Photographer Peter Dench Captures The British Abroad
With all the freezing cold, blustery weather in this country during the month of January, us Brits often go in search of a bit of Winter sun to warm our chilled extremities and have a break from gloomy old Blighty, but unfortunately the equation of sun + Brits x booze can often = trouble. The temptation to make the very most of our precious holiday time can lead to over indulgence and everything that comes with it. One man who’s documented some rather interesting antics over the years is photographer Peter Dench, he spent time in Ibiza, Ayia Napa, Magaluf and Sunny Beach in Bulgaria during 2012/13 snapping tourists from the UK for his book The British Abroad. We spoke to him about its making.
The MALESTROM: What was the motivation for your Brits abroad book?
Peter Dench: It’s my third book on Britishness. I’ve had the privilege as a photo journalist to work across the globe on assignments, but it is the British that I want to understand the most. It’s my home, it’s my passion, these are my people. So, I’ve spent a good decade or so documenting the relationship of English with alcohol, the main motivation for The Brits Abroad was these were the kind of holidays I went on as a teenager. The first time I ever left the country was aged 14, when I went to Magaluf with my Mum, Dad and sister.
The second time I left the country was aged 17 and I went to Magaluf. On that occasion I’d replaced my Mum and Dad with my friends Mark, Jason and Stuart. So, I wanted to kind of tie up my work on Britishness for a while, cause I was getting slightly pigeon holed I guess and I wanted to explore a different continent. So, it felt natural to return to the place where I became enthused to become a photographer from the start and end my journey on the beaches of Europe for The British Abroad. I should have done it earlier, I was 42 when I shot those pictures, I don’t blend as well as I used to (laughs).
TM: What is it about a bit of foreign sun and booze to bring out the worst traits in us Brits?
PD: If you think about it you spend all year saving up for two weeks in the sun, you’re going to let loose aren’t you? Cause next week you’ll be back in Wigan in a job you might not be enjoying so much. We’re a nation of conquest, we’re an island race, we like to deliver Englishness as far and wide as we can. And alcohol is ingrained in our history.
TM: Are the Brits the worst behaved from what you saw?
PD: I spent a couple of mornings patrolling Magaluf beach with a security guard called George, who patrols it seven days a week, five months a year. I did ask him ‘who gives you the most problems?’ And he said the British, closely followed by the Finns. He wore a stab vest, he was once stabbed in the vest by a Swedish tourist he interrupted who was being intimate with a young woman on the beach. With the Brits, we just sort of export our Saturday night to a sunnier climate.
TM: What’s the story around the man passed out on the floor in the main picture (see top) with the lads sat watching him?
PD: The chap sat to the right is Derek from Hull, a self confessed “wreck head”. He doesn’t ever like leaving people of any size passed out on the floor, having been to Hull I’m surprised Derek ever gets home at all (laughs). This was on a morning in Ibiza. Derek was worried the man on the floor might get robbed, the guy didn’t have any shoes on and his pockets were quite flat so I think Derek was too late.
He was also concerned that someone would call an ambulance for him that would charge him four hundred euros for treatment, so he was trying to borrow someone’s phone so he could call a charity to come and collect the man on the pavement. I stood there and watched the scene for about 26 minutes and he asked a dozen or so people if he could borrow their phone and all of them said they didn’t have one or they’d run out of credit. In the end someone did call an ambulance to take him away and he was probably left with a bill as hefty as his midriff.
TM: Have you ever encountered any hostility when trying to capture shots like these?
PD: Most people don’t mind being photographed, fear is generally in the head of the photographer. If you’re honest and clear about what your intentions are, most people will say ‘that’s fine’, or ‘I’ve got a story, come and photograph me’ a few will say ‘I’m not interested’ and a couple might get abusive. But in 20 years of taking pictures of the English I’ve only been punched in the face once, that was in Leeds and if you’ve ever been to Leeds, if you don’t get punched in the face your probably in the minority.
I’m pretty good at understanding the British mentality, but the most difficult place was Ibiza, because I know what a drunk person does and I generally know what people on drugs do, but you combine the two and it can get a bit unpredictable. I met one group of lads from Coventry and they’d drunk 9 litres of vodka in the afternoon and they were generally drinking on top of cocaine or whatever. Some of them were like ‘come and give me a hug’ and ‘can I take your picture’ and others were definitely more hostile, luckily I tend to have a good instinct for when to get out of there or how far to push things.
You have to be smart about these things you can’t just turn up in Ayia Napa and start taking photos in the clubs, there’s organized people who run the clubs, run the island, the events. So as soon as I landed in Ayia Napa I had a contact who introduced me to one of the main men, ‘the Georgian’ who ran the clubs and I’d sit down and talk with him and tell him what I was trying to achieve and he’d say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, on this occasion he said ‘Yes’, you’ve got access to my clubs, my events, my afternoon pool parties, it just makes it so much safer and simpler. You can get in the nightclub and with his authority have free reign to shoot what you want.
TM: How much are the holiday reps that guide tourists around responsible for getting people especially hammered and prone to trouble?
PD: The reps misbehave as badly and in my opinion worse than the tourists. It was quite concerning, you go on a pub crawl and the reps try and get the prettiest girls and the prettiest boys drunk as quickly as possible. They administer free alcohol, they pour it down tourist’s necks, they pour it down their own necks, it’s not everyone, but at the end of the evening I saw some reps who were much worse for wear than the people they were supposed to be monitoring and trying to look after. I definitely saw more mouth ulcers on the reps than on the tourists, make of that what you will.
PD: Is there any wisdom you picked up in your time making this book?
Wear solid shoes. I saw so many people with cut feet from dancing in clubs in flip flops who’d trodden on broken glass, it was horrendous (laughs). People may have this perception of the Brit abroad of this flabby, sunburned, pasty red-head, but generally I thought the men kept themselves pretty fit, I mean if you’re going to be in the pulling pool there’s a lot of competition out there. Not much has changed since I holidayed as a teenager in the 80s, there’s more tattoos now (laughs).
Another important thing I’d say is get insurance, it’s £14 for two weeks. I met so many people who didn’t have it, there were fatalities from balcony falls all the time, the year I was shooting there were nine fatalities in Magaluf alone. For one individual, it cost ten thousand euros to repatriate his body. There’s one picture of a guy in a wheelchair, that’s Callum a plumber from Scotland. He slipped on the floor in the apartment he was staying in, went through a glass patio door and then fell off the first-floor balcony severing the tendons in both his legs!
PD: He had travel insurance, the company booked three seats for him on the flight back and his insurance cost less than twenty quid. But he was still out having a couple of cheeky vodka and oranges.
TM: What have you learned about Brits and Britishness through your time documenting them?
PD: There’s a stoicism to us, yet a can-do attitude. An optimism, if times are tough people tend to reflect what they’ve done, what they need to do to survive, a get on with it kind of attitude. They’re not as taciturn and violent as you might expect, there’s a warmth there. I’m often asked if there is a North/South divide which I don’t necessarily think there is, there’s maybe a London and everywhere else divide and maybe a rural/city divide, but maybe to a lesser extent.
TM: How do you think Brexit will affect our identity?
PD: It’s worrying. Of course I think people who voted out want to reclaim British identity, but I think that’s impossible, its already gone. It’s of a time, we really need to create a new identity, I’ve no idea what that is, what that might be, or what the out voters want it to be. It’s exciting times, it’s the next big chapter in British history, I guess as a photo journalist it’s my duty to start to document it, to photograph today what might be relevant tomorrow, what might have changed five years hence. It’s a difficult one to predict, how will our flag look in five years? Will it have the saltire removed from it? Will we be back to the red on white cross, with a little Welsh thrown in? Who knows?