Shutter Hub member Natalia González Acosta, a recent Photography graduate from The Cambridge School of Art. Originally from Mexico, she has lived in the UK for the past four years. Natalia’s photographic practice is rooted in social documentary photography, where she explores the abstract concepts of home and cultural identity by focusing on others and their relationship with their environments.
Natalia is fascinated by photography’s capacity to reach an audience and the way its presentation and context affects its interpretation. A priority within her photography is the ethics of representation and the collaborative aspects that surround any project, and this project, New Citizens, demonstrates the connection she makes with the communities she works with.
What is home? And what does one do when it is under the threat of unforeseeable circumstances? How does the culture we reside in shape our identity? What does it mean to be British? Does obtaining a citizenship certificate validate a sense of belonging to the Nation? These are some of the questions I explore with the New Citizens series during a moment of great change in Britain, as it exits the European Union and seeks its new national identity.
New Citizens, my Final Major Project, started in 2019 with a series of interviews to locals in which I gathered different views towards Brexit in an attempt to understand what being British means – which I found impossible to define. This idea developed as I began focusing on foreigners that made of Britain their home and intrinsically saw Brexit as a threat. This is because, since the referendum in 2016, Brexit has caused an unstated uncertainty across the nation which resulted in a significant increase in applications for British citizenship. Foreigners that have called the UK ‘home’ for a significant number of years suddenly faced the possibility of abandoning their lives and loved ones unless the became British.
Therefore, New Citizens, captures through a documentary photography approach, the lives of Martin, from the Czech Republic, Isabela from Romania, Humberto from Colombia and Adam from Greece, who recently took the Life in the UK Test and are now British citizens. I met the participants at the City Council in their Citizenship Ceremonies and after introducing myself and the project, they were interested in taking part and sharing their stories. I went to their homes and before any photographs were taken, I made clear my intentions with the project and the way their images would be used. We got into very personal conversations and found myself sharing more than I intended to, but this only helped them to equally open up with their thoughts and experiences not only about the citizenship test but also about being a foreigner in Britain.
Only after these conversations took place, and we felt comfortable with each other, we began to create the photographs. The sessions took place from October 2019 to February 2020 with a medium format film camera (Mamiya RZ67). The slow set up of the camera and way of working with film caused a reaction and further engagement with each participant. We principally focused on creating portraits in their homes but also places of significance that make them feel at home. i.e. Martin’s hobby is flying and the place he feels most comfortable at is the old cabin in his airfield of choice. I intended to capture the connection to their environments and, question if this bond is enhanced by the rigorous process of acquiring British citizenship in a moment of uncertainty. This particular project gave me the opportunity to cherish and reflect on the relationship between photographer and sitter, which is special and such a difficult thing to define.
Additionally, all participants responded in their first languages to the question: ‘What does taking the Life in the UK Test and becoming a British citizen mean to you?’. This way, by reflecting on their relationship with the UK, it is possible to establish a link between citizenship and identity. These are very complex concepts, however, they are shaped by the world around us and the way we respond to it. Moreover, the series creates a distinctive connection between all participants by photographing the place where they officially became British, as I was invited to a Citizenship Ceremony and was allowed to photograph the Council Chambers. I had never previously attended one, but was surprised by the formality! There were strict instructions that both new citizens and the audience needed to follow and it was all incredibly organised.
As a foreigner living in the UK, I am naturally interested in other foreigners that have had to adapt to a new culture and therefore, redefine their meaning of home – perhaps because I have also had to do it and I am curious to see how others have done it. I am eager to meet people that possibly feel the same way as I do, as outsiders from both our home country but also the country that we now call home. Finally, the realisation of the project allowed me to reflect on my future as a foreigner in the UK and showed me that I fit in, to a certain extent.
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