If you’ve ever been curious about the early technology and equipment that led man to develop photography as we know it today, you might want to catch a ride aboard Camper Obscura, a camera obscura on wheels travelling across Britain. We couldn’t resist wanting to know more about it, so we got in touch with the guys behind this super cool project. Hop on board the Camper Obscura with us and learn something about the simple yet fascinating photographic technology!
Can you tell us something about yourself (and maybe some of the other people who help you carry out the project) and what you do?
Fotonow is a social enterprise based in Plymouth that is directed by Matt Pontin and Jon Blyth who work toward creating opportunities for people to engage in developing photographic culture throughout the South West of England.
After four years and support from many people in the making of new photographic commissions, exhibitions, publications and interactive events available to incredibly diverse audiences and communities, we find ourselves with great projects that include the Camper Obscura advocating photography as a catalyst toward social change.
Please introduce the Camper Obscura to us – what are some of the basic facts we should know about it?
Camper Obscura is a 1986 converted Foster and Day T25 VW camper van with a camera obscura installed in the rear cabin to outreach free experiences of photography to the general public. With over 15,000 people in two and a half years hopping on board to witness projections inside the Camper Obscura it has been a very sociable experience of photographic practice.
Whether working in schools and communities or at photographic and music festivals across England, we always make a portrait using instant film to document everyone who has ever been on board Camper Obscura. After photographing 15,000 people we have a fascinating archive which in the process also captures something of the character of people in Britain from 2010 onwards.
What gave you the idea to build a mobile camera obscura?
In the early days of Fotonow, myself and Matt were delivering a youth photography project in east Cornwall that involved enabling young people to gain confidence by running free camera obscuras for the general public.
The aim of the program was for the young people to gain skills that could return them to employment and education, but through the process of seeing how people engaged with the camera obscura we felt it would be good to develop a mobile experience that could take the camera obscura to them, rather than expect people to come to us as some spaces work.
A shared interest in socially driven and mobile photographic projects that include Daniel Meadows of ‘Free Photographic Omnibus’ from the 1970’s alongside a chance encounter with a man named Derek Swindley who built a camera obscura in a caravan during the 1980’s gave us the confidence that we were working in the right direction.
Eventually, after some scouting through ebay, the Foster and Day VW T25 appeared late one night at second hand garage in Liverpool; we won the bid, traveled to collect the van and the journey of Camper Obscura with Fotonow began.
Of all possible photographic mediums and equipment, why did you choose the camera obscura for your project?
We always wanted photography to reach out to large amounts of people, a practice that is not exclusive or too hierarchical and an experience that could be the starting point for lots of people to engage with and become captivated by photography.
In creating a mobile and free experience, it’s possible to share the simple principals of the medium through the camera obscura whilst energizing people to explore their own image-making.
The Camper Obscura is a specific type of photographic tool that acts as an ice breaker to people and places where maybe there is presently no reason to interact or engage. We are able to develop often complex social projects where the Camper Obscura is initially an easily recognizable experience within the community and then also becomes a mobile base from which Fotonow can work, cultivating a much longer term project with many different people.
The Camper becomes the starting point of the practice at Fotonow that often culminates in the curation of still and moving image exhibitions in public spaces, such as the exhibitions we’ve held on large scale bridges, chain ferries or big screens.
Do you still remember the early days of the Camper Obscura — what was it like setting it up, dealing with setbacks, and introducing it to your community?
Very little has changed with the Camper Obscura in as much as we work hard to make it stay a free experience of photography wherever it goes in public, keeping the philosophy intact. Gratefully, we’ve had excellent support from many people over the years who understand this philosophy and simply want to be involved in running the Camper Obscura.
It’s a great experience that often relives much of the simple joy similar to the first time an image is developed before your eyes in a black and white darkroom. Reliving that magic is possible when demonstrating the projections of the obscura with the many different people we find in our society today hopping abroad at different places around the country.
Set backs are always hard to digest but in Fotonow, we have a collective of people that absorb the hard realities of practicing photography in this difficult economic environment and through the resilience of a group we are able to absorb emotionally and financially the frustrations that sometimes one person cannot take alone.
Photography is constantly changing and perhaps we are experiencing an era where ‘a collective approach’ has a solidarity to eventually overwhelm the complex nature of unfair systems that we seem to be swimming against currently. But, in a technological time when everyone is potentially a photographer, disseminating endless imagery through social media, the collective also has the power to assert a new direction for photography and one that is very different from the romantic image of the photographer practicing in isolation.
What is the Camper Obscura experience usually like?
The mystery of a dark space holds real intrigue as for all the descriptions you can give to someone who asks ‘so what is it then?’ the words are incomparable to the surprise of seeing the projected images in the rear cabin of the vehicle.
The space is tranquil as you sit on comfortable old cushions, we all cluster around an unspectacular piece of white board waiting for our eyes to adjust to the light falling on to the white space that eventually becomes an image of the world projected from the outside.
It’s easy to forget where you are when you are gathered closely in the dark space with other people, trying to comprehend what your seeing, trying to absorb that no electricity or computers are involved. Because the lens in the turret can be rotated 360 degrees by a cog and rope, we’ve recently noticed really young children think they are controlling the moving image like a touch screen on a phone or iPad. This is a recent observation, we are able to relate to small children in terms of technological changes, from the camera obscura right through to modern touch screen cameras in mobile phones.
Eventually, the magic has to end and the closed door of the Camper opens, allowing the light to flood back in. The image disappears and people begin to make their way off the vehicle. Before they go, we always make a portrait using instant film, and in so doing we create not only a physical experience that links the camera obscura to photography but an artifact very different from a digital screen and an image that is uploaded to social media where the participants can download the picture free of charge.
What is one camera obscura fact that your audience (especially kids) are usually surprised to learn about from the Camper Obscura experience?
Children are nearly often flummoxed by the confusion that no one can see them when they are looking at people who are outside in the landscape. This relationship between seeing and power is something they begin to comprehend as they try to pick people up in their hands or even try to squash them but away from that mindset we experience sheer incredulity and bemusement often.
People of all ages are all in awe that there is no electricity, computers or digital projectors. They are amazed that the world is moving and in a culture where mediated information is often not physical experience they are all charmed by the tactility of photography that the Camper Obscura presents to them.
Most of all children, teenagers, families and old people are all inspired that it’s FREE. I don’t think people are having many free experiences anymore!
What topics do you usually cover in the photography workshops and seminars that you offer for Camper Obscura?
When using a camera obscura that is essentially a basic technology of lens, mirror and dark space with surface receiving the image, it provides a departure point to take photographic workshops in nearly any direction.
This is exciting because our audiences can be diverse, therefore its possible to fine tune a workshop for a residential home with people who have memory loss conditions by using archival photographs to stimulate dialogue, memory and conversation. Some workshops take us toward older photographic processes such as the cyanotype process that enables young people to make instant prints that explore and respond to landscapes that surround the Camper Obscura. Extending the basic principles toward recording and chemistry; this can help support small children’s knowledge of how photography has evolved to the digital experiences they mostly now have.
Often, the Camper Obsucra operates as a tourist attraction appearing innocuously in public spaces and becomes punctuation in the habitual activities of people moving through the space. When we are involved at festivals such as Photofringe in Brighton or Photomonth in East London we see the experience very much like a performance that bridges many of the fixed photographic activities on offer in exhibition spaces.
In this sense, the Camper Obscura is a great promotional tool as it provides direct conversation with audiences that may never go in to a gallery space or be aware of the festival itself. We often find ourselves spreading the word from the street which has impact through talking that visual advertising tends not to reach. Through the Camper Obscura, we can communicate with new audiences by providing accessible, first hand experiences, advocating for ideas and values allowing photography to become a catalyst to interactions and shared human experience.
Social media enables us to reinforce communication with a wider online audience of several thousand people who follow a niche area of the medium.
We are often surprised at the constant innovation in the function that the Camper has. A lovely experience recently saw a selected small group of six primary school children running the Camper Obscura at other primary schools in Plymouth. The confidence that grows from nurturing children to take on our roles in managing the Camper Obsucra publicly is very inspiring as those social skills in meeting people and explaining the obscura are skill bases that can flourish throughout other areas of their lives and its fascinating to see that photography has this impact.
The project has been a delight and one that is so busy that we’ve oddly never made a photograph using the Camper Obscura! Given that we have in effect an enormous and unique mobile camera you would think it might be foremost in our aims, only once at the Brit School in Croydon when A-Level students used it to record giant black and white negative have we seen that directions potential and it fills us with some great hope that after nearly three years developing this project that so much still lies ahead for Camper Obscura.
Lastly, can you tell us where Camper Obscura is heading to next, so our readers and community members know where and when to catch it?
The year began busily for Camper Obscura with appearances around Plymouth that remained snow free despite most of Britain being trapped in a hard winter the South West remains a very different climate even though the winds from the sea and moors are painful! The months ahead are busy and are richly diverse as we go to Liskeard in East Cornwall to their cattle market event where many sheep will likely and oddly be seen projected in to the dark spaces of the Camper Obscura.
Camper Obscura has journeys in May to Fotogallery’s Diffusion Festival in Cardiff, Wales and to the Site Festival in Stroud, Gloucestershire, where it will feature amongst a giant car boot sale and then its back home to Plymouth’s Central Park in amongst a giant cycling event, where the streets are blocked off to allow cyclists to ride the roads without fear of cars and noise; Camper Obscura will of course be parked up for that event!
With the days lengthening after our clocks changed and Summer ahead, this summer sees the Camper Obscura heading on the road going to music and photography festivals, alongside the odd appearance at yet unknown destinations in projects and communities around the South West and beyond. We always keep our Facebook site updated with info, posters and dates for all the events we’ll be attending. You can browse through all the archival pictures on Facebook and Flickr to get a sense of the wonderful experiences we’ve had so far on this adventure with the Camper Obscura.
Thank you Jon and Matt for taking the time to let us hop on board the fascinating realm of camera obscura, and telling us a lot of interesting facts about the Camper Obscura!