Redefining English identity, one folkloric event at a time

Redefining English identity, one folkloric event at a time

A new project by photographer and sound artist Dominic Markes captures the energy of traditional festivals around England, offering a fresh view of its cultural heritage along the way.

'We Come One' audio montage, by Dominic Markes

Dominic Markes had built himself a successful career as a music producer in a diverse array of cities, including London, New York, Toronto and Saint-Louis in Senegal. Fascinated by how each place had its own distinct sound palette, he would always draw for his pocket sized sound recorder to capture his surroundings wherever he was.

"I was constantly recording atmospheres, conversations I had with friends and just moments,” Markes says. In 2018, his trajectory would take a sharp turn when he found out some unfortunate news. "I got tinnitus – not great, but in a way it was a blessing. My girlfriend at the time gave me her dad’s old camera, and I noticed that while taking photos you had to put yourself in the same mindset as when you were recording."

Soon, he found himself making pictures with the same energy he put into capturing the sounds he used to produce. It’s what eventually led him to Hastings almost exactly a year ago, on May Day 2022, where he brought his camera to the annual Jack in the Green Festival. Featuring Morris Dancers and a dancing figure (the ‘Jack’) wearing a wicker frame, covered in head-to-toe in foliage and topped with a floral crown, the festival and parade celebrates the beginning of the summer and English nature, as attendees strip him of leaves and bring in the new season.

"I knew there was this kind of Morris Dancing culture, but being brought up in London I had never seen it before," Markes says. "It seemed like they were all coming together to worship nature or pay homage to a higher force."

Wanting more, he spent the next year travelling around England in search of folkloric events, including Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, the Montol Festival for the Winter Solstice in Penzance, Notting Hill Carnival, and the Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival.

With many of them incorporating centuries-old historic traditions, Markes has been documenting the festivals, their unique customs and rituals, and the special energy they create in his ongoing photographic series We Come One. From faceless jesters, to people dressed head-to-toe as a mushroom, to the vibrant Caribbean colour of Carnival, the pictures show off each event's wild outfits and customs, as well as their uniting spirit – something he calls "collective effervescence."

As for which folkloric events he chooses to shot, Markes outlines the following criteria: "They’ve got to be free, held in a public space, have historical or cultural value, and they’ve got to be organised by an independent body." Following his creative instincts as a producer, he would also record their distinct soundscapes, creating an audio montage (which can be listened to above) to accompany the pictures.

On top of bring a photographic journey, the festivals and events were also a deeply personal odyssey for him. "Within the past five years I felt really disconnected as a white, English man. I’d essentially demoted my heritage as solely imperialist and incredibly arrogant," he explains. 

Going to The Green Festival, though, changed his perspective. "Seeing everyone with green on their face, there were [people dressed as] crows, some mushrooms, animals were well represented..." he remembers. "The real revelation moment was at 5am on the Sunday, when we came up onto the heath above Hastings. We were watching some Morris dancers and as the sun rose up people started cheering, hugging each other and clapping, wishing for the spirit of summer.

"I had never seen that side of my heritage and my country," he continues. "Ever since then it’s been a process of discovery as much as documentation."

We Come One and other photography from Dominic Markes can be found at his website and Instagram.

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