Ruth Baldry is a freelance photographer currently based in Bristol. In this story, we visited Ruth at her home in Clifton, then went for a short walk around the tree lined Victoria Square and ended our get-together wandering around the tranquil woodland surrounding Abbots Pool. Ruth talked to us about how she started her journey into photography, about her Invisible Circus project, and how her interest in the life of communities living on the fringes of mainstream society took her to Portugal and led her to create a series of evocative, life-affirming and socially engaged portraits of the people of Tribodar.
Imbued with a rich sense of hope, connection and openness, Ruth’s intimate, evocative and life-affirming portraiture work offers a moving insight into the life of people that chose to swim against the current of conformity and can be seen as the artistic extension of Ruth’s journey of self-discovery and the poetic embodiment of her quest for a more fulfilling and meaningful way of life.
Who is Ruth Baldry? What is your story?
To me right now, I still see myself as not quite a fully-formed human, not just yet. The older I've become, the more I'm constantly aware of the fact that I am always growing and always blossoming. I used to think that there were only a few paths for me, that some people were capable of doing things that I just wasn't capable of but now it's never been clearer to me that I can do anything and become anything I want. And once you make that realisation, you feel almost overwhelmed with the possible paths that lay ahead.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
Perhaps my most vivid childhood memory/memories are my weekly ballet lessons. I found myself simultaneously loving it and clock-watching throughout the whole class. When I look back at that time, I think what a shame it is that I lacked interest and motivation in something that I wish I'd pursued now.
What was the most unusual thing about the place where you grew up?
I grew up in a small village called Liphook in Hampshire. It's difficult to think of something unusual about the place unless the lack of diversity could be considered unusual? The entire county is in its own little bubble, really. It wasn't until I moved away at 16 that I became increasingly aware of the closed-minded nature of the place.
How did your journey into photography begin?
My journey began like many others, with a dodgy digital camera and too much spare time on my hands. As a young teenager, my windowsill was the perfect height to use as a tripod. With the power of self-timer comes powerful (and regrettable) self-portraits of my younger self. I rediscovered the photographs the other day ‒ what I found interesting was that I'd really used my camera as a tool to aid my loneliness. I'd moved to a new home at the age of 16 (a lonely enough age as it is) where I knew nobody and for about two years I felt cripplingly lonely. I will always have a reminder of that boredom/loneliness in the form of a collection of sometimes ridiculous and sometimes beautiful photographs of myself. Since then, I've never really used my camera to take self-portraits but I think that time, for me, was the beginning of my journey.
A large part of your work is portraiture. What do you seek when taking a person’s portrait?
The amount of times I've kicked myself for not asking to take a photograph of an interesting face trumps the amount of times I've kicked myself for not taking a photograph of a landscape or unusual observation. I think what I seek when taking a portrait is having the audience feel as equally as excited as me to see an interesting face. It's the excitement that this experience and this person doesn't have to just be for my eyes, I can share it with the world so that they can experience it too (and maybe enjoy it just as much as me). It's such a strong feeling when you're taking a portrait of somebody and you think to yourself “this is going to be the one, the one that other people are going to love too”.
Tell us about the background of The Invisible Circus project, and how you became interested in the lives of people living on the fringes of the mainstream society.
I started my project on The Invisible Circus in my second year at UWE ‒ our theme was 'intersections', where we were encouraged to approach a social group that was unfamiliar to us. I liked the idea of approaching a circus group because it was always so romanticised, this notion of joining the circus. I was so intrigued by the performers and equally felt so far removed from them and their lifestyle. By this point in my course, I was beginning to recognise that I felt most interested in people/social groups I knew little about, where my knowledge of them would develop alongside the work. I'd previously served a guy called Fluffeee in the supermarket I used to work at, he'd told me about this circus group that he performed with and lived with called The Invisible Circus. I used this university project as an opportunity to get into contact with the troupe. The ringleader, Doug Francis met me and gave me some background information on The Invisibles and how they formed. Where the real foundations of The Invisibles were formed was in The Island, formerly known as the old police/fire station. The group both squatted and performed together in the space ‒ it was at The Island where the Carny Village was born. Carny Village was an immersive experience, where entire buildings and storylines were designed and built. There would be 200 performers all creating an entirely new form of circus! Since then, members of the group have moved to areas in and around Bristol. The majority of the group live in alternative homes, ranging from police cells to showman wagons to caravans. Doug suggested that I visit these homes and take portraits of the performers 'behind the curtain' and it was from this point that I became so interested in people on the fringes of mainstream society.
What was the most important lesson you’ve learned about yourself at the end of this project?
I think the most important lesson I learnt is that if you are curious about something, it is worth digging deeper. Now, when I see someone post something online about the mobile home that they and their partner have been working on, I contact them and express an interest in seeing the place and taking some photographs. I like to set photographic projects that will create beautiful images and benefit my life in some way. By contacting the couple working on their mobile home, I may get some beautiful images and I may learn something invaluable about building my own mobile home.
How did the Tribodar series come about? Tell us more about your experience with this earth friendly community project in Portugal.
The Tribodar project was born out of the opportunity to be awarded a bursary by UWE. The Peter Adams Travel Bursary is in honour of travel photographer Peter Adams who sadly passed away. His truly wonderful and inspiring wife, Suze, set the bursary up as an opportunity for recently graduated photographers to pursue a project abroad. I wanted to loosely continue from The Invisible Circus project, it had really influenced my interest in sustainable living and I wanted to educate myself more. Portugal is ranked number 7 of the most environmentally-friendly countries in the world. The Southern European country has become increasingly popular for hosting eco-communities. I wanted this project to be educational both for me and for the project's audience. I travelled out to Portugal with little idea of what exactly I was going to photograph which made the trip all the more exciting. I wanted the people I met and the experiences I had along the way to guide where I'd take the series to. I met some beautiful, inspiring people during my month at Tribodar (all of which are featured in the photographs).
What do you love the most about shooting on medium format and what camera would you recommend to someone wanting to venture into medium format photography?
Before I started shooting on medium format, I was very trigger happy. The eagerness overtook the importance of patience and consideration. When I looked back at the photographs, there would often be silly composition slip-ups that could have been avoided had I taken my time. You don't really have any choice BUT to consider your shot more with the Mamiya RZ67 which was exactly what I needed. For me, the results from shooting on medium format are so much sharper and richer. So much so that it can make a boring photograph look a little beautiful. And so when you're about to shoot a photograph that you know is beautiful and you know the Mamiya is only going to make it even more beautiful, then it makes the whole process so magical.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
I had a college tutor called Keith Cooper who encouraged me and a few others within our year to pursue photography further. His passion was contagious. When you're 18, or at least when I was 18, I didn't really have a clue what I was doing but Keith's confidence in my ability helped guide me. One piece of his advice, along with so many other pieces of advice, was to just keep making work. And to never be intimidated by others’ abilities. Since Keith sadly passed away, I almost feel as if it's even more important to pursue photography in honour of him.
What trips or photography projects would you love to do in the future?
I have two very important ladies in my life that were also on my photography course, we will often bounce ideas off each other for future projects/collaborations. This is often the source of inspiration for odd little series but when it comes to my 'Tribodar' series, I find inspiration in the prospect of travelling somewhere. Whether it's just a trip away somewhere or living in another country for however many months, I find most of my excitement in the unknown. I'm currently in the process of making plans to get away from the UK at the end of Summer and working out how to link in photography projects with the places I go to. Right now, I would love to travel to South America with my Mamiya RZ and see what happens.
And now a Max Frisch question: What do you need in order to be happy?
The root of my happiness is my small and special network of important people around me, my love for them is the source of my happiness. But even more so, the love for myself is the source of my happiness.
Can you recommend us:
A book: I recently finished 'The God of Small Things' by Arundhati Roy which I can't recommend enough. Years ago when I was traveling around South East Asia I met a girl that was also reading it, we'd sit together and read out the dreamiest lines we came across. I lost my copy on a night train and Nellie kindly gave me her own and it's taken me all this time to finally finish the book. The book itself reads out like one big, long beautiful poem.
A song: I haven't been listening to as much music as I'd like to recently but I'll often have my 'song of the week' that I'll have on repeat throughout the day, every day. This week's song is 'Strange' by Galaxie 500.
A film: I watched 'The Shape of Water' last week in the cinema and thought it was so weirdly wonderful! For those of you that are a fan of Guillermo's 'Pan’s Labyrinth', then please do go see his newest film. You'll also learn some new sign language, I for one have really enjoyed using the sign language for 'egg'.
Thank you, Ruth for the wonderful insight into your personal and creative realm.