Solitude, insignificance & battery hens- An interview with Jo Tammaro

Ovenden Contemporary founder, Craig Kerrecoe, begrudgingly returns to his former hometown of Broadstairs in Kent to interview his cousin, the Photographer and Ovenden Contemporary member, Jo Tammaro…

We are sat in a first floor restaurant overlooking Broadstairs Harbour. Jo has just joined me and we’ve ordered coffee. It’s very gusty outside and the sea is choppy. In spite of the inclement weather, the restaurant is quite busy and there is lots of activity outside along the harbour wall. Bad weather seems to bring people out in this part of East Kent. They gather along the coastline and watch the English Channel misbehave. I used to do it myself.

Thanet, on the far eastern tip of Kent, in England, is surrounded by the sea on three sides with only one direction to head in when you want to leave. It used to actually be an island and to me it somehow remained so. It left me feeling claustrophobic and trapped for most of the time I was there as an adult.

I haven’t seen Jo in a long time. I moved away years ago now and, to be honest, I don’t like to come back. It would be fair to say that there’s a distance in our relationship as well as our locations and I feel a little melancholic at that realization. I break the ice.

“This is a wonderful place to come and watch the Harbour. This is one of your favourite places?” I ask.
“Hhhm, definitely. In the summer it’s manic, but if I can find a quiet spot, get past the hustle and bustle, you know- the smells of suntan lotion, candy floss and cockles, it all takes me back to my childhood holidays in Cornwall.”
“It’s really cold out there though? Is it still appealing to you when it’s like that?”
She frowns adamantly. “Definitely! It’s in the winter when I get drawn to the beach- when the tourists have gone home and I have it all to myself! The sea seems that much more unfriendly and powerful at this time of the year.”
“That’s an interesting thing to say. Is there a correlation between ‘unfriendly’ and ‘powerful’?”

The coffee we ordered a few minutes ago is delivered by an Italian looking waitress in her twenties. She enquires, quite brusquely, if we want lunch. Jo tells her that we’ll have the menu in 15 minutes or so which sends the young waitress off in a huff. They could probably do with the table but we booked in advance and we will eat soon so we both ignore her little tantrum. Jo samples her espresso before she answers my question.

“The sea, when it’s like this, is powerful- in that it’s an uncontrollable force of nature. The tourists get their sparkling blue sea littered with lilo’s and rubber boats and their sandcastles being swamped in the bay by a sedate incoming tide… that’s the sea being friendly. I get this…” She raises her hand and gestures towards the window. “The sea can relax and be itself in the winter, it lets loose. The cold wind, the rain stinging your face, trying in vain to protect your camera from the salt in the air- this contrast is my ‘flip side’. It’s stunning. It’s unfriendly, perhaps, to the summer tourist, but it’s my haven of peace. There’s nothing better than this to clear the mind!”

From the phrases Jo is using, I get the sense that she considers herself to have a certain ‘possession’ of the sea outside our window- it’s her ‘flip-side’, her haven. I find this intriguing. Living so close to the sea for so long tends to leave one taking it for granted but with Jo, her continued exposure seems to make her more aware of it and it’s effect upon her. It sounds like she considers the frequently dramatic coastline around us as her own personal refuge. This is where Jo comes to escape.

“There are lots of beautiful coastlines to choose from here, and the ones I choose to escape to have no restaurants, no ice creams and cockles.” She takes another sip of espresso. She appears unimpressed with her coffee and I have to agree. We both know a good coffee when we taste it. This isn’t it.

“This bay we’re at now is great to get a sense of the typical seaside town. It’s perfect for capturing the essence of the seaside- fishing boats, beach huts, even in the winter. But if I want to escape, I choose somewhere else, more deserted, more rugged.”

There are plenty of isolated, rugged areas here. Jo and I used to go off exploring with our siblings when we were children. We’d be gone for entire days at a time with only enough money for an ice-cream to keep us going. There was none of the current safety paranoia surrounding children in those days- we just left the house and kept going until we got bored, or hungry. Looking back, Thanet was a great place to grow up, in the past tense at least. I’m not sure about now- my children are growing up somewhere altogether different so i’ll never know. I ask if Jo has any ‘special’ places along the coastline that she escapes to?

“Perhaps I’m biased, but when I walk out my front door, I’m just 200 feet from Botany Bay.” That’s just convenience, surely? “No. It’s not my favourite place to escape to because it’s convenient, it’s my favourite place to escape to because it’s beautiful with it’s coves and hidden caves. I can spend hours down there in the winter and sometimes not see a soul. I like that.”

She entered a photograph of the Botany Bay cliff tops into a local competition recently. How did it fare?

“It didn’t win. The winners were the typical touristy views of Thanet.” she adds nonchalantly. “I think that best sums up that my preference, my places to escape to are those less known, tranquil spots where I can find some peace, find nature at it’s best.”

I notice how loud the gulls are outside. There’s a Chip Shop nearby and the tourists throw chips at the birds so they hang around outside like hoodied teenagers, intimidating everyone. I’ve personally witnessed a gull go through an open shop door and take pastry from a counter. They’re a nuisance- just another thing I don’t miss about being here. I mention it to Jo.

“They were here first!! Everyone gets so irate with these birds. If you live by the seaside you should expect gulls!” I consider myself suitably told off, even though I don’t live by the seaside, not anymore.

The year is split in half for Jo Tammaro. There’s the summer season, from April to early September, when the sun shines (sometimes) and the tourists drive down the M2 en masse and invade Thanet, day after day. Then there’s off-season, when the wind blows and the sea crashes and the sky greys and the tourists go to Bluewater Shopping Centre, an hour away, instead. You can see this effect, to some degree, in the images that she creates. There are the signature off-season photographs with waves breaking over harbour walls and then there are the beautifully crisp spring-like images of the yachts in the Royal Harbour at Ramsgate, the sun shimmering off the mill pond sea. It seems obvious which one she prefers. Jo is proud of the fact that she has been to Bluewater, a breathtaking cathedral to the new religion of shopping, only once.

“You’ve turned to photography only recently. What prompted that?” There’s barely a pause. She’s thought about this already.

“The only thing I can pinpoint it to was a gorgeous autumn day last year.”
“What happened?”
“ I was enjoying the solitude of Botany Bay and just happened to have my not very impressive digital camera with me. I was walking along the beach and, out of nowhere, through the gap where a cliff has separated, I disturbed a huge flock of birds,. They must have been feasting on whatever delights the rock-pools held that day.”
“You’ve made it clear that you like the sea birds but what was so amazing about that?”, she smiles briefly.
“They all rose into the air at once and flew in unison about ten feet off the ground along the entire stretch of that bay.”
you had your camera with you.”
“Yes, so I snapped away. I only had about 2 seconds to get my shot but I was so excited I ran home to see what I’d managed to capture.”
“Were you pleased with the results?”
“No, not at all. I was hugely disappointed! The quality of the picture was awful and the zoom on the camera was inadequate. What I had in my mind’s eye wasn’t what I saw on the screen and that was so frustrating! I was gutted!”
“So how did that lead you to taking photography more seriously?”
“Well, that same day I went out and bought myself a new camera.”
“The improvement in quality was immense. Everytime I go out with my camera now, I want to see what it can do. It’s like a challenge. So, that’s the moment I started taking it seriously, spending hours at a time experimenting and then more hours at my computer seeing what the results were.”
“It’s something that was already in you though?”
“Yes, I’ve always been a bit of a snapper and, possibly, it’s a natural progression from my past interludes with drawing, graphic design and suchlike. Imagery is a powerful thing. There’s nothing more satisfying than capturing something you’re passionate about, which for me is the area in which I live, my children, my multitide of animals. My passion for this even took over with my dislikes once, which shocked the hell out of me! I got the most amazing image of a spider, hairs on legs and all… I HATE spiders!” I can confirm
she certainly does.

This is an interesting point. The powerful, unfriendly sea isn’t Jo’s only haven. She has other ways of ‘escaping’. The world of Tammaro contains a veritable menagerie of animals as well as three fast-growing sons. She keeps horses (a keen interest since she was a girl- she cajoled me into riding once), shows Boxer dogs and has all sorts of other four-legged creatures sharing her attention. No spiders though. So are the animals another way of ‘removing’ herself from the tribulations of life?

“I’ve just acquired my first prospective show dog, so we’ll see how things go with her. The place in my life that my animals inhabit has been the subject of much thought lately; I’ve come to the conclusion they fill a space where perhaps other things should be. They don’t let me down either! Do you remember ‘cat woman’ of Ramsgate? That’ll be me one day, you mark my words.” She smiles…uneasily. Many a true word spoken in jest. “I feel the need to fill my entire life up with ‘stuff’. I have my three sons, I work part time, I have my horse as well as the other dogs and smaller animals and soon i’ll start travelling around the country showing my boxer pup.”
I agree- that’s a fair bit of ‘stuff’.
“I’m also thinking about rescuing some battery hens…” She raises up her hands to me as a gesticulated ‘stop sign’. “I won’t even go there- this isn’t the time or place, but suffice to say I’m passionate about all living things! My eleven year old has been a vegetarian for three years now.”
So where does photography fit into this crammed schedule?
“I can’t bear to leave a minute spare, life is for living, and whatever I try to do, it doesn’t seem to fulfill me – I feel that I’ve still to find my niche and have a burning need to be hugely successful at something.” Photography? “I’ve yet to ascertain!!!”

By now, we have decided that we wont be having lunch at this particular establishment. The wind outside seems to have raised it’s game in the time that we’ve been talking and Jo is keen to get out there and remind me of what I left behind when I relocated. I’m not so keen of course! I don’t appreciate the wind at the best of times- it makes my eyes leak. When that wind is carrying a tonne of superfine sharp sand, it’s even less appealing.

We put on our coats, pay for the average coffees and leave the restaurant with a tirade of ‘dirty’ looks from the young waitress who didn’t appreciate us being there in the first place. We are taking a short walk to the end of Broadstairs harbour wall. Several ‘hoodied’ Seagulls approach us in the expectation that we will throw them some scraps; I don’t dare to shoo them away.

“You referred to your graphic design experience earlier Jo. How’s business going these days?” Jo took a life-changing decision to return to full-time education several years ago and embarked upon a Media Studies course at Canterbury Christ Church University. She has since become a freelance Web-Designer and does quite well for herself.

“It’s going well. I run a few sites of my own, for various things, which allow me to experiment and try new things – then I can pass that experience on to my client’s. I have to admit though, as much as I enjoy web design, I’ve recently been turning work down in favour of spending more time doing graphic design. I’m currently sub-contracting for a company that produces CD’s of graphics; I’m in the middle of making my first CD. My own trademark has recently been applied for, which means I’ll be doing it under my own label, which I’m really excited about.”
“So your decision to return to education was a good one then?”
“I did that when I was thirty years old- that was such a dangerous age for me! Talk about crisis! I could have ended up doing anything! I’m concerned now because I turn forty soon. I wonder what I’ll hit everyone with then! But yes, the decision to go off to Uni’ was the best thing I’ve ever done. It really opened my eyes, design wise, and my confidence really grew. I hadn’t realised how narrow-minded I’d become.”
“How do you mean, narrow-minded?”
“I mean I was in my own little, insulated world, with no real feeling of what else was going on out there and no real desire to know. Going to Uni’ opened doors in my mind, so to speak. I learned the why and how of design, the theory behind it. Although it all made perfect sense, it’s not something that I am aware of filtering into my photography. I don’t take a photo once I’ve worked out if it complies with the ‘rule of thirds’. I take a photo because something inspires me to, because I am blown away by an image. Technical theory stuff doesn’t come into it for me, I’ve got to feel the image.”

The wind is really howling across Viking Bay and hitting me straight in the face. My eyes are watering and I’m grateful for my scarf, although that wont protect me from the spray that is easily clearing the wall of the harbour. I notice that we are the only people here. Everyone else must be in that restaurant watching us. Mediocre coffee seems like an interesting proposition after all. We stop at the end of the harbour wall and stand at the railings. I receive an instruction…

“Look at that Craig.” Jo points with her right hand at the sea, forcing me to look into the wind. I oblige, somewhat reluctantly. “The sea is ferocious; the waves are rolling in incessantly crashing into the harbour wall and drenching us in waterfalls of salty water. The mere sight of those dark heavy clouds that have appeared in the last hour, coupled with this biting wind and our drenched faces urges you to back away.”
It does…it really does.

“It’s like the sea is tempting us to get closer to see it’s beauty; close enough that it’ll grab hold and sweep us away.”

Right on cue, a large wave breaks against the harbour wall, sending icy cold spray up to us.

“But look, can you see that?” She points again to a small dot in the waves, outside the harbour walls. “In the midst of this chaos is a lone surfer, sitting on his board, silently willing the waves to get larger, more powerful; waiting for the big wave that will take him into the bay. He’s insignificant in the power of this whole picture in front of us; insignificant in the midst of nature. This is something worth capturing.”

I return to my car soon after our discussion at the harbour wall, having said goodbye to my cousin and promising to keep in touch more regularly. It was good to see her again- she remains true to herself in way I can only admire.

I sit there for a moment, contemplating Jo’s rather poetic words. Her suggestion that the full force of nature makes us insignificant is quite true and it’s worth remembering every now and then. Engaging with a bad tempered sea, even from the apparent safety of the harbour wall, is a sobering, cleansing experience- like an enema for the brain. It flushes away the detritus of everyday life, bleaching out the stresses and worries so that you can restart your thought processes. It’s worth doing as regularly as possible- even if it does make your eyes leak…

Solitude, insignificance & battery hens- An interview with Jo Tammaro


Joined March 2009

  • Artist

Artist's Description

This is an article extracted from the forthcoming Spring issue of ‘The Bullet’ an on-line art magazine, published by UK-based art-promotions company Ovenden Contemporary.

Ovenden Contemporary founder interviews one of his photographer members, Jo Tammaro, who also happens to be his cousin.

See for more details.

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