Photographing the Smallest City in the UK
Like Twin Peaks, but without all the murder and stuff.
St David’s is a small community on the westernmost tip of Wales. Only 1,891 people live there, which makes it the smallest city in the UK by quite a long shot. It’s very beautiful—surrounded on three sides by St George’s Channel—but the rather remote location and distinct lack of nightlife don’t make it popular destination for creative types. A bit of a shame really, because the rather intriguing city has gone largely undocumented.
Until recently, of course. Last year, Alex Ingram spent a good deal of time in St David’s, photographing the people that have chosen to live out their days outside of great metropolises for the series David’s House.
Alex has a rather special connection to the St David’s: he grew up there. In his own words, “It’s full of folklore, traditions, history and extraterrestrial sightings.” Those are all tantalising themes, but Alex’s work is much quieter, and more domestic.
We spoke with Alex about the town that made him, and how he went about returning the favour.
VICE: Let’s start somewhere very simple. Why go to the smallest city in the UK?
Alex Ingram: St David’s is where I grew up, so the project was as much a study of the place as it was a study of myself, and my understanding of home. It all started because of my neighbor Dai: he spent his entire life living within a three mile radius of the farmhouse he was born in and never left. I guess St David’s offered him everything he wanted out of life. I didn’t feel the same way. When I was younger, I took everything for granted: the beautiful coastline, the sea, the way of life, the friendly people. After spending the past four years in big cities studying at University, I started feeling very detached from the place—from home. When I came back, I started to understand why people love it so much.
The population of St David’s is about the same as the number of kids enrolled at my high school. Is it a similar sort of social ecosystem?
It’s an odd little place where everyone knows everyone, so you do feel incredibly safe there. At the same time, everyone knows everyone else’s business, and gossip spreads like wildfire. I think that just happens in small places like this though, where, let’s be honest, there’s not a lot going on. There are certainly different cliques around St David’s, but I wouldn’t say there are rivalries or anything. I don’t think things like race, gender, wealth and social background are as much of an issue down there as they are in other places in the UK, which feels incredibly divided today. St David’s is a place where people care.
Speaking of diversity and tolerance, in light of Brexit there seems to be a lot of eyes on rural voters again. The consensus seems to be they’re feeling very looked-over, or hard done by. Did you get a sense of that in St David’s?
I do think Brexit is one of the biggest things that has hit our country in modern times. And whether you agree with it or not, it seems that sadly it’s going to happen. Despite receiving a huge amount of EU funding, a lot of rural areas of Wales voted in favour of Brexit. People are very quick to paint everyone with the same brush and label rural communities as racist, but I really don’t think that’s the case. I was actually in St David’s shooting for this project around the time of the Brexit vote; I spoke to people that voted leave and I spoke to people that voted to remain. No matter which way people were voting, they were voting for what they thought was right for their families, their friends, and their future generations.
Tell me more about your time back in town.
I started shooting around this time last year, starting with Dai. After a time, I actually had a lot of people approach me and ask for me to take their portraits, which is quite an unusual thing for a photographer.
My parents still live there, so my own family home was a sort of base for the project. Often, at the dinner table, I would tell my parents about who I had met that day and the stories they’d told me. My parent would be like, “Oh go and speak to Mr Perkins over the common” and so the next day I would jump in the car and pop over and introduce myself. It was a very organic way of photographing, the project just blossomed in that way.
I like this image of a young guy a lot [below.] There’s nothing particularly rural about him — Maybe that’s the internet showing its reach? Do you think being young in St David’s is a lonely thing today?
Growing up in St David’s isn’t a lonely time at all! You create very close friendships with everyone your age. There were less than 500 people in my entire secondary school, and where my parents live there only 25 kids my age, so you do grow very close. There wasn’t a lot to do either, apart from go surfing, cliff jumping, or messing around in the woods and down rivers: every day, all year round, you’re doing these things with the same small group, so you inevitably create incredibly tight bonds.
As for the photo you mention, he’s one of my old school friends, Rhys. His mother and two of his uncles also feature in the project, they’ve all spent their entire lives living in St David’s and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. Maybe I’ll return back at some point in my life too, who knows.
Words by Isabelle Hellyer. Alex Ingram lives and works full-time as freelance photographer in London. Limited edition of paperback editions of David’s House are available.