This is all that’s left of the farming community. It’s quite sad…. They built wind farms so there are lots of deserted farms. They just leave these places and they fall into disrepair. I’m always trying to get in before the vandals, or before the roof goes. It’s just beautiful …the interiors. I love it, I get a buzz out of it …and go all over the country.
If there’s a roof on it people have to pay rates. If it is a ruin you can knock it down and build on it. That’s ripped the countryside apart. It used to be quite a big thing to knock down a house. Now you can do it in a few hours with a digger.
This was a place in Ballymena – James Henry the undertaker’s father’s house. He was an MP and lived below. They had a bar and undertakers out the back. It unofficially became a hotel called ‘The Farmers Rest’ because when people drank in the bar they would stay. Before it got knocked down I was able to get in there.
It’s just a beautiful place…and it’s a time warp. I think what happened was.. they had died and James was still using the building, so the upstairs was just not touched. That’s what I love. People talk about ‘ruin porn’ but to me these places are like tombs, Egyptian tombs. When you go in they are full of treasures.
These things that were just little snaps have become historical, because no one else has them. If I live long enough these places will disappear before me. A lot of them just aren’t here any more.
I did a recent project at Gracehill. They have this old shop from the 1700’s and are trying to turn it into a museum. It was absolutely lovely because again it’s pretty much untouched. It’s an old Moravian Village and a conservation zone. When they peeled away the wallpaper there was the U-boat newspaper article. Absolutely beautiful space. I’ve been lucky over the last few years I’ve got a got a lot of commissions of exactly what I want to do.
Sometimes you can piece together the stories. I’ve been doing it for maybe 40 years. There was an old undertakers and hardware store in Ballymena and I knocked the man’s door on a rainy day. He was an old man and was very suspicious. I set up the tripod and took 3 pictures and then he changed his mind. After he died that house was gutted, vandalised, and set on fire. It was like a museum in there. An incredible place. It used to be you could find these places but now they are pretty much on the way out.
I get two types of people who like my work. There are those people who love the history and the stories, and others who just see it as a decorative thing. It’s a simple as that.
There is this one house up in the Glens, I’ve been doing it for 30 years without realising it. I found out the history of it and then discovered there’s a local storyteller who brings tourists to it and she tells them a totally different story… about fairies and different things – which they love. So, everybody has a little story which they add to it but most of them are embellished.
You’ll see it and check it out… the doors are open and you think, ‘wow, it’s not been ruined yet’. When I find them it’s about getting the time and the tripod and the long exposure and later trying to find out the stories. People are generally suspicious but the camera opens doors for you. People see you take pictures and they lower their guard.
Next year I’m going to put everything together and chat to local people and try and find the stories. Once a generation or so goes, the stories are lost forever. Older people tell you stories and they actually bring something to it. Younger people are not so interested, but as they get older, they get interested. They like the fairytale aspect.
I hate the word ‘nostalgia’ because ‘nostalgia’ here is a very romanticised thing. In Russia the word means ‘home’. I love ‘melancholy’ because you can appreciate it but you’re willing to move on. You are not actually trying to hold on to that time. I’m trying to piece bits together and get the stories. But I’m too late for some places.
Sometimes I take people with me. I go charging on in, but they will be standing at the door too scared to come in. It’s always a bit tricky going up stairs because stairs can collapse. Most of the time I’m down the Glens my phone doesn’t work and if you’re on your own you’ll never be found. You have to have a bit of common sense about it. Twice I’ve been in the situation where I have been upstairs in the bedroom and hear footsteps. I open the door and two goats or sheep go flying past.
A lot of old places make sounds. There’s a lot of creaking and I quite like that. I had the idea of recording it as soundscapes. But I find that most of the time nothing will go with the work. You get a very strong vibe and most of the time it’s good. But I’ve seen a couple of times wherever I’ve just gone ..no…no. There’s something not right.
A lot of people will visit somewhere that I photographed and they go…. hang on a minute… the colours aren’t as strong. In photography you can make a small place look really big. I’ve gone back to place that I have haven’t been in 30 years and think.. really? Was it really this tiny? You can end up with your back to the wall and you can’t get it all in. A lot of places are small, low ceilings, small rooms…. But again it’s totally addictive. I find if I don’t do it after a while I need my fix.
City or country… it makes a big difference. For example Henrietta Street Dublin is a beautiful Georgian house which has been preserved. Sussex Street Belfast was changed from a convent to apartments, in the city something they restore things.. it’s more valuable. In the countryside there’s been a wide-scale purging of everything.
In the city it’s a totally different style of architecture. There are higher ceilings. When you talk to young people they don’t really appreciate that maybe 50 years ago people didn’t have double glazing and central heating. Before TV you had the piano and you had people talking and you have more time… I love the simplicity of that. There is a big difference between rural and urban lifestyles.
We talked to a historian for the “Traces” project, who said 60 families lived up the back glen to Cushendun nearly 100 years ago. Now, there’s only about a dozen. There’s been a mass scale of people moving from the countryside. In the country you still find the old stoves because people just lived in a couple of rooms. They were cosy. It was a hard life, but simple …and those guys lived to a right old age.
Time was totally different in the city than the country. It’s a cyclical, seasonal time thing – whereas in the city it’s very fast.
I use the family home now as my base. I spent maybe last two years getting the house into shape. It took time. There was a stair lift we had to get taken out. There are a lot of accoutrements for disability and mobility. My mother liked red flock wallpaper. She was very ‘decorative’ and liked to paint the door frames gloss white. It’s an Edwardian/ Victorian house and when I lifted the carpets in the hall there was this beautiful tiling which hadn’t been seen.
How you live in the house affects how you see the house. I have fond memories of the place. When I do the garden I remember my father. You go in the shed and there are still some of his things there. Even though you change it there’s still some sense of them – which is quite nice.
The pictures I did of Mum before she went into hospital.. I’d forgotten about them. When I look at them now I remember things…. I remember them being here. And then I’m very aware that soon it will be my time and what am I going to do …
Sometimes you see mum and dad differently through the objects. My mother had this old ice-cream scoop she used for mashed potato. She had it from before I was born. I remember it was dumped and I was looking for it. I wanted it. There’s this great attachment objects….
As you get older you appreciate these old interiors more. When I was younger I would charge in and take the pictures. Now I try to absorb them. I want to slow it all down and get the quality right.
I’m trying to keep it the way it was, but also I want the history. That’s very important for me without the story you don’t know what’s happening. Sometimes you find old letters.
There are people here doing ‘ruin-porn’ and they do it very well. But they tend to go in, wham bam, it’s snappy, or over-sharpened. There are also groups of people doing the ‘Urbex’ thing (urban exploring). They go to old factories and because there’s a group of five or six there’s safety in numbers. They have a code that you leave it the way you found it. It’s a big thing worldwide. There’s a lot of people doing that. A lot of people don’t like them doing it but if it wasn’t for them you wouldn’t see a lot of these places. They tend to get in and do it so security can be a problem. I know people here who go out with the bolt cutters.
In different cultures people perceive it differently. Some welcome it, some don’t. Here it’s all health and safety and red-tape. I had to get liability insurance. I remember a building security guard saying “well if the building falls on top of you… “ You’re always struggling against that, whereas in other places you are helped a lot. Here you have to know the right people.
A lot of the time if the doors are open… or the builders are in they say ‘it’s OK’, and in I go. Otherwise you might not be allowed. It’s just tightening up all the time. When I did 14 Henrietta Street the architect came and said: ‘look really there’s no easy way to do this. If you’re up for it bring a lunch and I will lock you in. I’ll come back at 5’. But people like that are pretty rare. A lot of the time I do a barter thing and say – “I’ll give you a pictures for letting me in.”
I read a lot. I love literature it’s a big influence. People like Elizabeth Bowen. There are a lot of people who write about here. Then there is faction: fiction and truth. Sometimes you just don’t know. My photography is very poetic and my poems crossover. Sometimes they are about the places…
In 2014 in Istanbul they did a whole street of my pictures. They hosted me as well. I was there for a week. Over a million people went past, it was really incredible for me and it was lovely to see the pictures so big. I saw them totally differently. That was great. Over here you would never get anything like that.
I have an agency in London. People surf Flickr and know me from the web. One of the Turkish Banks did an article on my ‘Trotsky House’ pictures. They actually wrote the article to go with the pictures. I also do book covers. The Monocle Travel Guide got in touch with me because they wanted to use some of the interiors, and nobody else had them…. so you get people looking for you.
I used to use film all the time. Commercially you can’t use film any more but people still love it. They love the look of it. I would still do it alongside to compare it… and people usually prefer the film. There is some magic there that you can’t get with digital – especially with portraits. It’s even the way you take the pictures because it slows it right down. You can’t look and see what you’ve got.
Commercial architectural work has to be very clean and contemporary. It’s a whole different look. Whereas with a lot of my interiors, that are historical places, they’re very painterly, very evocative.
In Istanbul they ripped a lot of the city out through gentrification. It has destroyed incredible treasures. It’s just greed and corruption and money. But there’s still a lot of access to incredible places and I have a network of people there. In Istanbul I tried to get a lot of places that were disappearing. This old hanami (turkish bath) near railway line that’s now gone. That railway line has gone too. It’s like all these layers of time.
I was the only one who ever actually got into the “Botter House” ( the workmen had gone for their lunch and left the door open). There was a Dutch documentary film crew had tried to get in 4 years. They couldn’t get in. They came to me because nobody else had got it. It’s now been gutted and is a boutique hotel.
I love the ‘before and after’ – if the architect will let you. But a lot of them don’t do it because sometimes they don’t want to show the space in a bad light.
I get a lot of people who have beautiful buildings and say: ‘yes’ they will let you in, but… ‘come back in a couple of months because we need to clean it up.’ And I say: “No I want it like that. “ But no, they don’t want you to see it like that. A lot of people don’t get it, they don’t understand.
Interview with James Hughes
All photos reproduced with permission from James Hughes