Life through the lens of local photographer and poet Janet Lees
When did you first become interested in capturing the Isle of Man and other locations through poetry and photography?
I’ve taken pictures ever since I was 10 or 11, when my granddad gave me a box Brownie. I studied photography as part of my undergraduate degree, which was split between visual arts and writing. But it’s only in the last four years that I’ve returned to photography and film as a creative practice. Before that, my focus was more on poetry.
You are inspired by what you see around you. How do you set about capturing it, in words or images?
I don’t have a method, a plan or an agenda. I simply go out, open my eyes and follow wherever they take me. I’m always getting lost. I love walking by the sea, among the hills and in the glens – we are incredibly blessed in the Isle of Man with our land and seascapes. But I’m also a passionate stalker of urban landscapes. I don’t think there’s an alleyway in Douglas that I haven’t been down. I find these places endlessly fascinating, particularly the marks we make on the world and the poetry that’s released as they disintegrate and decay.
Your photos often feature small details – a torn poster, a ripple in paintwork, a knot in an old, tumbledown door. How do you pick these out and why these rather than, say, a standard sunset?
For many years, I took photographs that were beautiful in the traditional sense – sunsets and landscapes, and always the sea – which is still a big preoccupation of mine. Five years ago, I experienced a kind of visual epiphany following the sudden and devastating loss of my youngest sister, Carole. It was as if my eyes had been opened and I could see beauty everywhere, even in the most unexpected places.
Carole was a photographer, too, an outstanding one, and I like to think that now I see with two sets of eyes, hers and mine. I’ve always been interested in abstract painting and images definitely reflect this interest. I’m also a poet and poetry is all about telling big stories in a small space; expressing big emotions through tiny details. I think my images are a kind of visual poetry.
You run workshops encouraging wellbeing through creativity. How does assimilating our environment into something we create help us as individuals?
Creativity is a powerful vehicle for self-discovery, self-expression and connection. Creative writing is a mindful activity. When you’re doing it you are completely absorbed in it. There is nothing we cannot do and nowhere we cannot go in our imagination. This creative liberation can be really empowering. Because it sets us free, creative writing sparks explosions of feel-good chemicals in our brains – the chemicals that help with stress and pain relief, positive mood, relaxation and concentration. There’s an ever-growing body of evidence proving nature’s multiple benefits for health and wellbeing on all levels: physical, psychological and social. Being in nature can reduce stress and anxiety and increase positive mood and self-esteem, and in the Isle of Man we have an abundance of startlingly beautiful natural space. Even looking at images of nature has been proven to have a positive impact on people’s wellbeing. So, if writing is good for us and nature is good for us, together they’re a wellbeing no-brainer. The workshops I’ve hosted and co-hosted combining nature and creative writing have certainly been powerfully positive experiences for many people, including me.
You won the Year of Our Island photography composition amid some stiff opposition, with an image of a tram horse on a red-letter day. Did you know, the instant you took the photo, that you had captured a special moment? How did you feel about your win?
I was amazed to win. I had no expectations of winning. There are some brilliant photographers in the Island whose work I greatly admire and I felt sure I’d be up against them. I did feel that I’d captured a special moment though: the nobility of the horse and the pride and happiness that radiated out of his handler’s face was a powerful combination that I was really struck by at the time. But I think I was lucky. It was taken at the tram horse cavalcade last autumn, where there was an abundance of photo opportunities. The image was a gift.
What would you say to anyone who wants to start telling the story of our Biosphere through poetry, photography or other artforms?
Go with your heart. It was only when I started going with my heart that I began to have a degree of success as an artist. When I was younger and less confident in my work, I would ‘try on’ other styles. When I stopped thinking ‘nobody’s going to like this picture’ and started taking images I loved which expressed something I was feeling, opportunities began to present themselves.
I would also say, find your tribe and share your work. We have a great Facebook group, Isle of Man Creative Industries, in which creatives share work and information. For me, Instagram has been instrumental both to my creative practice and my confidence as an emerging artist. I’ve discovered a fantastically supportive community of like-minded artists there, as well as several opportunities for furthering my career.
What is next for you?
I have my first book coming out in May, kindly supported by Culture Vannin: a collection of art photographs and poems. I have three images in the exhibition Everything I Ever Learnt, featuring work from nearly 100 creative photographers from around the world, showing in Cambridge until 3 May. I’m looking forward to exhibiting at the Isle of Man Art Festival, sharing the Pilates Studio in Peel with Myra Gilbert, Eric Glithero and Ian Pilbeam. I’m delighted to have an image in Fire, the next book in the prestigious Dark Mountain series, and I’m lucky enough to be one of the poets featured in a new anthology of British prose poetry from Valley Press, launching later in the spring. Thanks to the kind support of Isle of Man Arts Council, I’ll be running creative writing for wellbeing workshops at The Hub in Port Erin and Jurby community centre throughout the year.
Janet Lees is an artist, poet, workshop facilitator and freelance writer based in the Isle of Man. Last year she was the visual artist representing the Isle of Man at the Festival Interceltique in Lorient, France, with an exhibition of art photography, poetry and film. This was reprised in her solo show, Evidence of Humanity, at Noa Bakehouse in the autumn. Her photography and film-based works have been selected for many different international prizes and festivals, and her poetry is widely published.