Image © Jim Mortram.
For the past three years, Jim Mortram has been photographing within the same three-mile radius of his hometown, Dereham in East Anglia. His project, Small Town Inertia, is what he terms a “long-form documentary and environmental portraiture series”, but the relationships he has formed, and the stories he has heard, add up to much more.
Mortram studied fine art but, finding himself increasingly disillusioned by the abstraction favoured by his tutors, slowly turned towards photography. “I’d had an introduction to photography at an early age watching my father, who was always developing negatives and prints,” he says. “I can recall being a young child the first time I saw the alchemy of image-making, and saw an image appear upon a blank piece of paper from nothing. It left a huge impression upon me, those early moments, sights, scents stored to become flashbacks years later.”
Even so, it was only when Mortram borrowed a camera from a friend four years ago that he began his path towards documentary and portraiture. For his first project he photographed an elderly friend – WH – just weeks before he passed away, and the power of photography in witnessing and memorialising the man had a great impact upon him. “From then on I knew exactly what I intended to do and everything that’s followed since has been a step closer to the simple goal of reflecting and documenting, listening to the lives of those around me.”
Image © Jim Mortram.
This desire has resulted in a collection of compelling portraits from Dereham, each telling individual stories of “isolation, poverty, drug abuse, homelessness, self-harm, mental illness, juvenile crime and epilepsy”. Mortram says that overall these are stories of human endurance in the face of cuts to housing benefits, welfare and healthcare. Initially he found it difficult to approach people he wanted to photograph, but soon found that his passion for shooting took over from his lack of confidence. “I learned instinctively that as long as one is open, honest and passionate, people rarely say no if you ask to make a portrait,” he says. “Dereham is a small town, so I’d bump into the same people I had made street portraits with again and again… Now I have a network of people I can call upon if I have a project in mind, a theme, a story.”
Mortram hopes to consolidate the project into a book, but is in no rush to do so at the expense of the story he wants to tell. “The stories and people involved are too important to me, so keeping a handle on everything and being patient until the time is right is where I’m at right now.”
Mortram is a full-time carer for his mother, and balancing this responsibility with creating work has been difficult, but his motivation only grows stronger. “In a world where everything is transient, fast, a mouse-click and gone, it really means something to me to work long-form on these stories,” he says. “To dedicate the time, build relationships and to share.”
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