Tom Harrison on larking about with mudlarkers as part of his Mudlarks of London project
How much do you know about London's mudlarking community? Mudlarking has roots that date as far back as the late 18th and 19th centuries, and yet its history and relevance are largely overlooked and forgotten today. Portrait photographer Tom Harrison got stuck in the mud with London's mudlarking community to explore the people still seeking treasure on the banks of the Thames.
Photographer Tom Harrison revived the practice of scurrying through London's mudbanks in search of lost treasure by photographing the remaining members of the subculture who still engage in this activity. Inspired by his curiosity after seeing many lonesome figures on the foreshore of the Thames at low tide, Harrison one day went over and investigated just what they were up to. And what he found sparked his imagination.
"The Thames is such a huge part of London, yet most Londoners never get any closer to it than simply crossing over the various bridges as they travel around the city," he says. "It struck me how mudlarkers were one of the few subcultures actively involved and connecting with the river every day."
After conducting some research and befriending mudlarker Jason Sandy on Instagram, Harrison began the process of meeting and photographing the community. Sandy put him in touch with other members, and many of Harrison's portraits made it into Sandy's latest book, Mudlarks: Treasures from the Thames.
Putting the Mudlarks of London project together was quite a complex undertaking, with Harrison eventually photographing 30 mudlarks in total. The biggest challenge of the project included finding mudlarks who were happy being photographed – "A lot of the people who I ended up shooting for the project had never had their portrait taken before and were slightly apprehensive," adds Harrison.
"A key part of my role as a portrait photographer is creating an atmosphere on set that allows the subjects to feel comfortable and to portray their true selves to the camera. I think you can see in the images that everyone involved is exactly where they want to be: amongst the mud and the wet of the foreshore."
Armed with clever lighting to create a more evocative and cinematic feel to the photographs, Harrison worked his magic to transform the mudlarks and light up the muddy spaces – despite the battering taken by his equipment.
But it was worth it for the collection of images. "My main takeaway from this project is a realisation of how photography is the perfect excuse to explore," says Harrison." Your camera gives you an excuse to ask questions, to introduce yourself to people you wouldn't normally get to speak to and learn from. Creatively, the project has reinforced the importance for me of shooting personal projects alongside my commercial commissions. It gives you so much freedom to push your work in different directions."