The Idle Man Collective 001: Then There Was Us

Welcome to the first feature from the new Collective Series by The Idle Man. Where we meet up with interesting men who either work in the creative industry, or we just admire the work they do. Styled in our most recent collection, and photographed by our Editor Cal McIntyre, read the full feature below as we believe it’s more about what we do, rather than what we wear.

Meet Jonathan Tomlinson and James Wrigley, the founders of the Mancunian creative powerhouse platform THEN THERE WAS US. What’s so interesting about their independent publication is their simple aim: “Unlike most publications we have no interest in the commercial, you will never see advertisements or sponsored content”.

Their primary focus is to provide a platform for those who document, question, and record the world that is around them. With beautiful contributions on a global scale from photographers and documenters Then There Was Us is a glimpse inside the personal worlds on a global scale. With the ongoing debate of no longer paying creatives with the dreaded word of ‘exposure’, Then There Was Us premise is to work alongside communities, collectives, galleries and institutions with the hope of creating a tightly knit network of creatives showcasing their work.

Artists in all their many forms can submit to Then There Was Us with hope to have a feature on their platform. Whether it’s their ‘One To Watch’ series or even a chance to have their editorial featured online. The magnitude and quality of work featured on Then There Was Us reveals the respect shared amongst the communities of artists for what Jonathan and James have created, and continue to uphold against the commercialisation and potential profit that fuels society. Everything that Jonathan and James make goes straight back into their independent platform to continue to showcase talented artists work and add to their archive of emotive and beautiful work.

If you want to know what Then There Was Us is simply about, they have created a manifesto of sorts that has almost been adopted by many artists who believe in their ethos and has been shared across platforms and sign of unity against a society who doesn’t value the creative industry enough.  Read their powerful manifesto below:

We travelled up to Manchester to meet the duo behind the network of collaboration in the genre of documentation and journalism in its many forms to find out everything about Then There Was Us. Styled in The Idle Man Autumn/Winter18 Collection, Jonathan and James insightful and powerful interview and editorial is below.

Where did the initial idea for starting Then There Was us come from? Was there a spark-like moment that you remember having to begin creating this platform?

Jonny – Then There Was Us was created in 2014 whilst in my third year of Digital Photography at Salford University. After feeling unmotivated with photography, my lecturer, Dave Gee, introduced me to a number of small press zines and magazines that he’d shipped over from Europe. I remember getting really excited as i’d never seen anything like this in Magma or Cornerhouse before. Aware that I enjoyed Indesign and more graphics based work, I thought of a name and started my research.

The initial idea for Then There Was Us was to release a small run zine that included photographers off my course and a few friends. The first zine was 20 pages and ran with the theme of “the body” (original, i know). I remember my friend Henry Gorse allowing me to feature some of his work and being really buzzed off it. After some dodgy Indesign skills and not knowing anything really about print, I printed and sold the zine to people I knew (my mum) and in some book shops around Manchester.

The first “proper” issue, which got partly funded by the University, featured loads of amazing artists and included the likes of Alma Haser and Spencer Murphy, two photographers that had both been involved with the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize in the previous year. It was magical, I couldn’t believe these photographers and artists wanted to help this small platform from Manchester that nobody had heard of. I built the most amateur website on Cargo Collective and people were suddenly sending over submissions to be featured online.

James – I joined a lot later on. The short story is I was already a fan of Then There Was Us when Jonny asked to feature my work, it was pretty much from that moment on that we talked about working together on Then There Was Us. I fully joined some time around late 2017 and built the new site and pitched the manifesto to Jonny, with a somewhat trainspotting vibe.

What struggles did you face with starting this independent project, and do they continue as you keep the platform independent and non-profit?

Jonny – I guess the obvious struggle with starting any platform will always be funding it initially. Except the University partly funding the first issue in 2014, i’ve funded Then There Was Us myself, just through saving up money over the past couple of years from working in a bar. I work full time and work on Then There Was Us in my spare time, along with other projects. It can be exhausting at times but the satisfaction you get from featuring artists always reminds me why we keep going.

James – We would love this to be a full time job, with funding, and decent amount of time to produce all the workshops and projects we have in mind. However, the reality is that keeping a project non-profit out of respect and an ethical choice is hard work. Luckily the pair of us working together to fill a lot of areas we don’t need to spend money on. We both curate and collect features, I work as a programmer and designer so building sites and online projects cost nothing other than time and hosting. As for print, we are both designers. Everything you see from the code to the writing is done by us both and so far we rely heavily on people wanting to be part of what Then There Was Us stands for.

What’s the most satisfying and fulfilling achievement you have earned with TTWU?

Jonny – I guess the most satisfying achievement is probably the day to day appreciation of the magazine and watching it grow. Over time more and more people are naturally following and supporting what we do. We have a lot of people getting in touch just to say how much they appreciate what we’re doing. This is always very humbling and just pushes us to take it further. The manifesto that James talks about is also something that has really set our ethos in place as a brand. I was incredibly happy when James came on board and pitched this to me.

James – For me it’s the response to the manifesto. I wrote that one night after being turned down from another job where some rich kid could afford to intern for 12 months, obviously he was going to get the job. I just spilled how I felt about the creative industry for new comers, and what you read on the manifesto is the short version! But the response was great, it seems a lot of people really connect with that.

A lot of your contributions often reveal socio-economic difficulties with their home country, was having a political dialogue something you always wanted your community of artists to discuss and portray through their imagery?

Jonny – I guess we both have similar views when it comes to politics and beliefs and see the effects and importance of it within our day to day lives. Then There Was Us having a political edge and including work only came naturally really. I feel more and more people are starting to care and get involved in politics so therefore naturally, more work of this nature is being sent across. It’s a good thing for sure!

James – I agree with Jonny, we feature mostly documentary work for now because it is an area that we are both interested in, and in fact both create work, so a lot of those works that we feature are naturally political in some way, I would never say that Then There Was Us was a political publication, but rather one where we have no worry or restriction in showcasing stories. For myself I see it as supporting those ideas, or at the very least I hope that they spark some debate or questioning. I have always said that photographers need to be more objective, and I think that we as a magazine are pretty objective with some of views.

In terms of the unknown, what is the hope for TTWU for the future?

Jonny – I’m not actually sure. We’ve got so many ideas that we want to turn into projects but with us both working full time jobs and living in different cities, it can be limiting at times. We’re taking it slow as we want to make sure things are done properly. Releasing a new issue and looking back onto it in a year and us hating the design would be our worst nightmare. I feel it’s important to do things properly and care about what you’re creating, if not, it’ll just be like everything else.

James – We have a lot of projects waiting to be launched, but like Jonny said it’s not about to happen all at once, some reasons are because of time, some because of money, mostly though, we are waiting for the right time to launch these projects. So much of the publishing industry is about fast paced work, new publications come and go because they are pushing for new content every day, every few hours in some cases.

I think that most people will find that what we have planned for Then There Was Us in the future will be somewhat refreshing for a publication like this. Our ethos is to work within communities, both the arts institutions and education, the individual and the local communities of towns across the UK. But thats all I can really say right now.

How did you begin finding this global community of artists wanting to contribute to your platform?

Jonny – I feel the community of photographers submitting to our platform is mainly down to natural growth and us putting in time to research. We both studied photography at University and have connections through friends and i guess word spreads. We’re getting some really strong submissions at the moment, which is really exciting.

James – We both spend most of our time around photography in some capacity, we have a healthy mix of submissions and sourced content. A lot of our latest interviews are people we seek out because we want to support them in some way, even if that is just featuring their work. But we started local and try to keep to our roots without falling into any traps or clicks, we refresh what we are looking at quite often to stay somewhat on the pulse…

With the social-media fuelled society we live in what are your thoughts on the relationship between artists and the digital age? Does this affect your personal opinion on how Instagram has changed the way artists interact with the world through social media platforms?

James – It’s interesting that you mention this, I am currently writing an essay at the moment that looks into this quite intensely. I have been interviewing artists and found that many have similar issues, health problems, or have gone through similar scenarios with their relationship to being online.

I think you can look at this in a number of ways. The idea of social-media isn’t a bad one, but rather what it has become is bad. It’s well known that social media as it is now is damaging to your mental health increasing anxiety levels, stress and depression, it decreases our attention spans and has made us want instant gratification for almost everything in our lives, with the worst of it being that most of us don’t even realise this. You can clearly see how this is affecting both the arts, publishing and our own lives socially and with each other.

You look at documentary work coming out of universities, and in fact university education itself surrounding documentary photography, long form journalism is simply not in question, partly because of deadlines for a brief, I get that, but the idea of spending, 10, 20 years on a project isn’t common and I would argue that a lot of new photographers fail to go back to their projects over a few years and instead produce short, surface level documentary projects. This isn’t even the fault of photographers, and these project are not bad at all, I simply believe that the publishing industry are partly to blame for this. Without naming them, you will see a lot of online publications produce, maybe, 4 to 8 features a day, factor in the socials, facebook posts, instagram posts etc. You could easily average this out at 30 features a week, so if you are featured on the homepage on a Monday, you’re not even on it by Wednesday. All because we are stuck in this economy of attention, followers, likes, constantly wanting attention for advertisements, etc. This just doesn’t seem to respect anyone and I think that publications fail to support those they feature by drowning them out in new work.

Obviously I can’t explain myself fully here and I could talk for hours about this, but my main point I am trying to make is that I think that social media has made us lose respect for work in relation to time, I like that we are somewhat slow at Then There Was Us, I like that we don’t feature a lot of projects in one day, because we can give the respect those projects deserve by having them visible on our site for a longer period of time, and for the most part, stay in touch with those we have featured. We have a long way to go at Then There Was Us before I feel that we are truly justifiably ethical regarding social media and its use within the arts but I don’t claim to have the answers.

Is it important for you both to keep TTWU Manchester orientated?

Jonny – Manchester was where we both met and where we both still meet up. It’s a great city with a great scene for both art and music. We’ve got Liverpool and Leeds close-by and there’s a lot of cool stuff going on within both of those cities. I feel the sense of community is a lot more real up here in comparison to London. London is where the majority of the creative industry happens and is a great place to boost projects like this, however i feel with what we want to achieve with Then There Was Us, it’s more likely to stay grounded in Manchester.

James – For me it’s about being grounded. I don’t like the idea of this London hub, I think that the city is great for many reasons but I find the idea that you are only going to make it if you are in London is one of the most toxic things to creativity in this country, not only because that type of thinking further establishes the idea that if you are not in London you aren’t good enough or you won’t make it but also because it means that you are stopping people from trying elsewhere, simply because they aren’t in London. For me Then There Was Us will never be a London based project and most of our projects and workshops will be first and foremost centred on the small towns of the UK.

Interview and Photography by Cal McIntyre.

Assisted by Caitlin McHugh.

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