TOM WILLIS

b. 1997

BA Fine Art Photography at Camberwell College of Arts.

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INSTAGRAM - @tomwillis__

Artist Statement

Tom Willis is a photographic artist working in London and around the South of England. He makes social documentary work that currently centres around unseen manifestations of Britishness, through the use of considered portraiture, contemporary landscape and still life imagery. Willis gets drawn to the communities he captures through a desire for the exploration of people and places that seem to go unnoticed, and the spaces they occupy within wider British culture - spanning from hobby clubs held in scout halls, to grassroots disability football, to the independent professional wrestling scene. He aims to explore and document the tangible commonalities that draw people together, and the abstract emotional connections that they form to solidify themselves as a group. In a post-Brexit Britain that often feels more divided by the day, Willis aims to shine a light on these spaces and communities existing in Britain as positive examples of diversity of cultures, creativity and togetherness. These overarching motives also provide a framework for more direct and specific subtexts to manifest within individual bodies of work. This allows for an expansive exploration into the vast intricacies of modern British culture throughout his practice, with investigations into notions of identity, masculinity, sexuality, pride, the unseen, gentrification and heritage all present in various forms in recent series.

An appreciation for the tangibility of the photographic medium is established through Willis’ predominant choice of colour negative film as a medium, which he develops and scans at home. This process allows for complete control of the resulting imagery, as well as requiring a sense of patience, calmness and consideration that in turn, is reflected in the work created.

Favouring a direct yet personable approach to making pictures, Willis makes a concerted effort to form relationships with his subjects, inspired by the strength of engagement and understanding in the work of  his hero, Alec Soth. These relationships can take numerous forms; whether they exist as a brief meeting lasting only minutes or as a more prolonged effort to integrate into a community. The relationships established subsequently allow for the collection of primary research in the form of in-depth interviews and conversations. These in turn provide contextual insight to inform Willis’ image-making process, as well as aiding in the establishment of the presence of a shared encounter between subject and photographer. 

His most recent body of work and graduation series from Camberwell College of Arts, - ‘A Spectacle of Excess’ - offers a beneath the surface examination of the British independent professional wrestling scene. The series enquires about notions of performance, identity and masculinity, which compound to explore the tension between truth and fiction within the wrestling culture. An intense period of research for this body of work has also directed Willis to the beginnings of a theoretical and conceptual investigation concerning the existence of truth and fiction within the documentary act itself. 

Aided by the work and writings of Max Pinckers and the School of Speculative Documentary, Willis has built an awareness of the assumed objectivity of the documentary photographic image. Clearly this is a problematic notion, given our presence in a post-truth world and the ease and accessibility of image manipulation. Documentary photography aims to represent reality, yet is inherently and paradoxically subjective and as such, can often result in the photographer establishing solely their view or opinion on a subject. Willis aims to confront this in future work with an enhancement of the relationships he builds with people to a point of collaboration, with potential use of performance pieces and staged images featuring the subjects of the work. This plays into the idea of subjectivity through the use of fiction within a documentary series, while simultaneously enhancing the objectivity and truth of the work through more direct involvement of the subjects in the realisation of the work. 

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