Shadows that draw you into the depths; highlights that illuminate not just faces one might shy away from, but also layers and layers of stories tucked away into lives that are everything but forgotten. These are what paint the surface of English photographer Jim Mortram’s images. But as you get sucked beyond the haunting black and whites, what’s revealed is the compelling, heart-wrenching, and inspiring plight of the people he photographs. His vision and his works are beyond aesthetics, however exquisite they are, but are aimed to open minds into whole new levels of awareness and empathy for those living outside society’s welcoming arms.
Based in the rural town of Dereham, Norfolk, Mortram is a full-time carer for his mother who suffers from epilepsy. He had to leave university and his pursuit for a degree in painting in order to be there for his family. His duties took him away from the outside world, led to lost connections with people, and created a feeling of isolation and disjointedness from society. Thus in 2006, Mortram started his project, Small Town Inertia, as a means to reconnect with life and perhaps find something for himself beyond his current responsibility.
Ever since he started, Mortram hasn’t gone beyond the three-mile radius of his home, and has kept his work’s focus on individuals residing close to him. He immediately gravitated towards people who shared his feelings of fragmentation from the rest of the world. They range from those suffering some kind of mental illness or physical disability, or victims of violence, or those who have, for one reason or another, fallen into hard times. To him, they are people who in society’s eyes are too irrelevant or too much work to be given notice. As someone with a means to record and share their plight, he has taken it upon himself to help them find a voice, be heard, and be recognised.
And what a work he has done indeed.
Through black and white documentary portraiture and an accompanying narrative, Mortram has captured the essence of the individuals he has photographed. Through his lens they are presented in their raw honesty, evocative, piercing. His images perfectly capture the atmosphere of loneliness, of separation, but not without the air of resilience and fortitude the individuals themselves possess. He shows that in the chaos of their lives, there is hope; in the difficulty there is still, and always will be, dignity.
One example is his series on Tilney1, a man diagnosed with schizophrenia, whose constant struggle to cope with his condition, his medications, and his head has withheld him from a life resembling anything close to normal. Mortram photographs Tilney1 in his home, going through his day to day existence. One photo shows him watching TV, trying to drown out his head with external sounds. One photo shows him sticking his artworks on his wall, his means of release from his demons. One photo shows him sitting at the bus stop, trying his best to shut down and take a break from his constantly screaming thoughts. Through the straightforwardness and simplicity of the photos, Tilney1’s struggle is undeniable. Yet each also shows his constant attempt to beat his condition.
Mortram’s project is filled with tens of series on people similar to Tilney1. There is one on David, an old man who lost his sight in an accident and his battle to deal with not only the isolation blindness gave him, but also with the loss of his elderly mother and only companion’s passing. There is another on Simon, a man who has been trying to forge a life despite his epilepsy. And there is one on The People’s Picnic, a group of individuals who have taken it upon themselves to provide regular meals for the homeless.
Through his visceral and powerful images, Mortram has not only shone the spotlight on people who deserve to be seen, but has also brought other, more able citizens to these individuals’ aid. By raising money for local organisations, foundations, and even something as seemingly small as a SARA scanner for David, Jim Mortram has catalysed a movement towards better acceptance, more sympathy, and bigger support for those who need it most.
Jim Mortram has quoted in one online interview that he doesn’t believe in taking pictures, he believes in making them. Through his work, not only has he created sensitive yet intense images which champion the voiceless, he has actually created a means for society to unify in uplifting and improving itself.
Julia Escano – Shoot The Frame
Photographer: Jim Mortram