“We English, the title of Roberts’s engrossing exhibition of large-scale color photographs (and the related book) might lead you to expect gently satiric social studies in the style of Martin Parr. But the focus of the work is primarily landscape, and several of the images are broad, handsome vistas with only a few people scattered about the terrain. Even the photographs that include larger groups were taken from a distance – a perspective that echoes classical painting, although the subjects are decidedly contemporary.” Vince Aletti, The New Yorker, 2009
We English, created between 2007 and 2008, is a broad portfolio of large-format tableaux photographs of the English at leisure. Building on Motherland, the first major body of work in this vein, We English explores the themes of identity, memory, and belonging. Ordinary people are captured engaged in diverse pastimes, which presents a populace whose profound attachment to its local environment and homeland makes for a distinct examination of nationhood. The notion of what it means to be English is demonstrated to exist on the surface of contemporary life, encapsulated by banal pastimes and everyday leisure activities. The resulting images are an intentionally lyrical rendering of a pastoral England, where beauty is found in the mundane and in the exploration of the relationship between people and place, and in our connections to the landscapes around us.
These photographs also explore the way in which landscapes can become a site of conflict or unease; where perceived notions of nationhood and quintessential Englishness are challenged as diverse social groups seek to colonise shared public spaces. Notions of limits and boundaries populate the work; reflected in rivers, trees, and hedges that create natural physical divisions, these organic features delineate the limits of human interaction. Indeed, leisure activities often take place at boundary points; the edges of towns and cities, the spaces by lakes and reservoirs, even alongside footpaths and mountain ridges, all of these hold their own as destinations for recreation.
The project derives its title from the suggestion that the photographer and their subject – we “English” – are complicit in the act of representation. Throughout the year-long journey, people were invited to post their own ideas about events that could be photographed on a dedicated website, ‘We English’, and to share their experiences of living in their particular locality.
We English was published by Chris Boot Ltd (2009) and was selected by Martin Parr as one of the 30 most influential photobooks of the last decade. A major exhibition of the work was on show at the National Media Museum, UK in 2010, and subsequently toured over 30 national and international venues and festivals.
View installation shots here
Contact sheet of photographic plates (pdf)
The English Outdoors essay by Stephen Daniels (pdf)
We English by Simon Roberts, “Banal Nationalism” in Landscape? Essay by Karine Chambefort-Kay (pdf)
In Conversation with Stephen Daniels, Ruth Kitchin and Simon Roberts (pdf)
We English book commentary (pdf)
Original Public Suggestions (pdf)