‘I’ve always loved ordinary people and invisible people’

He's a familiar figure round Town, quite often in a pork pie hat, and is also seen skilfully documenting events such as Pride, Black Lives Matter, the Guernsey Literary Festival and the Guernsey Photography Festival. In the first of an irregular series of his work, Shaun Shackleton talks to photographer (and fellow Tyke) Paul Chambers...

IT’S funny how you can know someone for 20 years but never really know them.

Paul Chambers and I have met, yacked, joked and exchanged northern anecdotes – mainly in supermarkets for some strange reason – many times over the decades, but it’s only through writing this that I’ve got to properly find out about him.

Paul was born in 1970 and grew up in Kilnhurst, a mining village in South Yorkshire.

‘It was surrounded by collieries,’ he said of his hometown. ‘There were seven working pits there when I was growing up. We used to go out and play on the slag heaps – kids won’t even know what those are these days. By the time I left in 1988, there was none.

‘My dad was a joiner for the council, the first in generations not to be a miner. So when I went to art college no one knew what to think.’

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He studied fine art at Cheltenham.

‘I started off in the studio, but discovered I was colour blind. So I moved from the studio and into the darkroom.’

Having been on family holidays to Guernsey, some time in the early 90s he decided to come and work for a summer season, living en famille.

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‘The person I was living with was the first on the island to buy a wood chipper. So we were out one day and I saw the tree surgeon Marcus Barnes – he was up in a tree. I thought “I want to do that”.’

After studying to be a tree surgeon he worked for Mr Barnes and then went freelance. Because of the housing laws in Guernsey at the time, Paul ended up living at Les Cotils Centre.

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In 2003 he took over from Jurat Mike Tanguy as manager of the centre and in 2009 he became the restorative justice development coordinator for Guernsey.

‘Life changed in the summer of 2016. In a catastrophe of events I ended up in rehab. As I emerged from the cocoon of a centre in South Wales I had to find myself again and rebuild what was left of me around the skeleton frame of who I’d become.

‘Photography became the conduit for change.

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‘I wanted to do something creative. So I did this by picking up a camera, getting out in the fresh air, get a body of work together.’

‘In 2019 I became CEO of Citizens Advice Guernsey, but it didn’t fit.

‘I was talking to Matt Barrett [vicar of St John’s and rector at Town Church] 20,000 feet up in an aeroplane and he said to me, “Paul, you’re unemployable. You should be taking photos.”

‘That’s when I took the decision to become a freelance photographer, October 2019. But not for long.’

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During lockdown Paul got a phone call from his good friend, the well-known local photographer Graham Jackson.

‘He said that he was retiring and would I like to take on his studio in the Arcade? I never dreamed I’d have a creative space.’

With a solid base from which to work, Paul has been honing his skills and one of the trademarks of his work is the offbeat, intimate portrait.

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‘To make a great portrait in the studio is much harder to do than on location – how you frame the figure, how you wait for the right gesture or expression – you wait for the interaction, the moment of connection. In the studio you’re kind of working with a blank space. Light is key though, always.’

Through his work you can see his love for people.

‘I’ve always loved ordinary people and invisible people. Through this exploring it’s the connection with people that’s astounded me most. I can see that my camera gives me a connection with others that I never had before. It allows me to enter lives in a new way to capture moments that would never return. I now know I was meant to be a photographer.’

Although he admits loving the work of photographers such as Bruce Davidson and Diane Arbus, his inspiration goes beyond. Musicians Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen are often quoted, as is as the poet TS Eliot.

‘I’m sometimes asked how I create the sense of intimacy and connection in my photographs. Truth is it’s impossible to answer so I borrow some words from Mary Ellen Mark when she was asked the same question: “You are who you are; I don’t know if I’d call it intimacy – sometimes it is, but it speaks to a particular kind of relationship between photographer and subject”.’

As for my own mugshot – I’m honoured finally to have been ‘Chambered’.

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