This image means more to me than any of the others in the series.
I took 30 rolls of film over a week and this was the only frame to come out because my camera broke. It makes me wonder what else I shot and why that image came out when none of the others did.
Young British Naturists took me roughly three years to complete because it involved lots of research. This image came towards the latter stage of the project when I was comfortable with my working methods and what I wanted to achieve. I knew I had people who were fully involved, who were relaxed and wouldn’t mind being photographed.
At the start of the project I made contact with a British naturist organisation that runs five camps a year. I went on these trips and met people. After a year or so, I realised there were only a few people from that group I wanted to work with. I also felt that environment was limiting how much I could take pictures; I was intruding on their leisure time, which wasn’t fair.
I remained in contact with some of those people and through referrals, research, blogs, forums I met other young British naturists. To make sure they were legitimate I went and photographed them in their homes. I was looking for people who were genuine about naturism but at the same time had a story. Next I contacted naturist clubs to ask if I could use the facilities to take pictures. That was difficult because normally no photography is allowed. But once I’d gained access to one or two, they referred me to others.
After that I organised trips with the young people I’d met. I felt it would be interesting to bring together strangers who had nothing in common apart from the fact they liked being naked. You had the widest variety of people – from students to a couple who’ve been together for years. Everyone instantly accepted one another.
Unlike some in the series, this picture was planned. The naturist clubs were predominantly built in the 1930s and most members were older. Young people would arrive and the only thing to do was play puzzles. I wanted to put that tradition in the shot so I found a visually representative spot and brought the young people into it. We spent a couple of hours chatting and I suggested they play drafts – they were really playing, obviously, but it was constructed by me.
On these trips I was naked too and it made me very uncomfortable. It’s rare for a photographer to be in that situation. Usually you’re the one pointing the camera and the subject is vulnerable. This was a combination of us having to trust each other. That’s part of my working method. I always try to experience what the other person’s experiencing. If I’m taking a picture in a muddy ditch, I’ll go and stand in the ditch and say, “Is it OK if you do this?” I want to make sure they know I’m willing to put myself through that.
I shot this on medium format. I used to shoot on digital and then film but that was pointless because the pictures came out pretty much the same. With film I work slower, which makes me focus and interact more. Sometimes the subject is on their last legs and I’ll hold my camera up, look at something I’m about to shoot and then say, “Yep we’re done”, without taking the picture – because it’s not worth it. Using film teaches me about the pictures that I shouldn’t take.
Young British Naturists was completely self-funded. Initially, my aim was just to use the project to better my understanding. I wanted to do group shots because when I was getting commissioned to do them I’d feel apprehensive about it. I thought, if I can do that with on a personal project I find interesting, which will hopefully make people think, all the better. It was equivalent to a fashion photographer doing a test shoot: it was a test to further my skills, to learn about human behaviour and create something beautiful. For me a successful image is one that provokes emotion, is visually inspiring and also makes people question something.
Laura’s advice for young photographers:
Remember how lucky you are. With a camera you can enter someone’s world and communicate with people, no matter what their language or background. Any time I get down with a personal project or if I’m not getting commissions in, I remind myself how lucky I am to have photography. Of course there are shoots I haven’t enjoyed but I’ve always thought about why. There has to be a reason for doing them, whether it’s financial or for learning. Remind yourself that you’re lucky – and if you don’t feel lucky, then change the type of photography you do.
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Portrait of Laura Pannack © Nelli Palomäki.