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Sugar, an interview with Julian Germain

Julian Germain: Extraordinary experiences, loaded with uncertainty

In 2014 the photographic artist Julian Germain was commissioned to respond to the life story of Nathaniel Wells (1779 – 1852) who was born into slavery on the island of St Kitts in the Caribbean, the illegitimate child of a slave woman and sugar plantation owner. Extraordinarily, at the age of 9, Nathaniel was sent to Britain to be educated and he subsequently inherited his father’s fortune, along with the sugar plantations and slaves, including his own mother. In 1802, at the age of only 23 and a mixed race ‘black’ man of African descent, he purchased one of the finest houses in Wales, Piercefield House near Chepstow. From there, he lived the life of a country gentleman and became a magistrate, deputy lieutenant and County Sheriff.

Germain retraced the steps of Nathaniel Wells from his now derelict estate at Piercefield House to his birthplace in the West Indies. The images reflect upon the sugar industry, slavery and colonialism and consider the ongoing significance of the historical links between the two locations, as well as how today’s social and economic landscape continues to necessitate migration and how this movement of people manifests in Wales. The work was commissioned by Fotogallery (now based in Merthyr Tydfil) in partnership with Chepstow Museum (who have a particular local historical interest because Piercefield House is nearby) for Diffusion, the Cardiff International Festival of Photography.

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This interview has been first published in Arts Cabinet website:

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Since 1995 Julian Germain has been working with Brazilian artists Patricia Azevedo and Murilo Godoy on a number of photography projects which are conceived and executed as collaborations with groups such as favela communities and street children, who produce the imagery themselves. In 1998, the book No Mundo Maravilhoso do Futebol was published by Basalt (the proceeds financing the construction of a library and community centre) and the No Olho da Rua collective has specialised in bringing imagery made by these marginalised groups directly to the public in the form of posters, newspapers and flyers displayed and distributed on the streets of the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte. Over more than 20 years a unique archive has been accumulated, consisting of some 15,000 35mm colour negatives. A series of 18 booklets will be published on a monthly basis by Mörel Books from March 2020.

In 2014, Germain set up the Ashington District Star, a free local newspaper for the Northumbrian ex-mining town, founded on the same principles of co-operation that were established in the 1930’s by the renowned Ashington Group of ‘pitmen painters’, who sought to work together to creatively explore their own everyday lives and surroundings.

Germain is a Visiting Professor of Photography at the University of Sunderland and sits on the editorial board of the magazine Useful Photography. He has exhibited his work internationally, notably at the Photographer’s Gallery, London; Parco Gallery, Tokyo; MASP, Sao Paulo; Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead and Fotomuseum Winterthur. He has published numerous books including For every minute you are angry you lose sixty seconds of happiness, The Face of the Century, Steel Works and Classroom Portraits, 2004 - 2012, his extensive global survey about education and childhood in different cultures that was also exhibited as The Future is Ours at the Netherlands Fotomuseum, Rotterdam and Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne.


1/Could you please tell me how you started to work on the project Hidden Presence? What did you have in mind when you knew you were the laureate of this commission?

One of the recurring themes in my work over the years has been time, the effects of its passing, memory, the legacy of the past and prospects for the future etc. I just felt this was rich and deeply thought provoking material. A mixed race illegitimate ‘black’ man who was born a slave on a sugar plantation in St Kitts going on to inherit his father’s fortune and becoming part of the British aristocracy, a slave owner himself. The derelict state of his former home Piercefield House, which in his lifetime was considered the most magnificent house in the country. The realisation that St Kitts had only ceased sugar cane production as recently as 2005 and that if I were to go there it was likely I would be able to find his former plantations.


2/ What was your methodology when it came to work with the topic and eventually with some archive and the reality of the place as you worked on site with the camera?

For me it was a question of how to deal with things that happened a long time ago. A straightforward photograph can only show what is there, now - so it’s a very different medium from painting which is somehow unlimited. On the other hand, with photography, you do have to go to the places, see and meet people, experience the atmosphere etc. So for me it was initially a process of going to Chepstow which was quite difficult at first because, there seemed to be very little on the surface which connected to the themes, although Piercefield House was interesting visually (and seemed interesting metaphorically) in its ruined state. I can remember spending several days walking, driving and looking around the Chepstow area, reflecting on the controversy that was brewing around the nearby Colston Hall in Bristol - because it was financed by Lord Colston who, like many many others, has now been exposed as a slave trader / plantation owner etc. These darker stories lie beneath the surface and they are quite difficult for photography to deal with in a natural way because that knowledge would need to be added with text or by some other intervention. So I was looking for other elements that might connect and I started to notice the - at the time - new phenomenon of ‘hand car wash’ businesses that were springing up, not just in Chepstow actually, but across the UK. Almost all the workers I met and began to photograph were Kurdish refugees or Romanian migrants. I began to sense parallels between contemporary and historical migration, for example, Nathaniel Wells’s father migrated to the Caribbean to trade and set up his plantation business and he never returned, although Nathaniel was sent here to be educated and then he never went back to St Kitts. He and his father’s slaves suffered forced migration of course, but all of their stories are nevertheless entangled with the pressures created by power politics, finance, economics etc.

St. Kitts is a very small island, you can pretty much drive round it in an hour, even on small roads. It is quite hard to imagine that in the late 18th century it was the most profitable territory in the British Empire. But in the local museum there’s an extraordinary map, McMahon’s Map, that clearly demonstrates that the island was in fact a massive sugar factory. It’s a beautifully hand drawn document, precisely recording every one of the more than 200 plantations that reach from the coast inland, as far up the slopes of Mount Misery (the mountain in the centre of the island) as it was possible to cultivate. The military fort at Brimstone Hill, the roads and tracks, all the settlements, parishes and churches and most poignantly, lots and lots of tiny clusters of “negro houses”.

In the St Kitts National Archive I also photographed and filmed another extraordinary handmade document,  the 1817 Register of Slaves. 20,168 slaves are listed and apparently there were around 1,600 white people on the island. It sort of explains the fear white people had. They were hugely outnumbered by a group they were cruelly oppressing so they were using all kinds of strategies to keep them under control. For example, they didn’t purchase slaves that spoke the same language because they didn’t want them to be able to communicate with each other.

3/What did you tell the people in St-Kitts, how did you approach the subject?  

I told them Nathaniel Wells’s story and that I’d come from UK because I wanted to know more about where he’d came from and what he’d owned, even though he never went to St Kitts himself. Actually, in general, I don’t think the absent plantation owners (of which there were many) visited unless they had to. Life in the tropics was regarded as very tough, hot, unhealthy and unsafe - seems strange in comparison to the luxury tourism of today. His story is inherently unexpected and interesting, loaded with contradictions - born a slave in St Kitts, illegitimate, then becoming a slave owning fabulously wealthy, black guy in Britain in the early 19th century. Very few people know about him here or in St Kitts. Perhaps partly because of that there was a lot of interest in what I was doing and I got a lot of help - lots of pointers towards particular places and interesting people. As a result I was even able to make a portrait of four generations of the same family (great grandmother, grandmother, mother and child), three of whom had worked in the sugar industry. The great grandmother (and her husband) had worked as field labourers, the grandmother worked in the processing plant, her daughter was a secretary in the company office and she and her husband were both laid off when sugar production finally ceased on the island in 2005. It was only the four years old child who had no direct connection with sugar. Such ‘Generations Portraits’ (which I have been making for several years) are a way that I have found to provoke thoughts about time, the past, present and future life, death, different peoples experiences at different phases of history. So this is how it went, speaking with and meeting people and looking around for potentially significant motifs that suggested the past is in the present, and then obviously trying to make images that have resonance.

A clear example is the visual and experiential parallel between the state of decay of the former plantations - especially the Vambelles Estate where Nathaniel was born - and the ruins of Piercefield House in Chepstow. I had to hike through incredibly thick bush and jungle to reach Vambelles and it’s so overgrown I was really lucky to find it at all. Eventually, I just stumbled across it, could barely see the chimney because of the tree creepers. And somehow prophetic that Piercefield House which was built on the profits of colonialism and slavery is in the same condition. It isn’t hard to find as such, but it was very hard to get near because of security fences. It was only on my third visit that I found a place to squeeze and climb through and it’s also thick with nettles, ivy, fallen branches and in places has completely collapsed.

4/How does this commission address the topic of sugar and what does it say to us now in Europe and the UK, related to slavery, trade relationships and migration?

I found a lot of direct visual references to the sugar industry on the island, both pre and post slavery, really rich material - it reminded me a bit of NE England where I live and where pit villages and the remnants of coal mining abound. St Kitts is literally scattered with derelict sugar works and factories, totally abandoned and overgrown places, only one of them preserved and beautified as a tourist attraction.

Sugar cane growing and processing was hugely important to the Caribbean economy, and now it’s all but disappeared. I started to question what economic options they have, especially tiny countries like St Kitts. They’ve turned to tourism, become tax havens, traded in real estate developments for wealthy Brits and Americans, even started selling “citizenship by investment”, bringing in much needed cash to St Kitts by easing the pathway into Europe and the US for wealthy Chinese, Kazakhstani and other business people. But of course this stuff is not really for the locals, 75% of whom are black - direct descendants of slaves. Even today, St Kitts is largely divided between black and white…the much wealthier white community are generally living around the golf course area to the south of the island in smart, concrete built ‘hurricane proof’ villas, while most black people are still living in basic wooden houses and shacks. A handful of people are still employed by the gov’t owned St Kitts Sugar Manufacturing Factory Company, which basically exists to sell off its own assets, although the engineering workshop survives, eking out a living fixing machinery.

I visited a cemetery close to one of the old sugar factories and was very affected by two quite recent graves, with white painted wooden crosses, bearing the handwritten name ‘Rawlins’, which I recognised because there were so many Rawlins plantations on McMahon’s Map. Slaves were stripped of any African identity and were only given first names, but after abolition in 1834 they were automatically assigned the surname of their former masters. I realised that these were the graves of descendants of slaves, with Rawlins actually being one of the commonest surnames on the island - I met several - and that there are generations of Rawlins’ buried in graveyards across the island. Their ancestral history of being enslaved is still enshrined in their names and has become part of the soil itself. I found this idea very powerful and I think that as a white British person, I had never had such a close encounter - or such an emotional encounter - with my own historical links to colonialism. The picture I made, presented alongside a life-size reproduction of McMahon’s Map as a diptych, maybe it starts to express some of the things I was feeling as well as addressing the themes I was trying to deal with. Although the conversation about migration is referred to most directly through the car wash workers series I made in South Wales (mostly after I got back from St Kitts), I think they make the topic ‘live’ throughout the whole body of work.

5/Recent movies, like 12 Years Slavery, 2013 or Harriet, 2019 are bringing what was going on during slavery time to a wider audience. Is it a very good opportunity to talk about your work and migration?

They’re both historical dramas really, but yes, for sure slavery during the colonial era was the most emblematic and dramatic period of forced migration and its effects are still being felt today. That’s why the Kurdish car wash workers are so important - giving the work a contemporary perspective and adding another layer to the conversation. I sourced a series of local maps that charted the journey from Iran and Iraq westwards across Turkey, Greece, Macedonia and onwards to Calais - in other words their route to here. It’s ironic that they were mostly in complete darkness, locked in the back of a container truck and they generally had no idea where they were, sometimes even which country they were in; extraordinary experiences, loaded with uncertainty but also the hope for a better life….Anyway, as with McMahon’s Map these various map segments helped to visualise the background narrative.

I invited them to the launch of the exhibition, of course, but they are living a little bit ‘under the radar’ and I wasn’t surprised that they didn’t come. I did give them prints and was happy that they trusted me to include them in the work.

The exhibition wasn’t in a conventional gallery but was sited in the former Custom’s House in Cardiff Bay, which is yet another abandoned historical space. On the outside it’s quite grand, a classic late Victorian building but inside it was abandoned with boarded up windows, peeling paint and plaster. Apparently, in 1948, the Caribbean immigrants were sent there to be registered as soon as they disembarked from the ‘Empire Windrush’ - so even if it was quite a challenging install it was a very appropriate and atmospheric space to display this body of work.

Sugar, an interview with Julian Germain

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