in conversation with Hamish Linehan
Alex Jones was interviewed by fellow photographer Hamish Linehan for Decoration Centre. Alex explores an expanse of cultural spaces within his photographic practice, taking the viewer along with him. His images are initimate and his narratives are linear, guiding us from start to finish.
Both photographers grew up together in Cornwall, and now use their medium as a therapeutic tool to document home, among other subjects. Having since moved to major cities, the pair discuss their Cornish roots, and their experience of travel photography.
Hamish: When you talk to people about yourself, do you consider yourself English or Cornish?
Alex: I would consider myself Cornish, maybe as a get out of jail free card to say I’m not English, because being English is just embarrassing.
H: Yeah, fair enough, I think I probably do the same by saying I’m Irish, even though I sound like this *in well spoken English accent*
A: I mean, not long ago Cornwall was actually granted national minority status by the European Union - recognising us as a Celtic nation like Wales, Scotland and Ireland - so now more than ever I would say we have a right to identify as such.
H: Yeah. Obviously, many of your photos use Cornwall as a backdrop or as the subject, I guess I’m interested whether you feel like Cornish culture, or the cultural differences between Cornwall and the rest of the UK, have had an effect on the way you approach photography and your practice?
A: I don’t think it’s something that I would ever think about when making work, other than ideas that I’ve had for projects that would be directly related to Cornwall and how I feel about where I grew up and just Cornwall’s place in the world.
It’s not something that affects my work currently but it definitely influences me as a person. I think it affects my identity; and how I relate to other people is influenced by the way I was brought up by my parents and my Cornish family; I believe the Cornish are unique, it’s something to do with the way we relate to our surroundings, I would say that the sea and the land is an extension of ourselves, and that has an effect on how we approach life.
H: Asking that question I’m kind of thinking about the Saints Way project you did. I was hoping to talk a little bit about that project and what that was all about.
A: Yeah this was a project I made a few years ago now. At the time, well at all times, I was thinking about photographic journeys. I hadn’t done any projects about Cornwall really, even though all my photos up until this point were almost all taken there. It was nice to approach it as an intentional project about where I’m from and to consider more deeply my connection to it. It was nice to go to places that I’d never been, even though I had lived 20 minutes from these places for 25 years.
To give a bit more context, the Saints Way is a hiking trail that leads from the North coast in Padstow, to Fowey on the South coast, both harbour towns, so essentially it traverses the spine of Cornwall. It’s only like 30 miles and originally it was a pilgrimage route, and also a droving route. Irish farmers en route to mainland Europe would sail to Cornwall, and rather than going around Cape Cornwall they would dock, drove their cattle south east and graze them as they crossed the county so that they could keep their animals fed whilst they travelled. Then they would board boats at Fowey and take their cattle onto France. It’s kind of incredible this route that’s formed by religious pilgrims and then farmers travelling from Ireland to France basically.
There’s a lot of history there, but nowadays it’s really forgotten about and when I walked the route it was really obvious that not many people know it even it exists - the path was overgrown, the trail markers were disappearing and broken... and I didn’t take a map or anything, so I was pretty much relying on them markers.
H: I think one of the really interesting things for me about that project, and I guess about your work more generally is that I think when people think of Cornwall they have, especially with photography, there’s quite like a set concept of what that looks like. I think your work explores bits of Cornwall that are less documented. Is that something that’s intentional? Maybe it isn’t but I view it as more of agricultural Cornwall rather than tourist, coastal Cornwall.
A: Yeah, with that particular route, what really appealed to me is that you go under the belly of mainstream Cornwall. It’s all on B roads and on these small bridle paths and foot paths that go through places that nobody ever goes to. It was obviously a new experience for me but the history of it really appealed to me, and also just the symbolic kind of shape of it almost, this perfect route that cuts right across the county from north to south.
When I started the route in Padstow, I went down to the harbour and washed my hands in the harbour water in some kind of symbolic gesture and when I reached the south coast two days later I did the exact same thing. I really felt like I accomplished something because despite having lived there my whole life; it was walking the trail that fully gave me that sense of place; like on Helman Tor, the midway point of the journey you can see the Atlantic ocean on both the North and South sides of the county, it’s almost comforting in a way.
H: I was wondering whether your photography gives a new orientation towards Cornwall than you might have otherwise, because I guess so much of the photography here is so much of people with expensive cameras taking photos of sunsets.
A: I think in that respect it’s actually a very challenging place to make work because it’s something that’s really well documented in a very particular way. To be honest I don’t know many photographers working in Cornwall in an intentional way that’s more than just landscapes and completely in the sense that it’s just aesthetic photos of the beach and things like that. To find work in Cornwall where someone is trying to tap into something more is actually really difficult, but I know they’re out there, and when you do find it, it’s really exciting.
There’s so much potential here, it’s such a historically rich land and has such a strong identity. There’s a lot of social issues, a lot of folklore and history, and it’s just this wild expansive landscape that gives you so much freedom to explore creativity in whatever form you like; it’s really exciting but it’s not being fully tapped into yet. I think that’s the result of many factors but for me it’s that creative young people don’t have many opportunities in Cornwall so they end up leaving and in that sense the work isn’t being made.
H: Yeah definitely, I think that flows nicely into what I wanted to talk about next. I know that you’re a politically engaged person, something like your Saints Way project exploring the different side of Cornwall felt quite political to me, I’m wondering how much your politics influences your work. Is that something that plays a big role, because obviously so much of your work relies on the natural world, is that something you project in an intentional way?
A: I’m always at odds whether my photography would be useful in that situation. You know that I’m really passionate about a lot of the issues that face Cornwall, at most times I’m often thinking that my photos have nothing to do with that, like it won’t solve any of the problems, but at the same time, more and more, the ideas that I have floating in my head and projects that I want to do in the future, I think a lot of them are much more politically driven.
The Saints Way maybe is a precursor to that kind of thinking, that kind of unseen area being used as a springboard for a lot of things that I’d like to do in the future. Right now, I wouldn’t say I’m working politically in my photography because it doesn’t bring anything to the table and it’s not effective. But maybe it is because communication is a real issue, changing people’s minds is a real issue, so yeah could well be.
H: That’s really interesting man. What kind of ideas have you got floating around, what projects are next for you?
A: My brain is a mess and a lot of this is driven by emotion; it’s such a big issue to get into, but Cornwall’s blessing is it’s curse: it’s a beautiful place and people want to go there on holiday. The industries that once supported it are dead and gone basically. It’s stuck in this sort of Catch 22 where it needs to stay beautiful and appealing to tourists because that’s the major economy. Our friends and families are sustained through that tourist economy, with restaurants, cafes and hotels, and our friends work in restaurants, cafes and hotels. So it needs to stay as this pristine idea of Cornwall that people want it to be for it to sustain that economy but at the same time because of this it’s never going to progress because the jobs and the economy itself aren’t progressive at all, these are all minimum wage jobs. A lot of my friends who I went to school with now work in cafes, restaurants or whatever, and they don’t have any ambition to do anything else because there isn’t anything else.
H: There’s a really good quote from an essay discussing tourism, I can’t remember who it’s by, but the author describes tourists as like a fly on a dead thing, existentially necessary but universally loathed. It’s that idea that tourists come to experience something authentic but by virtue of them being in a place, that experience becomes inauthentic. That’s the kind of idea isn’t it, that’s the tightrope.
A: Yeah, it’s such a tricky situation, any change to that is going to take years and you have to see the bigger picture of finding a new model for Cornwall that works in a way that doesn’t rely on tourism in such a huge way. There’s a lot of things that could be happening, but people need those opportunities in place to let go of what is supplying them right now; to be able to move onto something a lot more progressive and fulfilling.
Young people will want to stay for those opportunities that there aren’t right now, even just technologies and the creative sector could be huge for Cornwall. You probably know I haven’t been thinking about my work as much right now because I’m working all the time, but I have all these ideas floating around in my head especially focused on Cornwall. I was going to do this big project that I was thinking about for a long time and then the pandemic hit and I kind of lost track of it but yeah, I think a lot of the work I want to make is based around what we were just talking about - critiquing this whole tourist economy that we’re so reliant on and trying to think about how I can present it in such a way to people to show that an alternative is possible basically. This problem has so many issues that I would have to make a project that has like five different chapters to bring it all together.
H: Lord of the Rings style.
A: Yeah man, it would have to be a whole saga. It could range from simple documentary, of say what new industries are popping up in Cornwall. It’s good for people to know about that to change the image, from this pastoral place that’s just full of country bumpkins and farmers and no ones doing anything interesting but we can go there on holiday and enjoy ourselves, when actually there are some amazing people working there and there’s lots of good things happening.
I think that would be where I would start. I think this is probably really exemplary of the position of where I feel I am as an artist right now, I can’t define my exact voice, like what my work looks like and how it manifests because I still have so many ideas going round in my head. If I presented this project to you where there’s five different things going on you would think it’s like five different artists doing this work; so idk, people always want a clear voice.
H: That’s so interesting because to me your photos have such a distinctive flavour or quality to them. I think I’d be able to pick out your photos so it’s interesting that you feel you haven’t found that voice yet.
A: Yeah, well in a way I think that’s what excites me about this project in that it would be an opportunity for me to try lots of new things that I haven’t tried before. I’m thinking about performance, video, and then like staged photography as well as this documentary photography that you probably know of me.
H: Do you think you’ve reached the limits of what that can do? Is that why you’re exploring different modes of thinking and photography?
A: I would think so yeah, that’s definitely the case. What I’m kind of known for is documenting the personal experience, especially with travel photography and experiences with nature and my own life. When they come up against big topics such as regional development and issues facing marginalised communities and things like this, it’s almost irrelevant, and I don’t think it has the strength to communicate what I need it to.
H: That makes me think about your final university project Wind and how that was a documentation of your journey around Korea and Japan with your partner N. Operating in a very different cultural space, did you feel your work was brushing up against that? Is that where that feeling comes from?
A: I think partly yes, that awareness is always there, and I was particularly aware of the weight of representation when making work there. But in another sense this project was my completely privileged escape from any political or social burden. It was my dream to sink into.
Sometimes I think it might have even been better to not go to university and have learned about the ethics of photojournalism and representation, and I could go in feeling completely naïve, but I’m glad I’m not another one of those, hopefully. With that project in particular, it wasn’t really ever about going somewhere new. It was just about experiencing something with someone that I cared about a lot.
H: That’s a really interesting thing because you describe yourself as being known for this type of travel photography, but I feel that’s almost misleading in a way because there’s like an exoticism associated with travel photography, where you go somewhere new and take photos of things that are outside of your own personal experiences.
That’s not really what you’re doing at all and what you were saying about it being hyper personal, so it’s not the classical idea of travel photography. Thinking about the idea of narratives and journeys in your work, they’re often there in quite an explicit way, whether travelling Cornwall or heading up a mountain in Iceland, where does that process come from? It’s a neat way to structure a project with a start, middle and end.
A: Yeah, there’s something so satisfying and beautiful regarding the photographic journey in that sense. Maybe it’s really simple in that it’s just such a nice way to make work, to have that constantly changing horizon where something new is given to you every day.
And I love to look at this kind of work, or read it or watch it, to be taken along on a journey by the author, it’s always so exciting.
For me I guess it’s more about who I am. It begins with curiosity; I am obsessed with looking at things, wanting to see what’s over the next hill or under a rock, honestly I think all I like doing in life is based around this childlike curiosity. I think a lot of this stems from the desire for escapism, of always wanting to be somewhere else; away from work or responsibilities; lying in the grass, looking at the clouds.
H: Thinking about the journeys that you’ve photographed you structure them from beginning to end, they’re never circular. They’re always linear and to a final destination, maybe that’s a function of the escapism.
A: Yeah, that’s an interesting observation and not something I’ve thought about before. The natural course with editing a photographic journey is to work chronologically. But I play with this quite a bit. Like sometimes when you’re writing you’re not just listing the events as they happened; you might think about the emotions you might have been feeling at the time, and I feel photographs can do this well, oftentimes it’s more of an emotional/spiritual editing process.
With Iceland, for example, I looked back at what was the highlight of my journey and where I felt most at peace and you can usually recognise a part where you can visually see or feel yourself changing, and when it comes to editing, I would tend to make that part the climax, this kind of moment of transcendence. Often the project can end where it’s trailing off into the distance and it doesn’t feel like an ending.
H: Yeah, I totally get that. I’m interested in this idea of foreshadowing and your work being structured like a novel. Obviously, you read a lot, so why have you chosen to represent these journeys as photos rather than written words as I know you wrote a lot before?
A: That’s a really good question actually because it’s something I think about a lot of the time like what would I be doing if I wasn’t making photographs. I always say I make photographs because I can’t draw, and I sometimes feel limited by that because I get really jealous of painters being able to paint whatever they want and have no limit to what they’re making. It’s the same with writing because there’s no limit to what you can write about.
It’s quite sad but I feel like it’s something I pushed down because I felt I was never really good enough to be able to write stuff that people would care to read. But yeah, with a lot of my older projects I used to write a lot of my own introductions which were kind of part of the work in that sense. I guess for me the camera is my form of writing, like it is my pen and that’s my diary. That’s what it really boils down to, I think that when people are looking at my work, they’re just reading my diary.
H: Yeah, it does feel like that especially Wind, because it’s such an intimate thing. How do you choose what’s for you and what’s for everyone else? I guess so many of your photographs are part of trips that you go on with friends and people you love. Obviously, cameras have such a history of being used for autobiographical documentation, family portraits or travel portraits, so how do you differentiate between the things that you keep for yourself and the things used for your art?
A: Yeah, it’s something that I wrestle with all the time for sure. With Wind, that was the most personal project I’ve ever done. Because of the reach of the project and the fact it was going into a London exhibition with loads of people going to see it was kind of a big deal for me, to put something so personal out there. At the time it was a narrative of a relationship that I was in and it was still very much flourishing, so it was interesting to put that out there on display.
I used that personal element to get over what I was struggling with in previous projects, because I was grappling with this idea of ‘what’s the point in me going somewhere and taking hundreds of photos when I can search for it on the internet and see a thousand photos of the exact same place’. My answer to that was that I should make the work more personal and maybe people would find interest in that personal element of it.
H: For me that project almost reads as a love letter between you and N. Is that fair?
A: Yeah, I think that’s definitely fair. It was categorically the happiest time in my life for sure. It’s really special going to someone’s homeland and them showing it to you through their eyes, to experience it through them is just amazing. It was amazing to me; I was somewhere completely new, away from all my responsibilities. I just fell in love with Korea, just as a country and the people and everything. I spent some special moments with N’s family and to be welcomed in when you’re so far away from your own home is just such a nice feeling.
At the same time, I was going through my own personal experience of going to a country that I had never been to before. You think this little Cornish boy when sitting in the field behind his house, daydreaming about his future, imagines he’ll end up swimming in the sea of a small volcanic island off the south coast of Korea? What was amazing is that none of this would have ever happened had I decided not to go to a bar in Bournemouth one night and not met N. I was really lucky to have experienced that, and so when I was making the work whilst I was there, not only was it the travel log of me experiencing new things, but it was my appreciation of knowing her and having a best friend like her to travel with. I tried to show that in the photographs, these moments of our shared experiences punctuated with images that tried to describe how I was feeling, what it’s like to be in love, be that warm ocean water or clear blue skies.
H: In that project I guess what you’re saying is that you purposely conflated the personal and autobiographical with the artistic. I’m interested because you have two Instagram accounts if you don’t mind me outing you.
A: This conversation is over.
H: I was just going to ask how do you choose between what you feel is worth posting personally compared to professionally? There’s perhaps more of a humour to your personal profile.
A: I think the main thing between the two accounts is that I’m super lazy on the professional one I guess because it feels like work, whereas I actually love my private account because it’s just like my diary and I know I can post absolutely anything there. Just not needing to have that audience there.
Going back to what you said earlier about defining an artistic photograph and what is personal, it’s really difficult to divide those two categories. Wind is a really big project like it’s five books and reveals a lot about the journey. But regardless of what everyone sees there there’s still so many moments that no one knows anything about and it’s just between me and N. I think it’s nice to have those gaps in the narrative as well, like people can use their imagination, it’s just nice for me to know there were so many moments shared between us that weren’t documented.
Back to Instagram I don’t know, maybe I’ll start posting personally on my ‘professional’ account, it’s fading into insignificance now anyway, it’s essentially just a marketplace.
H: I feel like such an old man on Instagram now because the way people use it has changed so much.
A: Yeah, like have you posted a reel yet?
H: Might do an IGTV Vlog. Yeah, I don’t know, like people use it as a daily update thing or an outward facing diary and I don’t think I do, and I don’t think you do either. I just feel like an old man who’s posting nice photos that he’s taken. It’s funny how often photographers kind of shy away from talking about Instagram or engaging with it, because everyone uses it.
A: I think some artists think it’s really indignant to post on Instagram. I really love the big artists who use it really casually. I think we are moving away from it now where people are getting mailing lists on the go and stuff like this where marketing is much more intentional.
H: Is that more exciting for you? I can imagine you doing blog posts rather than Instagram bits?
A: I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about it. I mean only because we know how shit it is to look at images on instagram. But really I think what it’s really about, for most people, is this desire to be seen and to be appreciated and maybe I don’t post on the one with lots of strangers following it because it doesn’t mean much to be appreciated or seen by those who don’t really care about me. I think we all deserve to be recognised and appreciated for our creativity and expressions of self, and having a circle of friends that see that in you, I think that’s enough really. Otherwise it’s just marketing you know, you want the public one to be popular because you need to earn money and need to grow your audience to do that.
H: I mean, Tumblr is how I first got into the style of photography that I take. I wanted to emulate the style I saw on there which is really embarrassing to say now but..
A: I actually used to have a Tumblr where I showcased other people’s work and it actually got quite popular. It was really fun; I would email people and interview them, that’s something I really enjoyed, showing other people’s work. I enjoy talking about other people’s work a lot more than mine.
H: Do you think you’d ever do any kind of curation?
A: I would actually really love to; I worked in a gallery and got a little taste of that, but it was such trash stuff we were working with. But like my favourite artists are just all my friends and they’re all doing really great stuff and they deserve a platform and to be seen. They deserve to be much more successful than fucking Jeff Koons and everyone else.
H: Yeah, I think it’s funny too that all of my favourite photographers are people that I know.
A: The problem with Instagram is that it’s such a breeding ground for trends. You’ll see trends in photography all the time and if people are always on Instagram they’re seeing what’s popular and what’s doing well. It affects how people work and distracts people from finding their own voice as an artist. But then you’ll find someone and can easily see that their work is formed through a long period of time and not just some trend, and when I see something unique it just really excites me. It’s just so algorithmic and programmed that someone who’s doing amazing little drawings in their bedroom that no one’s ever seen before would ever get discovered in that way.
H: How do you balance that as an aspirational photographer because there must be a part of you that wants that exposure, but you have to balance that with ideas of inauthenticity?
A: It’s something that really concerns me because I need to make money. I hate working 9-5 every day of my life but I don’t think I have it in me to try and sell myself in that way to make my stuff palatable because it just feels fake to me. When I’m not working in a way that’s genuine and doesn’t feel true to myself it’s really difficult.
This is why I worry about not being successful because I’m just not commercially minded. I still don’t know whether I’m using Instagram as a social thing or a self-promoting thing. I just like seeing what my friends are doing, and I use the messenger on it all the time to keep in touch with a lot of people who aren’t around locally.
So more recently I’ve tried to silence the inherent capitalist in my brain; when you stop thinking about doing things for money, and remember why you started in the first place you just feel better generally.
H: What helps you get into that headspace, where you’re able to be more silent? Do you have any recommendations for being able to switch off a bit more?
A: For me it’s following the things that make me happy, looking for that nourishment you know. Open spaces, natural environments, dogs, cats, friends. Sometimes I think I have no skills whatsoever and no passions really, apart from looking at things, and enjoying the way they appear to me.
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Images by Alex Jones.
With thanks to both Hamish and Alex ︎