I wonder how many closing blog posts of 2020 will be starting with words like, “What a year it’s been!”
It’s hard to think of a different way to start reflecting on a year like this, but here goes…
What a year it’s been!
And, after yesterday’s news, it seems to be testing us until the very end.
It started off well enough as I geared up for Mission 20, an itinerary of eleven lifeboat stations over some five weeks.
At the time, there were only minor rumblings of some coronavirus thingy and it now seems very odd to look back at the newsletter I sent from Salcombe on 8th March, a missive which contains absolutely no reference to the looming pandemic.
But as I made my way along the coast in that opening week, the severity of the situation was becoming more apparent.
It wasn’t until Plymouth that I, like the rest of the population, would have to start taking it more seriously.
“Are you still thinking of going to the Channel Islands, Jack?” asked Dave Milford, the Plymouth Coxswain.
“The last thing you’d want is to be trapped for weeks offshore away from your family.”
He was right, of course, and it was a statement that really made me pay attention.
By the time I’d photographed the Dart RNLI volunteers — my 150th station on Sunday 15th March — the nation was on tenterhooks as to how things would play out.
The very next day as I queued with Neena for the Lower Ferry to take us across the river to Brixham, Boris Johnson announced the social distancing measures and all our lives changed beyond recognition.
You can read more about it in the blog post I wrote at the time called Hold Fast, but here’s a reminder of the message I recorded before making the 400 mile journey home to Newcastle upon Tyne:
The life of a self-employed creator relies on constant quick-thinking, adaptation and nerves of steel. Little did I know that the weeks and months to follow were about to test those characteristics to the limit.
However, although extremely testing, there have been many positives.
In the first instance, it gave me a much-needed enforced pause after years of seamless work on the project for which I hold so much belief and passion.
In hindsight — after visiting 150 lifeboat stations and photographing some 2500 RNLI volunteers — I feel I must have done 10 years worth of work in those five years.
I regularly looked down the barrel of burnout and, in all honesty, I felt like I was reaching that point again in March.
As it transpired, 2020 would ultimately afford me an opportunity to pause and reflect on my approach to making such an epic body of work, allowing me to reenergise in readiness for the final 88 lifeboat stations — a chapter in the project which will see me travelling the coast in Neena (my treasured mobile darkroom) for a further three years.
This period of reflection has resulted in me making some pretty strong moves, not only to preserve my mental wellbeing but to make better use of my time.
The first and most obvious was deciding to stop posting on Facebook-owned platforms.
Most supported my decision wholeheartedly but many also took the trouble to write to tell me that I am “mad” and “short-sighted” and to ask “if I’d really thought about it.”
Those comments highlighted that it can be difficult for others to perceive what it actually takes to make and share a project like this and how intimately I monitor the mechanics that make it tick.
Six months on, I have absolutely no regrets about that decision and I’m happy to report that the project — and my resolve — is much stronger as a result.
As many of you will know, I could talk for days on this topic. At the risk of bleating on about it too much here, I’ll say just one thing for the moment:
If you’re an independent creator and think that you need to use Instagram and Facebook because that’s what everyone does, I implore you to look long and hard at that approach and think again.
I offer mentoring sessions if you’d like help on your own creative journey.
My second strong move was more recent — the creation of The LSP Society, my very own independent membership platform.
As I explain on the Society’s joining page, after three years of using Patreon to help fund my project, I felt I’d become too reliant on a platform that’s growing increasingly dominant…and expensive!
So, during the lockdown of November 2020 — and in my quest to be independent from that kind of scenario — I worked out how to build my own membership platform, an environment which I feel is much more suited to The Lifeboat Station Project.
When I first announced it on Patreon, I held my breath while awaiting the reaction from my patrons. After all, I was potentially placing a huge proportion of my income in jeopardy but, in my heart of hearts, I felt it was the right thing to do for so many reasons beyond money alone.
It was an immediate success…thank goodness! The feedback was incredible, so I felt comfortable to announce it publicly a few days later and I’m overjoyed that its popularity has continued unabated.
Suffice to say that between those two decisions and actions, I can’t wait to start making new work again with an infinitely sounder foundation for the project when restrictions allow.
The enforced pause has allowed space for new thoughts and influences to enter my brain box too.
It now seems hard to imagine that I’d never heard of Agnès Varda or JR but what a difference they made to my creative trajectory when I saw the film Visages Villages for the first time, a DVD gifted to me by somebody I bumped into on the coast in Northern Ireland.
In short, it all lead to the idea of the With Courage Exhibition and my first installation of a giant poster in North Norfolk:
You can learn all about that in a 10 minute read called Our Corrugated Universe.
As I’ve mentioned before, it’s an exhibition for the people, about the people in times when I believe simplicity, humanity and community spirit are key — a new dimension to the project that would never have happened if it hadn’t been for this period of reflection.
As ever, I could go on but I would like to bring this post — and my work for 2020 — to a close with a special memory from Plymouth, my 149th lifeboat station visit, a single instance that has provided so much fuel to keep me going during these tough times.
After I made Coxswain Dave Milford’s portrait on 10th March aboard the Plymouth lifeboat, we were standing in the back of Neena along with Andy, a friend and patron.
Once we’d managed to lift our gaze from the freshly-made glass plate sloshing in the wash tray, Dave revealed that he’d been looking forward to my visit more than I’d realised.
Thankfully, it had been everything he’d hoped for and more — the cherry on the cake ahead of his retirement last October.
He said that there had been three people that he’d met in his life that he would always remember, memories that he would carry with him for his rocking chair stories.
“Would you like to know who they are?” Dave asked.
“Yes, of course!” I replied.
“The Queen. The brother I never knew I had. And you, Jack.”
I was speechless. And watery-eyed.
The project had been such a rollercoaster to that point and the pandemic hasn’t made it any easier.
But that one sentence is so special to me, neatly encapsulating why it’s so important to keep making this project whatever difficulties I face along the way.
Speaking of which, members of The LSP Society can now find a previously unpublished recording called Rundle’s Rescue on the Members’ Audio page.
On the pebble-strewn shore at Minehead back in 2015, RNLI lifeboat volunteer Chris Rundle spoke to my friend and project assistant Duncan Davis about an extraordinary rescue he conducted in 1975 for which he received the Institution’s Thanks on Vellum.
As you’ll hear, Chris’ account is both modest and humble.
Now there’s just one more thing to say: thank you.
Thank you to all those who’ve followed my journey, whether you’ve stumbled across it recently or when I first started pulling the logistics together in 2014.
Thank you to everyone who’s supported the project, whether accommodating me along the way, buying something from the shop or supporting me as a patron of the project.
Thank you to my wife, family and the amazing friends who take time off work (and away from home) to lend me a hand when they can.
Thank you to one of the most incredible charities on the planet, the RNLI, for allowing me to make this unprecedented and historic archive of your lifeboat stations.
And thank you, as ever, to the thousands of lifeboat volunteers who’ve waited patiently, manoeuvred lifeboats, made countless cups of tea and provided such special memories along the way.
I couldn’t have got this far without any of you. Here’s to continuing the journey as soon as we are all able…
…and remember: with courage, nothing is impossible.
Very best wishes for Christmas and 2021,
Newcastle upon Tyne, 20th December 2020
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