It’s been a tempestuous year for Great Britain. The aftermath of Brexit called into question not just the identity of the country but of its people. For some, the vote was a devastating blow, to others a long-awaited victory of independence. But there’s no question that 2016 was the year that changed the face of the U.K. forever.
What better time, then, for the British Journal of Photography (BJP) to launch its exhibition, Portrait of Britain, a nationwide show that presents 100 portraits of the British public, taken by the public. It draws on the nation’s artistic talent and celebrates its rich vibrancy. Each picture hits a different emotional note, but together they present the beating heart of the country. “The exhibition is about celebrating the diversity and the unique heritage of Britain and hopefully by doing so adding some nuance to the very divisive debate following Brexit," BJP's editorial director Simon Bainbridge tells TIME.
The idea was first conceived a year ago, when BJP heard JCDecaux was experimenting with using its advertising spaces around the country for editorial content. But, as the debate about Brexit intensified, BJP realized that it was also a significant time to be looking at the subject of British identity. “The portraits say we aren't easily categorized by class or race or age or region,” says Bainbridge. “Once you are confronted with a person, you have to engage with them as an individual and not as stereotype or a grouping. That's something photography does very easily, it disrupts your prejudice or your usual thoughts about people outside your own bubble.” And the fact that the images are displayed on JCDecaux's digital screens found in railway stations, shopping centers, bus stops and high streets helps press that point. “The idea was for the public to be confronted with images of themselves in these everyday places,” says Bainbridge. “What a disruption to the usual glossy advertising images of models and celebrities.” Each image appears on the screen for five to ten seconds. “It’s almost like a lingering glance at someone that you come across at a train station or waiting for a bus - except of course a photograph allows you to be a bit more nosey," he adds.
This approach also means the images reach an extremely wide – sometimes involuntary – audience. Bainbridge estimates up to 10 million people will see the portraits over the course of the exhibition, which ends on September 30.
Selected from nearly 4,000 entries, each of the 100 images comes with a narrative about the subject or the photographer and reveals a culture, affliction or profession that is perhaps unfamiliar to viewers. Some faces are recognizable – Don McCullin, Dizzee Rascal and Stephen Hawking to name a few – but most are unknown. “I think the power of portrait photography is the idea that having someone in front of the camera in a formal way, raises them almost to hero-status.” says Bainbridge. “The image we have of a fireman looks like a normal shot but in fact he was the watch commander on the day of the bombings in London 12 years ago. He's the one who had to take charge of the aftermath. There's a lot of those kind of stories behind the pictures.”
BJP also made sure to select a myriad of photographic styles to show the depth and range of contemporary portraiture. “Most photography exhibitions tend to be thematic not just in their subject matter but in their style and there really is a massive diversity in the kind of work shown here,” says Bainbridge. “It's a celebration of contemporary photography as much as it is about the diversity and traditions of British culture.”
The images from BJP's Portrait of Britain are also available to buy as limited edition prints.