Shot over a 10-year period, Ta-Ra immortalises a decade of life in and around the Welsh Valleys
A man in his sixties is giving it hell on the mic at a local boozer. With a shock of black hair, too-small sunglasses and oversized military jacket soaked under the armpits, he swings himself around a makeshift stage like Elvis reimagined by David Lynch; touched by magic, a little off-kilter, The King of clubs with dart boards and a jar of pickled eggs. Three shots of this glorious crooner introduce photographer Sebastián Bruno’s latest book, Ta-Ra (published by Ediciones Anomalas), which features images taken between 2013 and 2022 in predominantly working-class towns and cities around South Wales.
"There’s a disinhibition that characterises people in Wales and in the UK in general that I have always admired, and in a way that’s what happens in that scene,” Bruno says of the photographs. “The performance might not be the best, the outfit might not be the best and the audience might not even pay any attention, but the performer doesn’t care. He takes on the mic and gives it his all.”
Bruno moved to Cardiff from Buenos Aires in 2010 to study documentary photography at the University of South Wales. The photos featured in Ta-Ra were made mainly in and around the areas he was living, from the suburbs of Newport, Cardiff and Swansea to the former industrial hubs of Abertillery, Brynmawr and Merthyr Tydfil. Shot in black and white with a keen eye for detail, the images are alive and sensory. You can smell the cigarette smoke on a beat up leather jacket, taste the tray of chips swimming in gravy, see the heavy eyeliner starting to cake off. The voices of brides and babies, elderly couples and young parents, tattooed lads and bare-faced girls all bounce around the terraced streets, giving the images a lived-in feel that sits somewhere between artefact and memory.
“When I started photographing for this project in 2013, I don’t think that I was aware of the profound and archaic class divisions that affect British society as a whole” – Sebastián Bruno
“When I started photographing for this project in 2013, I don’t think that I was aware of the profound and archaic class divisions that affect British society as a whole, and that are visible in every aspect of everyday life,” Bruno observes. “The advantage of being an outsider is that you always maintain a degree of detachment in relation to the place. I can just see people for what they are, without all of the preconceptions that someone from a different class background in the UK could have when visiting the communities of South Wales or the North of England.”
Though the photographs span almost a decade, they could have been taken on the same day. There are no perceptible changes in the landscape or style, and the interiors – pleather sofas, crumbling walls and Artex ceilings – produce a “psychological landscape” that’s unmoored from time and, to an extent, place. “I deliberately erase any signs of modernity,” Bruno explains. “Although I work with the ‘real’, I am in control of the narrative and the result is just an interpretation of the area in a specific time – but the reading of the images should not just be conditioned to this specific area. I believe that it can also be related to experiences of life in working-class communities in other parts of the UK.”
“Sometimes we expect too much from photography,” he continues. “It will never be an exact rendering of anything. We take fragments of everyday life and we use it in a way so, as in this particular case, the whole responds to my worldview. The idea of timelessness is something that I have been applying to most of my projects. It’s got to do with some kind of longing for nostalgia, and it is used to emphasise this idea of the constructed geography.”
Capturing the ebb and flow of daily life, Bruno’s photos pulse with the warmth of familiarity and the hint of romance that tends to accompany it – but it doesn’t ignore the hardship either. “Life is tough and it’s great, but it’s not easy,” as he puts it. This comes through in the decades of neglect visible in overgrown alleyways, shuttered businesses and broken windows, as well as more overt displays of political anger. One image made inside a constitutional club in Newport features framed portraits of Boris Johnson, Margaret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth II hanging on the wall – a depressing nod to the way post-industrial Labour strongholds with rich histories of class solidarity and revolt are drifting to the right. “I couldn’t believe the fact that they would have a portrait of Thatcher hanging in there, especially in an area like Newport,” Bruno says, referring to the image as the “Trident of Death.” “To me that display was violent and quite disgusting.”
For the most part, though, Bruno’s portraits of daily life are aesthetically influenced by photographers like Michael Schmidt, Chris Killip and Chauncey Hare whose work was done largely in residential settings and the workplace. Before studying photography at USW, Bruno studied cinematography, and that background informs the narrative structure of his projects as he welcomes the challenge of “photographing a seemingly ordinary situation, person or object and transforming it into something else”. One of his favourite filmmakers is Aki Kaurismäki. “In each of his films, there’s a self-contained musical sequence where there tends to be a band or a singer performing live,” he explains. “My self-contained sequence at the beginning of the book could be interpreted as a homage.”
“There’s music in every single page... It’s the music that you hear in the pubs, clubs, karaokes, blasting out of car stereos… It’s always there, and it’s somehow in each picture” – Sebastián Bruno
Named after a casual way of saying “goodbye”, Ta-Ra, much like Welsh history and tradition, is permeated by music. Speakers, jukeboxes and pictures of famous artists decorate the insides of pubs and clubs where people are performing or flinging their arms around each other mid-dance. In other places, it’s the scenery that seems to sing – be it worn 60s-looking storefronts or rain trickling down a window at night. “There’s music in every single page and it stays with you as you pass from one page to the next,” says Bruno, who has decided not to work on any more long-term projects in Wales. The book, then, doubles as a swan song to the place he called home for so long. “It’s the music that you hear in the pubs, clubs, karaokes, blasting out of car stereos… It’s always there, and it’s somehow in each picture.”
Sebastián Bruno’s Ta-Ra is published by Ediciones Anomalas and is available here now.
Image from the series are currently on display at Centro Cultural de la Concepció in Palma, Mallorca, Spain, until December 30, 2023.