At the height of the pandemic last summer, British Vogue editor-in-chief Edward Enninful inaugurated a host of unlikely cover stars for the July 2020 issue. Instead of the usual suspects of Rihanna, Billie Eilish, or Adwoa Aboah, Enninful ascertained that the 'moment required something extra special, too: a moment of thanks' – namely, to frontline workers in the UK. Train driver Narguis Horsford, midwife Rachel Millar, and Waitrose worker Anisa Omar appeared on three separate Vogue covers in their places of work, stoic and good-humoured despite the inevitable pressures of working through a pandemic.
The portraits were taken by British photographer Jamie Hawkesworth, who cycled around London alone with his camera and tripod over the course of ten days. 'I was always conscious with the portraits that I never wanted it to feel like it was mayhem, or overly emotional,' he says over the phone. 'I was literally just documenting this person doing their job.' Normal, everyday people had never before been featured on the cover of British Vogue under Enninful, and it's unlikely they ever will again.
But Hawkesworth is as accustomed to photographing 'normal' people as he is models, although his new book of documentary photography, The British Isles, would suggest he prefers the former. Two frontline workers from the Vogue shoot appear among the 200 or so images in the book taken over the past 13 years, as do Sainsbury's staff, newsagents, suited city workers, ticket inspectors, boarding school students, street sweepers and labourers, alongside young kids, gangly teenagers and the elderly. Hawkesworth gained exposure as a documentary photography in part due to the success of his fashion work – he has shot rustic, sensuous campaigns for Miu Miu, JW Anderson, Alexander McQueen and Loewe alongside editorials for magazines including AnOther, i-D, System, T and W. His documentary work cannot exist without his fashion work, and vice versa – a perfect example of this is a Miu Miu resort campaign from 2015, in which one image of model Nathan Westling (formerly known as Natalie) is juxtaposed with a photo of a leafless, sprawling tree on the bank of a lake.
Most recently, Hawkesworth shot Kate Moss and Kate Winslet in black and white, the former lounging on a striped sofa for the cover of i-D, and the latter windswept on a beach for a New York Times profile following the success of Mare of Easttown – both women have been deified in many iconic images during their lives, but Hawkesworth captures them in a gentle fashion, au naturel and ageing like fine wine.
Hawkesworth's path into photography was unconventional. Born in Ipswich, he studied forensic science and criminal investigation at the University of Central Lancashire’s course in Preston for a year, later switching to photography on a whim after realising he enjoyed shooting mock crime scenes more than the slog of law. After that, he quickly graduated from scenes to people. There's a knack to finding strangers to photograph, and Hawkesworth has it – although his interest in people is not necessarily as profound as his pictures would suggest. While at university, if he wanted to shoot in the studio he had to book it and wait for a week, 'but I knew that if I walked around the streets it would be the best way to learn about photography quickly, because I'd just work it out by approaching people,' he says. 'That's where my first interest in people came. It was very basic, in that they were always just around.'
He graduated in 2009 with a set of portraits of local teenagers, and in 2010, collaborated with his ex-tutor Adam Murray on a 12-page newspaper called Preston is my Paris, which celebrated the striking brutalist architecture of Preston bus station. After he heard the station was going to be demolished as part of a redevelopment project a few years later, Hawkesworth moved back to Preston for a month and spent every day photographing the people passing through. In 2017 he released Preston Bus Station with Dashwood books, which chronicled Northern characters with tranquility and quirk; the cover image features a man's auburn afro aglow with afternoon sun, while a close-up of a pair of glasses tucked into knitted V-neck sweater is so rich it could well be a landscape. What attracts him to a subject? 'It's so hard to know,' he says after a long hesitation. 'Some people just jump out.'
Hawkesworth shoots exclusively on film, and prints all of his photographs himself. Aside from the British Vogue shoot and a trip to Knepp Castle Estate for The Gentlewoman (both of which made it into the book), he has barely picked up his camera during lockdown. Has he missed taking photographs of people? 'Not really. Going up to people and asking to take their portrait is the most nerve-racking thing in the world,' he says. Instead, he's been holed up in the darkroom every day for the past year and a half, printing photographs for The British Isles. 'It's been really nice to spend time appreciating what I have done over the last 13 years, as opposed to going out and doing more.'
The British Isles reads as a love letter to British culture; images of benches overlooking the shore crop up frequently in the book, either standing empty or inhabited by the elderly, a sandwich diptych evokes the joy of picnicking on trains, young boys gleefully clutch crabbing buckets or bouquets of chips wrapped in white paper, while the rugged, damp and occasionally otherworldly British landscape is rendered lovingly by Hawkesworth in golden hues. Anyone who lives in the UK knows that, despite its raw beauty, the countryside can be bleak and the weather brutal – but never in The British Isles. Hawkesworth is famous for printing his photographs on the warmer side – some would argue he takes it too far, although I am not one of them.
'When I did Preston Bus Station, it was freezing cold, but I never wanted the pictures to feel like that,' says Hawkesworth. 'When you find someone, there is an adrenaline rush. Even then I had a terrible back, but every time I found someone and actually took a picture, I'm not kidding, the pain would just go. That's why I want the pictures to feel warm and celebratory, because actually in the moment it's so nice.'
The British Isles spans people of different ethnicities, ages, sizes and occupations, and the subjects all hold themselves entirely differently before the camera, meaning that Hawkesworth never gets bogged down into photographing one type of person. The description text on the MACK website calls the book 'a radically democratising portrait of the United Kingdom,’ and on the surface this may be true, but I sense this statement belies Hawkesworth's simple, apolitical motive for taking photographs. 'If I sat at home ten years ago and would've been like, "Right, I'm going to radically democratise Great Britain," I would've never left the flat because it's just an impossible task,' he says somewhat ironically. 'Maybe this is naive or being too silly about things, but I love it when things are just incredibly simple. I like it when you see a portrait of someone and you appreciate them in all their glory. You could read into it whatever you will, but I'm not projecting what I think about British culture onto anyone.'
The photographs in the book aren't marked by date or location, a choice Hawkesworth made to 'keep the spirit of the randomness' innate to his chance encounters. One of the book's most striking photographs was, however, taken at the northernmost part of the UK in the remote Shetland Islands; a young, doll-faced girl in a pink raincoat stares out from beneath a fold of hair clipped messily above her forehead. The images of children in The British Isles are the most compelling, thanks to their naivety, lack of self-consciousness, but also at times, crippling awkwardness. 'I used to run up to people and be like, "God you look amazing. Can I take your picture?" and it would freak them out,' Hawkesworth says. 'If you go up to someone and they're incredibly awkward, it's not about saying, "Could you stand like this?" You just have to really embrace that person. If you appreciate someone's awkwardness, it creates a nice space around the portrait.'
Not everyone was thrilled by the idea of Hawkesworth taking pictures of children. While shooting in Ullapool eight years ago, he got a call from the local police asking why he was walking around taking pictures of their kids. 'You can imagine... I felt sick. I was like, "God, am I just doing something really wrong here?"' He spoke to the police and tried to explain himself, then went on a rant along the lines of 'if we were all too scared to photograph kids then there'd just be no record of living life right now.' While doing his project in Preston, sometimes people called him a paedophile. 'If I really thought about the details of things, I'd just stop myself,' he says. 'I try not to overthink.'
Only a couple of Hawkesworth's fashion shots made it into the book, but they are indiscernible amongst his documentary work – and all are of kids. One depicts a boy standing triumphantly on a scooter in a tinsel top, while one of his more famous works features a young blonde girl with her hands in the pockets of a blue Calvin Klein suit, full of attitude. The photo featured in Man About Town in 2011, and was styled by Benjamin Bruno, who reached out to Hawkesworth after coming across his portraits. 'It was definitely the project where the penny dropped in terms of fashion, and the joy of playing with character,' he says. 'She had this flowery dress on, and we asked her parents and her if she'd like to put this blue suit on. She went behind a bush, chucked it on and came out as a completely different person.' Soon after Hawkesworth first collaborated with Bruno, he was quickly introduced to Irish designer Jonathan Anderson. 'We were all figuring stuff out at a similar time,' he says. The trio have since worked together on numerous photographic projects, often for JW Anderson (Anderson's namesake label) and Loewe (Anderson has been creative director of the Spanish luxury house since 2013).
But for the past four years, Hawkesworth has done less fashion work. 'There's a lot more unknowingness to a documentary project. I don't really know why I prefer it,' he says. Perhaps it's the ambiguity, the potluck of finding someone interesting, or the fleeting nature of those chance encounters that keeps him on the move. 'I spent an awful lot of time being like, "What am I actually doing here?" But then you find someone or you've got an interesting landscape.' And for Hawkesworth, that's enough.
The British Isles (2021) by Jamie Hawkesworth is published by MACK