The Story behind the Portrait
My portrait of Grace Turner, ‘Miss Mansfield 2013-2014’ forms part of my long term project “Thanks Maggie” looking at ex-mining communities in North Nottinghamshire and North-East Derbyshire.
I began photographing the people and places of these regions to capture their culture and social life thirty years on from the bitter 1984-95 miners’ strike. Portraiture underpins the series and I wanted to photograph young people who shared experiences similar to my own coming of age in an area that is often defined more by what has gone than what is present.
While researching for the project, I came across an article on the history of Coal Queens, the beauty queens of the coal industry who won pageant style competitions, often in local Miners’ Welfare Clubs, to represent the collieries. I dug deeper and found fascinating archive photographs of Coal Queens posing glamorously in pit yards, with heavy coal cutting machinery and among soot-covered face workers after a shift underground. The contrast between the Coal Queens’ glitzy outfits and the rugged industrial environment of a working coal mine was so strange to see. I decided I wanted to make a portrait that was in some way a homage to the Coal Queen photographs but that was relevant to the present day.
It was some weeks later that I saw a story in a local newspaper about the Miss Mansfield competition and contacted Grace through Facebook. We met to talk about my idea and it turned out that Grace’s Grandfather had worked in the mines, so there was a family connection to coal too. We arranged to shoot the portrait in a Miners’ Welfare Club in Mansfield, Grace’s hometown and I asked for her to bring along her tiara, sash and the dress she had worn to the Miss Mansfield pageant.
On the day she happened to have her work uniform with her, a simple black shirt with a pub company logo, which I decided would be a more understated option than the pageant dress and also bring a more down-to-earth feel to the portrait. We ordered a drink and talked about the town we’d both grown up in, while shooting a couple of 120 rolls in the main bar of the Welfare. I was delighted that Grace’s portrait won the Gold Under 30’s award at the Royal Photographic Society International Print Exhibition 158 in 2015.
David Severn is a documentary photographer based in Nottingham, UK. His work is concerned with working class culture and the places associated with it, both historically and today. He is particularly interested in the relationship between people, work and landscape. His current project explores life within coalfield areas in the British Midlands.
David’s photographs have been exhibited nationally and internationally, including at FORMAT International Photography Festival, Singapore International Photography Festival, Royal Photographic Society International Print Exhibition and the Renaissance Prize exhibition at Getty Images Gallery, London.
He has worked on assignments for publications including The New York Times, Le Monde, The Guardian, The Financial Times Weekend Magazine, The Times (London) and MONOCLE. In 2015 David was selected as a winner of the Magnum Photos “30 under 30” award, an international competition open to documentary photographers under 30 years of age covering social issues.