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Adam Dobby on capturing emotional moments in conflict and the impact of war on children and families

We spoke with Adam Dobby to discuss his journey to his first solo show and how photography can create bonds with people in the most dire circumstances.

Are you local to the area?

“I just moved to Cheltenham a month ago. I was born in Oxford, then joined the army and when I left I then moved to London. I’m enjoying living in Cheltenham, it’s a great vibe with nice people and it’s nice to be by the countryside.”

What do you think of the art scene in Cheltenham?

“Well because I’m so new to Cheltenham, I’ve been trying to figure out what the art scene is like and I do feel that there is a change from more traditional art to the contemporary side of art which then obviously fits well with what I’m exhibiting here. With the footfall I’ve had so far, I was a bit worried about the content that I’m exhibiting, but I haven’t had any negative feedback which does show that the clientele whether they’re from Cheltenham or not, is receptive to different kinds of art.”

When did you first have an interest in photography?

“As a young man, with the work that I was doing, there was a requirement to take photographs but not artistic photographs. I've always dabbled in photography and then this exhibition came about because I was fortunate to go and witness historical moments which I felt needed to be captured.”

Do you have any photography or art education?

“Nope, none whatsoever! Just self-taught. I think photography is a silent way of producing something which isn't full of rhetoric. It just allows the observer to make their own mind up and allow their own emotions to flow.”

Are you influenced by other photographers or other artists?

“Well, you’ve got Don McCullin who’s a well-known, world-renowned amazing photographer. I’ve taken huge inspiration from his work and again, his story. He’s covered Vietnam extensively so he's one of my main inspirations in the world of photography. I wish Don would come to the exhibit and see the new generation!”

What inspired you to take these specific photographs?

“Through my work as a journalist, I always felt that the communities that we were going into were very fearful because we had international crews with big cameras and lights. Because I was helping produce the news, I would take photographs primarily of children in these horrendous situations as a way to communicate with them through the lens of my camera. I would take photographs of the kids, show them the photographs, and then make a bond that would then transpire into it a relationship in which the children would receive me and the crews better. Then the children would introduce us to their parents and that would allow our story to sort of flow in an area where we wanted to go.

"In all the different wars that I've covered, I've felt strongly that I needed to be able to leave these communities with a sense of being and hope. There's nothing better than getting a child to laugh and giggle, because a lot of them hadn’t even seen a photograph of themselves at all. Seeing themselves on a screen would make them smile and be happy in such as bizarre circumstance of the war. It helped me to be able to leave, feeling that at least I put a smile on a lot of these kid’s faces using photography.”

What is your process for creating a photograph?

“I’ve thought about the process of putting this exhibit together, but I don't think that there's a conscious thing that I'm thinking about when I want to take photograph. The cattle truck photo, I didn’t even see what I was taking a photograph of. That was in the middle of the desert in Syria and there was this cattle truck they were using to move people around. I literally just put my camera over the back of the truck and took a photograph. So that was a complete fluke, and it's one of my favourite photographs.

The child from the Idlib province, I must’ve have taken about 20 photographs of him and every photograph I took, his expression was completely different. When I looked through the photographs, that was the one that I felt was the best portrait of his emotion.

When I took photographs in conflict, it wasn't about trying to capture gore, blood and destruction, it was much more about emotion and true emotion from where I took the photographs. In the places that these photos are taken, it’s quite hard not to get a good photograph because you have all this intense emotion that these people are carrying and indeed the bizarre circumstances that a lot of us as humans don't have the access to.”

Is this your first gallery exhibition or solo show?

“Before lockdown, I had introduced these photographs to a gallery in London and they loved them but then Covid happened and they closed the gallery. Then, in one of the releases of Covid lockdown, the gallery opened again and they had a competition. I put some of my work in and joined an exhibition with some other artists. I'm quite a private guy and I’ve got hundreds of photographs on my laptop, and a lot of my friends said I had great photographs and that I should get them out to a wider audience.

"When I was considering moving to Cheltenham, I walked by Sixteen Gallery and spoke to Andy (Sixteen Gallery owner). He was very receptive to my photographs and I loved the space so here I am in my first solo exhibit. This has given me the confidence to talk to other galleries and I’ve got a couple in London that are interested, so hopefully this will be the start of a bit of an Adam roadshow of my photography. A few people have been in already and it’s only day two, and I think they enjoy that there isn't any rhetoric around the photograph. They’re allowed to just look and absorb without the sound of a news report – it’s just the visual impact that these photos hopefully produce.”

What advice do you have for other artists who might be looking to exhibit their own work?

“This space is great and Andy is very supportive of new creatives. I think it's just having the self-belief and the courage to expose yourself, which even I’m still finding quite hard. People come in and I try to give them space to allow them to look around, but I think it's just having the courage that you know if you’ve got something that you’re passionate about, you should try and find the courage to share it.”

Are you enjoying exhibiting at Sixteen Gallery?

“Yes, it’s an amazing space, it’s great to have the café next door. We’ve got the weather on our side which is great. It’s a very calming space to be in which helps with the exhibit because obviously the photographs are slightly on the other side of calm, but it gives people a nice space to look at the photographs.”

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