Surreal images of life on the fringes of British society

Surreal images of life on the fringes of British society

Aiming to create a “photographic survey” of the UK, Oliver Frank Chanarin captures cultural idiosyncracies as well as his own anxieties behind the lens.

Between 2000 and 2002, Oliver Frank Chanarin was a few years into what would be a fruitful, decades-long artistic partnership with Adam Broomberg. As Creative Directors of COLORS – a culture magazine funded by global fashion brand Benetton – Broomberg and Chanarin were exploring the possibilities documentary photography afforded them.

“I love photography, because it allowed me to have these extraordinary engagements with worlds that I didn’t have access to without a camera,” Chanarin says. “The work we made then ended up being collected together in our book called Ghetto – we were in a number of psychiatric hospitals, prisons, we went to a Russian military base and an old age home in America, and a [Romani] camp in Macedonia.”

While the work was well received, the pair came to question the limits of their practice, and the nature of their work as photographers within these far-flung places of the world.

“We both became quite unhappy about making that kind of photography, or quite suspicious of it, and uncomfortable with our role,” he continues. “What were we doing going into places? What was our relationship to the people we were documenting? And then more importantly once the image is made how does that connect with our initial engagement with the person and their expectations of that? Because every image has a life.”

Top to bottom: © Oliver Frank Chanarin 2023 courtesy Loose Joints © Oliver Frank Chanarin 2023 courtesy Loose Joints

This would lead the pair to stray away from documentary work, and towards the more conceptual style that would come to define their art. But after Broomberg & Chanarin went their separate ways in 2021, Chanarin saw a chance to return to those early 00s roots. “I was really unsure about what I cared about anymore in terms of my photographic practice,” he explains. “And although I had a lot of doubts about making documentary photographs, I just felt like going back to the beginning and revisiting that form of engagement with the world using a camera.”

His new photobook A Perfect Sentence, is the product of that reset in outlook. Starting in 2021, as the UK emerged from cycles of pandemic lockdowns, he travelled across the country – from Cardiff to Great Yarmouth, via Plymouth and Norfolk – with the aim of creating a “photographic survey” of the country. From a West Indian community centre to fetish clubs and homeless shelters, Chanarin’s pictures form a disquieting portrait of life on the less seen fringes of British society.

But soon after beginning the project, he found himself faced with several of those same questions and contradictions that had pushed him away in the first place. “I immediately encountered so much anxiety and suspicion around my presence through the camera,” Chanarin says. “The kind of anxiety about people having their picture taken and what would happen to them, and who was I taking them? I feel like we live in this moment where the biography of the artist is everything, so I was very self-conscious about what I represented.”

Those anxieties manifest in the photographs. Left deliberately unfinished in the darkroom, with crop etchings and exposure guides scribbled on, the pictures and arrangement are filled with stressful juxtapositions, yet remain undeniably British in subject. From a drag queen tucking into a hamburger to a man crouched against a wall with a knife in his back, they say as much about the subjects and life in the UK as much as Chanarin’s own discomfort with his presence behind the lens.

© Oliver Frank Chanarin 2023 courtesy Loose Joints

That lack of completeness is also reflected in the title of the book. “I was listening to an interview with the poet and writer Hanif Abdurraqib," Chanarin explains, "And he was talking about his writing process and how he spent weeks trying to write the perfect sentence – and there’s 20 bad sentences before he hits on the right one, and this kind of striving to say something and articulate what you want to say but always failing.

“I just felt that was very similar to my experience of making photographs," he continues. "A Perfect Sentence resonated with me with the struggle of getting it right but never quite getting there. Perfect is an aspiration that I never quite achieve.”

A Perfect Sentence by Oliver Frank Chanarin is published by Loose Joints.

Follow Isaac on Twitter.

Enjoyed this article? Follow Huck on Twitter and Instagram.