Arts - Interview with Ed Gold ahead of his Other Worlds exhibition at Firstsite

Friday, June 16th sees the opening of Colchester-educated photographer and documentarian Ed Gold's Other Worlds exhibition at Firstsite. With searing honesty he opened up to us about his life and work.

A self-taught photographer, Ed Gold began documenting people and communities whilst working as a farm labourer in Essex in the 1980s. He did a degree in design at the Colchester Institute and an MA in Interactive Multimedia at Central St Martins, but in 2001 he began taking photographs full-time.

His major exhibition opening at Firstsite tomorrow is made up of 100 photographs taken over a period spanning almost thirty years. These have been selected from Ed's personal archive, and chosen particularly to represent his ongoing interest in isolated communities, including Welsh Patagonians, the Inuit and Athabascan peoples, a family in the Alaskan wilderness, and the British Army.

But Ed doesn't snap fleeting portraits  - he embeds himself in the communities he records, living with them for up to three years, sharing their experiences and forming close relationships with those he portrays. For example, between 2010 and 2011 Ed lived amongst the soldiers of the Second Battalion Parachute Regiment (2 Para), both at their base in Colchester and on operational duty in Afghanistan. During this time he wore a uniform and integrated fully with the troops, carrying his camera instead of a weapon. The images he captured later formed the series Afghanistan Bed Spaces (2011).

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Afghan National Army soldier, Checkpoint Milat, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, 2011, Digital print, Dimensions variable © Ed Gold

The Nowitna series records Ed’s ongoing experiences living in Alaska’s Arctic region, where he has resided intermittently for more than eight years. Earlier this year he spent three weeks with the Atchley family, who live in one of the remotest parts of the state. 

Romey Atchley, Nowitna, 2017, Digital print, Dimensions variable © Ed Gold

We talked to Ed about his choice of 'homeless' lifestyle, his inspiration, works and future. His candid answers only serve to make us await a visit to the exhibition with avid interest.

  • You began photography when you were working on farms in Essex - what was it about that time and place that inspired you to capture images? 

I'd always carried a camera with me since the age of 8 and was always predominantly interested in photographing people’s portraits but didn't have a favourite theme to pursue or any special reason to take photographs, I just liked the process of making an image. It was the people that I started to meet whilst working on a farm and doing many varied outdoors jobs that inspired me to document their lives and were formative in where I am now in my work. I had studied graphic design at Colchester Institute so had an eye for an image and 'how to look sideways at life' so the really old surroundings and characters of my local area caught my eye and fired up my imagination. Not only that, but my life was a lot of fun, working hard, playing hard and getting into crazy, exciting situations so it felt as though everything was a great adventure to me at such an early age. Also, I'm sentimental and appreciated that many of the people I met had never had their lives documented or their portraits taken. These people had grown up in harder times and deserved to be remembered in the future and I found their surroundings to be mystical and fantastical.  

  • Do you remember a particular scene or defining moment that made you want to reach for your camera? 

I had never been taught how to take a decent photograph but carried on regardless, always feeling that I wasn't quite doing it right. I hungered to take a photograph that I could be happy with and the defining moment was in 1992 when I visited a man I was introduced to by a farmer. His name was Ivan and he had been a prisoner of war in German concentration camps in WW2. I was the only person he ever voluntarily allowed to take his photograph in his life and the image I made of him with his young next-door neighbour Joey was when my photo taking changed. It was the first image I was really happy with and captured what I had been trying to record for many years - age, feeling, sadness - possibly from a time long gone by. 

  • You were born in London and studied in Colchester. Now you choose not to have a permanent home base. Is this because of your work or because you are a natural nomad? 

It's because of both questions and many more reasons. At the age of 8 I was sent to boarding school so never had a settled family life, not only that but my parents lived in Istanbul, Turkey, so taking myself off abroad to visit them in holiday time meant I got used to travelling. Thereafter I always lived out of backpacks and was always on the move so subconsciously it was normal to feel as though I didn't have a base. That coupled with little parenting meant I felt lost growing up so moved around trying to find my place in life. This has lead to the natural development of my work now so that I am abroad more than being in the UK. The biggest reason that I do not have a permanent home base is that I do not have the money to be able to afford to rent anywhere as I make very little money from my type of social documentary work. All my money is saved for travel and as soon as I spend it on rent it means I am grounding myself. I also dislike living within four walls and much prefer to be outside in a caravan, yurt, tipi or other structure that allows you to be connected to the land. 

  • Is there anywhere that you call 'home'? 

If I were allowed to live full time in Alaska I'd happily call The Last Frontier my home. Otherwise I have no place I can call home in the world, especially in the UK. Compared to other countries I have visited I find the British small minded and unwilling to let me stay with them temporarily, even my family, which is another reason I like to keep moving.

  • How do you feel about London and Colchester now? 

I feel a certain nostalgia to be able to visit London on the rare occasions I am in Britain and appreciate that it is a unique city with a particular culture but which I enjoy for only short amounts of time. I also feel a pride in having come from Colchester and that it has been very pliant in me becoming the person I am now, however I have discovered that the world is huge and has so much more to offer than these two places. For small periods I like the fact London and Colchester are familiar areas I can plan from, and great to know I can return to, but they also inspire me to travel and explore new, varied communities that offer fresh material in my work.

  • Does location influence your choice of project? 

If the location is dangerous but the project is worthwhile I'd forgo my safety to get the results. Language has never been a restrictive factor as I have learnt a foreign language fluently in the past to help with my work so the location doesn't have to be English speaking. These days I find that more and more extreme places are the location for my projects and this is an influence - the more extreme and inhospitable to humans the location is, the more I wish to go there. I am a people photographer but certainly their location is integral to where I choose to conduct my projects. 

  • You immerse yourself in the cultures and communities you document. Do you see yourself as an impartial observer or do you find yourself making judgments through your work? 

Life is made up of constant experiences and very often we have no control over what happens whilst moving forwards. I do see myself as an impartial observer and this is usually a crucial factor to stick to in order to do a good job, retain integrity and be professional. I've seen enough in my experiences through my photography not to be verbally or visually judgmental ever unless I am asked to be. It isn't part of my job to have an opinion, rather to record reality and the truth honestly. I might sometimes have judgmental thoughts like everyone else but it's wise not to share them. Instead have an open mind and be positive above all else. 

  • Have you had any problems with the communities you have lived in accepting/understanding you and your work? 

Very often yes. Many poor communities regularly suppose that I have a lot of money, a better life than them and aim to make money by selling my work of them. Because of this many times people will refuse to talk with me or not allow me to take their photos. Often it is also because people are hiding something and do not wish to reveal themselves. Time is the answer to these situations, to slowly gain a community's trust and acceptance of situations that arise which I have no control over. 

  • You are a photographer that also uses words and audio in your exhibitions. Are they complementary additions to the images or essential to a viewer's understanding of your work? 

Initially at the start of my photo taking I was only concerned with really taking a good image and doing justice to the person in the image by accurately portraying their actual identity. After many years of striving to take aesthetically and technically detailed images I realised that 50% of what I should be aiming to achieve was also recording the person's specifics. Photographs can work by themselves for the sake of simple beauty but since my work is about people, words and audio is absolutely crucial to depicting the complete representation of the subject. I prefer to take interviews, typed on an iPod Touch with one finger very quickly, of only the person's words as they are what I find so compelling and fascinating when read together with viewing the portrait. Together with this I further spend as much time as photo taking writing down my own personal journal of my experiences, which further perfects the fullest picture. It's a lot of work to do and something that whilst on location can take up 20 hours of each day but really worthwhile to form a lasting picture for many years to come. 

  • What is next for you? 

I'm really compelled now to continue documenting remote off-grid communities so Australia is next, which I will be exploring by motorcycle. I also hope I will be able to join a photo agency and commercial gallery to showcase my work and give me a better incentive to further examine my interests. Ultimately it would be great to get paid for what I do so that at least I can carry on and pay for my travel expenses, and perhaps even get any kind of a wage!

Ed Gold's Other Worlds exhibition opens at Firstsite tomorrow, Friday, 16th June at 6pm. It runs until 17th September 2017. Free entry.

Header Image: M’Hula Crew, Country Folk, 1999, Digital print, Dimensions variable © Ed Gold