“I never embarked in any one thing to which I have so entirely devoted myself, and to which I have devoted so much time, thought, and labour, and on the success of which I have staked so much reputation, and to which I have so largely committed myself and those who were disposed to place faith in me.” — Isambard Kingdom Brunel
This weekend is the 5th anniversary of The Lifeboat Station Project, my 8 year journey photographing all 238 RNLI lifeboat stations using Victorian photographic methods.
To date, over 2500 volunteers at 147 lifeboat stations have been immortalised on my handmade 12×10 inch glass plates and it’s taken 35,000 miles of driving in Neena (my treasured mobile darkroom) to reach all those incredible people.
I do just about everything myself: the planning, driving, photography, sound recording, social media, website management, scanning, printing, packaging, plate varnishing, archiving, Post Office runs, vacuuming, washing up…you get the idea.
I receive occasional help from a dedicated pool of friends who join me on the coast when they can — you may have met some of them along the way. They’re magnificent people and I’ll always be eternally grateful for the help they’ve given me.
And, of course, my wife Kath provides untold emotional fortitude and affirmation, the oxygen required by an artist to simply keep going.
So, as well as being flattered, it made me chuckle when I discovered I’d won an award for my efforts from the Maritime Foundation in October 2018. The organisers said that they’d reserved a whole table for me and my staff.
When they realised the situation, they sat me at a table with some other nominees. Tee hee.
With all that in mind, how can I — or anybody — possibly sum up the hundreds of interactions and experiences from the last 5 years in one blog post? In truth, it’s impossible.
You see, the project isn’t just about the photographs and sound recordings. It’s about the time I spend with the lifeboat volunteers and the people I meet along the way.
It’s about the travelling, conversation, concentration, patience and cooperation; the ups, the downs, the laughs, the cuppas and meals; the energy and the tiredness.
Ultimately, I feel the project boils down to trust, engagement, joy and unity.
In this tempestuous world, we’re making our very own good news story and these are the key ingredients that go into making the final photographs.
Without them, the photographs would be nothing. At best, they’d be distinctly average.
Although it’s a tricky task to surmise my journey in a blog post, it is possible to relay some of the magical elements.
For example, this week the RNLI have successfully encapsulated much of the flavour into this one minute video, an updated version of the one they kindly made for the halfway point in 2018:
I’ve always loved this 5 minute film by Pete Naylor too, which has been shortlisted for various awards since its release in 2017:
From the outset, I’ve aimed to make the project as inclusive and accessible as possible. Indeed, the remit of the final book and exhibition is to include every single one of the 238 RNLI lifeboat stations that I’ve photographed over the 8 year period.
So, I almost have a fear of excluding people when I’m writing about it — slightly ridiculous but from a position of heartfelt good intention.
If I showcase some glass plates on this 5th anniversary, I don’t want anybody to think they’re preferred over and above any others.
For a taste of the daunting prospect, here’s a grid that I posted on my social media channels last month.
It depicts each of the 140 glass plate photographs — ambrotypes — that I made in 2019.
Featuring 29 lifeboat stations and 515 lifeboat volunteers, this isn’t the whole project so far — it’s 20% of it!
So, I’ve come up with a plan…
Below, you’ll find the very first plate I made on the project — the view from Southwold lifeboat station on 12th January 2015 — followed by the very latest plate, a portrait of the four volunteer Helmsmen of Stranraer on 28th September 2019:
The rest of the entire project to date has happened between these two photographs!
Rather than showcasing any more here, I invite you to while away an hour or two in the Galleries:
THE PROJECT’S EVOLUTION
I’d like to touch on an aspect of the project that I simply hadn’t anticipated.
Earlier on, I mentioned unity and engagement. Although it seems obvious to say it now, I’ve come to realise that those two words are vital to the success of a project.
When I came up with the idea in 2012, I was in a very photographic mindset.
It’s a classic approach by photographers: we invariably want to make the work, then have an exhibition and sell limited edition prints and books of the images. A simple formula that’s served many people well, but it could also be perceived as being quite staid and limiting.
That was certainly my approach five years ago and I soon realised that I was backing myself into a corner.
My intention was to make photographs that were so beautiful that people would fall over themselves to buy prints of them and that would form the basis of the project’s funding.
My approach did work. But only to a point.
I realised that many felt excluded because they simply couldn’t afford or didn’t want to buy a luxurious, premium product such as a limited edition print.
So I listened and introduced posters and postcards. They sold really well.
In those moments, I realised that there aren’t actually any rules. I didn’t have to stick to the exhibition/book/prints formula.
My mind really opened. I started offering mugs and even clothing! But the turning point was this wee item, the With Courage keyring, which I introduced at the end of 2016:
It was a great success. Carrying the words of the RNLI’s founder, it tapped right into the heart of what this project is about.
Then a lifeboat volunteer from Cardigan sent me this photograph of the keyring attached to his emergency pager…
I posted it online and this happened — over a hundred lifeboat volunteers sent me photographs of their keyring attached to pagers…
Now that’s a level of unity and engagement that I could never have envisaged and it all came about through listening, thinking and spreading my wings.
I love that people feel they can access the project on all kinds of levels and on their own terms.
Even three years down the line, the 5th anniversary keyring that I introduced last month sold out in just a few hours:
But you can’t fund a huge project like this on keyring and mug sales alone.
Print sales form the foundation of the project’s funding and I feel acutely aware that it’s no mean feat to be able to write those words.
But even that hasn’t been enough to fund the demands of the project and provide me and my family with a sustainable living.
Fast forward two years and I’m proud beyond words that over 200 of my followers have taken the extra step of paying a monthly amount towards the creation of the project, enabling me to carry on after those difficult times.
Not only that, but we’ve built up a special relationship. I really feel they’re rooting for me and they can help me think things through.
I first sat down to write this post yesterday morning but I couldn’t do it because I felt a little overcome with the stature of the occasion.
Instead, I wrote a post to my patrons and explained how I was feeling.
As I worked it through, I realised that I’m now thinking about this journey in a very different way to when I started on that stormy January morning five years ago.
The Lifeboat Station Project really has become my life’s work and my life’s story.
A REAL JOB?
I received so much overwhelming support after revealing my difficulties in 2017.
I received mixed reactions too.
In 2017, somebody asked me a question that will stick with me forever:
“If it’s so difficult, why don’t you get yourself a real job?”
As no doubt intended, it was thoughtless, unkind and hurtful.
But I soon got over it when I understood something else that has materialised on this big ol’ journey o’ mine:
After spending time with over 2500 volunteers at all those stations, I couldn’t imagine a more real job if I tried.
Thank you to everyone who’s supported the project so far, especially the lifeboat volunteers — without your patience and cooperation, this project wouldn’t exist.
Here’s to the next 3 years and 91 lifeboat stations. I hope you’ll follow the rest of the journey and, who knows, maybe I’ll see you along the way…
BECOME A SUPPORTER
If you’d like to learn about all the other ways you can help to fund the project, here’s the page you need including a new way to contribute monthly…and where you can even simply buy me a pint:
On my Patreon page, I’m aiming to reach my goal of 238 patrons — equivalent to the number of lifeboat stations on my journey…
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
In the mood for learning more? I answer some frequently asked questions here:
Jack with camera at Dungeness lifeboat station by Dominic Vacher
Jack with First Sea Lord Philip Jones courtesy of the Maritime Foundation