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Nick Rawle – Free Movement Stories

For most of us, 2020 has pushed the ‘pause’ button. All but essential travel is prohibited. It’s highlighted, once again, how dearly many of us value it and, amongst many things, how interconnected we are. We caught up with photographer Nick Rawle about his career and a project very close to his heart.
Published —
05.27.20
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How long have you been a photographer for?

I started taking photos relatively late, aged 17, after being kicked off an Art A Level course – I couldn’t paint or draw. I wanted to create, so photography seemed like the way forward. After Sixth Form, I went back to college to do a GCSE, A Level and Foundation at Filton College. I did a degree in photography in Blackpool and started working pretty much straight away. My first paid job was photographing backstage at Reading Festival in 1989, so I’ve pretty much always been a photographer.

Where did the idea for the Free Movement Stories come from? 

The idea for the project came from my sudden realisation that I’d been taking my right to free movement for granted, as I guess most of us had. 

The idea of being excluded from travel and work, in a part of the world that I’d always thought of as home, spurred me to act. I hadn’t been to as many countries as I thought I had, and I didn’t want to lose the opportunity to travel freely. 

At the time, there was a possibility that we could face a Hard Brexit on 29 March 2019, and potentially lose free movement overnight. This gave me a deadline – I’m motivated by deadlines. That was October 2018, and I still had only a few people I could visit. So, I activated my social networks, did a lot of research and logistical planning, and set off to visit 27 countries in five months.

©Nick Rawle | Linda Bosorka, Jonathan Becker, Ruth Springham. Schengen, Luxembourg

What would you like readers to learn from the Free Movement Stories?

I’d like readers to learn what I learned – that for many free movement was a hard-won right, and should not be traded lightly for some notional sense of control. The British experience of Empire – turning up uninvited and calling the shots in most parts of the world – is not what we will be returning to. If it ever really existed for most people, despite the nostalgic propaganda that the Leave campaign has manufactured.

European Free Movement has made us richer, wiser, and brought opportunities that previous generations could not have imagined. I’m old enough to remember when the idea of walking freely around Berlin, Warsaw, Bucharest or Zagreb, chatting to the locals and sharing a beer and a pizza, would have been a pipe dream. 

I think it’s instructive to talk to those from former Soviet Bloc states about this. Their freedom to move as a result of the fall of communism echoes the right we are so casually giving up. Mostly, they simply cannot comprehend our discarding of something so precious they were willing to go to prison or die for it. And, stories of Soviet-era travel – such as it was – are a sobering reminder of the reality of closed borders.

Do you see this work evolving or do you feel it is now a completed body of work now we have left the EU? 

Free Movement Stories is part one. Initially, I was intending to make portraits of EU citizens in the UK as well, but time constraints meant that I would have had to do that after Brexit Day 1 (29/03/19). However, I really needed a break and time to do paid work, so I decided to leave that idea for a subsequent project and, unfortunately, it looks as though it will be as prescient and relevant as the first. 

©Nick Rawle | Katerina Xenikou. Athens, Greece

Has creating this work shifted your viewpoint on Brexit and what it means to be British? 

I don’t think I know what ‘British’ means as an identity. It was always hard to define for me, anyway. Beyond cream teas, vicars on bicycles, thatched cottages and cricket on the village green (an idealised England sold as nostalgia and tourist postcards). I think one of the things that Brexit has laid bare is that Britishness means so many different and contradictory things, depending on your location, your age and heritage. 

Most of my life I’ve felt European as much as British. I grew up in Oxford and was surrounded by people from all over the world, so being part of Europe seemed obvious. 

My viewpoint on Brexit hasn’t changed since very early on. Initially, I was ambivalent about the institution of the EU, and the near-miss with TTIP gave me cause for concern. But, as it became clearer who was cheerleading for us to leave, who their backers were, and what the likely effects would be, it became obvious to me that remaining was the only safe option for the UK – the choice was stark.

However, I don’t think of either the UK as especially ignorant of the EU nor other countries as significantly more tolerant than us. Wherever I’ve gone I’ve found common and ancient prejudices discussed freely.

How has the Brexit vote started to impact your business? 

Up until the referendum, most of my business was in the construction sector. After the referendum, the phone stopped ringing. Overnight. When the big construction contractors and developers decided to wait and see, the businesses in their supply chains suffered. Many didn’t survive. I had to rethink what I was going to do, and specialising in photographing people was the obvious choice for me – people are everywhere, I like them, and they aren’t likely to be replaced by CGI just yet. Three years later, I’m just about recovering.

©Nick Rawle | Mona and Paul Vogt. Stockholm, Sweden

What’s next for you and the future of Free Movement Stories?

The future for Free Movement Stories – both the completed part and the UK-based project, after it’s been turned into a book – is likely to be in the form of an exhibition. I’d love to tour that round the UK and all 27 remaining EU states, but realise that this would be a huge project in itself, even before the likely changes in the rules. But there’s no point having small dreams, is there? A sponsor would be nice. 

Oddly, my other long-term project does tie in with some of the issues surrounding Brexit. ‘National Parks’ is a landscape series documenting recreational spaces, and their relationships and meanings to the people who use them. I am interested in how places and identity intersect – who feels ownership or affinity with a place, who feels excluded or welcome – and what that says about both the place and the people.

Most of the examples so far are in the UK, but I’ve shot little bits in other countries and when it’s seemed appropriate, and there are always angles to explore. I don’t imagine Brexit will make it easier for me to shoot in Europe, but that won’t stop me. I’m now much more clued up about the places of national, patriotic or emotional importance in other countries. 

I guess the project is a bit woolly still, it’s more art than reportage, but I’m keen to see where it leads.

This project came out of working with Scottish composer and hill-walker Matilda Brown (one of the early LIPA graduates) on her Bothy Project, and Music and Mountains. This work explored Scottish outdoor culture and the relationship of it’s communities to bothies, the wilderness and solitude. In fact, organising and working on a lot of wild and inaccessible locations with her helped me develop the skills I put to use in the Free Movement Project. She’s worth looking up if you’re into that sort of thing. She’s just turned a walk across Scotland into a multimedia event. Incredible. Find out more about her here.

The immediate future for me, besides the second part of Free Movement, will be doing more portrait work and conferences and anything with people. The bills still need paying.

©Nick Rawle | Barry Brand. Sofia, Bulgaria

Has the Coronavirus outbreak forced you to rethink your Free Movement Stories project?

Absolutely. Part two of the project – making portraits of EU citizens and their families living in the UK – has had to be put on hold for obvious reasons. The plan was to make portraits representing the 27 other EU nations before the December 31st exit date, but that now seems like an unrealistic goal, so I may have to do something else. Watch this space. It’s not so much ‘game over’ as ‘match postponed’.

Has the Coronavirus outbreak and its travel restrictions emphasised the importance of free movement? 

Yes, very much so. As the old saying goes, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. It was something I heard repeatedly from people in the post-Soviet parts of Europe, but I wasn’t expecting to experience it like this, and so soon. 

It’d be nice to think that this experience of travel restrictions and supply chain disruption would be a wake-up call to those in the UK who saw freedom of movement as just about going on holiday once a year, posh people studying abroad, or immigration, but the way events and plans are being framed by the government and the media doesn’t give me much cause for cheer. I should caveat that by saying that I’ve been avoiding most news broadcasts for mental health reasons – the first time in my life that I have done so. 

Find out more about Free Movement Stories here.