A Mission to Capture all 238 RNLI Lifeboat Stations of the UK and Ireland

When I bumped into Jack Lowe and Neena, (his mobile darkroom in an old converted ambulance), in Cromer in 2015, The Lifeboat Station Project was very much still in its infancy. Now, with 136 of the UK and Ireland’s lifeboat stations captured and 102 left to go until Jack Lowe’s iconic vision of capturing all 238 of our nation’s RNLI lifeboat stations using wet plate collodion is complete, he is feeling rather ecstatic about what is soon to be called his life’s work. I spoke to Jack about his monumental feat.  

Voluntarily led for nearly 200 years, the lifeboats and crews of our coast have been vital to our safety at sea and our nation’s identity. The Lifeboat Station Project is an invaluable documentation of this community of brave, selfless and heroic volunteers. After documenting all the stations by the end of 2022, Jack dreams of an exhibition displaying the images from all 238 stations in geographical order, with Neena and a lifeboat on display alongside as centrepieces.

After teaching himself how to develop film in his bedroom as a kid, Jack then spent the first 3 years of his career as a photographic assistant, before going freelance and then setting up a digital retouching and print making company. In 2014, he got the RNLI’s blessing to go ahead with the project, and do something I truly believed in”, and so he threw himself wholeheartedly into his vision of “making our own good news story in this tempestuous world”.

Jack talks of the use of the wet plate collodion process being the magic ingredient: to the project. He wanted a “one stop process, a process where you would see the finished project there and then in the field… to allow people to access it and feel engaged by it”, particularly the crew, as they all watched their faces appear on the glass whilst squeezed into the darkroom. Jack describes to me how the wet plate collodion process connects the first generations of RNLI crew who would have been photographed this way, with the current ones, through the timeless photographic technique often associated with bravery and courage.

 

Jack says “when you’re there, and you see the emotion of these people, it’s really hard hitting and powerful and it reminds you that what you’re doing is worthwhile”. When I asked Jack to tell me his favorite anecdote, he did not know which to choose, so he chatted about a few;

“I was working at Aldeburgh making a portrait of Tag, the Coxswain. When I poured the fixer on the plate and the image appeared, he got watery-eyed”. I asked, “Are you okay,Tag?” He then described how he has alopecia but that hasn’t always been the case. Tag went on to say that it was the first photograph he’d ever seen of himself where he felt happy with who he was… and neither of us would have thought that the portrait would end up on the front cover of The Independent Weekend Magazine.”

At Howth lifeboat station with mechanic Ian Sheridan:

“We were getting on really well and I asked if I could interview him. He was very enthusiastic, and after he had said all he wanted to say, I asked Ian if he had ever been scared. He ended up telling me a story that was just unbelievable, and I realised in that moment that I was listening to the most extraordinary first-hand account of a rescue that I’ve ever heard in my life. It’s a nine-or ten-minute recording and you can hear that he just breaks down into tears while he is speaking.”

When complete, Jack’s photographs and sound recordings will form a thorough documentation, incredibly important to the history of the RNLI, a band of volunteers who should never be taken for granted. The mental, physical and financial strain on shooting a project of this scale using wet plate collodion is truly tremendous on Jack. The project has been self-funded, as well as by print sales, memorabilia, and help from the public through donations.

To find out more about the project, head to @lordlowe on Instagram and @ProjectLifeboat on Twitter, or go to https://lifeboatstationproject.com.

If you would like to support Jack, please follow this link to find out all the ways that you can help fund The Lifeboat Station Project: https://lifeboatstationproject.com/friend

Jack Lowe – Photographer 

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/lordlowe/

The Life Boat Station Project: https://lifeboatstationproject.com

Article by Collective Photographer Kate Wolstenholme.

If you enjoyed this piece by Kate, check out another Collective interview with Photographer Donald Weber: https://thesouthwestcollective.co.uk/donald-weber-talks-about-photographing-the-radioactive-landscapes-of-chernobyl-and-fukushima/