Lewis Chaplin (b. 1992, UK) lives and works in London. Alongside Sarah Piegay Espenon, he runs Loose Joints, an independent publishing house and design studio. From 2009 to 2014, he co-ran Fourteen Nineteen with Alex F. Webb, a project dedicated to supporting young photography. He was also an organiser of Copeland Book Market, an annual event for Printed Matter which ran from 2010-2015. His most recent artist book, 2041, is published by Here Press.

All the photos © Lewis Chaplin
Installation shots © Harry Mitchell
All images are courtesy of the artist and roaming projects, London.

Lewis Chaplin’s ongoing work on Tristan da Cunha – a remote archipelago situated in the South Atlantic Ocean – addresses the fraught relationship between anthropology and photography. Forming the basis of Chaplin’s undergraduate research, the project has since spanned photography, publications, video, and recently installation. Mercury, Chaplin’s first exhibition of this work, was recently shown at roaming projects, London. Tristan da Cuhna is the most remote inhabited landmass in the world, populated by a private community of less than 300 people. Chaplin’s ethnographic approach is somewhat unorthodox in that he has never visited Tristan. 

However, Chaplin has maneuvered the obstacles posed by Tristan’s remoteness by developing an ongoing relationship with Tristan’s residents and by interacting with archival material. In doing so, he reveals certain dualities that lie at the heart of perceptions of Tristan: the ordinary and the unfamiliar, the fictional and the factual. Chaplin tries less to decipher these enigmas, instead letting his varied work playfully feed in to the multiple narratives surrounding the island. 

The island’s volcanic landscape and geographical isolation have previously led to depictions of it as a mystical, fantastical setting. Some have used this as evidence to advocate their utopian ideals, whilst others have sought to characterize the island as menacing. Chaplin’s work engages with the mystery and romance of distance, which is particularly crystallized in remote and faraway places. Chaplin uses Tristan as a palimpsest for discussing photographic distance and displacement, as a space for others to inscribe the interior work of imagination and fantasy upon a physical landscape.


          WR: How did you first come to learn about Tristan?

          LC: I must have first come across Tristan in the way that many of us come across tangential, strange or attention-grabbing information - through trawling the Internet, being bored, scrolling and clicking. At the time I was a student and disillusioned with the idea of studying Photography, and was also simultaneously falling in love with Anthropology, the discipline I switched to study. Tristan served (and continues to serve) as a convenient conceptual link between the methodologies of the two disciplines.

          WR: Because of the limitations that come with not being able to go to the Island, you sent cameras to Tristan’s residents to document it for you. What direction did you give to them, if any?

          LC: Sending cameras to Tristan is an important part of my understanding of the place as it addresses both the physical and visual remoteness of the island, while still preserving that important obscurity. A lot of this work is about the inconsistencies or gaps of photographic practice, and how these cracks open up unforeseen meanings from images, archives, and documents. Therefore it was important to be as opaque as possible with direction and instructions with the cameras, and offer up no guidance beyond a curiosity in seeing what everyday life was like on the island. The results were more remarkable than I could have asked for. Despite being a simple gesture that has been done countless times before, giving residents of the island these cameras created what is, to my knowledge, the only public photographs made by residents of their own island.

To reverse that dynamic of representation was important, and also tellingly revealed things about the organizational structure of this island community in the process. Tristan is by most respects an anarchist state, without any clearly recognized leader and all decisions made through complete consensus. The cameras themselves reflected this, in that rather than being given out to specific individuals, they were retained as a communal resource and employed to document specific aspects and occurrences on the island; the fishing industry, a wedding, sheep-shearing day, a hiking expedition, et cetera. You see their social organization on the island reflected through the way they interpreted a request to take photographs.

          WR: The series Untitled (Horizons) came about by accident. However, you used these images to play upon the ongoing narrative of the island as a distant, mystical landscape. How did you come to the decision to include these images in the exhibition?

          â€¨â€¨LC: In many respects a lot of the imagery made so far around Tristan uses the island itself as a way to speak broadly about distance, perception of the landscape and the location of the body within the landscape. To put it plainly, a lot of the personal pleasure in making and researching is about indulging with the fantasy and mystical qualities attributed to far-off places. Since time immemorial, far-away lands have served a place to physically map fantasies, dreams and imagination onto a physical point on the horizon. Maybe this is something rapidly disappearing from our reach, and so I’m clinging onto an opportunity to indulge in this through such a private place so physically dislocated from contemporary flows of infrastructure, travel, permission and technology. But to return to accidents - the backbone to most of the works about Tristan is in some way connected to random or unforeseen occurrences. I suppose that friction between attempts to meaningfully and plainly show reality through images and the unexpected results of those attempts are the spaces where that indeterminate, fantasy-space that projects onto the physical space creeps in. It’s that moment where the landscape or photograph appears flipped on its’ head, an articulation of something more mystical than it was seeking to show. The Horizons images are one of these examples.

          WR: Whilst you have previously published photo books on Tristan, this is your first exhibition of work from the project. How did you approach the two differently?

          LC: Usually when I make work I am composing specifically for the book form as the most natural space to work things out; as a publisher and book designer this is safe territory. However the work on Tristan is entirely scattered and without much cohesion as a consistent photographic series, and so I’ve never really felt like it worked particularly well in book form so far, apart from as a testing ground or to execute a specific individual idea. Mapping different strands of images out in a space feels far more consistent with how these things all join together in my head, as chance combinations or works that reinforce one another through proximity and loose association.

          WR: The project is 6 years in the making and is still continuing. Do you ever see it ending – perhaps the day you finally get to visit Tristan?

          LC: Making Tristan work isn’t so much about future plans; it is more about having an ongoing research project to dip into and circulate ideas around, so I try not to keep it too structured or think about whether (or why) I would wrap the work up at some point.