Jim Mortram is a self-taught photographer from Norfolk (UK) whose emotionally evocative photo-essays marry text and image to share the stories of those often living on the margins. His on-going project, Small Town Inertia, is an exploration of the lives of those in his local community, whereby Mortram seeks to create friendships that go deeper than the photographer and subject dynamic. Jim’s approach to documenting these stories focuses on listening and building trusting relationships with those he meets, often revisiting those he photographs like you would a friend — after all, that is what they have become to him. In this specific example we focus on Mortram’s photo-stories with Tilney1, a local artist and mental health service user diagnosed with schizotypal and obsessive compulsive disorders.
How did you meet Tilney1 and what drew you to photograph him? How did he feel about your initial approaching him as a subject?
I first began to document the artist and poet Tilney1 in 2009 whilst I was volunteering at a local drop-in Mental Health Arts group. Both the creativity and honesty of his work left a huge impression upon me. His canvasses instantly reminded me of the American painter Basquiat. Coded, abstract narratives, words and the branding of memories. Filled with symbols these confessional mind maps captivated me. His photography, poetry and scrolls of writing all held the same power.
He’d written a book of thoughts, fears, stories, his life story and left it purposefully upon a table in an Arts Centre so someone may find it. Tilney1 started having problems at 13 and was diagnosed at 17 with Schizotypal and Obsessive Compulsive disorders.
A series of traumatic events acted as triggers. He was abused. He worked nights at Tesco’s. He fought to retain normality. He succumbed to the increasing volume of his internal narratives. He’d been sectioned. After being both incorrectly and over medicated he spent 10 years in bed. 10 wasted years.
What does a typical session look like? How long do you spend together and how do you engage with your subjects to put them at ease?
As I work upon these shoots in the scant free time I have (I’m a full time carer for my Mother) what usually happens is that I’m in constant contact with everyone I document via social media, email and telephone. When I can grab an hour or two to make it out of the house, I’ll arrange a meet up. I can usually make a couple of meet ups per week, and try to make at least three visits with different people within my local community, every week.
I never view anyone I document as subjects — they are people, they are members of my local community. I visit as myself, I just always have a camera with me. Be it a first meet or a hundredth, it’s always the same. I arrive, we talk, I listen more than I talk and depending on the situation I’ll either document or make portraits as we go.
How to make people at ease? Well, I think of this as life. Just because there is a camera there, life does not cease, so the same rules apply. To get trust you have to earn it. Time, patience, being explicit in explaining what is happening from the onset. It’d be very easy to make a thousand images with a thousand different people, taking little time on each, but for me that’s speed dating vs. a long relationship. I’m not interested in speed dating. Also the longer you spend with someone the greater understanding you have, the more a story arc is naturally and organically allowed to evolve. From the very beginning of working upon photo essays and documentaries, I knew that it had to be long form. A five minute shoot would share so little for myself, thinking of the people sharing with me, that felt too much of a disservice to their trust, to their giving so much. The aim is to show as close to reality as is possible and to enable that one must dedicate, have patience and be there for the duration.
Your work is a combination of raw images and text that is both aesthetically and emotionally evocative. How did you come to working in this format and how do you think it compliments the documenting of the complex issues that your subjects are facing?
It’s really simple: images without context, or testimony only do a small job. It’s a little like looking at a book cover and expecting to understand the plot. I’m not interested in sharing images, adrift, with no context being there simply for another human being to then be expected to fill in the blanks. Those blanks will be coloured by whatever that viewer brings to them — it could be understanding or it could be prejudice. I was never prepared to take that risk with the people sharing their stories.
Photographs are tools, they have function, they are hooks that pull people towards the context, to the testimony, to that other reality and through that act of communication, a point of illumination.
You cover a lot of deep thoughts and issues in your accompanying texts. Is there a reflection process for you after each session?
I’m constantly working on stories, I never stop. I’m always thinking about everything to do with every story, all the time. It’s not something I pick up or put down. I’m constantly reflecting upon all these lives, all these stories.
There’s a beautiful quote from Tilney1 about how his creativity has given his life purpose. What do you think it is about the creative process that gives Tilney1 relief from his difficulties?
It goes a little way to fill the void of absence of love, interest, help and support.
What role do you think photography has played, if any, in relieving any of your own personal tensions or difficulties?
It helped me discover who I was and gave me an opportunity to believe it was OK to be myself. When you find — or if you find — the thing about you, and it could be anything, anything that ‘is’ you, you question it, think about it, no more than you do breathing, it’s just a part of you.
What is it that draws you to documenting the difficulties faced by others?
I’m not particularly drawn to documenting difficulties, at all. It’s more a case of everyone has stories and events in their lives. I’ve never sought out a story or scenario to document, it’s a very organic process. I meet people as we all do in life, as a part of life, sometimes they hear of me from within the community, and I get a call or email requesting I shoot their story.
What it does state is how many are having a hard time, a really fucking hard time and rather than turn my back to that I open my arms and eyes and very importantly, my ears. Though many of the stories I have worked up, been so lucky to work upon, have elements of difficulties. In truth, in myself, I don’t see that element. What I see is people, enduring. I see people enduring and I’m always shooting with that in mind, guided by their lead, mindful, always of how much respect these people, people just like you or I deserve, but so often never get.
Have you faced any difficulties throughout Small Town Inertia and how did you address them?
The only difficulty, ever, has been the frustration at not being able to work on the stories 24/7, and lack of funds, financially, it’s hard to do, especially as I work unpaid and fund everything myself, and seldom few desire to commission such stories. However, I never began this journey for financial gain. I began it for I felt a void in reporting of this fashion and felt compelled to fill it.
Is there a long-term goal to Small Town Inertia?
To be the best conduit I can, to do justice to all the stories and events that fellow human beings share with me, so I might in turn pass those stories on to other human beings.
Your work often document moments of vulnerability. How do you manage issues of consent or showing images that may later cause anxieties for the subject? Are they involved in the selection/editing process?
Trust. It’s key. From minute one of day one on any story the people I work with know everything — what will happen with images, where and how they are shared. Photographs from stories are always and only shared within the context of the story, I’ve never sold (and will never) an image for stock usage for example. So, these photographs have homes, that work and serve the stories, on site, online features, exhibition, book and print, all of which serve the same role as the photographs… to pull people towards the stories and testimonial. There is little point working upon a story with the function of raising awareness and then not carrying on the job after that 1/50th second shutter click, and putting in the hours and days and weeks work, getting it seen. The stories are long form, and so is the work, to have them seen. It’s life. I seldom question it, I just get on with it.
As I remain in contact with everyone I document and in a very large way this is a collaboration, it makes things run very smooth. I’m more prone to edit hard than the people within the stories. Often I’ve been pushed by them to include a photograph, that I might have left out. Why? “Because it’s the truth, why else are we doing it, than to share that?” is the answer most given.
Everyone I work with wants to share their truth as much as I do and usually they are so passionate to do so for one single, simple fact… Until those moments when we embarked on a long form story, no one gave one fuck.
So in a big way these stories are a call, a cry, not for attention, but of validation, of ‘I exist’, of ‘this reality exists’, within a time of great apathy, stigma and a blame culture where the poor and most vulnerable are so often used, stereotyped, damned and discussed, singularly, in patronising tone, or as pawns in a game, a game they, we, so often are never allowed to win and are engineered only to lose. When the poor begin blaming the poor, you know, everything is wrong. When they are able blame the disabled, again, you know everything is wrong.
I’ve never sought to ‘take’ images, rather to make them with the people I’m so lucky to document.
I prefer to build a relationship than buy one so I never pay for shots. For example I don’t use a model release, I earn trust just the same way we do in any relationship. I’ve never related to this notion that a camera sets up a relationship, different rules, to any relationship without one.
What is next for you?
Hard at work on coming stories.
Small Town Inertia is self-funded by Jim Mortram. If you would like to support his project please check out his website and Facebook where he often sells prints from the project.
MARKET TOWN : TILNEY1 : MIXED MEDIA PROTECTION COCOON
“When I was completely and utterly depressed, but, like a nice depression, I was still able to take films in, but, I was watching them all on my own.”
There is a chilling echo.
A reverberation, a continuation, a thread of stitches, a commonality, a mirroring of the ‘memory loops’ that occupy and feed upon Tilney1.
In writing these opening paragraphs – The hours, days, weeks and months roll on. Not filled with evolution as one might expect. Chaos is not permitted to intervene and gift chance meetings, no friendships born from new seeds, blossoming, growing. No tenderness, no love, no lingering kisses shared to be savoured, no holidays, these are days of no surprises. There is little escape from the barren landscape of Tilney1’s day to day, a landscape left scarred and sterile by his schizophrenia, his medication and continual isolation – words, written almost a year to the day ago, still, as relevant, as though on repeat.
A day repeated, on repeat.
In the absence of profound change, of change in diagnosis, of change in environment, relationships, isolation, in being, still a ghost. Seen, yet unseen, on the fringe, on the outside, alien, alienated, misunderstood, maligned, marooned.
Still, in this vacuum, Tilney1, as though a last man on earth, endures. Fights, minute to minute, day upon day, weeks, years, through a lifetime.
How then, to breathe and be?, to face a day that is a forever echo, pulsating with past traumas and the scars of yesterday and yesterdays, alive with them. How to navigate the walls of this invisible maze, walls that are unyielding, forever steering, pushing, forcing. How?.
There is, here, such a force, to equal medication, diagnosis, stigma, indifference, prejudice, of being little more, to so many, than both parasite and statistic.
What equals these boxes and fears, these judgements?.
The hope that Tilney1 has. His.
As loud within his being as any invasive thought or voice, at it’s best, as loud as any fear, or state of self loathing, most, imposed by the failings of others around him, for it’s their projected contempt, that breeds Tilney1’s own notions and absence of self worth.
This hope, his hope, that drives him onwards. Hope, for love, for acceptance, for understanding. Hope is the fuel that powers Tilney1’s endurance.
A hope, that goes as un-noticed in life, as Tilney1, himself.
“I always worry if there are holes in my shoes, like when I was really ill. So, sometimes I wear Travel Fox, sometimes Adidas.”
“I would like to wear a nice shirt and some nice trousers, but it seems to me, the more and more people, like the Police, come up to me and ask me ‘Why are you taking photos?’ that I don’t want to dress like corporate mainstream, I want to dress like this. Kevin Carter trousers, on the Manic Street Preachers cover, you know?”
“Now, with all my writing, art and photography, I watch films to use as inspiration, I write down sound bites for my poetry, reviews, absolutely everything about them, and I try to do all the things I wanted to do when I was on my film studies course, all that time ago, when all I did then was worry about work.”
“All that studying, I mean, it’s nothing you can’t do at home, you know what I mean?. Though, I do think, what’s the point to any film, even romantic films, if you can only watch them by yourself?”
One of Tilney1’s many folders, filled with his poetry.
“It’s very hard, the constant worry about credit card bills, Mum having to help me out with money, but, I am really trying my hardest. I lost my credit card, but another arrived today and the first thing I did was pay off the £70 telephone bill.”
Watching the film, Halloween.
“When they said I was unwell at Hellesdon (In-patient Mental Hospital), I had to hang about with all these terribly mentally ill people, rubble on the floor, doors kicked in, and look at my flat, it’s just an art empire!.”
“They said I was unwell in the Autumn, Halloween. Relevant. You see?”
“I used to have these love visions come over me, I’d see something and I’d feel like a beautiful feeling come over me, within my heart, inside my soul, but they stopped happening.”
Reading through one of the numerous, hand written journals of memories, loops, connections and links.
“Once again, I’m always finding answers, Teddy Sheringham, Southwold, the Trafford Arms was in the Insight magazine, St Stephens Street 1980, the sexual health clinic, a charity shop with Dave Wolverton books, a video games shop, with like, old school DVD’s.”
“Going to the Old Trafford to watch football, right?, then ring up Hellesdon hospital and tell them I went to the Trafford Arms, Southwold and Sherringham, all the time worrying about work and everything.”
“Constantly all the time this terrible worry, back then. About work. I just, I just try to use my coping mechanisms, and then when I feel I am coping, I draw, make art and write.”
“What is the concept of weird?. You can analyse all eccentric behaviour, and I do. The whole concept of the Sun newspaper, slating all people on Welfare and the work shy, but, all I have ever wanted is a life for myself and a girlfriend but that never happened.”
“I do try to be an amazing person though. I try and find inspiration in my illness. I never chose to be mentally ill, you know?, it was never a lifestyle choice.”
“The thing is, it’s harder, worse, I imagine for ethnic minorities and gay people to live here, how do you explain to people about that Bismark used to amp up the party, self destruction record drops?.”
“Once again, if you’re a nice, sensitive person like I am, liking House music, Hip-Hop, Hip-House, who started House music?, gay people!, who started Hip-Hop?, black people!, all people who are oppressed, like me, like all mentally ill people.”
About to begin a wall collage.
“I’m always thinking, it’s always going around and around in my head, ‘Will this take the paint off the walls?, will I be in trouble?’. So, I sit there for an hour, then, OK, ‘Put the MMLVC over 90 on the picture’, put that there, do this, put that there, do this, do that there.”
“Instead of just sinking into despair and depression and just taking to my bed, I just refuse to give up. So, then, I just cover the whole wall. A nice artistic coping mechanism.”
In the grip of his compulsive addiction to smoking.
“It’s just crazy, though, I bought a red and a blue one (Vaping electronic smoking device) and I’m just using them to get myself through the nights, and then smoking (Regular cigarettes) through the day when my Mum gives me the money to buy cigarettes, I mean, that’s not the right thing to do is it?, that’s just very sad.”
“It is a struggle, to stop, the whole eccentricity about smoking has always been there for me.”
“Believe me, I do try my hardest (To stop smoking) I really, really do. Even in my loneliness, I do try my hardest. The whole concept of smoking being cool, it’s just so stupid.”
Newspaper headline about vaping.
Taken by a memory loop, vaping.
“I’m a nice looking kid there, like a model, with my hands on my hips. How you love football when you are a kid!. Before everything that happened to me when I was an adolescent.”
Tilney1’s collection of second hand games.
“A lot of collecting games is about my loneliness, they all remind me of the past, people. The thing is, the diagnosis I have is there and there is nothing I can do to get away from it.”
“They say that mentally ill people go on shopping sprees, with me, I do have insight, but I still do it. It’s a coping mechanism.”
Upon a cursory glance, it would have been easy to believe his past compulsions to make art, to write, had been replaced with hoarding, but looking deeper, seeing, Tilney1 has in fact become his art, for every item has purpose, is a reflection of his memory loops, his walls, cut and paste collages, all have import, all have meaning, nothing is without thought, nothing an aside.
Tilney1 is constructing a cocoon, a defence, a protection. He is his art.
Journals, filled from page one, to one hundred, cover to cover narratives documenting memory loops and observations, fill his apartment, walls become collages, every book, record, C.D, every item, and at the epicentre, within these walls, he creates, he hopes, he endures.
“Coping mechanisms, they are a constant thing, for me, really. All the time, with me. Don’t spend any money until the Manic Street Preachers play the Holy Bible, pay all my bills. Nice, logical plans. My D.L.A. (Disability Living allowance) will be paid into my bank in about a week, hopefully, that will all go to paying my bills, that’s a nice, logical plan.”
“It’s better to spend money on games for my PS3 than heroin and end up in prison.”
“My compulsive spending will stop and it has, like I said, incredibly interesting coping mechanisms, all my money will now go on bills, that’s being responsible.”
“I mean, every time I buy something, anything, it’s always a coping strategy, like, I went into town when England played Lithuania at football, suddenly, all these kids were chasing me down the street, so I lit a candle, lithium, you see?”
“These brain dead kids wearing hooded tops that cruise the streets in cars followed me, then I went to Tesco’s. I’d gone all along the railway line, round the back way, and they had turned their car around and come the other way, stopped their car and got out and walked up to me, then the Police turned up and I said to them “You’ll probably arrest me instead of the kids!”
“Then I bought some Haribo cupcakes. I lit the candle, for Kurt Cobain… lithium… Lithuania, Cobain died for our sins, you see?”
“The fear of being hit is incredibly worrying. The funny thing is, the Police said ‘What do you do for a living?’ which was exactly the same things as the kids said to me.”
The mail arrives, often a moment of heightened anxiety, terror.
“I’m taking more money from my Mum now but it does seem like she understands, you know?. When the mail comes, bills or benefits letters, I drink like, five cups of coffee and smoke ten cigarettes before I can open it.”
Overwhelmed with stress.
Any news only serves to exacerbate his struggles with paranoid schizophrenia. The telephone, an invasion, now, even the thin sliver of his mailbox, is something new, to fear. Letters regarding bills or his DLA benefits cause instant confusion, sustained panic. The information always hard to process, to untangle, to make reason of, is magnified by aloneness and his condition, it’s easy to worry, and this fear spirals and causes greater panic, a poisonous catch 22.
“I’d freaked out in town, the day before, I got scared as I’d had some crap in the street said to me, but I had to go into town to visit the bank, just to see if my benefits had been paid into my bank.”
Consumed with confusion and fear, a result of the incomprehension of mail describing changes to the time of payment, to Tilney1’s benefits.
“From the letters, I couldn’t understand them, so I did not know if they (Benefits) had been paid in, or they had been cut, or anything. It’s really stressful, it terrifies me.”
Tilney1’s re-mixed, home made clothing.
“Making clothes, re-mixing them, it’s all to do with dreams I was having, dreams are there for a reason, even when I was in the abyss of despair, I figure the dreams were helping me. It’s very punk.”
“The Clash, thinking about ‘This is England’, thinking about how medication has affected my brain. England’s dreaming.”
A collection of compact discs, arranged in order of related memory.
“I have great musical taste, but, I’ve never had a proper girlfriend.”
Lonely hearts column within the local newspaper.
“I might just go on the E.D.P dateline one last time, but it’s just so hopeless and sad.”
“I mean, what’s the point of going on a dateline and talking about the film Halloween, and all the amazing people that Bjork worked with and all this incredibly interesting stuff when people my age, they might be single have probably all got kids and do normal things. I am a lovely person though, and if I was with a lady with children, because I am such a lovely person, I’d stay with them 24/7.”
“I look at what my Dad is like with me, and I’d do the opposite, I’d really care for them. I am trying my hardest.”
“I did used to be able to talk to women, but, since my diagnosis, since that’s been written down in my records, now, now, I just can’t do anything, so how are they, writing this down in my records, helping me?”
“After they told me I was a Paranoid Schizophrenic, I turned my back on girls, let alone going up to them and actually talking to them.”
“I wanted to ring every number on the dateline, but if my phone bill is going to be £70 every time, I’ll just logically plan it out, maybe call one or two, or just not bother at all, any more. I’ve called a few, left messages, just in the hope of a girl talking to me, but, no one has ever called me back.”
Tilney1, writing, within his apartment, April 2015.