. Did you know that male and females worshippers are separated at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall? No, neither did I! They say you should “show rather than tell”, and that a picture paints a thousands words, so this is what I created. I wonder if it will always be this way or if it will one day be nothing but a distant memory, remembered only in photographs like this…
19. Camel Gold (Petra, Jordan, 2018)
Another scene that hints at my unease when it comes to sudden mass tourism – a camel ride hawker with a golden iPhone. Is it culture and tradition or animal cruelty and exploitation? Will there be a day when we look back on a photo like this and shake our heads in disbelief that such a thing was ever allowed? I for one certainly hope so. Until then all I can do is create imagery that encourages people to think more carefully and critically about their decisions and actions, and hopefully become more ethical travellers.
20. Last Orders (Gower peninsula, Wales, March, 2020)
Sometimes it takes decades for posterity to bring a photograph to life, other times it can take just a few weeks or months. I took this photo at a local country pub just before lockdown. The fortifying pint of amber ale and ‘OPEN’ sign glowing like beacons of perennial warmth and solace. But it was only a matter of weeks later that this pub, and literally every other pub in the UK, was forced to close. It was shocking and unthinkable that such a thing could happen and affected many of us more than the closure of schools, shops and leisure facilities. I have include this photo in my portfolio because it testifies to my belief that some photos become more powerful and symbolic over time. During lockdown – which we are just about to enter here in Wales for the second time – I find myself drawn to this photo and all that it represents. I fantasise about returning to this point in time, and wish, hoping, praying, that I will soon be able to relive it once more. Sometimes the most important photos you take are not for travel companies, blogs or magazines, but, quite simply, for yourself.
Thank you very much in advance for taking the time to review my portfolio (and read my rambling commentary).
Should you have any other questions regarding myself or my work, please do not hesitate to contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org