Growing Spaces - Interview with Chris Hoare

Marianne Stenger
12th August 2021

Interest in allotments has been on the rise in England in recent years, and with one in eight of the UK population having no access to a garden, it’s not hard to see why. 

Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic has also served to increase the demand for urban green spaces and land to grow food. This has seen applications for council-run allotments in England rise sharply over the past year. Young people in particular are turning to allotments as they look for ways to reduce their environmental footprint and connect with their local communities. 

Since April 2020, photographer Chris Hoare has been documenting Bristol’s allotment sites and community gardens, as well as the allotment-goers, landscape and seasonal changes. 

“Working on this project gave me a big appreciation for growing, and just how special allotments are in society,” he says. “It also gave me an insight into the popularity of allotments at the moment, because everyone is so much more environmentally aware and there’s an ongoing conversation about the planet and buying local.” 

The resulting photographs, commissioned by the Bristol Photo Festival, have been published in the photo book Growing Spaces. We had a chance to speak to Chris about the project and what it was like to document these spaces during an unprecedented time in history.

Images © Chris Hoare

First of all, could you tell us a bit about your background and style of photography? 

When I left school, I studied art and design at a college and sort of found photography through that. As cliche as it sounds, ever since I walked into a darkroom I’ve been sort of obsessed with photography. I’ve done a BA and MA in photography, and it’s just sort of my life’s passion. 

I guess I would describe my style as documentary, but it doesn’t really have a start, a middle and an end. It’s not like watching a documentary, because with photography there’s a lot more subjectivity. 

I also think that in recent years, photography and maybe even journalism has changed. People are open to being a bit more open ended and not necessarily being as literal when making images. For instance, when I was photographing allotments, I wasn’t just like “This is an allotment, and this is what you do with an allotment.” It’s more about the feeling of the place, the characters and the beauty of it, and trying to tap into that.

Images © Chris Hoare

Could you tell us a bit about the idea behind Growing Spaces and how the project came about?

Growing Spaces was commissioned by the Bristol Photo Festival, but all they said was that it should be about allotments, so it was very open ended. Although I don’t have an allotment myself, I’m on the waiting list to get one, because I love them now, obviously. 

I photographed community gardens alongside allotments, and the story for me was about access to land and how allotments work. I think there’s a general stereotype about a person who owns an allotment, and predominantly that stereotype is that they are for the white middle class retiree. 

But I knew that there was a lot more going on in terms of access and different demographics. For instance, there’s a caribbean population that has been on allotments for years, and there are young people doing it now too. 

In terms of access, everyone has the same rights for having an allotment, but I think there’s a kind of disconnect. Where I grew up, it never really seemed like an option to have an allotment. I just always thought they would be for someone else but not for me. I think maybe a lot of people feel that way, because they don’t know how it works or realise how cheap it is. 

In reality, you can have an allotment for around £40 a year, and someone in a high rise flat has exactly the same right to one as someone in a mansion up the road. So I find that quite interesting, and although maybe my book doesn’t tell that story, I was interested in that as a starting point. Of course, I was also interested in making beautiful pictures, so I hope that with that, people are sort of seduced into thinking about allotments as well. 

But then also, it’s about way more than just growing vegetables, because allotments are also sort of seen as a place to socialise and some people are there having BBQs and making fires. So I think a lot of the younger people are seeing it in that way as well, and making the most of the space as a place to inhabit as well. 

These spaces are so special, because they really bring out the best in a community and bring all different types of people together. Anything that encourages something like that should be looked after, and more of it should happen.

Images © Chris Hoare

Most of the photographs were made during the lockdowns of 2020. What sort of impact did that have on the project? 

It was strange. The beginning of the project was when everything was happening. Quite early on it was said that allotments were allowed to continue to be used, so when I started out I was photographing people that first and foremost were quite young and were happy for me to be there. So I used my network of people to do that and then gradually when things eased up, I began to feel a bit more comfortable about approaching older people. 

Because it was outdoors and we were at a distance for the most part, it did feel quite safe. Although it was strange, it also felt like a privilege in a way, and I think anyone that had an allotment during that time felt like it was a privilege, because they became even more popular and enjoyed, and people spent more time there. 

It was weirdly good timing for the project, and I guess I sort of knew that quite early on. The fact that it was all shot during that time makes it kind of resonate in a different way and be seen in a different way.

Does Growing Spaces highlight individual people or stories? Or look at the story of allotments as a whole? 

It addresses things as a whole I think. I guess that comes again from the sort of photography that I’m interested in. I do believe in the power of presenting a series of photographs and leaving the viewer with questions as well as answers. 

Years ago, I might have thought that I needed to add extended captions to tell the story. Of course, I don’t disagree that sometimes that can be really helpful. But, I also believe in the power and the beauty of photos to create feelings. So the only bit of text is on the back of the book. The rest is just photos, with the exception of a few small captions at the back to tell you the story and contextualise it.

Images © Chris Hoare

What was the reason you decided to shoot this series on film? 

I haven’t really picked up my digital camera in quite some time, other than to do really small things like actually photographing the book. That’s actually through choice. 

It was kind of brought on by my MA, where I was taught the importance of trying to do the sort of work that you actually want to do. Before that, I was doing lots of event photography and weddings, and sort of treating photography like a trade. Then I would just do my personal projects on the side. 

These days, I just want to do the sort of photography that I really enjoy, and then hopefully I will get commissions off the back of people recognising me for what I want to do. I’m still working on it, and it takes time, but I do think it’s possible and it seems to be getting better.

Are you working on any other projects at the moment? 

At the moment I’m working on a much broader project about Bristol. It’s my hometown, so I know it quite well, and the publishers that I worked with on Growing Spaces are interested in publishing my next book as well. 

I think the pitch of it is sort of about what it’s like post-Colston. Bristol is quite a divided place, and since the Colsten statue was toppled, people either agree or disagree that it should have been taken down. Bristol is also a city that’s become really popular, so it’s growing massively. It’s also kind of surrounded by council estates and the structure of it is very hilly. So this project, once it’s finished, is going to be called Seven Hills, and it will look at these different themes.

Images © Chris Hoare

Chris Hoare is a photographer from Bristol. You can find out more about his work and most recent projects by following him on Instagram @ChrisHoarePhoto. Growing Spaces is currently being exhibited at the inaugural Bristol Photo Festival and can be seen until August 18.

Biography:

Chris Hoare is a photographer from Bristol. You can find out more about his work and most recent projects by following him on Instagram @ChrisHoarePhoto. Growing Spaces is currently being exhibited at the inaugural Bristol Photo Festival and can be seen until August 18.

Top