Thanks to his years-long documentary photographic series, 26-year-old Fergus Thomas presents us intimate scenes about men who breed pigeons for racing competitions or South African guards selling lions to hunters as trophies. By building a trusting relationship with those he portrays and by getting to know them in-depth, he’s certain they let them in easily because they “are just happy to know that someone cares, that someone will listen to them and try to understand their story,” he tells us. In this interview, we speak with him about working on such time-consuming projects, nostalgia, anthropology and some of his series.
Firstly, could you tell us a little bit about you?
I’m 26 and I live in London. I’m currently studying a MA with Aaron Schuman at UWE in Bristol, (yes, I commute and it can be challenging, but it’s worth it). I started taking photographs around the age of 14.
In your photography, we sense a lot of vulnerability and intimacy. How do you manage to express it visually?
I was working on Bird of Dreams and Colville, the two projects we are discussing, from the age of 20 to 25. During this period, I was coming of age, I had a vivacious appetite for knowledge and experience. I just wanted to get out into the world, and photography is such a good excuse to do that. Both projects stemmed from meeting people and forming relationships with key individuals. Although these relationships (between me and the subject) were forged through photography, I think that they went deeper. It was a mentor kind of relationship, they would bring me into their space and teach me about what they knew and I would learn. Through this process, I would make images. We were sharing experience, so perhaps because of this process, you can sense that intimacy, and within that intimacy comes vulnerability.
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Also, your photography with film cameras and/or flash appears to be nostalgic and melancholic sometimes, is this effect on purpose?
During the making of this work, I was reading a lot, including TS Elliot’s The Wasteland and The Hollow Men, and Helen McDonald’s H is for Hawk – all have melancholic undertones. As for nostalgia, I think through the process of making work all kinds of things are mixed up in the conscious and unconscious mind. I think one of photography’s great assets is the ability to subconsciously illustrate emotions, taking form in an atmosphere or feeling. “The eye traffics in feelings, not in thoughts,” said Walker Evans.
You prefer to work with film cameras. How does each type of camera affect your work? And how do you choose the camera you are going to shoot with?
I shot both projects using a mixture of film and digital; I flit between the two. Sometimes I’ll just shoot for weeks on film, and then, if I can’t afford film, I’ll just shoot digital. But in some situations, I favour one. For example, if it’s dark, I’ll try to shoot digital; if it’s really nice sunlight or flash, I’ll try to use film. So I just try to play it to my advantage, whatever works.
You’re a documentary photographer, exploring themes in-depth. In Colville or Bird of Dreams, for example, you immersed yourself in the local population. You captured their everyday life, routines, the relationships with each other, some remarkable moments, intimate scenes, etc. Was it difficult to manage the camera’s presence? How did you build a trusting relationship with them?
Yes, for both projects I was very immersed in the community. The process was very organic, and I returned again and again, over several years, building a relationship over time. Nobody ever forgets about the camera, but because it always accompanied me, people expected photographs to be made. I always tried to be quite clear with my intentions. If people were uncomfortable about certain things, then, of course, I listened. But, surprisingly, people were mostly happy to see me – I think a lot of people are just happy to know that someone cares, that someone will listen to them and try to understand their story. And I suppose that is something I’m understanding now, after finishing the work.
So much of these projects are about life in between the photographs, so much experience and knowledge that the photographs hint at. I have a lot of diary entries and pieces of recordings that give more of this context and I am always thinking of ways of incorporating these. To create more of a novel, but it’s difficult as it becomes a very complex exchange of information. This is one of the challenges of working in such an intimate way.
“I think one of photography’s great assets is the ability to subconsciously illustrate emotions, taking form in an atmosphere or feeling.”
As spectators, we are immersed in those people’s lives, it seems casual. What is your process of taking a photo like? Do you capture moments spontaneously or do you think about the composition before? Or is it a bit of everything?
From showing these projects to a lot of people, one thing they consistently talk about is the power of the individual images. I think that this was a large part of these works, the pursuit of powerful single images. I was very inspired by photographer Joseph Koudelka. I was looking for that ‘one in a million’ kind of image. And initially, I was very puritanical, I was really searching for these perfect, observed moments that I believed had a unique atmosphere that could not be replicated. These moments only revealed themselves after long periods of time spent being in a position to be open to them. I was also very shy, so it fitted with how I felt, I was very happy to stand back and observe.
But after a few years, I started to think differently: really powerful images would go past me just because I was so fixated on this purity of the image. And this approach just didn’t seem sustainable within a more limited time frame. I began to communicate with my subjects more and more to a point where I began to direct them, and I was really happy with the results, so that rigidity disintegrated over time. Now I am very loose, I mix everything, which really allows for a lot more play and innovation. But that early semi-religious pursuit of perfection still holds a reverence in my mind, one that perhaps is not healthy.
Let’s deepen into Bird of Dreams, a project based in Newport, South Wales. It isn’t that common to see breeding pigeons in the city nowadays. How did you first know about it? How did you get in contact with the first breeder you reached?
I met someone through photographing people, he mentioned he kept pigeons. I have always been moved by birds, so my interest was immediately peaked and he offered to show me his loft. It all sparked from there.
You say that pigeon breeding is a “traditional hobby amongst working class men”, but what does this hobby consist in exactly? How has it remained alive throughout time?
There are groups of men that breed pigeons specifically for racing. They will collect all the pigeons in a large box and then transport them away. This can be a few miles or even as far as Spain. They then release them, and the first pigeon back to their respective loft is the winner. They usually win money. It has remained alive from communities passing it down generation to generation. Although it is declining in the UK, it is very popular in other countries, China and Belgium for example. Prime racing pigeons with impeccable lineage can fetch hefty price tags. So there is a large global market if you can breed the right kind of bird, which is probably all part of the fun.
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This project took you around four years – while you were still studying at university. What is one remarkable memory about it, one that you remember for a particular reason?
We had some really crazy parties, they definitely know how to have a good time. Once, my friend and I just cycled around the city all night, taking pictures and talking to everyone. Another time, I went on a coach trip with the entire pigeon club to Belgium for a week, we did a lot of drinking and looking at pigeons.
Your immersion amongst local communities for your projects looks like an anthropological approach, are you influenced by it?
I think traditional immersive documentary like this suggests a certain anthropological approach. There is a separation between you as the photographer and them as your subject. You look with a studying eye. I hope that I reduced this separation as much as I could because it suggests something cold and clinical. But you can never entirely extinguish it. You are always ‘taking’ something, taking photographs.
I see it less as anthropological and more as a novelist. I’ve always been very inspired by George Orwell’s, Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier, for example. His motivation was to understand the small scale aspects of the larger political system. He wasn’t content just to read about it, he wanted to experience it himself so he could make an informed decision.
In addition to social behaviour, what is your inspiration in general? 
I am very inspired by the space around me, it’s really important for the way that I work. I think that could be a part of the reason why my approach is so immersive. But I like to draw on all kinds of things: film, photography, writing and poetry. Even the way someone talks or moves will inspire me. But perhaps more than anything, I just like to look at the world. “Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long,” quoting Walker Evans.
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You have travelled a lot for work, which of those trips affected you the most?
The lion farming piece I photographed for Telegraph Magazine was particularly harrowing. It’s difficult to watch any animals suffering directly at the hands of humans, especially such an iconic symbol of power as a lion. Lion farmers in South Africa are operating under the pretence of conservation and preservation of the breed. In fact, they are operating to turn a profit. Prize males are sold to rich hunters who shoot them in enclosures like fish in a barrel. Lions are also increasingly farmed for their bones. Their skeletons are sold for traditional medicine in the Asian market.
It’s very hard to watch individual animals and feel quite powerless to help. We watched a group of lionesses guard their young cubs. They had so much fire and love in them. But we knew that the next day, these days-old cubs would be taken from their mothers and put into pens where visitors pay to pet and cuddle them. And there was nothing I could do. It makes you question a lot of things, how can people treat animals like this? And all for money.
Let’s talk about the future. Earlier this year, you did a fashion photoshoot, would you like to do more fashion photography in the future? Are you working on other long-term documentary projects too?
I am very open to things, and I find the idea of fashion photography especially interesting. I am also currently studying and working on a large project about London’s space. I am very motivated to be working on something with quite a different approach to my previous work. London is also where I was born and grew up, so I feel this is a very important project for me. Within this work, I’m specifically trying to pierce the now, the modern. It’s exciting.
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