Arts and Culture: Interview with Mark Massey

Southend – and Essex as a whole – may have a reputation for being full of “Essex Girls” and “boy racers”, but when you dig a little deeper, you discover that Southend is full of incredibly talented artists, actors, photographers, and creatives who contribute to the thriving arts and culture scene within the town.

We spoke with one such local, Mark Massey, a photographer and graphic designer living in Westcliff who is opposing the Essex stereotype with his most recent project.

Please tell us a little about yourself and your work.

I live in Westcliff with my family, and for 20 years I worked in London as an art editor / magazine designer. I’m now a freelance graphic designer / photographer, and much happier now that I’m no longer commuting and am back working in my home town.

I’m interested in photography as ‘social documentary’ – observing and discovering everyday places and the interaction between people and the environment. My community is also important to me, so local issues have formed the focus of several personal projects I’ve worked on or are currently in progress.

Mark’s portrait of Scarlett Taylor, a 15 year-old musician from Southend who has performed at the local Village Green festival and now studies at the renowned Brit school in Croydon.

What were your experiences of growing up in Southend?

I went to a grammar school, where I was one of the few pupils from a working-class family – I didn’t enjoy school much. Most of my memories of my 20s are from the Sun Rooms in Southend and the Pink Toothbrush in Rayleigh.

How did you first get into photography and design?

Art was always my best subject at school and I remember when I was really young I wanted to be an architect or a cartographer. When I left school, I studied graphic design at what was then Southend Tech College. In the first year, we tried tasters of different disciplines so that’s where I first discovered photography.

Mark’s portrait of Rayleigh local Freya Levy, who was the Essex Sports Personality of the Year 2019, is an Active Essex ambassador, and has campaigned at parliament for the NHS to promote disability sports at the time of diagnosis or prognosis.

Please tell us about your Essex Girls project.

With this project, I am photographing real ‘Essex girls’ as a series of portraits, to challenge the pejorative, stereotypical portrayal. On a visit to the library in Southend, I found that at least three dictionaries still contained definitions of ‘Essex Girl’ that use words such as ‘unintelligent’, ‘promiscuous’, ‘devoid of taste’ and ‘materialistic’.

The stereotype is based on a mixed bias of gender, social class, and geography. It’s a long term project, shot on medium format film, and for each portrait I aim to make it a collaboration with the participant rather than just my own interpretation.

So far, I’ve photographed about 60 people but was hampered by the lockdown earlier this year. I’m lucky to have received some Arts Council funding which will allow me to complete and promote the project. You can view the portraits on my website and on Instagram.

What does it mean to you to be from Southend?

I think I took the surroundings for granted, and it was only after I’d grown up that I really started to appreciate what we have here on the estuary. That was one of the reasons I decided to start documenting it in my project ‘Essex Chronicles’.

Mark’s portrait of Courtney Granger, an NHS nurse photographed at 6:30 in the morning, just before she started a 12.5 hour shift as deputy sister on an orthopaedic ward at Southend University Hospital.

What are your favourite things about living in Southend?

Definitely the estuary – there are so many beautiful parts to explore. And also just the fact that it’s not London – it has its own, separate character, but is still close enough for us to enjoy what London has to offer too. When I was working in the city, I noticed how everyone was always in so much of a hurry, everywhere was so busy, in comparison to weekends at home where it was a slower pace of life and more of a community.

How well do you think artists and creatives are represented in Southend?

Since I was made redundant last year, I’ve spent a lot more time in my hometown of Southend. I’ve tried to reconnect with the arts in Southend and have come to realise that there’s actually quite a thriving arts scene here, definitely compared to other similar-sized towns. Everything from music to poetry, fine art to theatre.

Mark’s portrait of Michelle Passfield, a Leigh-on-sea local who runs her own marketing consultancy business, withMichelle. Previously, she had a successful marketing communications and business development career spanning twenty years.

How would you encourage people from Southend to discover more about local artists and creatives?

There are lots of groups, such as Metal in Chalkwell, venues such as the Beecroft and the Focal Point Gallery, and events such as the Leigh Art Trail and the second edition of the Estuary festival next year.

What advice would you give to people interested in amateur photography?

Firstly, I’d say you don’t need an expensive camera – just be creative with whatever you have access to. Secondly, keep an eye out and be observant of your surroundings all the time – not just when you’re actively photographing. It will spark ideas for images or projects.

Mark’s portrait of Nikki Nicholas, a self employed yoga teacher and massage therapist, a mum to two teenage boys, and a recent breast cancer survivor. She is a DJ with a radio show on a local internet station, ‘Ship Full of Bombs’, whose studio is based at the Railway Hotel where this portrait was taken.

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