Keir’s Story: ‘Everyone wants to record a piece of history’

Bristol photographer Keir provided some images to accompany my very favourite piece of writing I have written yet; all about the Bristol Black Lives Matter Demo earlier this month, which you can read here. One of his photos of Edward Colston’s statue being dumped into the docks has made it into print all over the world, and he shared his story with my Covid-19 archive project 19 Stories, about despondency in lock-down, his feelings on Black Lives Matter and the Bristol demo, and how life has changed since. Read his interview below.

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Keir Gravil lives in Bristol and is an amateur photographer. He tells us his story of how documenting the Black Lives Matter demo in Bristol on 7th June saved him from lock-down despondency, his thoughts about what happened that day, how it has impacted him, and creating an iconic image.

‘The last three months have been spent getting used to the new world around me. I’ve been working from home mainly; trying my best to do my job but keep as much joy in life as I can. Photography gives me a lot of joy; it always has and I’ve been trying out new styles and experimenting with types of photography I’ve not often done. 

Photography has always been something that bolsters my mental health; it makes me feel alive and adds a much-needed sense of creativity to my life. However, lock-down takes its toll on everything and three months in I was starting to become a bit despondent with photography, to the point where I was ready to hang up my camera for good. I’m glad I didn’t, and to be honest the Black Lives Matter protest came at just the right time for me.

I felt it was important to go to the Black Lives demo in Bristol to listen, learn and understand more. I realise that the protest is about listening to those who have not had a voice in the past; to understand the issues that they have faced that I haven’t. I wanted to be there to show support in the fight against racism, but also I wanted to be there to learn.

©Keir Gravil 2020
©Keir Gravil 2020

It was important for me that I contribute at least something and photography is the one thing I knew I could do that would be a constructive use of my skills. I wanted to take photos; I wanted to show people what Bristol was doing in the global Black Lives Matter movement and I wanted to be a small part of recording an important part of history. I didn’t realise at the time that Bristol would make such a huge impact, but now I am so proud that it did. 

You never know what is going to happen at a protest and they are always unpredictable, and that makes photographing them exciting. I packed my camera, donned my face mask and met some friends. I then just started taking photos of everything and everyone I could.

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All images © Keir Gravil 2020

When I photograph protests like this I seem to enter a zone of complete focus, and I love that feeling. It’s like you feel you can accomplish anything and the adrenaline is there to help you. I talk to complete strangers and get to know them a bit whilst asking to take their photograph; I’d never do that normally as I’m very shy and introverted. Being behind the camera changes me and I feel I truly come alive.

I think many of us heard about George Floyd and were horrified. His murder has sent shock waves around the world, and out of it the stories of many BAME people have come to the surface in a very public way. It started a very emotive conversation about who we are and what type of society we want to live in; it also shone a spotlight on our own history that has made a lot of us realise that it is not necessarily the same history that we were taught in school and that it is built heavily on the suffering of others. 

There are many truths we need to admit as a country and learn from if we are to heal. How we answer the questions that have been thrown up by these protests will define who we are and who we are destined to be, and it’s important to get the answers right. Otherwise we’ll be back to where we are currently, and that’s not something our children should have to deal with when we can do it now.

Black Lives Matter is an important movement to shape the future of our discourse when it comes to matters of race, our history, white privilege and equality. I’ve certainly examined my own privilege a lot more over the last week and I’ve been listening and learning as carefully as I can. I hope that the future is brighter, and I certainly think for Bristol at least, we’ve turned an important chapter in the history of the city’s connection with slavery.

I was proud to have been a part of it and it was a privilege to photograph the day. It really was an electric atmosphere, full of emotion, and the impact of speeches both on College Green and at the former statue of Colston was incredible. It’s hard not to feel the emotion in people’s voices as they explain the difficulties and violence they’ve had in life due to racism and prejudice. You’d have to be heartless to listen to everyone and not come away wanting to do something.

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All images © Keir Gravil 2020

There was a lot of talk about whether something would happen to the statue of Colston. It’s an obvious focal point for such a protest, but most people I spoke to thought it might get spray-painted in some way, but we never thought it would actually be toppled. As we gathered around the statue and noticed people climbing on it, I saw ropes and it slowly dawned on me what was going to happen. The crowd was incredible and I remember feeling a sense of anticipation until the point it was brought off the pedestal. It happened remarkably quickly.

Colston, who I’d photographed only the day before next to a poster for the demo, was now toppled. It was an important part of Bristol’s history, and it felt like a much-needed catharsis for the city. Colston was gone and good riddance to him! A new chapter can now begin and I think we can start the journey of healing and learning from the city’s history. More people have learned about Colston and his background in the week since the statue was thrown in the water than in the previous century since his statue was first put up.

© Keir Gravil 2020. Keir’s photograph of Colston’s statue being dumped into Bristol docks is fast on its way to becoming an iconic image of our time, appearing in the press worldwide.
© Keir Gravil 2020. Keir’s photograph of Colston’s statue being dumped into Bristol docks is fast on its way to becoming an iconic image of our time, appearing in the press worldwide.

Documentary photography and photojournalism has always been some of my favourite photographic genres; I love them. I feel it’s important to document the times we live in and tell the stories of people existing during important events. A picture paints a thousand words, as they say, and I was amazed at the reception my shot of the statue being dumped into the water has received. I’ve never had this before and it is somewhat overwhelming.

I was, as far as I’m aware, the only photographer on the far side of the harbour at the time Colston took his final tumble into the water. I’ve lived in Bristol for many years and thought it might be a good spot for a shot. I really love the photo; there are so many layers to it and it truly reflects the times we live in. Zoom in and you can see people of many backgrounds, wearing masks and all with their phones and cameras pointed at the statue. Everyone wants to record a piece of history so I’m even happier that I got a unique perspective. In a small way my photo put Bristol in the spotlight around the world, and that is a dream come true.

©Keir Gravil 2020
©Keir Gravil 2020

The experience had a number of impacts on me, but photographically it has boosted my confidence a lot. I was in the doldrums the week before the protest; despondent at my photography and almost ready just to give it up and move on. I felt a bit useless and talentless, comparing myself to many of the amazing Bristol photographers; I felt unworthy. The protest made me think otherwise; I got such a boost from it and I got my confidence back. I realised that I can take beautiful photos that capture the emotion of the day just like anyone else. It’s almost an awakening for me, photographically. I realised ‘I can do this!’ and to get the recognition of some of the world’s biggest newspapers really made my day. 

I also came away from the protest with a renewed sense of pride in Bristol, my adopted home. Here is a city in the South West corner of England that shouted loudly and made its mark on the world, from New York to London, Hamburg and Singapore. It decided to turn a chapter in its long, often painful history and forge a new path away from Colston and his legacy. I am proud to have been a part of it and to witness an important piece of Bristol history. It is just the beginning of the city’s long journey of healing, but now Colston is gone the sky’s the limit for where we can go.’

©Keir Gravil 2020
©Keir Gravil 2020

Go and check out more of his amazing photography here.

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