Exercise 3-10: Imaginary Documents

Read the article ‘Think global, act local’ by Diane Smyth.

Research Tom Hunter’s work  and listen to him talk about one of his most iconic images ‘Woman reading a possession order’.

Tom Hunter has a fascinating and untypical backstory which is described in his essay ‘under the influence.’ He left school at 15, not considered capable of ‘O’ levels, and worked various jobs on farms, building sites, for the forestry commission and as a tree surgeon. His lifestyle as a young man embraced counter culture – he lived in squats and in the late 1990s travelled across Europe in a double decker bus which was also his home – a time he describes as an intense couple of years when he lived off his wits, “pedalling alternative culture and preaching the doctrines of free parties, no rules or regulations.” The impulse to create however led him to eventually settle in Hackney and study photography at the Royal College of Art. Hunter’s photographs are often concentrated on his local area, the people and culture of which he explores witth the aim of revealing its dignity and beauty.

When he and his neighbours found themselves faced with eviction notices, Hunter was compelled to make work which became his ‘Persons Unknown’ series. ‘Woman reading a possession order’ is one of the images from this project and Hunter uses Johannes Vermeer’s ‘A girl reading a letter at an open window’ as the stylistic starting point for the work. The tableaux is staged, but, based in the real world and fact – the woman shown is faced with the real threat of losing her home. Hunter speaks eloquently about how Vermeer elevates the everyday into the extraordinary through his use of light and colour which transfixes the viewer into a state of magical meditation. Through emulating this style, he aims to give dignity, beauty and space to the woman who is shown at an intimate moment of struggle. This is at odds with the way ‘outsiders’ such as squatters are usually represented – in gritty black and white, as victims of society with unimaginable lifestyles “which could be marvelled at but never understood.” The use of light, colour and calm contemplation which both works share enable the viewer to identify with both women in their respective portraits with both becoming universal moments.

I admire how Hunter has found inspiration in the work of Vermeer and been able to transfer this in a personal way into his work. His idea and aim to “lift people [through] art, whatever the art form and however the people” is inspiring and a confident rebuke of elitism in art. The idea he presents, that a greater level of reality is achieved through his work than gritty black and white reportage is a compelling reminder that realism in photography is a construct reliant on convention. He believes Vermeer offers us a window into a real, but imagined world through his art which resonates with photography: “the images are real, yet created by a person manipulating the camera.” His relationship with his local area of Hackney is something I also admire and something that gives the work an authenticity due to it being made from a place of understanding, and ultimately, through the focus on intimate detail, something which elevates ordinary events, places and people into the extraordinary.


Hunter, T. (2006) Living in hell and other stories. London: National Gallery Company Limited.

Hunter, T. (2011) Essay: Under the influence. Available at: http://www.tomhunter.org/essay-under-the-influence/ [accessed 20th May 2018]

Hunter, T. (2012) The way home. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag.

May, J. (2011) Under the influence: Tom Hunter. The Essay, BBC Radio 3, 31st March 2011. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00zt7ky [accessed 7th May 2018]

Smyth, D. (2010) Think global, act local. British Journal of Photography, August 2010. Available at: http://www.tomhunter.org/think-global-act-local/ [accessed 7th May 2018]

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