Here, we speak to Arthur about her experience of compiling this latest photographic series, insiders' tips for navigating a new town and getting close to her subjects.
Olivia Arthur on Hull, UK City of Culture 2017
Olivia Arthur’s black and white photographs explore the youth culture of Hull, from Elvis impersonators to pet snakes, football, bodybuilders, teenage style, relationships and young families. For this project, commissioned by Hull UK City of Culture, Arthur has travelled frequently to the city to build relationships with local young people, enabling her to depict them in domestic interiors or the recreational areas where they spend much of their time. Arthur’s ability to build trust with her subjects has resulted in a series of insightful and honest portraits reflecting the individuality, identity and aspirations of the young people of the city at this crucial time in British history.
I had actually never been to Hull before, so I was really coming as a pair of outside eyes.
What's your connection to Hull?
I had actually never been to Hull before, so I was really coming as a pair of outside eyes. I was commissioned to make work for the City of Culture as part of a link up between Magnum Photos and City of Culture team. Martin Parr was also making work for a parallel commission for the exhibition.
What are you working on there?
It is essentially a portrait series, and I have photographed young people either at home or in an environment where they feel most comfortable. I’d like to think that I have showed a bit of a cross-section of the young people of Hull. In the exhibition [at Humber Street Gallery] there is also a snake-like stand running through the space with other images taken around Hull (non-portraits) to give a sort of background to the portraits.
Tell us about your first visit to the city.
I first went up there in May and it was just for a couple of days to do a bit of a 'recce'. I had never been before but had heard the reputation it used to have as one of the worst places to live in the UK. I was interested in how its location - on the Humber, as a port and yet somehow not on the way to anywhere in particular - affected the feel of the city. I have to say that I was really positively surprised by what I found; the atmosphere and the warmth of the people there completely dispelled any feeling of it being a windswept, end-of-the-world kind of place. It was during that period earlier this year when the UK was enjoying positively Mediterranean weather, so I am sure that helped too...
What makes it a special place?
I think because of its location, and because its been a bit overlooked for so many years, the place and the people have created a bit of a cocoon for themselves. I was definitely bowled over by how open and friendly everyone was almost without exception; particularly coming from London, the contrast was staggering.
Any hidden gems?
I love the fact that there is a public footpath running through the dockyards with all the ships and cargo, and you have people walking their dogs and going for a jog. You also get a wonderful view back over the city from the raised bridges. Then, of course, there are the more obvious things like the Adelphi music venue in a little residential area where lots of famous bands have played. They have the front of a double-decker bus as the bar.
Why did you decide to photograph young people in particular?
This was initially a request from the Humber Street Gallery - though they were open if I wanted to do something else. Since it is a time for the city to be really looking forwards and hoping for the future, it seemed to be a good place to start so I stuck with it.
How did you build relationships with your subjects?
I try and make them feel relaxed by photographing them somewhere they feel really comfortable, whether that is at home or a place that means something to them. I also talk to them about themselves a bit, but - particularly with the younger ones - you don’t want to make them feel put on the spot. If they seem to want to chat, I do, and if they are more comfortable being quieter that's fine with me too.
I was definitely bowled over by how open and friendly everyone was almost without exception; particularly coming from London, the contrast was staggering.
What’s your favourite photograph from this series?
Well, I have a few. I like the one of Alicia with her pet snake because she’s so calm (and I wasn’t!) Also, little Alfie the Elvis impersonator -because he was so dedicated to his performance - and then Ross and Ryan the twins with a football outside a youth centre, because they were so unpretentious and just themselves.
Where should visitors to the city head first?
Humber Street, of course…! That's where the gallery is and the area which has been redeveloped for the City of Culture out of the old fruit market's industrial buildings. I think they’ve done a great job. But there are also other good spots, like where young people hang out at the Avenues. I also love the enormous bustling Walton Street Market which is part car boot sale, part shopping destination and part gathering place.