Alex Ingram


The GateKeepers

“Scattered across the small islands surrounding the UK live lone wardens, spending their lives in quiet solidarity, away from the crowded, overpopulated landscapes of our urban world. Their role: to maintain and manage the preservation of their island’s natural beauty and wildlife for future generations, whilst conducting research into these incredibly delicate ecosystems. With limited access to the mainland during the winter months, no fresh running water, and under constant attack from harsh storms and perilous currents that can see them marooned for weeks at a time, it is not a role many are suited for.

What is it like living so close to the mainland, but yet so far removed from social norms? How do they cope when the currents are too strong to make it back over for fresh food and supplies? What is it like living without the modern day technologies that we take for granted? And how do they adapt and overcome these daily obstacles with limited human contact? Over the next two years, these are the questions I want to explore. I will be visiting these remote islands and spending time with the wardens that have chosen to spend their lives there, in the hopes of better understanding what life is like living in some of the most beautiful, yet inhospitable landscapes in the UK. In a world that is changing at a rapid pace, I want to question how this simplistic way of life fits within our modern world.”

What intrigued you and led you to photographing these islands? In your visits so far what have you learned from being there that has put a fresh perspective on your life outside the island.

Back in 2016 when I was in my final year of uni working on my project David’s House, I met Malcolm Grey, to old coxswain of the St David’s lifeboat who spoke about his life in st David’s and his life at sea. He told me about this couple whole lived out on Skomer Island, spending all year there, and who for months at a time have only each other for company. I found this really fascinating. It was an idea of isolation that I couldn’t quite get my head around and was something that I really wanted to explore further. I wanted to experience this alternative way of living, this simplistic way of life, and better understand their reasonings for choosing to live there. The more I researched into them, I soon realised they weren’t alone, and there was lots of these little islands surrounding the UK with only a handful of inhabitants. And so The Gatekeepers was born. 

My experiences on these islands has been amazing. Everyone I have met on these islands has been so accommodating and interested in what I’m doing and the story I want to explore. I have met some amazing people. Experienced some things that I never imagined I would in the UK, and it has opened my eyes to our modern world and made me question everything that I take for granted on a daily basis. It is a very surreal feeling being on these islands where everything works at a much slower pace, but yet being to see civilisation only a mile away across the water. You have to be prepared for every eventuality if you live there, and you have to be very hands on and be able to adapt and overcome daily obstacles. If your solar panels get damaged, you have no electricity. The roof gets blown off your accommodation in a storm (as happened to the Wardens on Skomer the week after I left) you need to be able to fix it yourself. There’s no electrician or builder there you can call in to do it for you! It made me realise how absolutely useless I would be if I found myself in any of these situations, and made me admire these Wardens even more. 

It is a completely different way of life out there, but yet so close to everything that we take for advantage. I’m very excited to explore these islands further and continue working on the project!! 

What characteristics do the Wardens have that you aimed to capture in your images? What makes them different than those living across on the mainland?

I didn’t approach this project with a set agenda as to what it was that I wanted to capture about the wardens. The premise of this project is based more on my curiosity to explore these amazing little spaces and learn about the people that inhabit them, questioning their reasoning for choosing to live in such unusual locations. I wanted to find out the circumstance that led them there. The way they have adapted to living on these isolated islands. And learn more about this alternative way of living that is so different from my own.

It is not an environment that I think I could find myself living in for a prolonged period of time. You are removed from almost everything that you take for granted, and I think you have to be a certain kind of person to be able to live in somewhere like that. During the summer months, there are times when I imagine these tiny islands can feel rather busy, when the small boats of tourists cross the 2 mile stretch of ocean to visit for the day. But just as soon as they arrive, they are gone, and you are left alone and isolated with very little human contact. It is a surreal feeling knowing that you are only a mile or so away from modern civilisation, but yet a million miles away from the modern world. You have to be a person who is very capable of quickly adapting and you need to be able to fend for yourself. Speaking to these wardens about their daily encounters and obstacles made me really realise how utterly inept I am with a lot of things.

Can you tell us what it was like to experience these islands? Even though there is isolation is there a sense of community?

Absolutely. I joked on my most recent trip to Skokholm that the wardens probably have a more active social life than I do! It is a strange world to live in, when you only have a limited amount of human contact and only see the same few faces day in and day out. You create an unprecedented bond with the people that you surround yourself with, and even though I only spend a relatively short amount of time on each of the islands, the bonds that you make with these people during that time is quite astonishing.

In an island community where there are only a handful of people and you are physically restricted by how far away you can go by the sea, if you don’t turn up to social events you are really missed. There’s a sense of community and family amongst the wardens and the people that live on the island that you don’t get in many places. It’s certainly something I really admired.

As someone who works constantly with editorial work, how is this project for you and in what ways does it serve an importance to your creative drive?

What excites me most about this project is the fact that I have complete creative control over the work I am producing and get to spend a long period time really getting to explore these islands and understand what life must be like living there. On editorial jobs you are often really restricted on time, which I find quite challenging at times and you don’t really get to know your subjects and always say what you want to with your images. Being on these islands is a blessing. There have been a few days where I haven’t taken a single frame, but instead have just walked around the islands with the wardens exploring the landscape, and talking to them about their lives.

Working in this way has made me re-evaluate how I approach my other commissions. I slow my entire process down and really interact with the subjects much more, learning more about them and trying to capture that in my portraits. People are what are interesting; the pictures are just my way of capturing that.

Can you tell us about a moment with one of your subjects in this project that had an impact on you?

Dan, the handyman that I met on Bardsey Island, was by far one of the most interesting characters that I have met throughout this journey. I was on Bardsey for a whole week during the summer, and every day I went over to the lighthouse that he was working on and spoke to him about his life. He was absolutely fascinating to talk to, and his knowledge and passion about the island was inspiring. Dan is quite an unusual character, and outside of the island environment I can easily imagine him struggling to come to terms with the modern world. He spends 6 months of the year living on Bardsey and working as a handyman, restoring and maintaining the islands buildings, living on a diet of nuts and nettles. The other 6 months of the year he spends in Portugal, living out of a van and farming asparagus which he sells in local farmers markets.

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