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In the right hands, street casting can produce beautiful results.

Merthyr Tydfil, a place once home to thriving coal and iron industries, has had its fair share of troubles. Like many of its kind, the Welsh town was struck by dramatic economic decline following the closure of its mines in the 80s. Like any story, however, there are two sides – and Charlotte James, a London-based fashion stylist and a native of Merthyr, is seeking to represent the one that resonates with her.

When Charlotte met photographer and fellow Crack contributor Tom Johnson in April last year, their respective talents found a shared biting point, and the idea for the Merthyr Rising project was born. With the goal of challenging misconceptions and celebrating the charisma of Merthyr’s locals, the pair travelled to the town with camera equipment and suitcases full of borrowed high fashion pieces.

What followed was a series of shoots that enlisted Charlotte’s family and friends, passersby, and people found through social media. “People were naturally quite curious, I think only one or two people said no,” Charlotte explains. “Some days we actually had too many people lined up, so we had to miss out on a few. Everyone was really encouraging and happy to be involved – everyone we met had a story to tell.”

The photographs produced over their stay in the town cast a new light on both their subjects and the clothes they have been styled in. Often recruited on the spur of the moment, the subjects embody a warmth and spontaneity that is frequently missing from shoots with professional models.
“I think subjects who aren’t models can be more natural to work with,” Tom says, reflecting on his love of street casting. “Maybe sometimes they’re unaware of how brilliant they look, whereas a model has more self-awareness in their appearance and will play to that.”

Of the photographs previewed so far, an image of an elderly lady named Phyllis, styled in a pleated blue Issey Miyake blouse, stands out as one of the most striking. Charlotte sheds some light on her story. “Phyllis was 91 years old. Unfortunately she passed away recently, so it’s a real shame she never got to see this project. She had nine grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren and three great-great- grandchildren. She worked throughout World War II in London, then as a dinner- lady until she retired. When we turned up with my suitcases full of clothes she thought I had brought her my washing to do. She is an amazing lady who made us laugh a lot. She kept saying ‘cheese or sex’ when her picture was being taken.”

Another image of a woman called Iris leaps out, her life an ode to living freely. In 2002, Iris suffered from the effects of life-threatening brain virus. “When she recovered she told her husband she wanted to change her style,” Charlotte explains. “So she cleared out her wardrobe and revamped it with lots of colour. She now wears head to toe a different colour every day of the week. The first time I saw her in the town she was dressed all in orange with Hello Kitty trainers on. I took lots of photos of her and fell in love with her.”

While Merthyr is slowly rebuilding itself in socio-economic terms, this collection of heartfelt photographs demonstrates that there will always be positivity and optimism to be found among its inhabitants.

Photography: Tom Johnson
Styling: Charlotte James

Merthyr Rising will show at Box Studio, London, from Wednesday 9 – 13 December