A Human Desire to Connect and Communicate

The human urge to reach out, communicate, and to be acknowledged moved Luke Withers to embark on his project, Wireless.

© Luke Withers, from the series Wireless

Luke Withers is concerned with social and cultural relationships between technology and society. In his project Wireless, he looked into amateur radio enthusiasts who continue experimenting with the use of wireless signal. Back in 1897, the first wireless signal was successfully transmitted from a small island in the Bristol Channel to the Welsh coast, marking the beginning of the ‘Victorian Communication Revolution’.

Regardless of our fast communications today, people still find an innate human desire to connect and communicate, and identify themselves using short alphanumerical codes known as ‘Call Signs’. These signals are transmitted and received in the form of Morse Code.

How did you begin to work on your project, Wireless?

The project came about in 2016, during the second year of my Documentary Photography degree. I had been researching the development of telecommunications technology and quickly became focused on the experiments of Guglielmo Marconi; an Italian inventor who pioneered some of the first wireless radio communication. Prior to this project, I had been working with a group of bell-ringers and exploring the intersection of the Church with forms of communication; so the development of the technology was at the forefront of my mind.

To me, the subject seemed really rich; from its beginnings, radio had been met with a lot of suspicion - people used to believe the signals travelled on an invisible physical medium called ‘the Ether’. Today, we know that they form part of the electromagnetic spectrum, of which visible light forms a small proportion. So the potential of the subject having an integral technological link to photography was exciting for me.

© Luke Withers, from the series Wireless

Do you think being based in Cardiff has had an influence on the project, since the first wireless signal ever recorded happened from Bristol to the Welsh coast?

Absolutely, I think it’s important to be able to make work on your doorstep, not least because of the access it provides you with; you can be out making pictures every week. Much to my surprise, Wales had a significant role in the development of ‘Wireless telegraphy’. On 13 May, 1897, Marconi successfully transmitted the first wireless signal across a body of water; between Lavernock Point, outside Cardiff, and Flat Holm Island; a small island in the Bristol Channel.

The significance of this was huge, as it demonstrated the usefulness of the technology; ships and islands could previously only communicate using flags or light signals and were isolated once out of visual range. Rudyard Kipling’s short story ‘Wireless’, from which the project gets its name, alludes to that isolation. The story follows a group of radio experimenters as they receive broken and undecipherable signals from a ship off the southern coast of England. The use of the sea as a separating entity in the story is reflected in the work.

Can you talk about the people you have photographed. How have you met them?

They are a specific group of Amateur Radio Enthusiasts who still experiment from the same two points as Marconi's initial success. Marconi was himself an amateur and so it felt applicable that the project be directly connected to them. I got to know them by attending their meetings every week for several months; learning about their interest and responding to it. They’re included within the work via portraits and images of the radio shack that they operate from. 

© Luke Withers, from the series Wireless

What kind of messages are the radio enthusiasts sending in their 'Call Signs'?

The complexity of the messages varies; at one end you can communicate via speech, just as you would using ‘walkie-talkies’ for example, but generally over much greater distances. In its simplest form, the users transmit their unique ‘call sign’ via Morse code, which is interpreted audibly as a series of ‘dits' and ‘dahs’ or visually as ‘dots’ and ‘dashes’.

The call signs are unique alphanumerical codes that denote the users location in the world; these signals can be sent to the other side of the planet. It was these transmissions that most interested me; they represented a kind of simplistic identity and an integral human urge to reach out, to communicate, and to be acknowledged.

Can you tell us more about this image (above)? What is the machine we are looking at?

This is the transmitter that was used by Marconi in the successful transmission from Lavernock point to Flat Holm island. I tried to limit how much I relied on depicting the apparatus of the experiments, and so anything that liberated me from that was welcome. In this case, the ‘machine’ depicted is a public sculpture based on the drawings of Marconi’s original equipment.

What’s interesting about it is its huge scale; it’s massively enlarged but somehow doesn't seem disproportionate given the antiquity of it. This enlargement creates a monument of a purely functional device and is interesting given the miniaturisation that is inherent in the progression of technology.

© Luke Withers, from the series Wireless

I know the project is still in progress, but do you know where you are hoping to go with it? Has the project developed in the way you expected?

I’ve made a dummy book of the work, which contains a wider edit in addition to the Morse code call signs that I mentioned previously. That’s really how the work is imagined and for me it feels complete and coherent. However, I would be interested in exhibiting the project; I think there could be some interesting possibilities for translating the light and sound signals into an installation, but I haven't had the opportunity yet. The theme remains important to me and is incorporated into ongoing projects that I’m pursuing at home in Northern Ireland, and in Gibraltar.

What has been the biggest challenge you have encountered since you embarked on this project?

Given the invisible nature of the technology, the biggest challenge is finding a visual way of depicting the topic that doesn't rely entirely on historic artefacts. It’s important to find a contemporary connection and to draw out elements of the technology with an aesthetic strategy that is heavily informed and justified. I do a lot of research and so that informs the approach; I enjoy making connections between people, histories and technologies.

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To view more from Wireless, visit Luke's PHmuseum profile.

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Luke Withers is a photographer from Belfast, Northern Ireland. He is currently studying Documentary Photography at the University of South Wales, Cardiff, with a particular interest in exploring the participation of people and technologies into the conceptual and visual approach of image-making.

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