England Uncensored by Peter Dench

Phil Coomes
Picture editor

image copyrightPeter Dench

For the past 10 years photographer Peter Dench has been photographing the antics of those of us who live in his homeland, the green and pleasant land that is England.

His work follows in the footsteps of some of the most celebrated photographers of the past, including Bill Brandt, Tony Ray Jones, Tom Wood and of course Martin Parr. Dench can trace his inspiration back to his time spent flicking through books by those and others, such as Greg Leach and Paul Reas while studying at the Bournemouth & Poole College of Art & Design.

"If you could travel the world, make people laugh and make people think, that was a fine way to live; if you could do it with a drink in your hand, that was the life for me," Peter recalls. "It was a revelation to understand that a photographer didn't have to get on a plane to a far-flung conflict; you could just climb aboard the bus."

He has in fact jumped aboard many planes in his time having worked in more than 50 countries as a photographer for a wide range of clients, from The British Heart Foundation to Weetabix, as well as editorial outlets like The New York Times, Newsweek, Observer Magazine and many more.

Growing up beside the sea Peter found himself drawn to Martin Parr's ground breaking, and indeed controversial look at the seaside resort of New Brighton. The Last Resort re-wrote the rules for photographers, placed colour photography in the UK on the map and even now, more than 25 years on it still has the power to shock and amuse all at the same time.

"The first colours I saw were saturated; striped deck chairs, arcade rides, Punch and Judy. The Last Resort echoed a familiar world from my youth, a saturated slap about the face, colours that burned a permanent impression directly onto the retina," Peter told me. "Working on foreign assignments across the globe has clarified to me just how different, how fabulous, and at times, how ridiculous the English are."

His book, England Uncensored, reflects this view. Yet it is not simply a compilation of clever photographs, there is a voice within the work, one that offers a social commentary.

On seeing some of the early work for the project his editor pushed him to move away from pictures that were just humorous, and include those that had an anthropological angle. The result of this was Drinking of England, a series first published across 11 pages in The Sunday Times Magazine and which went on to win a World Press Photo Award.

image copyrightPeter Dench

"Galvanized by the project's success, I've been conscious of continuing to apply the humorous approach with an underlying social commentary to themes throughout the work; themes of ethnicity, love, the weather, clothing and food," Peter said. "The humour disarms viewers allowing the impact of a more serious image dropped into the sequence to be tenfold.

"It was important for my photography on the English to document what was familiar from my youth and also to document what I had no idea about; posh schools, social summer events, jollies and jamborees; to create a rounded look at the English both geographically and socially."

"The colours and style of my work is largely born out of laziness and fear. I was always petrified of 'pushing' film, preferring to blast subjects with the flash to make sure something scarred the film. I also prefer shooting in the sunshine, not too early and not too late; unless it's in a pub or club."

And here we have to return to Martin Parr and his influence. Peter is open about this, and in November last year returned to New Brighton to follow in his footsteps.

"I made a Parr pilgrimage to New Brighton to see what had changed or had remained the same. I stood knees bent in the exact spot where Parr had photographed two children dribbling ice cream in front of a weather shelter.

"Rarely does a day go by in my professional life when Parr isn't mentioned by, or to me. It's impossible to photograph England without seeing Parr parts in many shots; crying children, litter, dogs with their tongues hanging out, bad food, bad weather. As a photographer I embrace that influence. I would like to think I would have arrived at the style of photography I have regardless of Parr; he certainly hastened the process and blazed a path for its acceptance as a photographic way of seeing.

"Leaving New Brighton, having walked in Parr's footsteps, confirmed why I will always be a photographer and why I will always document the English; to photograph what is real, to record the present in an attempt to preserve the nation's past."

You might think this is a niche interest, yet England Uncensored is to be published as a book by the publishing arm of the crowd-funded visual journalism platform Emphas.is. The response to this call for funding was swift with $12,000 pledged in 15 days.

"It was important for the work to be published in Jubilee year," Peter said. "England Uncensored is a laugh out loud romp through this often badly behaved nation, it is not an idealized brochure of a green and pleasant land. In this Jubilee year of Great British pomp, where the media coverage is expected to be as polished as the crown jewels, it is important for us as a nation to remember who we really are, warts and all."

image copyrightPeter Dench
image copyrightPeter Dench