Turning the lens on Yorkshire communities

PIC: Ian Forsyth
PIC: Ian Forsyth
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For his latest project, photographer Ian Forsyth turned his lens on the communities who live from South Gare to Flamborough Head to tell the story of the British coast.

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One afternoon Ian Forsyth was wandering along the sands close to his home in Saltburn when he spotted Dean Dandy hard at work. Armed with a rake and some industrial-strength bags, Dean was collecting sea coal.

He’s a familiar figure on the coast, trawling the sands whenever a lot of the black stuff is deposited on the beach. However, that afternoon he not only had the attention of documentary photographer Ian, but also a couple of holidaymakers who had never heard of sea coal, let alone seen it.

“They just didn’t get it,” says Ian, who has been working on his latest collection of images, Coast People, since 2009. “There are some things you expect to see on a British beach – sandcastles, buckets and spades – but I guess coal is somewhere quite far down that list. It comes from coal seams in the cliffs or underwater deposits and for centuries it was collected and used for cooking, heating and forging metals. It gave rise to a little cottage industry and 
was gathered by groups of professional sea-coal gatherers. Now up and down the coast there are just a few people left like Dean.”

It was partly a desire to capture these historic industries that inspired Coast People, but Ian also wanted to look at how the modern and ancient sit side by side. Captured in atmospheric black and white, the images were taken at various points along the East Coast from South Gare at the mouth of the River Tees to Flamborough Head and each one has a story to tell about the area.

“What has always really appealed to me about this stretch of coast is that it isn’t typically picture postcard,” says Ian. “Stand on Saltburn pier and you can look one way to the dramatic cliffs, but look the other and you are immediately confronted by the chemical factories of Teesside. Yes, Saltburn was one of the many seaside resorts which sprang up during the Victorian age, but this area has always been a place of industry. It’s a working landscape and that’s what I wanted to show.”

The collection, which is about to be published in a book, covers more than 85 miles and over 16 coastal towns and Ian says the photos explore the relationships between the commercial and the industrial and the day-to-day activities that combine to form the heritage of England’s North East coast. One of the images shows a lone metal detectorist scouring the beach at Saltburn, others capture the daily lives of fishermen, while others show the beach huts and piers that line the coast.

“One of my favourite spots is Paddy’s Hole,” says Ian, who edited the collection from hundreds of possible images. “It was named, perhaps not very originally, after the Irish navvies, who built the breakwater at South Gare and to get there you have to drive round the back of some steelworks. From that description, I know it sounds like a spot to avoid, but it’s incredibly idyllic and I have spent many happy hours there photographing foxes. If there is one thing I would like people to get out of this collection it is that you can find beauty anywhere and if you explore what’s on your doorstep, generally you will be rewarded.”

While Ian was conscious of avoiding turning those who feature in his photographs into museum pieces, bygones of another age, he also knows that in another 10 or 20 years time this slice of coast could be a very different place.

“In 20 years time, elements of these special coastal communities may have disappeared altogether. Today, you can still see how steadfast seafaring traditions have intertwined with modern ways and there are still a significant number living in these historic coastal communities who still harness the North Sea for profit. However, in many areas there are limited opportunities for younger generations and no-one really knows for how long these traditional industries can survive. So much has already been lost and while this project is a celebration of the people and the places of the North East coast it is also about recording it for posterity. “Let’s be honest, the fishing industry is in decline all the way up and down the coast so therefore it is the collective responsibility of documentary photographers to ensure these events are recorded with honesty, integrity and compassion for future generations.”

Another project in the pipeline for Ian is compiling a photographic record of the agricultural shows and events across Yorkshire. “I’d like to make a whole documentary of country shows, festivals, such as the Great Yorkshire Show. They are part of our culture and heritage and something we should celebrate.”

Coast People – Life on the North East Coast by Ian Forsyth is due out next month and can be ordered on Amazon. For more details about Ian’s work go to www.ianforsythphotographer.com