The language of human intimacy and self-knowledge may be among the most difficult subjects to capture photographically, but for Nick Waplington it is the only subject. During the early part of a career that began in the mid1980s, Waplington focused his camera on friends, family and neigh-bours, in a society operating within well-defined codes of behaviour.
His earliest photographs, taken when he went to live with his grandfather on the Broxtoe Estate in Nottingham, were about dignity and communality in a place where small events assumed great magnitude. He discovered that complex ideas about society and culture could be expressed through simple subject matter incorporating small ironies and visual comedies. Ever since then he has used his large-format camera to explore local societies – street life, youth cultures, beach-holiday communities – and to remind us of the unnecessary anxieties of modern life.
In his latest exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, Waplington presents three bodies of work: a series of ten books of photographs found on the internet, a slide show of photographs, You Are Only What You See, again found on the internet, and 50 of his own works displayed in local shops, cafés and-other public venues near the gallery.
“I’m interested in mass communication and in image-sharing,” Waplington says. “I’ve always collected photographs taken by other people. I find them on internet photo-sharing websites. I’ve edited the first group into a series of ten books, each one following the lives of ten imaginary soldiers, looking at their lives at home, preparing for departure or in the theatre of war.” Use of found internet images is still a legal grey area, but Waplington only takes from sites where the photographers have allowed public access and use of their images.
You Are Only What You See shows 1,000 images on rotation, selected from Waplington’s collection of 50,000. Most of these are pictures made by soldiers, male and female, serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and other warzones over the past 20 years. Waplington has strung them together into a two-hour feature-length slide show, accompanied by a live internet feed that pumps out an excruciating string of chatter from a local business-news radio station. The link is, at best, obscure.
“It’s comical to listen to for a while. I want people to sit back, look and let go. The juxtaposition of images is such that people will have to find their own interpretation,” he says There are images from tours of duty, of loved ones left behind, of moments of rest between training. And dotted in among them are pictures of claustrophobic parties, of gauche youngsters defined more by their eyeliner than anything else, indulging in drink and drugs, posing with bad food and bad skin.
Perspectives are abrupt, compositions are disorganised and juxtapositions incongruous. And the food! For six seconds we are treated to the sight of a girl biting into what looks like a sandwich of melted chocolate and cotton wool. Close on her heels come foul nuclear drinks, greasy burgers, limp and oozing pastries. If our soldiers are what they eat, all is most certainly lost.
There is no personal storyline, no conventional beginning, middle or end to this narrative. The images slither past in an arc that is supported – only just – by loose sections: soldiers in deserts, tanks, guns and flags, barbed wire, the scenery of home, the girlfriends left behind, the drunken parties, the stupid drug taking. The idea is that each one gains some meaning through the cumulative effect and that the sequential format should possess an immediacy and an ephemerality to mirror the quick intense moments caught by these anonymous photographers. Together, perhaps, they carry a message about life and loss, a momentum that moves inexorably towards some generalised dark conclusion. But, personally, I could never sit through two hours of this without sliding into the land of Nod.
Waplington’s own work is much more interesting, hung in local café, bars, pubs, a halal butcher, video store, bagel shop and a music hall. “The Whitechapel has a remit to serve the local community, so I thought it was a good opportunity to reach a wider audience this way. Some are difficult to find in among the wall posters and other notices. The idea is to hunt them down.” The photographs depict everyday scenes, the streets of East London, beach holidays, urban landscapes. He uses light, form and atmosphere to evoke ambiguity, and so creates a sense of illusion even while documenting the real world.