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Tom Illsley- There's No Herons Today

May 1, 2018

Illsley’s submitted series Meridian was a beautiful piece to have featured in Issue #3 of Untitled Collective. A record of a geographical journey, investigating environments, the series also recieved the Genesis Imaging Bursary award. Illsley sees himself as a documentary photography, predominantly working with geographical themes. 


Birmingham Airport (IATA: BHX, ICAO: EGBB) is an international airport located 5.5 nautical miles east southeast of Birmingham city centre, at Bickenhill in Solihull, England. The airport is a base for Flybe, Monarch, Ryanair, Thomas Cook Airlines and Thomson Airways. It offers both domestic flights within the UK, and international flights to destinations in Europe, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, North America and the Caribbean. Passenger footfall throughout 2015 was over 10.1 million, making Birmingham the seventh busiest UK airport.  There are curently plans for a second runway and a new terminal complex at the site. 


“Birmingham Airport receives thousands of international passengers every day. These visitors travel to and from the four corners of the globe, flying over the surrounding area without ever being able to intricately see the beauty of the landscape below. 


This series of images focusses on the space surrounding Birmingham Airport and works to make the landscape and its history visible to these travellers that frequent to sky above. It highlights the communities who inhabit the perimeter and live under the flightpaths. Figures from Birmingham Airport show that 8 million people live within one hours drive of the airport, but less than 40% of them use it. 


Despite the airport and The NEC now dominating the physical and psychological landscape; you can get a sense of the green corridors or pockets corridors around the airport when flying in and out.  These older natural habitats and those of the urban developments now sit side by side, and are homes for people, flora and fauna which are invisible to the travellers. 


The work is also an exploration of my strong and fond personal connections to this area, particularly Sheldon Country Park and the RW15 Viewing Area; where I spent much of my childhood laying on my back watching the planes come in to land and take off with my Grandmother.”


The work counters the impressions of areas such as Marston Green, widely considered an area of deprivation and deterioration but one with many hidden beauties; in spaces such as Hatchford Brook, isolating an 18-hole golf course between the airport and its flowing water. I consider these photographs to be a truthful representation of this periphery, displaying how the land is viewed, used and mediated.”



What have you been working on since graduating in 2015; and what are your motivations for making new work? 


Since graduating I’ve been starting new work and continuing with on-going projects. I’ve recently got back from Northern Ireland where I made more images for my Meridian series in which I document geographical centre points. I’ve also got a few projects in the pipeline; most of them are long form, as that seems to be how I work best.



You were awarded the Genesis Imaging Student Award in 2015 – how exactly did it help you?


On the face of it, the Genesis Bursary awarded me with the opportunity to expand on the body of work I created in the final year of my BA at Nottingham Trent, Meridian. The expansion of this work would then form my first solo exhibition one year later. Genesis also covered the production costs and provided mentoring throughout this one-year period. On top of this opportunity I have built a unique relationship with the team at Genesis Imaging and more specifically Mark Foxwell. He has been of great help and guidance; not just with this work but also in providing me with insight, networking and other opportunities. 



Many of our readers are students and recent graduates, what advice would you give to help them achieve awards such as Genesis Imaging Student Award? 


Think about the long term and don’t stop. If I could say something to my student self it would be to take as many opportunities as possible whilst within the framework of a university. Once you leave, although you’ll be alumni and “part of the family”, you won’t have the ease of access to darkrooms, equipment, studios and most importantly the support of the tutors and technicians. Luckily for me, as a graduate I had a pretty full on year to shoot more work and prepare for my exhibition; the drive towards this has kept me motivated since leaving university.



Do you think that it is harder to find opportunities as a graduate or that being a student was particularly beneficial to finding experiences and opportunities? 


It’s most definitely harder as a graduate, when I was a student I was in an environment where opportunities were shared between my peers and also a lot of open calls were free to students. Luckily there are platforms like Untitled Collective and Photograd that help maintain this community of creative and graduates.



How did you decide on the title There’s No Herons Today?


For quite a while there was no working title; but one foggy day when I was walking around the perimeter of the airport in an area with dense grass and foliage, out of nowhere a distant voice shouted towards me “There’s no herons today, I haven’t seen any for a few days now”. On this particular day I could hardly see any of the planes coming in to and or take off, I could just hear them. His statement really resonated with the work I was making. 



You mention that you spent a lot of your childhood in this area; did this automatically draw you to photographing and recording the area?


I wouldn’t say it automatically drew me to the area, it helped in the fact that I had a familiarity to it and knew where I was, but on the whole I explored more of the airport now than when I was little. The image that brings back the fondest memories is the one of the child with his Grandfather at the viewing area. I spent hours sat on those same benches and lying on the same ground there watching planes for hours coming in to land and take of with my Grandma. It’s where I saw Concorde for the first and last time.



Your work has a very consistent feel throughout, have you always been focused on documentary landscape photography?


For the past 4 or so years I’ve found myself gravitating towards landscape photography and in particular the nuances and banality of the British landscape. I like to implement the notions of the dérive and the flâneur, I drift around the landscape documenting elements that I find interesting and have a momentary attachment to. This is most prominent in Meridian and since making that work I like to work with these same ideals. There’s something quite humbling about allowing my work to be guided by my eyes, rather than an agenda. 





Website: www.tomillsley.com

Twitter: @tomillsley

Instagram: @tomillsley

Facebook: @tomillsleyphoto

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