‘Hide & Seek: The dubious nature of plant life in high security spaces’ is the photographic project created by Max Colson’s alter-ego Adam Walker-Smith. The project delves into the world of the ‘Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design’ programme, an initiative that uses the plant life surrounding important buildings and areas to conceal security systems. Walker-Smith takes us up close and personal to these purportedly harmless plants and foliage, providing us with a unique visual documentation of an area of city life most of us would never have known existed.
MO: Matthew Oxley
MC: Max Colson
MO: Firstly, tell us a little bit about Adam Walker-Smith. He is described as being a ‘photojournalist’ on your website. Who are we dealing with here?
MC: Adam Walker-Smith is an alter-ego that I created. More specifically, he’s a photojournalist from London who is obsessed with exposing the plants that he believes are a hidden part of the security and surveillance apparatus of public spaces in the UK. His ‘extraordinary’ photographic discoveries form the basis of ‘Hide and Seek: The Dubious Nature of Plant Life in High Security Spaces.’
MO: When did you start the project and where did the idea stem from?
MC: The project began in 2012, after I discovered something called ‘Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design’ or ‘CPTED’. ‘CPTED’ is the landscape design philosophy behind high security public space; it advocates that as well as being highly secure, these places should be attractive and welcoming. It’s the reason that areas like Canary Wharf and the financial centre in London, which are under heavy surveillance, don’t look and feel like fortresses.
I became interested in the way that, because of ‘CPTED’, plants are hidden players within the security design of these areas. Whilst they’re used to beautify spaces and add a ‘natural’ touch, they’re also a ‘soft’ means of enforcing security design requirements: they’re used to hedge certain areas off, are part of the landscaping that guides people ‘correctly’ through a space and also conceal surveillance equipment. Yet because plants are generally seen as ‘innocent’, we tend not to register their covert purpose.
MO: Hide & Seek is quite a specific series. Whereas with other projects you can often feel the photographer meandering comfortably outside the projects own borders, so to speak, Hide & Seek feels like it was quite a contained process. Is that a fair assessment? If so, was this a help or hindrance to how you worked?
MC: ‘Hide and Seek…’ is an examination of someone’s obsession. Walker-Smith is a photographer who has relentlessly photographed a set of plants and made a huge taxonomical series of his findings. Whether this way of seeing is a credible way of interpreting the subject is something for the viewer to decide. However, without the intensity of the repetition the viewer wouldn’t have an insight into what he’s looking at or his psychology.
Instead of seeing it as a hindrance, I actually think focusing one’s gaze intensely on something, or ‘containing’ it, tends to stimulate the imagination. You start to notice stuff or read into things that otherwise wouldn’t be apparent; whether that is useful or not is again something that people should interrogate for themselves.
MO: How did the initial visual and content related aspects of the project evolve? Did you have a clear-cut direction in your head before you started or was it more of an experimental process over time?
MC: The project was a huge departure for me. Up until then I’d been producing a lot of photojournalistic or ‘straight’ kinds of documentary work. Initially ‘Hide and Seek…’ had also started this way; I remember initially pacing around Canary Wharf with a camera rather intensely for about 3 weeks doing a serious taxonomy of the security plants. Once I’d calmed down a bit, I began looking at the images again and started to realize that I’d started inadvertently framing some of plants to look a little more sinister than perhaps they appeared, the first time around anyway. This way of representing the subject was something that I thought was worth engaging with. Being on the LCC’s MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at the time offered me an important forum to field test different aesthetics and get feedback. Adam Walker-Smith and his world were born out of that incremental process.
MO: Talk us through some of the logistics that Hide & Seek involved. With the very nature of the project, looking at supposedly concealed security systems in areas of high importance such as Canary Wharf, I imagine Adam wasn’t all that welcome at times?
MC: Photographing the project was actually quite straightforward. It was photographed during the day and mostly without prior permission. To many security personnel, the photographer of ‘Hide and Seek…’ was a botany obsessed man with a camera who kept on looking intently at soil, bushes and undergrowth; he posed no threats.
MO: In more general terms regarding your photographic practice and your approach to photography, do you have a particular philosophy that guides or helps you?
MC: I don’t consider my instincts to be radically different from traditional photojournalists or documentary photographers: I’m interested in raising awareness of aspects of society that are hidden or difficult to see and trying to engage people outside of photography with stories that (I believe) are important for them to consider.
That said, I would say I’m part of the collection of documentary makers who are interested in playing with the conventions of the genre: 1) I’m as much interested in encouraging the viewer to question the quality of the visual information that is being presented to them, as I am about raising awareness of a particular issue through the content; 2) Humour, play and fiction are important tools in engaging people with the themes of my projects.
MO: Which photographers or artists have influenced you and continue to influence you today?
MC: I would say that my influences fall into two main camps:
1) The artists who are interested in challenging the lines between documentation and fiction: Patrick Keiller, Walid Raad, Walker Evans, Sophie Calle, Jeff Wall, Taryn Simon, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin and the Magnum photo agency.
2) The artists who are producing work with hard social engagement in mind: the films and exhibitions that Yael Bartana has produced to promote the ‘Jewish Rennaissance Movement in Poland’, a movement that she created to encourage 3 million Jews to return back to Poland after their expulsion, are astounding. I’m incredibly inspired by the social scope and ambition of Lucy McKenzie and Beca Lipscombe’s fashion company, ‘Atelier EB’, which aims to resurrect the fashion of Scottish working women from around the 1930s as a challenge to the flux of contemporary commercial fashion, by producing its garments in collaboration with Scotland’s remaining regional textile manufacturers.
Visit Max’s website to view the series in full: www.maxcolson.com
— Matthew Oxley