Folk Horror Revival is pleased to have put a few questions to accomplished photographer Sara Hannant …
Folk Horror Revival: Hi Sara, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. Firstly, could you tell our readers a little about yourself, your inspirations and how you came to become a photographer?
Sara Hannant: Photographs can transport you to other times and places. That capacity for reverie and storytelling has always fascinated me. When I first started making pictures, I wanted to tell stories about people or experiences that I felt had previously been misrepresented. I initiated collaborative portraiture projects so that the people I photographed actively contributed to making the image. While I was an art student at Dartington College of Arts, I worked with Gypsies and Travellers to portray their daily life, which was very different from how they were shown in the local press. The exhibition Pictures of Ourselves was shown at Plymouth Arts Centre alongside Gypsies by the Magnum photographer Joseph Koudelka. Seeing the emotional power of Koudelka’s work prompted me to study documentary photography at Newport College of Art. After completing the course, I worked as a professional photographer for national papers and magazines, and charities in the UK and abroad, mainly on commissions about social issues. Through experimental approaches, I continue to investigate how the photographic image can alter the perception and reception of subjects that are misunderstood or overlooked.
Abbots Bromley Horn Dancers, Staffordshire
FHR: Your book Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids: A Journey Through the Ritual Year is a thorough and intriguing photo essay of traditional / contemporary English festivals and ceremonies. How did this book arise and were there any rites and rituals that particularly struck a personal chord with you?
SH: Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids: A Journey Through the Ritual Year started with a chance encounter in 2006 with Deptford Jack in the Green. This discovery instigated my country-wide search for similar seasonal rites occurring through the wheel of the year. I became interested in rituals which claim an ancient origin as well as those which are re-imagined or re-invented. I am particularly fond of the fire festivals which light up the dark midwinter nights such as those at Ottery St Mary, Allendale and Lewes. I also love the way the summer is welcomed in with performances of the Hal-an-tow in Helston Cornwall. I aimed to capture the excitement and mystery of seasonal rites while celebrating the enduring social relevance of these popular customs for rural and urban communities. I am delighted that Merrell published the book and the Horniman Museum showed the exhibition for nearly a year and subsequently toured the show. It is the first British ethnographic exhibition that the museum has shown and the first to normalise representations of Paganism as part of English society.
Burning effigies of David Cameron and Nick Clegg, Cliffe Bonfire Society, Lewes, Sussex
FHR: Are there any other festivals or rituals from anywhere around the world you would especially like to capture and perhaps produce a book upon?
SH: Before Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids: A Journey Through the Ritual Year, I had documented community festivals in Mexico, India and Prague and felt it was time to explore the rich folklore closer to home. There are many more contemporary British folkloric practices I would like to photograph. I had thought of extending Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids: A Journey Through the Ritual Year to produce subsequent books that explore seasonal rites in the rest of the UK and I have made a start on this.
Baphomet, Museum of Witchcraft and Magic
FHR: Another of your books Of Shadows captures One Hundred Objects from the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic contains some very beguiling objects and artefacts; which are your personal favourite pieces from the collection and were there any objects that gave you the creeps or otherwise gave you a particular feeling whilst in their presence?
SH: Yes, the museum is full of enchanted objects some of which appear to have an intense presence, especially at night. However, all of the artefacts in the museum have a resonance whether it’s because of their original magical use, the intentions bound into their making or the undeniable materiality of magical belief. There were times when this potency felt palpable, particularly with objects once used in rituals or to represent ritual practice such as Baphomet/Old Horny. The objects made to harness natural or spirit forces were captivating and often embodied ancient knowledge. One of my favourite pieces is an example of the knot magic used by local witches when ‘Selling the wind’ to sailors. The implements of torture used during the Witch Trials gave me the creeps!
Skull used for Ritual Magic, Museum of Witchcraft and Magic
FHR: The format and style taken in Of Shadows is very effective. It gives the items a presence as if their portraits and biographies are granted rather than simply catalogued. Are there any other museum or gallery collections you would like to similarly present?
SH: Thank you, I felt privileged to engage with the magical objects and their hidden histories. Several collections fascinate me including those at the Horniman, Petrie and Cuming Museums. Once objects are removed from their original context, it is a challenge to rekindle some of their original properties. I enjoy responding to those traces of energy which remain in the material.
FHR: On your website you have some other beautiful and bewitching albums. Numinous is very well named as the images have a certain unearthly, spiritual allure whilst Ladybird, ladybird and Cinderella: Your House is on Fire combine nostalgia with the somewhat sinister and visually seductive encroachment of flames. Could you tell us more about the inspiration behind these images?
SH: Both of these projects reveal the process by which one thing, through intention, becomes another. Numinous is inspired by healing rituals at sacred wells in Cornwall. The images are deliberately ambiguous and explore magical belief and transformation. In folklore, a strip of cloth or ‘cloutie’ is torn from a person’s garment, dipped into the well then hung on a nearby tree. As it falls to the earth and rots, it is believed the illness will disappear. The cloths are said to connect to the divine power or spirits thought to inhabit the sacred place. Unfortunately, some people leave fabrics that will not biodegrade, and the Cornish Ancient Sites Protection Network consequently removes the offerings. I have re-animated these discarded cloths using natural forces in keeping with the folk magic, symbolised by the classical elements.
Cinderella: Your House is on Fire and Ladybird, ladybird question the agency of the persecuted heroine in fairy tales. On rediscovering my childhood copy of Cinderella, I felt compelled to revise the stereotyped images of the female protagonist to tell a different story. Fire—a symbol of hearth and home, destruction, trial, purging, and purification seemed like the ideal agent for change. As the pages burn, images and text are revealed or juxtaposed, re-visioning old stereotypes to enable new ideas and narratives.
FHR: Finally, could you tell us any other photographers and artists whose work inspires or speaks to you? Also, what are you currently working on and what projects do you have planned or are considering for the future?
SH: I admire many photographers and artists from a variety of genres. Research into other disciplines such as history, folklore and magic also inform and inspire my practice. I am currently working on a book Touching Witchcraft and Sorcery with the folklorist Jeremy Harte. We have gone into the archives, into the forgotten places, to catch stories of witchcraft in tale and image. My work is included in two upcoming exhibitions at Gallery Valid Foto in Madrid from May 8-25th Women Photographer’s Now: 12th Julia Margaret Cameron Award and the 12th Pollux Award. In July, I will be showing a Moon inspired exhibition at Charlton House in London as part of the Moon Festival which coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Moon Landing.
The Fool, Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, Staffordshire
All Photography © Sara Hannant