I started my Thanks Maggie project back in 2012. The title is definitely sarcastic. It’s a series of photographs about culture and social life in the former coalfield areas of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, and the evolution of old colliery sites from places of industry to landscapes of leisure. Much photography work about these postindustrial parts of England often focuses on deprivation, and it’s usually from the perspective of a concerned outsider. Thanks Maggie is semi-autobiographical – my dad worked in the pits, as a shaftsman – and I wanted to take photos that were more of a celebration of the people and places I grew up with.
The project looks at different ways that people interact with this landscape. This is one of the first photos I took, of locals hunting rabbits on the site of the old Newstead Colliery. When I was a teenager, hanging out on these former mining sites, you’d see people with air rifles and stay well away from them. They looked intimidating. But I had an “in” with Andy, the guy in the camo cap, and he took me out rabbiting with his mates on a Saturday.
They use a ferret which scurries into the warren and spooks the rabbit. Then the rabbit bolts and they either catch it in a net and shoot it, or the dogs give chase and get it. Which sounds pretty gruesome. They do eat the rabbits they catch, but they also trade them for beers, or use them to barter with. The men look quite menacing in the picture. In any other situation, I’d be quite intimidated by the one with the shaved head, and would certainly think twice about approaching him for a photograph. They were tough, but at the same time, they had an almost childlike enthusiasm for showing me their favourite rabbiting spots. I think they were enjoying someone taking an interest in them.
They were like a band of brothers. They’d have banter and little tiffs as we walked along. It reminded me of an old story, like Huckleberry Finn or Of Mice and Men. They’d walk for miles and had tinnies in their bags. There was a total sense of freedom about their whole way of life. The other thing is how much they knew about nature. As we walked, they’d be identifying birds, different trees and fungi.
For the shot I eventually got, I was positioned at the bottom of a hill looking up at them, so the image gives the men a feeling of power and dominance. There was no pretence or self-consciousness, which was really refreshing, actually – I often photograph people who are very tense and look to me for direction. But the men kind of orchestrated that shot themselves. There was something quite timeless about the whole scene – it reminds me of an old master painting.
The Nottinghamshire mines employed hundreds, if not thousands, of men. So it’s likely that if this was 30 years earlier, these men would have been miners. Newstead – and former mining villages like it – didn’t really exist before the pits. They were rapidly built and populated after the mines were sunk. So when you take the mine away, you’re removing the catalyst for the place existing in the first place. And that’s what has been so difficult for people to recover from. You get the impression that these places have been left behind. Like they’ve had their heart ripped out. There’s also a kind of existential crisis. For a lot of these men, all they knew was working down the pit. Your identity is bound up in that, and your masculinity as well.
These were once thriving communities. People forget that being a coal miner was one of the last well-paid working-class jobs. Now, just down the road in Shirebrook – another ex-mining town – on the site of the former coal mine, there’s a Sports Direct headquarters. That’s very low-wage employment. So it’s a total kick in the teeth.
But the issues that these villages face are not necessarily unique to ex-mining communities. They’re shared among working-class rural communities throughout the UK: infrequent public transport connections; a lack of good-quality local businesses, amenities and services, which leads to feelings of isolation and despondency. You can’t get away from the fact that the problem is largely economic. I know many people who are in work but still struggle financially, and one major challenge these areas face is that when people from the community do get well-paid jobs, they tend to leave and move to a more prosperous area. So the economic stability of these communities rarely improves. It’s a vicious cycle.
• Thanks Maggie runs at Newstead Abbey, Nottinghamshire, until 7 July.
Born: Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, 1991.
High point: ‘Being commissioned to photograph Orgreave Truth and Justice campaigners for a major editorial piece.’
Low point: ‘Being forced to take a year off due to severe Crohn’s disease.’
Top tip: ‘Don’t try to second-guess your audience and make work you think people want to see. Make the work that you feel passionate about.’