“My work never feels like a proper job!” laughs award-winning photographer and Folkestone College lecturer Zak Waters.
Zak’s passion has driven him to achieve, and as one of the finalists in the Hold Still competition and exhibition organised by the National Portrait Gallery under the patronage of the now Princess of Wales, his most recent project is becoming a valuable piece of social history.
IN THE BEGINNING
Born and bred in the North of England – and still retaining the accent – Zak went to university in London to study media in the 1990s, followed by an internship at internationally renowned Magnum Photos. He went out on shoots with photographers, and then went freelance, working for newspapers such as The Guardian and The Independent as well as corporate work for prestigious organisations like the BBC and advertising agency M&C Saatchi.
Life evolved, Zak was exhibiting his work, and ended up providing training to newspaper reporters on how to handle themselves ‘in the field’ – how to liaise with people when posted overseas, how to integrate themselves with local communities and the ‘fixers’ who help reporters get what they need. After a photography presentation at the Canterbury Christchurch University Zak was invited to apply for a job – only problem being the deadline was 9pm that evening!
Zak got the job and went back to university to get his teacher training qualifications while at the same time writing an industry-based photography course for Folkestone College students to enable them to work within the photographic and digital media industries.
According to Government statistics from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, creative industries contribute almost £13 million every HOUR to the UK economy, and Zak is passionate about ensuring his courses equip students to work within the industry. “I am constantly striving to evolve the course curriculum to align with current media trends. I am thankful that the college has let me do this. Our media course is now flourishing and we are educating the next generation of visual creators based all over Kent.
“I also soon realised that students had never actually read a photography book, so I created a YouTube channel CAMERA which offers crits on photographers’ work and photobooks. The channel is now used by some universities – I try to share all my experiences and bring them back to our future industry professionals right at grass roots level.”
March 2020 – Zak’s students are about to start their final graded unit, and lockdown hits. The country shuts down, people are sick and dying and we’re all told to ‘stay home, save lives, save the NHS’.
“Of course, it was horrible for everyone” says Zak, “but I really felt for the students who had put so much work in already and were faced with the real possibility of not being able to graduate.”
Folkestone College made sure each student had a Mac, and Zak worked on line with the students so they could build their respective websites enabling them to create and share their work so he could mark it.
He then decided to create a project, on which he worked alongside and on an equal footing with his students as they worked on theirs, and the “Folkestone Lockdown Project” was born. This series of 150 portraits features people behind windows or at home, signifying the isolation that lockdown had brought about. Zak spent a couple of hours every few days, wandering the streets and photographing people he had identified and who were willing to take part.
Using just one camera and one lens was a strict discipline, but the results show that Zak’s method gave a continuity of approach, uniting the subjects within the frames.
THE ROYAL CONNECTION
After the media had picked up on Zak’s project, he was invited by the National Portrait Gallery to submit an entry to their Hold Still competition. Over 31,000 submissions were entered, and Zak’s ‘Amanda and her son Terrance’ was selected as one of the final 100 portraits.
Exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery and featured in the book Hold Still, which became a best seller, Amanda’s comment on the photo was
“During lockdown it was pretty much me and my son, as my partner worked days and days on end. We live in a communal flat block on the very top floor. The front door is almost locking us away from the world, when we went out we felt almost free. Free from being ‘locked’ in and free from lots of schoolwork! I’ve felt more anxious than I ever have before. My stress levels rocketed. Home schooling was difficult, but our bond became really strong as we were in this together.”
Zak was delighted to receive a letter of commendation and thanks from the late Queen Elizabeth II and Catherine, The Duchess of Cambridge (now the Princess of Wales), the National Portrait Gallery’s patron.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
“I was going to do an exhibition of the Folkestone Lockdown Project work, but decided it was too soon” says Zak. “Instead, I’m exploring another area – I received an Arts Council grant for training in audio technology, with a view to integrating sound into educational programmes.
“Now I’m getting some of the people featured in Folkestone Lockdown Project to tell me their stories about lockdown, their feelings then and how they feel now.
“I’m aiming for about 40 stories, and it will be people’s own words, telling their own stories.
“Eventually this will be a piece of social history, and I’m planning to donate it to the town of Folkestone as a special record of a unique period in our lives.”