Wales 2013–22, Sebastián Bruno’s careful documentation of the communities of South Wales, is made up of images stark in their beauty. Cinematic and often verging on the dreamlike, the poses and situations depicted manage to be surreal, as much as the scenes are essentially quotidian. This surface-level ordinariness is misleading. I found myself returning to them, noticing a balletic sense of control, the small details – the angle of an arm, the expression of a young bride, a cross around her neck on a chain.
As I studied the photos one by one – a pale woman holding her child, a couple locked in an embrace, a street empty except for a woman, a billboard – I marvelled at how the stylistic choices give the environment of the photos a liminal and timeless feel, even as the title of the collection emphasises change, or a movement towards change. Nine years is a long time, and yet the photos do not outwardly reflect a great deal of visible change. Of course, much has happened in these last nine years. My mother, raised in South Wales, cried in 2016 when the Brexit result came in, knowing the impact it would have on the place she loved. These photos document the time before, the time during, the time after – not explicitly, but we know what lies underneath, even if it’s not immediately what comes to mind.
The choice to shoot these images in a crisp black-and-white gives them a solemnity, a gravity. Sometimes even a sense of menace, just visible under the surface – in an image of several handprints pressed into wet concrete, both ghostly and frantic. Taken as a whole it can feel almost elegiac, the recording of a place as it is now and will not be again, though there is an aliveness in the images that makes this notion feel reductive. It’s easy to write a place off; it’s easier sometimes to mourn than to fight.
I was born in South Wales and lived there for the first few years of my life, and I go back several times a year to see my large and exuberant family, all of whom have stuck around, whereas my parents and I left. For a long time I have been returning, yet not quite of the place; knowing it, but not knowing it, a surface-level observer, passing through. My accent ebbs and wanes, depending on where I am, on who I am speaking to. But as I went through these images I vividly remembered walking around streets like the ones in the photos, houses like the ones in the photos, and I thought of the work of Martin Parr, another documenter of Valleys life. Though their styles are not so similar – Parr’s photos are colourful, cheerful as postcards – with both there is a shared absorption in the details of the everyday. They share a curiosity with the small moments of life. Finding beauty in things which are not always the subject of art, and finding them worth recording.
Still, I am wary of romanticising too much – of gushing over authenticity, over realness, over dignity. But I do think it is important to think about what we allow to have glamour. What we allow to have drama, and not the kind of drama you look away from, the spectacle of a slapped face; but rather the sense that life, all around us and in the smallest moments, possesses power, and possesses beauty too.