Coventry Conversations – Tom Hunter, Photographer

After turning to up the talk an hour late due to an error at the train station, Tom Hunter entered the lecture theatre and got straight to it. He is a photographer, most notable for his work photographing his squatter friends in in the town of Hackney (see Being Opinionated About Photographs). The talk followed a biographical structure, taking us through Tom’s life, including his inspirations, his challenges, and his most prided achievements.

Tom began by talking about his childhood. He was born in Dorset, and commented on the lack of culture that was around when he growing up. He was initially influenced by the ‘punk’ movement – namely The Sex Pistols – which influenced his early photographs. At 21, Tom moved to London and got a job as a tree surgeon, where he began taking his first photographs.

Once he’d decided photography was for him, Tom took an A-Level course in art and design, and had to become a squatter in the London borough of Hackney (‘squatting’ was very popular at the time). Hackney was seen as a run-down and rough place, full of no-good people. Tom defended Hackney through his photos, seeing the improvisation going on around his as a form of ‘true culture’. Subsequently, his photos became very political, as he was determined to show a different side to ‘squatting’ – beyond that which the media had already stereotyped (poor, rough people living in run-down and broken houses). Some people (such as government officials) were worried about these photographs – possibly afraid of the politics that were pushing them. Tom succeeded in promoting the lives of his squatter students, and managed to save many homes because of the publicity his photos had made. These series of photographs are called ‘Persons Unknown’, and are perhaps the works Tom Hunter is best known for.

After leaving college, Tom became a part of a new movement – the ‘rave’ scene of the early nineties. Again, he took photos of people in their homes, similar to his student friends in Hackney before. Again, the media had portrayed the rave scene in a bad light, and Tom was out to show a different side (possibly a ‘true’ side) to the scene that he was attracted to because of it’s cultural significance  (as Tom described, DIY culture). This was followed up by his ‘Tower Block’ project, which involved taking photos of people in their homes within a tower block which was about to be demolished. These ‘factory homes’ were yet another form of culture that Tom was drawn to.

Tom concluded by talking by talking about his more recent works. He is currently interested in doing a project on migration, which would again be influenced by the culture of the people in his photographs. In all of his work, Tom also mentioned that he has been influenced by older paintings and images. Tom mentioned the Pre-Raphaelites as one of the stronger influences in his later photographs. As it stands, the last ‘commercially successful’ exhibition he created was the exhibit called ‘Living In Hell’ (again shot in Hackney), which caused much controversy upon release due to it’s strong sexual undercurrents. Currently, Tom has ten exhibitions touring the world.

In the post-talk questions, Tom said that he understood the importance of where his photos were exhibited. The National Gallery often show his exhibitions – which is a good way to promote the photos, given their strong political messages. These messages are conveyed through the individual stories captured in each of the photographs – another factor that Tom considered very important. Tom did consider being a writer in his early career, but has since realised that his talent is in photography. He commented on that fact that social impact was hard to gage, and that every project was essentially a gamble, as the predicted response is not always guaranteed. However, photographic art has given him a ‘voice’ by which to communicate with people. A voice which he uses with gusto, and intends to use in years to come.

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