Tadao Cern’s best photograph: older women sleeping on a beach

Several years ago, when I was back home in Lithuania, I went to the beach for the first time in years. I grabbed my longboard, gathered a group of friends and family, and headed for one of the most popular spots on the Baltic coast.

On this beach, there is a bridge that overlooks the shore. As I walked across it, I could see all of the bathers lying beneath me on the sand. I had a perfect bird’s eye view. I had never seen the beach from that angle, and it was fascinating. That evening, I began the research for this series, Comfort Zone. I looked through reams of beach photography, but pretty much none of the images had captured the scene from above. I found nothing documenting it from this angle in this clean, simple, almost clinical way.

I wanted to create a typology of beach culture – a kind of study of the phenomenon as if I were investigating a different species. I was thinking about what it would be like to come to Earth as an alien and witness this: what sense would you make of it?

As well as my camera, I used equipment to help me to shoot from above while I was moving around at beach level: a four-metre-long pole with an attachment for my camera, and a radio trigger for when I was ready to shoot.

It was important that the photos were perfectly candid, so I didn’t tell anyone I was shooting them. But people were looking at me. I realised that the people who weren’t looking at me must be sleeping, so I knew which ones I wanted to photograph.

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I tried to avoid any conversations or arouse suspicion. I wasn’t doing anything against the law, but the beach is a place where people sometimes don’t feel comfortable being shot. Some people did approach me though – you can imagine seeing the same person every day walking with this strange thing on his shoulders, so they asked me what I was doing. I said I was just taking photos of nature, and if they were persistent with their questions, I would show them images I had taken of the sea or the forest.

When those images started to be published, there were some concerns, and people questioned my practice. My view is that I’ve never focused on someone’s personal life: my work is about society, community, humanity – it’s not about one particular person.

I took this shot on the first day I started to work on the series. It was nerve-racking: I had no idea how the pictures were going to look and I didn’t know how people would respond to me. That evening at home, I looked through the day’s work. Nothing was right apart from this shot. This image convinced me that the whole project was worth pursuing. For that reason alone, it’s special to me.

The image tells a story: you can see the very shade of the woman’s lipstick, you can see the veins in her legs, but despite the specificity of the shot, it’s also oddly surreal. There’s a kind of dissonance in it that appeals to me.

As in the rest of the series, the bodies you see are real. They are bodies you don’t often see in magazines, online or on social media. Every day we are bombarded with images of people eating perfectly healthy food and being perfectly in shape, and so many people feel excluded by that. The reality we are so often presented with is utterly distorted and represents the minority of us.

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I don’t consider the beach as a utopian escape from the city, but it does illustrate how our behaviour is conditioned by social norms beyond our control. Why is it acceptable to be half naked on a beach, but not in a library? Why does our environment dictate what we can and cannot wear? It’s because our behaviour is always being shaped by people around us.

In the age of social media, we are obsessed with the concept of individuality and the idea that we must all be different all of the time. These images show that, on some level, we just do what everyone else does. The individual is much less important than the collective or the whole.

I travelled to other beaches across the world, thinking it would be interesting to document how beach culture differs. What I found is that it doesn’t. We buy the same things, we often read the same things translated into whatever language we speak and we use the same brands a lot of the time. You can see globalisation in action on the beach, and how consumerism shapes all of our lives. But you can also see a kind of commonality, the similarities between us, no matter where in the world we are.

Tadao Cern in bathed in all-white in a self-portrait

Born: Šiauliai, Lithuania, 1983.

Studied: MA in Architecture at Vilnius Gediminas Technical University.

Influences: “Everything I have seen and experienced has impacted me. I don’t think so much in terms of individual artists.”

High point: “Finishing this series, because it allowed me to start something new.”

Low point: “Every day – every day you question whether you’re good enough.”

Top tip: “The volume of work you put out is the most important thing.”



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