“If it wasn’t for the people in the project, my camera would just be an expensive paperweight,” says Jim Mortram. The 40-year-old photographer is talking from his home just outside Dereham in Norfolk. It’s the eponymous location of his Market Town project, which he started less than two years ago. Initially a response to his own personal situation, his searing images of local, marginalised souls are now attracting attention from the wider photographic community.
Self-taught and self-funded, Mortram took up photography four years ago at a time when he admits that he was himself isolated and out of kilter with his peers. Sixteen years ago, as a third-year art student, he made the decision to drop out of education and move back to the family home in Norfolk to become a full-time carer for his epileptic mother. He is matter-of-fact about this decision, which disconnected him from his contemporaries and set his life in a direction he would not ordinarily have chosen.
Around four years ago he borrowed a camera and started shooting landscapes, but he knew something was missing from the process. “I was enjoying taking pictures, but I wanted the human element. I also knew I had to bring myself back out of the shell I had been placed into and re-engage. As soon as I had a camera in my hands my confidence shot through the roof.”
Photographing an elderly neighbour who lived a few doors away proved to be the catalyst for his current work. “WH was in his early 90s, but I’d known him since I was boy. I started making some portraits and, although I didn’t really know what I was doing, I started getting some decent shots.” As the project and friendship developed, WH discovered he had cancer. “I saw him two weeks before he went into hospital for an operation and then I heard nothing.” Mortram learnt that WH had passed away. “It hit me on a personal level: not on a highly dramatic state, but because I realised I was the last person to really engage with him, talk to him and take his photograph. I realised what photography should be for me: a sort of testimonial, a documentation.”
From here he began to seek out other marginalised characters in Dereham, listening to them, photographing them and sometimes recording their stories: creating a permanent record of their existence. Although he says he is drawn to people on the fringe, he says there isn’t any agenda in choosing those in the shadows of society, which his subjects tend to be. It’s partly a reflection of how he views himself. “I fell away from my peers, so when I tried to integrate myself into a community, I was instantly drawn to a subculture; people on the fringes.”
For Mortram, who comes across as respectful and polite, approaching potential subjects in the initial few months felt like cold calling. “I was just walking up to people. It was a bit like making street portraits.” Soon his project took shape and he was able to revisit those subjects in their own homes. Now he finds that people ask to be photographed.
His subjects often live alone. Many are haunted by the effects of physical or mental illness; others by crime and social exclusion. More recently he has begun documenting people living with epilepsy: a subject he feels is under-represented in photography. “There is a whole community of people out there who don’t know each other exist: that’s what strikes me as really sad. Dereham’s a small town – geographically it’s small too – and it’s sad how many lonely people there are in such a small area.”
A sense of loneliness and isolation, both physical and emotional, permeates his work. The images have a timeless quality about them, which Mortram puts down to the environments his subjects inhabit. “I prefer to take pictures in interiors. I love what happens in a room in someone’s home. At the fringe of any community you have the super rich and the super poor, and I’d take pictures of both: there’s no conscious decision to take pictures of people with less money than more. When you’re taking pictures of people who have less, their lifestyles have been caught in a time machine: you see echoes of the past in their clothes; the things in the rooms.” He pauses briefly. “Maybe I’m aware that I almost hit pause on my own life, which is why I have a soft spot for people whose lives are like that. Something happened and the pause button was hit, but they still carry on.”
Market Town, in its ethos as much as its imagery, is the sum of Mortram’s life experiences, personal integrity and creative outlook; by giving others a voice he’s showing us how he sees the world. Ironically he first approached the camera with the opposite intention. “When I started, having to put myself into it was the furthest thing from my mind,” he admits. “I had put myself into other forms of art and I needed a break. Actually, I realised I was putting all the wrong emotions into other art mediums and that, just by being there, I was putting myself into Market Town.” Painters and cinematographers, rather than other photographers, have provided his visual education.
Prior to Market Town he had what he terms “an awareness of photography”. But since starting the project he has found inspiration in the likes of W. Eugene Smith, Eli Reed and Brenda Kenneally: heroes for their cerebral approach to social documentary, as much as their visual style. “I didn’t know any of these people when I started the project, but I was panning for gold and I found them. There’s a real morality in the reasons why they take pictures, and in my small way I’m drawn to that. Social documentary seems like a natural place for me to go.”
Every single person he’s shot has remained in contact; many are now his friends. “That’s an organic thing. It wasn’t designed, but it happened from the first person that I shot after WH died. The idea of dipping my toe into someone’s life and disappearing or – God forbid – paying to photograph someone, then disappearing, doesn’t interest me at all. The whole point is to document concurrent lives and what happens through the course of time.” Does he feel emotionally involved in the lives of his subjects? “I can’t meet someone and not think ‘What’s going to happen now?’ That’s how I think.”
The life he leads leaves him short of free time as well as funds, which makes the project a challenge. “I do it in dribs and drabs. When can I borrow equipment? When can I afford film? When can I get the time away from home? It’s about spinning plates, and every so often a perfect storm happens.” He saved for seven months to buy his recently-acquired secondhand Nikon D700, aided partly by some DIY crowdfunding. Living in a town where fellow photographers are “the old guys who hang out in camera shops”, the online photographic community and, what he calls its ‘pay-it-forward’ culture, has been a lifeline. This platform has provided not only encouraging feedback, but donations in the form of rolls of film and even an old Linhof medium-format camera, through people who support his work and its aims.
Until he could afford the D700, he compares working with borrowed equipment to a sculpting project: being technically self-taught with a fixed idea of what he wanted to achieve. “Once I knew what type of pictures I wanted to take I had to navigate a whole gamut of problems, due to the equipment; but that was all the teaching I needed. You start with a big block of nothing and you just keep hitting it until you get what you want.”
At art school he was fascinated by multimedia. Robert Rauschenberg was a major influence and now sound and video add dimensions to his body of work. “If you’re going to take someone’s portrait, the first thing people say is: ‘I want more information.’” He records audio on a £20 cassette player from eBay. “It’s a way of creating a bigger document and another medium for getting the work – and the message – out there.”
On Twitter he’s a constant presence, promoting the work of other photographers, keeping his
followers updated on his own projects and publicising the community projects he feels passionate about, as well as the social issues that affect his subjects. He admits he was “a bit of a terrier” in the early days of submitting images of Market Town to magazines and blogs. “I didn’t have the benefit of a peer or a photography lecturer to guide me, so I had to do it all myself. But the good thing about that is that I’m responsible for it floating or sinking. The moment I realised I had something cohesive was when I was being asked to send more than one shot.”
The opinions of his subjects matter to him as much as those of his photographic peers. “The people I document give me positive feedback. Sometimes they say, ‘God, that’s what it’s like. You’ve got it there.’ If the pictures didn’t show that I wouldn’t be doing the job.” Does he think photography improves lives? “Yeah, I do. I believe that on a one-to-one basis – between me and the people I take pictures of – it can. Maybe it’s be- cause some of the people I talk to haven’t been listened to in 20 years. Imagine that? Imagine not having anyone genuinely listen to you?”
At the moment, working as a professional photographer isn’t an option. But even if it were, he’d still do what he’s doing: working for not-for-profits and wherever his pictures could be used for something worthwhile.
This year he established his blog Small Town Inertia, and has begun publishing first-hand accounts to accompany his images. It’s another way of giving his subjects a voice; another platform for them to declare, “I exist, even if you’d rather pretend I didn’t.” He has plans to explore new subject areas and I wonder what the future holds for Market Town, but even Mortram’s not sure. “It’s like I’ve sowed one seed and made a tree. If that tree decides to drop fruit and from that seed comes another tree then great, but I don’t know.
I don’t know where this is going to take me. No matter what I do it will be related to Market Town, because it’s the core of everything I do.”
© Eleanor O’Kane 2012
You can see more of Jim Mortram’s work at www.jamortram.posterous.com