In Conversation with Julia Fullerton-Batten | July 2019
Our next Fable & Folk interview is with fine art photographer Julia Fullerton-Batten. Her earlier personal work derives from her childhood and teenage years growing up in Germany and the USA. Her series “Teenage Stories” tells the story of the transition from adolescence to womanhood, portraying the difficulties we all experience. Her images use cinematic locations and lighting which makes her work so unique.
We wanted to interview Julia because we think she is such a well-known and respected photographer, with such an interesting body of work and lots of different experiences to share.
Fable & Folk: Firstly, thank you Julia for letting us interview you, we are a huge fan! I’d like to begin by asking if you could possibly give us a little background about yourself & how you first got into photography?
Julia Fullerton-Batten: I was born in Bremen, Germany, the second child of a German mother and an English father. I spent my early childhood in Germany and the United States before we moved to England in 1986 when I was 16 years old.
Inspired by our father who was an enthusiastic amateur photographer, I set my mind from an early age on a career as a photographer. He wanted to document his children growing up, but it soon became a passionate hobby. He specialised in family and street photography taking one or two cameras with him wherever he went on family outings and business trips. He had a makeshift darkroom and we children often had to remove prints from the tub before we could have our evening bath. In my early teens I began ‘borrowing’ one of his cameras and eventually inherited a semi-automatic 35mm Minolta SLR camera from him.
Progressing through my teens I became ever more convinced that I wanted to make photography my career and when eighteen I followed my dream. After I completed studying photography I worked for five years as a freelance assistant to professional photographers shooting many different genres. It was tough at times but also incredibly rewarding. Being one of the few female assistants around then I had to prove myself continuously, proving that I could also carry heavy cases full of equipment. One of my client’s studio was on the 3rd floor with no lift. It was during this phase that I learned a lot about lighting and began to develop my own style, which I’ve honed over the years and is now a major feature of my technique.
F&F: Many of the people who follow Fable & Folk aspire to turn their photographic practice into their career. Did you encounter any challenges whilst doing this yourself and do you have any advice based on these experiences?
JFB: When working as an assistant I would take a six-week break during the lull in business that my clients experienced over the Christmas-New Year period. Armed with my camera I visited then interesting countries such as Bolivia, India, China, Mexico and Vietnam. I entered prints from these trips in competitions. I won a whole series of awards with my images from my trip to Vietnam, which was noted by a German agent who signed me up. Within a few weeks I was awarded my first assignment, a big well-paid shoot in Australia – with that my career was kick-started.
Those experiences are fundamental to the advice that I’d give to budding photographers – you’re your own luck with hard-work belief in yourself and enthusiasm, build and maintain your portfolio, always enter competitions, never give up doing so, learn on the job (from negative as well as positive experiences), study the art of painters and the work of other photographers, be conscious of the world around you, build a website, use social media with discretion, don’t get subsumed by the latest technology.
F&F: Your first acclaimed series was “Teenage Stories”, could you tell us a little about that for our audience who might not have heard of the project? What inspired you to start the project? Did you have an idea of how the project would look before shooting or was that something that developed as the project progressed?
JFB: I enjoyed working on commercial assignments, but I knew that I was keen to create my own projects and become a fine-art photographer. I dabbled with several shoots, photographing street casting teenage models, both female and male, gaining confidence and knowledge all the time. I was gradually crystallising the idea I had to shoot a larger series of images using my own life’s experiences of being a pre-teen and a teenager making the awkward transition to womanhood.
I thought long and hard to find the central theme on which to base the project. Thinking back on my teenage years I recollected that I day-dreamed a lot and imagined a fantasy world that was greater that the one I was living at the time. Despite the frequent uncertainties of changing emotional and physical dynamics I sensed new horizons were opening up and I would soon outgrow my teenage apprehensions. Continuously playing with this thought I had the idea to shoot my images in model villages. My models would dwarf their surroundings, emphasising that the girls were outgrowing their previous existence. I shot my images in three different model villages in the UK, Belgium and Spain.
I street cast girls choosing models with no formal training, but who had personality and acting ability.
I photographed them performing a number of different activities, some daily life scenarios; for example, picking up milk-bottles at the front of a house, looking after a baby brother, playing marbles. In other instances, I had them living in dream-like scenarios – wading and floating in water, lying under a bridge with a curious deer walking past or kneeling by a model castle gazing at her reflection in a miniature lake. I strove to emphasise the significance of daydreaming in a young girl’s life by having them pose without emotion, emphasising how young, awkward and uncertain they were.
I think this combination of ideas appealed to the imagination of viewers and was a major factor in the success of this, my very first major project. I entered it into ‘The ‘Fondation HSBC pour la Photographie’ competition in 2007 and succeeded in getting the main award which was a collaboration with the publishing house Actes Sud to print a book, ‘Teenage Stories’ which was published in 2007. It includes images both from the project itself as well as a large number of my earlier images leading up to the project. The book is still available on Amazon.
F&F: Your series “Feral Children”, 2015, re-enacts fifteen reported historical cases of feral children. This is a very real issue - how do you, as a photographer, create series based on real life social issues and tackle the different opinions that come with this?
JFB: The cases of feral children that I re-enacted covered a number of different circumstances, some children got ‘lost’ or were taken by wild animals, but others were maltreated by one or both parents. These were all extreme cases that have been extensively documented and were instances where the child fortunately survived. Cases have been reported from around the world, both underdeveloped and even in an advanced country such as the USA, read about the tragic case of Genie who was tied to a potty chair by her father, alone in a room from early childhood into her teens. Her father committed suicide on the eve of his trial leaving a note saying, ‘I have been misunderstood!’.
It is highly likely that even the documented cases only represent a minuscule number of instances where children have suffered in these various ways. There have probably been hundreds more cases that didn’t come to light, possibly because they weren’t noticed, or the child died. As a mother of two young boys I was emotionally affected when working on this project but in those instances of child abuse by parents I became really angry. It is amazing to consider the evil of the parents, but to admire the fortitude of these children living their lives alone in the company of wild animals …. Even after being rescued many did not recover the ability to speak or move as normal human beings, continuing to walk on all fours, climb trees, eat raw flesh, etc.
My project was inspired by reading the autobiography of Marina Chapman (‘The Girl with No Name’). In her book she vividly describes how as a five-year-old toddler she was seized from her home in a remote village in Columbia, South America by kidnappers and subsequently cast off by them in the jungle. She survived the next five years in the company of a band of capuchin monkeys before she was discovered and rescued by hunters. Even though young she had the presence of mind to observe the eating and behavioural habits of the monkeys, who befriended her during that time. After a number of other unpleasant incidences that she experienced after her rescue she has ended up in the north of England, married with children, where I was able to meet her.
Some critics question the validity of her story, but I believe it and it sparked my curiosity to research other cases of feral children. My project grew and finally resulted in a number of varied case studies from which the fifteen images resulted. It was impossible to replicate the exact scenes so I set out to interpret and duplicate the feelings of each child experiencing their life as a feral child, trying to simulate to the best of my ability the environment in which they spent that time of their lives. There were many times when I was emotionally upset during the shoots by the circumstances under which they must have suffered.
F&F: You are known for your beautifully cinematic images. Could you offer some tips and tricks as to how to achieve this look?
JFB: I began to develop my style when I was an assistant and have developed and honed it continuously over the years. Even though lighting is an important ingredient of my cinematic images there are a number of other ingredients that are present – use of colours and settings. Obviously, I learned a lot from the cinema, but I also assimilated ideas by studying painters.
F&F: You’ve created a few commercial advertising videos; do you enjoy shooting film, and can you see yourself doing this more in the future?
JFB: Yes, I am passionate about directing films and am in the process of producing a fine-art film of the last Frost Fair on the River Thames in 1814. This is part of a massive project that I have been shooting over the past three years entitled ‘Old Father Thames’. This comprises mostly stills of historical events, customs and traditions that have occurred, and in some instances still do, along the entire length of the River Thames from its source to its entry into the North Sea via the Thames Estuary.
The Frost Fair 1814 was such a large-scale venture that I decided to shoot both stills and film. The film is currently being edited and will be viewable in due course.
F&F: A lot of your work has been exhibited all around the world. For photographers just starting out, do you have any advice with regards to getting your work exhibited?
JFB: it has become much easier to get into the fine art world, but it is still difficult to make a living from it. Visiting art fairs is a way to meet gallerists. Also, entering important competitions such as the Rencontres d’Arles and the Sony World Photography Awards/ World Photography Organisation.
F&F: Something that I think isn’t talked about enough between photographers is cost. Lots of people work from commissioned jobs that fund their personal work, others take up part time jobs to pay the bills. What path did you take, and do you have any words of advice for young photographers looking to fund their work?
JFB: Photography is an expensive business, especially when starting out. I started small with my earnings as an assistant, scrimping and scraping, working with amateur models and a small crew. I have self-funded all of my fine-art projects from savings from fees for commissioned work, sales from my limited-edition fine-art prints and winning awards with a cash prize (but were rarely sufficient to fund an entire project).
Be thankful that nowadays, most of us shooting digital don't have to buy, process and digitalise film as was necessary when I started. Digital not only eases the workflow but significantly reduces the cost of a shoot. Modern day photographers can also earn income from being film directors, writers, host workshops or doing talks.
F&F: To build on that, have you applied for grants or any funding in the past? If so, how do you come across these and what was the application process like?
JFB: I have never applied for grants or gone down the crowd-funding route. Sometimes a gallerist will fund a project if they strongly believe in the photographer, this only works if the artist is already represented by the gallerist.
F&F: Thank you so much for this interview Julia! I’d like to end by asking what was the last photobook you bought?
Many thanks to Julia again for speaking to use. To see more of Julia’s work, visit https://www.juliafullerton-batten.com/
All images and text © Julia Fullerton-Batten