At a time when many people are trying to steer clear of politics, a Shaftesbury woman is tomorrow heading to Westminster to take part in an exhibition of MP portraits.
Photographer Bella West was invited to join 208 fellow female photographers, who were each asked to photograph one of the 209 female Members of Parliament. But as ThisIsAlfred’s Keri Jones discovered, Bella had to travel to Cornwall to snap her subject.
As I entered Bella West’s studio, upstairs in the Trinity Centre, I was immediately impressed by her display of stunning images decorating the wall space. Whilst many local photographers focus on the Shaftesbury area’s green slopes, woodlands or chalk uplands, Bella’s skill is capturing the human spirit through her portraits. “My dog walks are wonderful and I take my phone with me in case I need to grab a shot, but I don’t have the patience to be a landscape photographer,” said Bella.
You might think that scenery was an easier subject than people. Not according to Bella. “When I am working with children, it is all very fast and I like to work on the hoof. I am not one to sit for hours, waiting for something to happen,” she said.
Bella’s work, mounted on the walls of this former church, is mainly black and white images. She seems to favour this type of photography. “I am quite biased. I do shoot everything in colour as a backup, but more often I choose black and white,” said Bella. “I think it has a more classical element. I like good documentary and good classical photography. That combination works really well in black and white. It can be quite forgiving and it adds a graphic element. It does depend on the picture. Sometimes I will have a vision for a black and white shot and I will see the colour version and think that the colour works much better.”
As a non-photographer I always think that black and white images look ‘artier’. I asked Bella whether she felt this was the case. “If it is out of focus, make it in black and white and it is art,” Bella laughed, adding, “Don’t tell anyone.” She paused, becoming serious again. “It does have a more creative element visually in black and white.”
Photography experts will recognise Bella’s style from the way she composes her pictures. “You could have a fairly bland background but if the light is wonderful then the composition is what makes it even stronger. I always try to add space or create some kind of narrative using the location within my composition,” Bella explained.
Bella had been a photographer for five years when she moved to Shaftesbury, 25 years ago. She told me that she loves the town but her work frequently takes her far from home. “I got my fellowship with the British Institute of Professional Photography eight years ago. Since then, doors opened and my work has taken me all over the world. I lecture. I work abroad but I like being local and working with local people. They are my bread-and-butter essentially.”
I had assumed that Bella’s reputation would mean that people now approach Bella with work. She says that’s not always the case, though. “I have had a really great career and I’ve been really lucky but I still have to work really hard at marketing, like everybody does. The minute you rest on your laurels then things slow down. You have to keep bringing out new work and showing people your art. It never stops, no matter how successful you become in whichever industry, you still have to keep at it,” Bella advised.
As part of her latest project, Bella was invited to photograph a female MP for the ‘209 Women’ exhibition, marking the centenary of women gaining the vote. The project’s second aim is to highlight the on-going need for further gender equality across society.
“They assigned 209 female photographers to 209 female MPs. The exhibition starts tomorrow and runs through until February. It’s going to be outstanding, I think, because there is such a huge variation in talent. The brief was not for a particular style. We could all do what we wanted. There are documentary photographers, commercial and advertising photographers, fine-art photographers. They are all creating their own thing.”
As some MPs can be quite image-conscious, I wondered whether Bella had been given ground rules to adhere to? “It was really important that we had a brief and discussed what we wanted to do with the photograph. The project itself did not give any strong guidelines because they wanted you to do your own thing. But I felt it was important, out of respect, to discuss ideas and see how out-of-the-box you wanted to be with the MP,” said Bella. “It depended on who you were assigned. Some MPs were more flamboyant the others. We had to discuss it with them.”
Bella had to travel to Cornwall to meet and photograph her subject. “Because there are no female MPs in Dorset, I chose Sarah Newton, who is based in Truro and Falmouth. I tend to commute to Cornwall quite a lot. It’s my second home so my natural thought was to choose Sarah. I asked whether there were any locations significant to her life and she came back with Wheal Cotes tin mine. It’s an incredible ruined tin mine which is derelict but the main structure of the building is still there. It’s right on the cliff edge near St Agnes. She chose it because she had relatives who worked there.”
Were there any household name MPs that Bella could have chosen? “All of the household ones had gone. Theresa May had gone. It didn’t matter. I wasn’t interested in photographing somebody who was high key,” said Bella.
So would Bella have been concerned if she had been allocated an MP who articulated views that offended her? “I think as a photographer you have to go into a project and do it to your best ability. Unless I felt incredibly strong about it, personal thoughts would not have stopped me from photographing somebody.”
We laughed as we discussed the power that the lens could yield for the photographer. “You could make someone look really horrible, couldn’t you?” I joked. “Yes,” Bella laughed. But Bella has, instead, created a beautiful image of the Cornish MP. “My portrait of Sarah is fairly relaxed. It’s relevant to her and it’s in colour, which is unusual for me.”
And whilst we were discussing taking pictures of people in the public eye, is there was a well-known person Bella would like to work with? “Iggy Pop has an amazing look about him. He would be fabulous,” Bella said, although she added that she is more interested in situations than celebrities. In fact, the work that Bella is most proud of presented a personal challenge because of its location. Bella spent ten days in Rwanda with North Dorset charity Msaada, which is operated by Gillingham-based Billy Kelly.
“I wanted to test myself in a completely different genre, to see how I would cope emotionally and creatively in a situation that was quite highly charged. When I came away from there I was really happy with what I did because I knew that I had something else I could work with, in a different arena, and apply my style to it. Those images were very emotive but they also had my signature style on them,” Bella said.
As I was talking with a renowned and respected photographer I had to ask what advice Bella could offer to aspiring photographers who also hoped to find success with their art. “Develop your style, learn your trade and learn about light. Try not to be too clever, too soon. It’s not all about the bells and whistles of filters and things like that. If you learn about light and location, mood and narrative, then that is the foundation. From there you can develop and think out-of-the-box a little bit more. Break the rules once you’ve learned them.”
The 209 Women exhibition, featuring Bella’s portrait of Sarah Newton, is being displayed at Portcullis House, Westminster from 14th December to 14th February 2019. You can view Bella’s work at BellaWest.co.uk.