The Promised Land: a landmark body of portraits by Seba Kurtis

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The Independent Culture

A new body of portraits by photographer Seba Kurtis explores the rich diversity of the British population in a new commission by Vauxhall Motors.

Seba Kurtis first arrived in Europe as an illegal immigrant from Argentina. He followed the dream of a perfect life that attracts many to first world countries, considering Europe as a Promised Land. In this stunning series of portraits commissioned by Vauxhall, Kurtis explores his pre-conceptions of British people whilst simultaneously re-inventing what it means to be British in today’s multicultural society.

Fascinated by stereotypical characters like the English Rose and the British Gentleman, Kurtis wanted to analyse how their modern re-incarnation differs from the original, drawing a parallel between the idealised classic British life imagined as an immigrant, and the everyday reality.

In this cathartic work he travelled to London, Manchester, Blackpool, Cheshire, Birmingham, Liverpool, Bradford, Rhyl and Brighton, where he spent days shooting on a large format camera, documenting hundreds of people. In his personal re-interpretation of classic British characters, Kurtis captures an insightful snapshot of the UK today whilst getting to know the people who are now part of the country’s population.

People like Agata, born in the UK from Polish parents, who spent her childhood in Britain. She moved back to Poland as a teenager, but has now returned to London as a young woman. Agata belongs to two countries andembraces two different cultures; she suffers an identity crisis, a situation mirrored in Kurtis’ portrait, where the young woman is suspended in a dreamy reality and yet conveys her determination to succeed in life.

Gemma was born and bred in the UK. Having left her family, she chose to be a traveller, and makes a living out of performing with her two horses in circus-style events. The portrait depicts the English girl in her bright pink costume, jarring against her dilapidated surrounding.

Sata, an Iranian Kurd, known as Star to his friends, was only 14 when he escaped Iran by swimming to Turkey. It took him two years to get to the UK, during which time he was homeless in Greece, France and Italy. After 6 attempts he finally managed to enter the UK hidden in a lorry, four years ago. He will not be able to see his family ever again, and should he return to Iran, he could face hanging. He still doesn’t have a passport, but has been granted permission to stay in the UK. He works in a kebab shop in Cheshire.

Ahmed, a grocer who has lived in the UK for over 20 years, Jordie, from Manchester, who has been raised in foster care and is now a social worker, Sweet, who works illegally 16 hours a day to support her three children in South America, and many others, contribute to the series of portraits reflecting Kurtis’ view of the UK: multicultural, illegal, aspirational and, moreover, deeply human. As a trademark of his work, Kurtis purposely ruins the films whilst still undeveloped, exposing them to the sunlight for a few seconds. This action results in the photographs taking on imperfections and light, symbolising both a positive message of hope and a reminder that the dream of a perfect life is always to be balanced with reality.

Winner of the Vauxhall Collective Photography category Seba Kurtis was chosen by a panel of industry experts for his ability to create powerful and yet delicate work, drawing from his own personal experience to reflect on universally shared emotions. Commissioned by Vauxhall Motors to create a body of photographs on the theme “reinventing British classics”, he has produced a series of portraits capturing the essence of British people today; whether they are born and bred in the UK, second generation residents or illegal immigrants.

Seba Kurtis is a member of the Vauxhall Collective, an initiative sponsored by the car company.