From the serene beaches of southern Britain to the sparse deserts of the Arab world, Jeremy Rata and his camera capture the people and places of everyday life.
His photograph The King’s Palace is hung in the National Portrait Gallery as part of the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition. Although the captivating image of two Afghan soldiers in the devastated ruins of an old palace did not win, it is poignant in expressing Rata’s sole reason for his photographic endeavours: telling a story.
I met Jeremy Rata in the lobby of the Chancery Hotel. Brushing off the extravagant surroundings, he tells me he is given a good deal here because he “has a friend”. You see, Rata is also an hotelier – he runs a 5 star luxury estate in Devon and is also a restaurant consultant for Damien Hirst, an old friend. But, he assures me, “photography is probably my greatest passion.”
…Since then, he’s travelled to Asia, the Middle East and Africa…
A fact that is evident throughout our conversation. Rata weaves together engaging stories from past experiences and grand plans for new projects, and discusses vividly the medium’s skills and challenges, particularly in regards to new technology.
He is a novice-turned-professional, and it is his desire for a good photo that blurs the lines and fools his audience.
An uncle’s camera shop in London was a regular hang out for the young Rata in the 70s: “We used to visit him over Christmas and I’d watch him develop his photos in his dark room. He encouraged me to get involved with it, and I was the only one out of all us kids who really showed any interest.”
Over the years, the hobby grew into a more concrete practice.
Starting out as a sports photographer seven years ago, with the help of friend (and now business partner) Ben Duffy, he devoted his weekends to the dramatic fields of football. But after four years he wanted to work on his own projects. Since then, he’s travelled to Asia, the Middle East and Africa for photographic endeavours, as well as taking weekends off from his home life – he has a wife and two kids – to unfold the mysteries of his own country England.
“I make my own mistakes in the privacy of my own incompetence”
Rata unabashedly admits he has had no formal training, and has only fallen under the title of ‘professional’ photographer for about ten years: “I tend to do a lot of my own experimentation, I make my own mistakes in the privacy of my own incompetence,” he said. When a grand idea and an experiment don’t work out, he learns from it.
A recent project saw him team up with John Casson, who is a frequent traveller to Afghanistan, to raise money for the Afghan Appeal Fund, a charity set up by ex-ITN newscaster Sandy Gall. Afghan Faces is the result of this collaboration, a pictorial book of Rata’s best shots from the war-torn country.
The approach of the book was to capture the everyday life of the Afghan people, rather than the much-publicised war.
There are only a few shots of the military in the book. One is of an incredibly old curator standing in a doorway looking very humble. He is standing in front of a huge, bulky soldier who is holding a machine gun and blocking the doorway. “To me, it signifies the meekness of the Afghan people, who are very kind and gentle. And it also shows the might of the military,” Rata said.
Other stamps in his passport are from Ethiopia, Bangladesh and India.
“I find India the most fascinating place,” he says. “It’s not difficult to get photography because it is so interesting and the people are incredibly tolerant. The best thing to do is drive out and see what else you can get besides the cities. Make it a challenge.”
“Wherever you are, there will always be something to photograph…”
Essentially, he is building a portfolio of people. He tells me he is not interested in landscapes or architecture. The portraits he has captured for his collections are the epitome of emotions; the close ups and experiments with composition and lighting create a sense of ease with his subjects, and give us an insight into the rituals of people’s lives that are so separate to our own.
“Photography is artistic. I understand why people have paintings in their houses; it’s evocative and means something. But I’ll never for the life of me understand why huge rooms put mirrors on the walls as decoration. It’s designed laziness.”
Of course, a huge photograph would be much better, he tells me, a photograph captures a moment of time, and the pleasure is that everyone will see it differently: “There is a creative freedom to exercise your imagination with the perceptibility of photographs… A photograph should make you stop and think and it should make you want to know the story behind it.”
For his next project, Rata plans to sit in a fair ground workers’ pub in Plymouth for a few days during the summer. He will sit in a corner with his camera, and have a pint with the locals as they come in.
“I am happiest watching people and photographing them when they’re at ease. Wherever you are, there will always be something to take a photo of; you just have to notice it.”
Images courtesy of Jeremy Rata