A tender exploration of life on the margins of Bristol

A tender exploration of life on the margins of Bristol
Bristolian photographer Chris Hoare’s new photobook shows a different side to the West Country city.

On the afternoon of June 7, 2020, photographer Chris Hoare had just returned to his home in Bristol after taking part in the city’s Black Lives Matter protests, when his notifications started blowing up. Earlier, he had participated in a powerful, nine-minute-long kneel in solidarity with George Floyd – who had been killed days earlier after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his back for that duration of time – but when he opened his phone, he saw that the action had escalated.

“[Former slave trader and Bristol MP] Edward Colston’s statue had been torn down,” he recalls. “A lot of photographers do a great job of [documenting] protests and I wasn’t really interested in that, so I went back the day after to see the after effects.”

At the time he was around a year into his project and new photobook Seven Hills, but that moment – one of reckoning within his home city, which was a key centre in the transatlantic slave trade – would help him focus his lens. A picture he took that day of the statue’s plinth tipped on its side, is published as part of the series. “One theme was the history within the city, and trying to create a dark, brooding feeling that hints at Bristol’s past,” he says. “The work isn’t about Colston, but it started the feeling that I had to respond in some way, and as someone from the city to make work about the city.”

Yet it also formed a moment of friction between its inhabitants, which opened up deeper fissures within its communities. “But when that happened, you could see more divides in the city as well,” he continues. “There’s a lot of divides in the city in terms of experience, wealth, class, opinion – when Colston was pulled down there were a lot of people saying that he shouldn’t have been pulled down and I don’t agree with that, but what I find interesting is that there are very middle class people who come to Bristol, live this lifestyle and then they protest how their experiences jars with someone that’s working class and from the fringes – so it’s very complicated.”

Hoare grew up near Southmead – an estate on the northern edge of the city’s sprawling boundaries. Almost exclusively working class, diverse, and physically separated from the rest of Bristol, his experience of his home city is very different to, say, a university student living in Stokes Croft, or a young professional from London moving to the city in search of cheaper rent. “Bristol is a small place, it’s nothing in comparison to London or even Birmingham really, but the central area is really tiny,” he explains. “The hills shape the city and the experience of the inhabitants. The centre itself is surrounded mostly by hills geographically and council estates – you can almost do a circle of sorts of estates that surround the fringes of the city and then the hills that look into Bristol.”

Seven Hills focuses the lens on these oft-overlooked extremities. Using portraits of the youth of the estates that Hoare grew up in as a mirror to his own experiences, the book showcases a different side to the city to what is usually captured in the popular imagination. The city’s people, off-beat landmarks, and spots of greenery make appearances across the book’s pages, presented with a nostalgic warmth and an air of magic.

Yet a tension lies in the backgrounds – and often foregrounds – of the pictures. With noticeable pockets of gentrification and rising prices in the city, subdivisions are part of the fabric of the city. Hoare points to the city often finding its way into “best cities to live in the UK” articles, to its often warped reality. “But for who is it the best place?” he asks. “There’s two worlds that are happening, and that’s something I’m very interested in because I grew up seeing a lot of things that were very different to people’s preconceptions of Bristol.”

Seven Hills by Chris Hoare is published by RRB Photobooks.

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