Friday, February 26, 2016

The British Abroad: In images

I didn't know the name Peter Dench until the other day. Many of you may not have known his name. Which is not to say that Peter Dench is not well-known. He is. In the world of photojournalism, that is.

Because of where we are - Mallorca; because of what we all know - Magalluf and its attendant attractions; because of the insatiable appetite of journalism in its different guises to record the moments, we are presented with an example of Peter Dench's work. Bloke on holiday. Brit bloke on holiday. Brit bloke slumped over a wall. A Magalluf wall. We don't know quite how old Brit bloke is. It's hard to say when he's face down and enquiries are being made as to his well-being by a passing and caring female who seems to be in the wrong resort. The only surprise with the photo was that Brit bloke still had his shorts on. That's Magalluf for you. Usually. Keeled over and kit off.

Taken as a single image, the photo could have been misconstrued as merely another attempt to exploit the Magalluf reputation and present it to the world in the name of journalism. A single image that could have been taken a thousand times. And not just in Magalluf. But the single image needs to be considered within the context of the whole Peter Dench oeuvre. He records Englishness and Britishness. Warts and all, but principally the warts.

The Sony World Photography Awards are broken down into numerous categories. One of them is Daily Life within a wider category of Documentary and itself under the heading of Professional. Among the Daily Life nominees are, for example, Espen Rasmussen with "The Curse of Coal". And then there is Peter Dench, "The British Abroad".

The very title gives the game away. "The British Abroad" presupposes a type of Brit. The legend immediately suggests that this is Brit abroad of a less than wholly edifying nature. It is a title that has been with us pretty much since mass tourism jetted into the skies in the early 1960s. Brits abroad have always been, variously, uncouth, ill-educated, slobs, drunks, xenophobes, small-minded. Brits abroad have long required low-lying walls, designed and built by tourist authorities to permit being slumped over following the intake of a year's worth of alcohol in one night.

The only variables within this generic are those of age. Brit abroad doesn't necessarily grow old gracefully. Indeed, quite the contrary. But for the marketers, this particular segment of the Brit market can only be defined, apart from age, by its lower ratings in the ABC socioeconomic scheme of things. Lower in fact. Here are Huxley's Deltas and Epsilons. These are non-beings in the new schemata of, for example, the marketing brains trust of Meliá New Town, the brave new world of As and B+s, segmented in their own ways, such as by membership of the Millennial Generation, one in which all youthful(ish) tourists have excellent dental work, surf the artificial surf and that of the internet, are attached permanently to social networks and want for no more than a glass of extraordinarily expensive sparkling water.

These new-age beings do not, therefore, inhabit the stereotypical land of The British Abroad. They do not conform with an image that has been carved out with such mindless dedication over decades. But were they to be the subject of an alternative exercise in photojournalism, they would likewise be a kind of pastiche but within its own narrow terms of reference. And that's because there have to be certain defining images, ones that make sense and have coherence as being representative in order to be displayed to the world, be it via Sony awards or otherwise.

For all this, and in the context of Magalluf, it needs to be said that The British Abroad is an evolving being. And it is here where I have to question Peter Dench. Not because of his fine work, not because of his excellent eye and composition, not because of the virtues of photographically capturing images that together create a powerful representation of a particular strand of British existence.

A collection of The British Abroad, replete with bloke in tutu standing on a balcony, Bollocks Karaoke Pub and others, that is on a Getty website carries a description and explanation: The Dench Diary Foreign Special. It is the written support to the images, some of which are from Magalluf (others are from elsewhere, such as Ibiza). The feature, this collection of images, comes from spring-summer 2012 and 2013. It is this, therefore, that I question. We've moved on. Haven't we? Why drag out the bloke on the wall now?

This is not to say that all has changed in Magalluf. But can the imagery be said to deal with the passé? Or will The British Abroad always be with us?

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