Amanda Hodges talks to Surrey-based photographer Andrew Shaylor about his project The Dorkinians, a unique portrait of the people of Dorking
The Dorkinians is an extraordinary montage, a photographic tableau that oozes vibrancy. Composed of 119 images of 200 people (a representative 1% of Dorking’s estimated 20,000 population), it presents a stunning bird’s-eye portrait of the town today, and offers an intriguing glimpse into the lives of some of its diverse inhabitants.
The brainchild of photographer Andrew Shaylor, a Dorking resident for more than 20 years, the project grew after a friend asked him to provide some “interesting artwork” to adorn the walls of his company, Mole Valley Asset Management, which is based in Dorking.
Reflecting on his friend’s request Andrew explains: “Specifically he wanted an image that said something about the community, and I guess it was about a year from the conception to the picture hanging on the wall.”
Andrew had been mulling over the idea of creating a portfolio of portraits for some time, and the commission reinforced the idea of producing something to establish what life in Dorking was really like.
“I wanted to collect enough portraits to offer a fair, diverse and honest representation of the people who either lived, worked, visited or had some reason to be involved in the town, and I wanted to make sure I learned something about Dorking, something different,” he says.
Thinking of how he would compose his piece, Andrew was determined to be fluid in his overall approach. “I tried not to be prescriptive. I wanted it to be a picture of the town as it was when I first moved here. I found out that Dorking per capita had the oldest population in the country – slightly depressing for a then 30-year-old,” he laughs. “It’s a middle-class town, what many would perhaps perceive as an archetypal example of Middle England, and yet I knew a few people who didn’t fit that bill so I really wanted to go and investigate.”
Finding potential subjects actually proved relatively easy and the response was generally encouraging. “When I talked to people who were Dorking people, they suggested others which was useful. The majority of those I photographed were people new to me. Some were recommendations, a few I knew and a few I just walked up to and asked if they would like to take part. Nearly everyone said yes. They were all very different,” he adds.
And much to Andrew’s joy and relief, the project has been very warmly received. “The people who took part in it thought it was a good idea and the finished montage went up in Dorking Halls and the Museum over a period of weeks. It was all positive and people mentioned the idea of community which is sometimes something people don’t generally talk about.”
And the completed project certainly shows the benefits of Andrew’s measured perspective. Diversity is indeed its keyword as its disparate subjects encompass every segment of the local community: from young children to senior citizens; people photographed at home, at school and at work; pensive solo portraits sharing space with group images teeming with life.
“I photographed some who had lived in the town all their lives. I photographed a two-day-old baby boy, and I photographed a clown who was visiting Dorking for a few days with the circus.”
As well as covering a wide cross-section of locals, Andrew also included “pillars of the community” and “the places where community resides”.
To this end he approached churches, supermarkets, scout groups and public places and institutions. Local landmarks such as St Martin’s Church and the Dorking War Memorial were also represented. From martial arts to motorcycles, the local Rotary Club to the Dorking Drama and Operatic Society, The Dorkinians offers a truly comprehensive and stimulatingly eclectic portrait of a vibrant town nestled at the very heart of the Surrey Hills.
The success of the whole venture, as well as being a memorable pictorial chronicle (with tentative hopes of the portraits being compiled into book form one day), The Dorkinians also possesses touches of wry humour too – there’s even a picture of a local cockerel featured, paying witty tribute to the five-clawed Dorking fowl for which the local market was famous and which nowadays is a symbol of the town.
As his project progressed from its embryonic form into its current incarnation, Andrew began considering how topography so often profoundly influences individuals and decided to reflect this in his final montage online – the picture itself being composed entirely of portraits.
“I think the geography of the area often defines people,” Andrew says. “The landscape and fossils were shot to embellish the website and to add a sense of where these people live. The fossils [from the town museum] were shot because they too were residents of Dorking in a way, albeit a very long time ago.”
The success of the whole venture has subsequently led to many people suggesting to Andrew that he repeat his photographic feat in other local towns. But as appealing as this may seem, it isn’t he thinks, a truly viable proposition, “simply because I feel you need to live in a town for a long period of time to really establish a feeling for that place,” he explains. “I could be carrying on with this for the rest of my life but I made the decision not to.
“Being a resident lends a different and deeper dimension to the photographic process and without intimate knowledge of the area,the connection with those I photograph would be completely different. Shooting The Dorkinians was based around a common or mutual idea of the town and shared experiences. And I assume that those I photographed didn’t feel that they were being photographed by a stranger.”
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