People are joined to the land by work.
— Wendell Berry, People, Land, and Community, 1983
It is now ten years since I began photographing in rural East Anglia, and during that time I have made thousands of photographs. It started in 1999 when I moved to St. John’s, Newfoundland, to train as a folklorist. I became immersed in the academic thinking about traditional culture and learned the skills of ethnographic fieldwork. I was inspired by the work of John Cohen — a photographer, sound recordist, filmmaker, folklorist, musician and a champion of vernacular culture. I was excited to discover Cohen’s groundbreaking work, Mountain Music of Kentucky, an LP released by Folkways in 1960, which combined sound recordings, photography and text to produce a fascinating assemblage of art and document, its contents haunting and intriguing. Cohen used music, images and words to tell the story of the coal miners’ communities of eastern Kentucky. His work became for me a model of how to explore a sense of place. I began looking for my own story to tell.
I didn’t find that story in Newfoundland, but instead back home in East Anglia. My master’s dissertation was a study of a Norfolk rabbit catcher named Pete Carter. In 2001 I interviewed him extensively about his life and work, and spent time with him in the field, catching rabbits. His grandfather and great grandfather had been professional warreners — rabbit catchers for hire — who traveled the countryside by horse and cart, setting up camp in the region’s great rabbit warrens. Those days are long gone, but Pete has continued with the traditional methods of catching rabbits, using lurcher dogs, ferrets and nets. From my many photographs of Pete, one stood out. A dead rabbit hanging in a tree dominates the scene; in the bottom left, Pete glances towards the camera. It is, I think, a mysterious photograph, asking many questions but providing few answers. In the weeks following the completion of my dissertation, I kept returning to this photograph, trying to make sense of it. It was, I realized, a window into East Anglia’s rural past, its deep-rooted traditional culture that comes from the peoples’ intimate relationship to the land.
This was the beginning of my journey into what remains of East Anglia’s agrarian community. I began to meet traditional farmers, searching them out in the fields, seeking introductions and hoping for chance encounters at farm sales. The farmers invited me to visit their small family farms scattered throughout the region, and generously welcomed me into their lives. The photographs I made began to create a picture of this forgotten rural world: a place where traditional methods and knowledge still matter, and where identity is shaped by the landscape.
In 2003 the real importance of The East Anglians became clear to me when I met the farmer Eric Wortley. His family has farmed on the edge of the Norfolk fens for over a hundred years, first as tenant farmers, eventually as owners of their land. Today Eric runs the farm with his twin sons, Peter and Stephen. Eric was a sprightly 93 when I met him, and he jumped out of his tractor with such ease it seemed he would live forever. But one day, two years later, that all changed. Eric was in the woodshed, chopping kindling. He gathered up an armful of sticks, tripped on a stray log and tumbled to the dirt-covered floor. One of the sticks pierced Eric’s right eye. The sight never returned and the pupil has opened up to the size of a penny. From that day on Eric’s health began gradually to deteriorate and he has never worked on the land again. Shortly after his fall, the roof timbers in Eric’s grain barn began to crack and split. Like Eric, the barn had looked like it would stand forever. But now the pan-tiled roof sags in the middle. “There’d be a service in the barn every year in my young time” Eric told me one day. “The Preacher would be up high on a platform and all us children would look up at him; but not anymore.”
Eric is now 100. When he began farming, little had changed since the 17th century. Things are different now, but when Eric looks at the fields and the farmyard, he sees things as they were way back; he looks back to a past most of us can never know. He is one of the last of East Anglia’s true agrarians, who farm because it is a way of life, and who work the land because doing so is in the blood. This traditional rural existence, which is rooted in place, might seem of little relevance in our age of industrial agribusiness. My photographs tell the story of the small-time farmers who are reluctant to disappear.