Life and death are not exciting. They are simply that – Life and Death. The difference between the two is, more often than not, made by ordinary men and women who have chosen to make that difference. It is easy to understand how we turn these everyday people into heroes - larger than life symbols to admire but, in doing this, we also do them a disservice. Idolizing rescue volunteers, through their roles in rescue, denies them their full identity including their experiences, thoughts and reflections. In picturing these individuals endlessly crashing through waves, poised ready at the moonlit bow with motors roaring above the endless hush of the sea, we ignore the fact that Rescuers will inevitably return to the quiet and unspectacular happenings of everyday life – homes, families and jobs. It is difficult for us to imagine the space between the spectacle and the banal. It must be more difficult to live it.

Ever since photography struck out as an artistic practice, on its own terms, it has been showing us our lives through the careful negotiation of the everyday and the extraordinary. From the first days of photo journalism, the spectacle has taken hold in our visual lives. Decisive moments quickly translate into iconic moments. As we have become more image greedy, the subtlety of the photo essay quickly became condensed into one all encompassing dramatic shot, capturing in one glorious moment the hero, the humanity and the context so that we could take in more, more quickly. This shorthand shot became the norm as we learned to read more images more quickly. All of a sudden we were used to the empty spectacle – tropes that let us know something was worth noting without delving too deep into the image. A shocking sight that tells us little besides the fact that something has happened. When you include the onset of marketing as an entity, brand recognition and the prevalence of image icons in our media saturated society you suddenly realise that pictorially, icons are all we have left.

‘Volunteer’ harks back to an older tradition in photography. A more embedded way of looking. Instead of furious action we are met with quiet contemplation. These are images of men who look like they have a lot to think about in the quiet moments of their lives. One can't help but see flashes of ‘The Country Doctor' in the work. Young eyes become old eyes glistening in the dark. Worn gear and equipment become a metaphor for success and failure. And the sea, as eternal as that of Gustave Le Grey and Hiroshi Sugimoto, is ever present. A never-ending entity punctuated by the sense memory of men.

Time in photography, as with the sea is a contradiction. To capture moments and fractions of seconds, hours are needed. Relationships built on familiarity and trust take time to build. Here photography is not a glamorous pursuit nor whimsical past time. Hours are translated into images as commitment and training translate to lives. ‘Volunteer’ as a photo essay and book allows us to pace our expectations and ourselves. There is no rush in the aftermath. The ebb and flow of the images allow us to reflect on the reality of being a rescue volunteer and, perhaps, leaves us with a little more understanding of the people who pursue a life a little less glamorous than that of the heroic icon.

Donna Kiernan. Curator.