If landscape photography and homelessness appear to have little in common on paper, speaking to Grant Hyatt proves otherwise. Based in the wilds of North Wales, he reveals why nature always provides a home and how – especially during these challenging Covid-19 times – we should turn our attention to what lies on our own doorstep, both in terms of wilderness and the vulnerable people in need of help our immediate communities. Here he talks about how going beyond our own four walls and getting outdoors can give us headspace, a mood boost and a far deeper connection to our surrounding environment.
What do you love about the Welsh wilderness? And where are your favourite escapes?
My absolute favourite is Llyn y Fan Fawr in the Black Mountain area of the Brecon Beacons. It is not the most beautiful – nor is it particularly photogenic – but time spent on this lake’s windy shores are never wasted. Here, you feel alone, wild and free. It’s an incredible place that has had a real impact on me. If I could climb just one mountain, it would be Fan Brycheiniog, the peak that rises above it. It was my muse and medicine for many years when I lived nearby. For all of Snowdonia’s craggy, steep-sided, rocky expanses, none have left me feeling as comfortable as I do there.
I’ve also relished being so close to Glyderau in Snowdonia this year. It’s an otherworldly area and immensely exciting place to walk, camp, sit and photograph – whatever the weather. I’ve also found opportunities to get a small taste for the less-wandered, but no less moreish, like Aran Fawddwy and Benllyn, Carnedd Llewelyn and Dafydd, the Nantlle Ridge, Cwmorthin and have started to get a taste for some of the lower-level wood areas like Coed Felenrhyd. I became a first time dad five months ago, so scouring maps and guidebooks for toddler-friendly walks has become something of an obsession and necessity.
How can wild places help the homeless find their place in the world?
This is something I’ve endeavoured to work upon during my time in homelessness services: trying to reduce some of the barriers around accessing wild places. Taking people out of their normal environments – to woods, windy beaches, remote valleys, or even mountaintops – can go a long way to promoting healthier conversations and more productive support sessions. Offering people something different as a distraction can often develop into a really useful coping mechanism.
The outdoors isn’t a saving grace for everyone, but for many time spent outside can have a really positive effect on their wellbeing: raising their aspirations or helping them take a step toward something more positive. For others, a walk in the hills or listening to the waves crash against the rocks may be just the medicine they need to help quieten their mind and lift their mood. Sometimes problems can sometimes be all-consuming and it’s impossible to see beyond. But take people out of that environment and good things can happen- even if that means just not having to think for a few hours about something worrying you.
Nothing is as versatile or varied as outdoor spaces. They can quite literally be whatever you need them to be. Getting outdoors doesn’t have to involve climbing the highest mountain. It just needs to be somewhere that lets you escape the four walls, where the echoes of whatever is troubling you get louder and louder. If you need space to run and challenge your body, release some exercise-induced endorphins, there’s somewhere for that. If you need some quiet time to contemplate your existence, there’s somewhere for that, too. If you want to do it alone, you can.
What moments have particularly moved you during 13 years working in homelessness services?
There are two stories that will stick with me forever. The first was in Neath Port Talbot. I had been working with a young woman for a couple of months. Whenever I visited, the curtains were always drawn, the lights typically off. She had such low self worth she struggled to shower, put make-up on or even look in the mirror. Over time, we inched toward finding positives. When speaking about the outdoors and a beach half a mile away from her home, we came to talk about flying kites and how she had never flown one before. So our next visit involved kite flying. The joy on her face as the £5 Home Bargains kite flew high above us was such a stark contrast to the person I’d met some weeks before. The outdoors on that day offered her a distraction – breathing space.
The other, more recently, was on a day hike in the Brecon Beacons around Llyn y Fan Fawr with service users from Neath Port Talbot. We wandered up onto the mountain above, Fan Brycheiniog, and on our way down, a man who had a heroin addiction, was homeless and living at night shelters, in hostels and on the streets, said to me: “Do you know what, Grant, I’ve not thought about where I’m going to sleep tonight all day”. To have that worry hanging over you, all day, every day, doesn’t bear thinking about. So to know that on this day, he enjoyed himself so much that he thought about it a little less, made that trip all the more worth while.
What’s your connection to Wales, Grant?
I’m originally a Londoner, but that life is so distant it barely feels my own anymore. I left around 30 years ago, aged eight or nine, kicking and screaming all the way up the M4 to Swansea, where my mum is from. If I had known then what I know now, there would have been fewer tears and tantrums. My connection to Wales goes beyond where I live, it’s about how I choose to spend my time: walking and photographing the wild places here. And also my professional investment in the communities I’ve been fortunate enough to work in.
I’ve recently relocated from the Brecon Beacons to Ruthin, Denbighshire and really lucked out, as it has proved to be a great base for adventures in North Wales. We’re only about 45 minutes from the Ogwen Valley, a place that has a huge hold over me. And we also live in the shadows of a range of other under- appreciated hills: the Clwydian Range, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Why is it important to familiarise ourselves with what’s on our own doorsteps – now during lockdown more than ever?
When I first moved here, I spent much time exploring Snowdonia. But much of 2020 has put the national park firmly out of reach. So during the lockdowns I’ve spent time pouring over maps for my local area, seeking out enticing wanders. Last weekend, I took on a short 30km backpacking trip, traversing the high points of the Vale of Clwyd from Horseshoe Pass in the south and heading north to finish at my front door, which felt fab – walking in smiling, with rosy cheeks, tired legs and a rested mind, and being greeted by my five-month old son, George.
Your landscape shots of Wales are beautiful, Grant. What drew you to photography in the first place? And what is your inspiration now?
Photography goes hand in hand with the time I spend outdoors. Back when I started out, camera phones weren’t what they are today, so in 2012 I took the plunge with my first DSLR. I’ve not looked back since. I’ve never really called photography work, though. It’s definitely more for pleasure. Every now and again I get asked to write a piece for a magazine, or sell a few prints, which feels nice and is a good boost.
Whilst the mountains are my chosen subject, what inspires me most is the weather. I love how the changing conditions completely alter the look and feel of a place, and how this can impact upon your experience. I can visit the same place under different conditions and either leave excited or in a state of reflection. It’s incredible just how powerful a landscape can be!
I’d love to look for ways (and funding) that would introduce vulnerable people to photographing the great outdoors, as I think being outside with a camera helps to slow you down, take a step back and look at what is in front of you differently, which feels like a good metaphor for attacking some of the struggles we go through in life.
Where do you most like to photograph in Wales?
Glyder Fach in Snowdonia is without a doubt top of the list. It doesn’t matter which way you look or at what time of the day, there is something to take your breath away. Whether it’s dawn’s first light hitting the might Tryfan or just the prominence of Castell Y Gwynt – as fine a mountaintop feature as ever I’ve seen.
I’d feel like I was cheating on my beloved Beacons, if I didn’t mention Fan Foel and the view toward Llyn y Fan Fach. I’ve sat in fog here, more often than not, which adds to the satisfaction of trying to photograph this location. It’s a bit like the old nursery rhyme of the little girl, who had a little curl. When it’s good, it’s pretty incredible! But watch out when it’s bad, the wind up here can be brutally cold year round.
Do you have any great tips you’re willing to share for would-be landscape photographers?
Get out often, in all weathers, to the same locations. The effort required to visit places time and time again will really help you push yourself and encourage you to learn about the landscape, the weather and as a consequence, yourself.
Framing and composition can be so personal and there are some really creative techniques around. I would say don’t get too bogged down by what others are doing: play around, experiment. Photography is a journey.