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The Present Tense
Photography Olly Simpson

The Present Tense: photos from a divided Britain

We asked Jeremy Deller, Viv Albertine, and more leading UK figures to select their favourite images taken by Dazed readers on the politically fraught streets of the UK and Ireland

Recently, we asked our readers to submit images taken on the streets of Britain in the tense lead-up to Brexit, and the political uncertainty that shrouded it. We then invited a group of influential UK figures — people who have explored the nuances of Britishness in their work in some way — to pick their favourite image from the entries. Despite appearances, a project we’ve called The Present Tense is the exact opposite of a competition. At a time when Brexit has divided the country, and has brought out the weirdest and worst in many, offering a platform for expression felt open and democratic. Brexit often feels like it is unfolding in the hands of a small elite, behind doors most of us will never get to open. 

Judges like Carole Cadwalladr — the journalist who pulled the curtain on major Brexit scandals at Cambridge Analytica and Vote Leave — offer unique perspectives that go beyond the artistry of photography. Uniting established figures with burgeoning photographers of any age and background allowed for a natural spark to occur between them; moments of clarity amid the chaos. Below, read selections from the likes of ex-Dazed cover star AnohniViv Albertine and Jeremy Deller, whose heartfelt comments reflect the urgency of this moment.

ROTTINGDEAN BAZAAR SELECTS ALEX COLLEY

Rottingdean Bazaar’s James Theseus Buck and Luke Brooks use cast-away ephemera to craft surreal twists on mundane clothing items, while their runway shows harness the off-centre atmosphere of some forgotten UK carnival. Twenty-one-year-old Alex is a student from Cardiff, whose work treads a line between documentary and street portraiture.

Rottingdean Bazaar: “We like this photo because it's like something from a dream.”

Alex Colley: “In this image, you can see the outline of a door that's been bricked up. In the process of doing this, a scar has been left on the landscape, one that may never entirely fade. We can see where initially there was a way in, an opportunity. For many, it seems that we're currently grasping onto what's left of an opportunity, that if missed will leave us wounded for decades to come. No matter what the outcome, the fallout will be monumental and once cemented, these barriers will be a lot harder, and will take a lot longer, to tear down.” 

@alexcolley_

CAROLE CADWALLADR SELECTS IZZY BUDLER

Carole Cadwalladr is the Guardian and Observer journalist who in 2018 broke Brexit’s biggest scandals: Vote Leave’s overspending plot as told by Shahmir Sanni,and Cambridge Analytica’s data harvesting campaign as told by Christopher Wylie. Born in Leeds, 21-year-old Isobel studies photography at Edinburgh College of Art, and is working on a project called Bridges Not Walls, which looks at the ways parts of rural England are addressing deep-set racial divisions.

Carole Cadwalladr: “I picked this photo, taken of the Trump rally on expired 35mm film, because of its instant nostalgia. It looks and feels like a photo from another era and when we look back on this period, on the fact that we know Britain is wrapped up in the middle of the Trump investigation, that we know multiple crimes were committed in the referendum, but that we plunged on regardless, I think we will look back in bafflement. We won't understand how we let it happen. It will feel like a strange, distant, unfathomable time. If you're paying attention, it feels like that already, which this photograph brings home beautifully.”

Izzy Budler: “This image represents that the old establishment is crumbling away and that people are demanding rights, freedoms and a new order. Now, more than ever, we need to stand together in unity and solidarity to build a new future.”

@eizzibudler

ED FORNIELES SELECTS ANGELICA MAE MACABANGON

Multidisciplinary artist Ed Fornieles takes swipes at everything from the dead-eyed cronyism of the post-YBA gallery world, to social media marketing. A BA Photography student at Kingston School of Art, Angelica’s photography is inspired by the chemistry of close family bonds.

Ed Fornieles: “I was struck by the subject: these people in costume, role-playing police, somehow begin to dismantle the police’s own performance of themselves.”

Angelica Mae Macabangon: “Britain's Brexit circus: with these shambolic Brexit negotiations, our politicians are seen as fools and Britain as one big circus.” 

@photo.angelicam

WILSON ORYEMA SELECTS RIO BLAKE

Poet and exhibiting artist Wilson Oryema focuses on human consumption and the various ways it affects the climate, especially in light of Brexit. Twenty-three-year-old Rio started taking photos of herself and her friends as a teenager, to capture frank encounters and to document her youth.

Wilson Oryema: “For me, this image succinctly represents the uncertainty we have about our short and long-term future. Many roads we can traverse, but each as confusing as the last.” 

Rio Blake: “My image represents the political mess we've managed to get ourselves into.” 

@rioblake

ANOHNI SELECTS OLLY SIMPSON

Sussex born, New York-based songwriter Anohni’s balladry stations somewhere between the delicate and the dystopian. Nineteen-year-old Olly is a student at the London College of Fashion. He focuses on street and live music photography, and on capturing raw, unplanned moments of expression.

Anohni: “I find this image so pretty, and so strong. This is such a terrible period in many respects, but on the other hand young people have never been more willing to express their truth, even in the face of bitter circumstances, and I admire them.”

Olly Simpson: “The image portrays the gritty street atmosphere of south London.” 

@ollysimpson1

JEREMY DELLER SELECTS CRAIG BERNARD

A relentlessly original concept artist, Jeremy Deller uses the humour and clear-thinking of recent British counter-culture to examine collective memory and nostalgia. Cardiff-raised, London-based Craig captures stark and rapturous moments of street tension that often seem stranger than fiction.

Jeremy Deller: “This picture emphasises, for me at least, something of the sinister side of the Brexit project.” 

Craig Bernard: “This was taken at Speakers Corner in Hyde Park, where a number of far-right Brexiters attend each week.” 

@craigobernard

MARSHA ROWE SELECTS TRACKIE MCLEOD

Together with Rosie Boycott, Marsha Rowe founded the visceral and influential British feminist zine SPARE RIB in the early 1970s. Connor - AKA Trackie - is a 25-year-old sales assistant and visual artist from Glasgow. Borrowing nostalgia from a UK rave era he never got to enjoy, his street portraits examine hyper-masculinity, the hegemony of power and the freedom of youth.

Marsha Rowe: “Timeless needs in a world devastated by changes, over which woman and boy have little control.” 

Trackie McLeod: “This image was taken in Glasgow's Govanhill, which is a melting pot of culture and religion. Much like the future of Britain at large, the future of Govanhill is uncertain – unable to escape gentrification, many of its residents feel under threat of displacement, a story which is becoming increasingly common as the city of Glasgow continues to evolve and expand. Govanhill is in a state of limbo, in need of change – but at what cost?” 

@daft_aries

NKISI SELECTS LILY BOYLE

UK-based techno producer Nkisi is one third of NON Worldwide, a record label and roaming debate panel focused on Afrofuturism. Nottingham-born Lily is studying photography at the London College of Communication, and is passionate about documentaries and fashion.

Nkisi: “I feel very engaged with the rhythmicality of this image: all the different rhythmic patterns, in architecture and colour. It is as if you can hear the footsteps of the passers-by, entangled with each other.” 

Lily Boyle: “This photograph was taken in early 2018. I noticed a man walking towards the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre in this suit and thought it captured a strange sense of divide in the country currently — especially with Brexit around the corner.”

@_lilyb_

WEIRDCORE SELECTS STEVE REEVES

Weirdcore is an anonymous visual artist who laces his acid-trip animations for Aphex Twin with the best and worst of British pop culture. Steve is a 52-year-old freelance filmmaker and photographer from London, who takes an eerie and hyperreal brush to British street portraiture.

Weirdcore: “For me, this image encapsulates the stubbornness of Leavers, and that their only valid argument to go ahead with it is that they won. It shows that a good portion of Leavers won't be around to live out the consequences. Seeing this photo makes my blood boil.”

Steve Reeves: “Brexit seems to have galvanised huge swathes of middle England into going on marches and protesting, people who I don’t imagine normally do a great deal of demonstrating. Unlike the ‘yellow vest’ protests in France, nobody is rioting or setting police cars on fire. Instead, the protestors that I saw outside Parliament when I took this shot were either handing out ‘We love Europe’ cupcakes or waving ‘Honk if you want us out’ placards at passing motorists. It was such a gentle, friendly and very British type of demonstration. I took this shot because I loved Hazel’s indignant look as she argued with a Remainer – an argument that ended with her declaring that ‘Nothing good has come out of Brussels since the sprout’.”

@stevereevesdirector

VIV ALBERTINE SELECTS DORA DENSHAM-BOND

Viv Albertine is an author and filmmaker, and played the guitar in London’s indefinable punk band, The Slits. Dora is an 18 year-old aspiring photographer, currently studying Politics & Modern History at The University of Manchester.

Viv Albertine: “It was great to see so many submissions from women. This dynamic image by Dora Bond shows active, passionate and engaged young women fighting for their rights. They’ve taken their protest to the night-time streets, where for so many decades we have been excluded through fear. These young women show no fear, and that the way forward is to stand together and make our voices heard and our presence felt.” 

Dora Densham-Bond: “This was taken at a 'Reclaim the Night' march in Manchester, where since 2016 sexual harassment reports have risen by 64%, while women's services are being cut. Many young people I've spoken to are concerned about the 'isolationist' stance that Brexit represents, and that the attempt to return to a mythic 'days of empire' that was exploited by the Vote Leave campaign will lead to an increasingly illiberal right wing climate in this country.” 

@dora_db

STEVE BEALE SELECTS CRAIG BERNARD

As the founding editor of Sleaze Nation magazine, Steve Beale mined the hell and hedonism of 90s Britain from the dankest corners of its dancefloors. Craig Bernard’s second winning entry for The Present Tense is a vertigo-inducing deception of scale.

Steve Beale: “I thought that the subject matter was very contemporary, and reflects the evolving political landscape rather than the sluggish discourse of the mainstream. Having grown up in the suburbs myself, I am hardly comfortable with the aggressive manifestation of its small-c conservative mindset. But, equally, the newly-found sense of purpose emanating from this photograph is tangible, strangely infectious, and rather troubling of course. Although a remain-voting liberal democrat, I am utterly terrified by both sides of the culture war and would be happy to bang both their heads together.” 

Craig Bernard: “This was taken on 25th March 2017, at the first big protest and show of strength of opinion against Brexit. It was at the end of the march in Parliament Square, when protestors were listening to speeches.”

@craigobernard

SHAHMIR SANNI SELECTS DEIVIDAS BUIVYDAS

The whistleblower who exposed Vote Leave’s criminal overspending ploy, Shahmir Sanni’s story shook the foundations of UK democracy. Twenty-five-year-old street photographer Deividas lives in Boston, a port town in Lincolnshire that registered the highest ‘leave’ vote in Britain. It is often referred to as the ‘Capital of Brexit.’ 

Shahmir Sanni: “It's a powerful representation of the derelict state of Britain — the disenfranchisement of the white working class, created mainly by austerity measures implemented by the Conservative establishment. Yet there is an obvious anger among the residents of Boston that is being targeted toward its Eastern European population.” 

Deividas Buivydas: “For this photograph, I made myself visible and tried to recreate the tension that one can so often experience in Boston. This image suggests to a spectator the feelings that infiltrate the everyday life of the migrant.” 

@davidphos

The selected entries are on view at LNCC from 30 March