Inside small-town USA

Phil Coomes
Picture editor
@philcoomeson Twitter

image copyrightRichard Beaven

Photographers love to travel but sometimes it pays to look at what is close at hand and document the community you live in. Richard Beaven has done just that, turning his lens on the residents of Ghent, about 120 miles north of New York.

Beaven has worked on the project for a year or so and in that time he has made 275 portraits, about 5% of the population of Ghent.

"The catalyst for the project was the town's bicentennial in 2018 and creating an archive for it," says Beaven.

News of the project spread through the town, with one shoot leading to another and only a handful declining the opportunity to take part.

image copyrightRichard Beaven
image captionDeWayne Powell, 11 years

Each portrait is accompanied by the subject's name and the amount of time they had spent living or working in Ghent at the time of being photographed.

Beaven says: "My intent was to include as diverse a cross-section of the community as possible, with everyone who was photographed receiving a handmade print.

image copyrightRichard Beaven
image captionLauren Jones, five years

"Smartphone technologies have enabled us to capture billions of fleeting moments yet only a tiny fraction are intended to have lasting impact or to be printed and archived in any way.

"Photographs from the 19th and 20th Centuries are more readily to hand, often serving as our only tactile document of history.

image copyrightRichard Beaven
image captionGary Kittle, 62 years

"I printed a complete set of prints, which, along with a list of all subjects' names, will soon be given to the Ghent town historian for safekeeping in the town-hall attic.

"We're lucky in such a small town to have a historian who is diligently recording details and archiving for the future.

"I am also looking into the possibility of producing a book this year, which I believe would have broad appeal both locally in Ghent and with wider geographical audiences."

image copyrightRichard Beaven
image captionSam Reilly, five years
image copyrightRichard Beaven
image captionAngelica Cronin, 12 years

Beaven himself has lived in Ghent since 2005, though was born and grew up in Exeter, Devon.

"It's been fascinating to be able to observe and document the Ghent community, not to mention a privilege," he says.

"In many ways I see it simultaneously as an insider, because I live here, and as an outsider, as I am a British expatriate.

"At the core, it's my interest in and respect for the people here that has driven the work.

"It's hard to do this unless people understand that's your motivation.

"People gave much of themselves for the portraits and trust was very important.

"The portraits are of individuals. While I take care to select appropriate environments, I provide minimal direction in terms of clothing or what the subjects happen to be carrying at the time.

"The viewer is left to imagine and question for themselves what makes each subject unique or familiar based only on gesture, expression and setting.

image copyrightRichard Beaven
image captionAster Kinnie-Navitski, four years
image copyrightRichard Beaven
image captionJean Nyfeler, 56 years

"I arrived at Jean's house - she has been a resident here for 56 years - one day in June.

"She emerged from her house carrying a photograph of her husband, Walt, who had recently passed away.

"Walt was part of a long-standing Ghent family and well known in the town.

"She asked if she may hold the photograph for her portrait.

"At that point, my task was simply to find a simple background and nice light.

image copyrightRichard Beaven
image captionPatrick Stark, 13 years

"Along the way I worked with piglets, sheep, rabbits, cats and dogs, which is a little more challenging when shooting on film and aiming for a single roll of film per person - 10 images.

"For me, there's a little bit of magic that happens in each and every portrait."

image copyrightRichard Beaven
image captionStephen Gitto Sr, 70 years
image copyrightRichard Beaven
image captionLily Gile, two years
image copyrightRichard Beaven
image captionDavid Mainville, one year