What's it like to work on the Beaford Archive?

Introducing… Dave Scotting

Volunteer Assistant Photographic Digitiser and Oral History Interviewer

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‘I’ve enjoyed the work of James Ravilious for a long time. His photographs depict this patch of Devon so honestly. As well as his eye for a fine image his great gift was to be among the detail without affecting it. Nothing seems forced. Everything is found, and natural. 

I’d been to a few of Beaford’s events over the years and I saw that they were asking for volunteers and so I signed up. For six months or so I spent alternate Mondays at the Devon Heritage Centre helping with the digitising of the photographs selected for adding to the Archive. Under the skilled tutelage of Dave Green I had the privilege of ‘spotting’ – checking images for defects –hundreds of James’ photos. It was a relaxed and friendly atmosphere and it was a real pleasure to view, on a scale very likely not seen before, hundreds of wonderful images. I really got a kick out of this! I was also allocated two Oral History interviews to talk with Devon natives about their time in the area and the changes they’ve seen. Again, this was another privilege and I spent time in the company of some lovely people having interesting conversations.

Working on the Beaford Archive has deepened my love of the county. Whilst parts of Devon, particularly in the south and east, have developed greatly much of the less fashionable interior in mid and north Devon remains far less affected. I often found myself reflecting that some things have stood still – village centres, churches, much of the landscape – but that other aspects have changed – for example how we live and work, and our connection to the places in which we live, particularly. 

In James’ photographs there are less cars, technology is older, more basic, and I can think of only one photograph that shows a computer. One of my interviewees told me that growing up, if anything happened in his village, everyone would be there. Now people commute more out of the area for work and entertainment. In fact they’re more likely to entertain themselves at home using modern technology rather than join in with events in the village. Pubs, schools, post offices all close. Church attendances continue to decline. I can see this very clearly in my own village. That said things also change in other ways. Rural life still appeals and many villages attract incomers - although you need more money to live out of town these days. In our village one shop closed but a much nicer one opened up, and a pre-school club also. And an allotment group was born, land found and allotments set-up. Redundant farm buildings are being turned into new dwellings, bringing new blood into the villages.

Life in James’ photographs looks tougher, people often appear poorer. Life and work seem much more hands-on, more physical. But there also seems to be a much stronger sense of community in them too. Life does seem simpler, and people seem more grounded and content. Change is the only constant, they say. But in facing the challenges of a country and a world seemingly more divided than ever I think we will need to rediscover something of that connectivity to one another and to nature. These values are so redolent in James’ work and the stories of the folk in the oral Archive.

This isn’t simply ‘rose-tinted: James’ images are far too honest for that. But it does seem clear that in some of the gains of modern living we have also lost things of value too.

Kelly Johnson