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Sunlight, camera, action

Photography is like drawing with light.

A farmer looking through a window notices crops and drainage and the soil type of the land below him. An estate agent sees properties and road access. An electrician sees wires. But the photographer has her eyes half-shut, looking at the light: “You have to practise looking at light. It’s never constant. It’s all to do with the sun’s angle from the earth. It’s a question of waiting. While we’re sitting here, there are clouds coming over, it keeps changing.” She holds up a sheet of white paper, as if to lure something over. Light lands on it at once, as if the sun had already imagined our conversation.

“You have to make a decision. First you think, ‘Where’s my light?’ Then you think, ‘How can I use it?’ You have to control it, I suppose. You don’t take a photograph. You make a photograph. The point is that light has to be funnelled through an aperture of some sort. I try to get people away from thinking the camera is the thing. The light is the thing. The camera is just a means of catching it. That’s what photograph means. It means ‘drawing with light’ – from the Greek.”

Light, her collaborator, is a rude, prolific, hyperactive artist. Its pencils move at unthinkable speed, always shooting through apertures and reacting with chemicals to make marks on the earth. It draws the stroke of a tree upwards towards itself. It draws a flower from underground, first thickening the line of its stem, then complicating the leaf form, then brooding and doodling and finally turning the whole sketch inside out to find new colours. Not only film, but almost everything is light-sensitive. Ice is etched by it. Wood is whitened by it. Skin is stencilled with strap-lines. Mud is crinkled with cracks. Forests are tilted. Winds are lifted. The shapes of chairs are bleached into grass. Moons are shrunk and grown and the ground under trees is covered with pinhole images of moonlight. Glow worms are charged. Stellar clouds are eroded, experiments altered, shadows rotated. Relentlessly, while all this is going on, straight lines are being drawn off surfaces through millions of eyes, so that optic  nerves may be flash-lit and imaginations printed.

Light nurse

In this partnership, the photographer is the more modest one, working hard, like a nurse getting everything ready for the surgeon. She wears dark clothes, moving like a shadow behind her instrument. When she’s photographing people, she soothes them into the right position: “That’s the whole thing about faces. If they’re in the sun, squinting, you don’t kind of get their essence. People can defend themselves when they squint.

“When I’m doing portraits, I tend to take people into quite dark spaces because then their pupils are very open. It’s what you call bright shade, when the sun comes in obliquely, bouncing off the walls or the ground.” She keeps talking, to make time for the light and the shade and the face to make contact: ‘I’ve seen people take a photograph and a cloud comes by and I’m thinking well why didn’t she just wait a minute longer? That cloud would have come over and diffused the light. Could you move your head that way a bit?

“But with landscape it’s different. I prefer early morning: September or October in England, they’re just the softest, most beautiful days. Once I was trying to photograph the sea at Dartmouth, going backwards and forwards on the ferry waiting for the sun to come up over the water and there was this girl on her phone. As the sun rose she held up her phone and went blink, like that, then she carried on with the conversation. I suppose everyone’s a photographer now.”

Alice Oswald was talking to Kate Mount.

Alice Oswald is an award-winning poet. She writes the nature column for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images/Richard Stonehouse
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Here's how Jeremy Corbyn can win back the Midlands

The Midlands is where elections are decided - and where Jeremy Corbyn can win. 

The Midlands: this “formless” place is where much of Labour’s fate lies. The party witnessed some of its most disappointing 2015 results here. In those early, depressing hours of 8 May, Nuneaton was the result that rang the death knell of Labour’s election chances. Burton, Cannock Chase, Halesowen & Rowley Regis, Redditch and Telford weren’t far behind. To win here Labour need to build a grassroots movement that engages swing voters.

Luckily, this is also a place with which Labour’s new leader has a natural affinity. The bellwether seat of Nuneaton is where Jeremy Corbyn chose to hold his last regional rally of the leadership contest; just a couple of counties over you’ll find the home Corbyn moved to in Shropshire when he was seven. He cut his political teeth round the corner in marginal constituency The Wrekin; it was in this key seat he did his first stint of campaigning. Flanked by a deputy leader, Tom Watson, who represents Labour stronghold West Bromwich East, Corbyn has his eye on the Midlands.

As MP for Islington North since 1983, Labour’s leader has earned London-centric credentials that have long since overshadowed his upbringing. But Corbynism isn’t a phenomenon confined to the capital. The enthusiasm that spilled out of Corbyn’s summer leadership rallies across the country has continued into the autumn months; Labour’s membership is now over 370,000. It’s fast catching up with 1997 figures, which are the highest in the party’s recent history.

London is the biggest beneficiary of this new movement - with 20 per cent of Labour’s members and 19 per cent of new members who signed up the week before conference coming from the capital. But Corbynism is flourishing elsewhere. 11 per cent of all Labour party members now reside in the southeast. In that same pre-conference week 14 per cent of new members came from this mostly Tory blue area of the country. And since last year, membership in the southwest increased by 124 per cent. Not all, but a good deal of this, is down to Corbyn’s brand of anti-austerity politics.

A dramatic rise in membership, with a decent regional spread, is nothing to be sneered at; people are what you need to create an election-winning grassroots movement. But, as May proved, having more members than your opposition doesn’t guarantee victory. Corbyn has spoken to many who’d lost faith in the political system but more people need to be won over to his cause.  

This is clear in the Midlands, where the party’s challenges are big. Labour’s membership is swelling here too, but to a lesser degree than elsewhere. 32 per cent of party members now and 13 per cent of those who joined up in seven days preceding conference hail from this part of the country.

But not all potential Labour voters will become card-carrying members. Corbyn needs to speak to swing voters. These people have no party colours and over the summer they had mixed views on Corbynism. In Nuneaton, Newsnight found a former Labour turned Ukip voter who thought Corbyn would take Labour “backwards” and put the economy at risk. But a fellow Ukip voter said he saw Corbyn as “fresh blood”.

These are enduring splits countrywide. Voters in key London marginal Croydon Central gave a mixed verdict on Corbyn’s conference speech. They thought he was genuine but were worried about his economic credibility. While they have significant doubts, swing voters are still figuring out who Labour’s new leader is.

This is where the grassroots movement comes into play. Part of the challenge is to get out there and explain to these people exactly who the party is, what it’s going to offer them and how it’s going to empower them to make change. 

Labour have nascent plans to make this reality in the Midlands. Tom Watson advocated bringing back to life this former industrial heartland by making it a base for manufacturing once again – hopefully based on modern skills and technologies.  He’s also said the leadership team will make regular regional visits to key seats. Watson’s words chime with plans floated by shadow minister Jon Trickett: to engage people with citizens’ assemblies where they have a say over Labour politics.

But meetings alone don’t make grassroots movements. Alongside the economy, regional identity is a decisive issue in this – and other – area(s) of the country. With the influx in money brought in by new members, Labour should harness peoples’ desire for belonging, get into communities and fill the gaps the Government are leaving empty. While they’re doing this, they could spread the word of a proper plan for devolution, harking back to the days of municipal socialism, so people know they’ll have power over their own communities under Labour.

This has to start now, and there’s no reason why the Midlands can’t act as a model. Labour can engage with swing voters by getting down to a community level and start showing – and not just saying –  how the party can make a difference. 

Maya Goodfellow is a freelance journalist.