by Adrian Arbib
All the pictures are taken on Port Meadow Oxford, a 400-acre area of common land in the centre of Oxford. It's arguably one of the largest common spaces inside the ring road of any city in the UK. It has been continually grazed for over 2000 years. Originally given to the Freemen of oxford by King Alfred in 900 AD as a gift for fighting the Danes, it remains steeped with history. During the civil war King Charles camped on the meadow as he fled the Parliamentarian forces and the foundations of the battlements can still be seen. In the first world war a flying school practised bombing runs by throwing jars of paint out the planes' cockpits onto a concrete block, which is still there.
Today land use has changed dramatically and the meadow is under constant threat of encroachment by large property developers who would have built all over it had it not been for the heavy flooding that occurs every year. To this day, cattle and horses are grazed (approx. 700 livestock) on this land, and rights to this are in the form of Freeman and commoners rights, which are exercised by only a few. However, the term 'common land' has been interpreted as a place to walk dogs, watch birds, fly kites, and generally enjoy the experience of a wide open space.
Every day I walk my dog here. I became fascinated by the people that I met (many were regular visitors, as I was). All had a very strong sense of affinity for the meadow and the place has become an integral part of these people's identity, something that I felt I lacked as most of my work has been photographing in Africa and famine struck regions of the world. Photography for me had become 'fly in and fly out' and rarely did I have the privilege to become part of 'the picture'. On one occasion, however, I had the chance to live in a traditional Turkana village (a tribe in Northern Kenya) for an extended period. Land was vital to these people. With no place to graze their livestock they would perish. Their land was a common resource. lf one group over-grazed a particular area it would damage it for another one, and so on. A self- regulating equilibrium was thus established.
I feel that these black and white portraits reveal the more intimate side of the place. Everyone has a deep affection for the meadow. It is this somewhat abstract love of land and space that I wanted to depict: all that is left of the idea of common rand use. The conclusion perhaps is that people in the west are fantastically removed from the land. Unlike the Turkana of Northern Kenya land is not essential for survival, but is something to be enjoyed, and of emotional importance only.
The meadow has given and still gives me the ideal opportunity to contemplate one single place over a long period of time... a sort of photographic meditation.