For a handful of years, Euan Baker has been documenting life in his adopted hometown of Hastings. Inevitably, he has taken to the streets to capture the town’s Jack-in-the-Green procession.

The Hastings Jack-in-the-Green procession, part of a weekend of festivities, is the largest of its kind in the country. The ‘Jack’ leads the procession through the town before eventually being slain, stripped of his leaves as the spirit of summer is released.

Photographs by Euan Baker

'Spring itself was represented by a man who danced about inside a heavy frame which was completely covered in greenery. He was called Jack-in-the-Green or Jack-in-the-Bush; in other parts of Europe he was known as Green George, the Wild Man, or Leaf Man. His name lives on in the sign boards of the many public houses called ‘The Green Man’'.

From ‘A Year of Festivals: A Guide to British Calendar Customs’ by Geoffrey Palmer and Noel Lloyd

The Jack was an important element of seasonal celebrations, particularly those on May Day. Chimney Sweeps, who organised the early Jack-in-the-Green processions, used the Jack to collect money for their cause. The summer was renowned as a quiet period in the trade of a sweep. 

Jack-in-the-Green first appeared during the Milkmaids’ Garland, a May Day custom during which women who delivered milk would dance in the streets and collect contributions from customers and other passers-by. His origins, as a presence on May Day began in the latter part of the 18th century and are believed to have been predominantly visible in urban areas. Outside of London, the Jack was seen in the counties of Hampshire, Sussex and Kent, but rarely beyond.

Photograph by Euan Baker

'Jack-in-the-Green can sometimes be seen in decorations and carvings found in many old churches, often as a face with leaves and twigs growing out of the mouth and ears. This strange character was adopted by chimney sweeps, whose annual holiday was on May Day. He was prominent in their processions, a single green figure covered with gaudy ribbons and tinsel among the black-faced sweeps'.

From ‘A Year of Festivals: A Guide to British Calendar Customs’ by Geoffrey Palmer and Noel Lloyd

According to Steve Roud, in his book ‘The English Year’, he claims that the Jack has been misunderstood and misrepresented in many of his modern depictions. Roud states that he is ‘routinely claimed as an ancient pagan tree-spirit’. His form is regularly adopted by eco-activist and New Age groups. More likely is that the Jack is inspired by the garlands carried by the Milkmaids, a relatively modern, urban custom that has been confused with and ‘tangled up in the complex modern persona of the Green Man’. 

The Jack, in Hastings, has become a powerful symbol of a proud local identity. This weekend, during which the Jack appears, is popularly commemorated with days of celebration. The town is awash with people clad in green clothing, with green-painted faces, onlookers for whom the Jack represents the changing seasons and a lightening of the spirit. Started by Hastings RX Morris in 1983, the festival built upon the folk revival of the 1970s and is now one of the most important days in the town’s calendar.

Photograph by Euan Baker

A revived interest in folk customs has been energised by the documentary work of photographers like Euan Baker, who has compiled a series of photographs of Jack-in-the-Green in Hastings into a zine. 

He took the time to answer some of our questions about his practice and the place he has called home for the last few years.

WT: How did you come to be interested in photography? Which photographers have inspired your approach and practice?

EB: Originally it was my Dad who inspired me to pick up a camera. He showed me his photographs when he lived in Sudan back in the 80s. Sudanese mountains that looked like they were straight out of a film set, busy street scenes - just a general documentation of his time there; the people he came across and what he found interesting.

I studied Print and Time-based Media at Wimbledon College of Arts, but didn’t really concentrate on photography there. I used the time to experiment more with moving images and sound. I’ve always taken pictures, but it’s only been since moving to Hastings that I found my passion for photography again. The town itself is beautiful, but the creativity of the people and festivals are what draws a lot of people in.

Saul Leiter has always been a source of inspiration for me. His ability to document observations in a way that uses his immediate surroundings as a canvas has always inspired me. Picking out key details of a scene and isolating them through the use of composition, colour or available light is a skill I always aspire to achieve.

WT: You've been photographing life in Hastings for some years. How can you best sum up its identity? What makes it different from other coastal towns and cities?

EB: I think the thing that really sets Hastings apart from other coastal towns in the UK is the spirit of the people. It’s a town that has tradition deeply rooted in the heart of the community, whether that be fishing, festivals or folklore. It’s full of life, creativity, joy and history.

My family are from East Sussex, so when I moved here three years ago it made sense to me. I fell in love with the place, the people that live here and how unique it is.

It faces a lot of problems at the moment just like the rest of the UK. But despite the hardships, the community spirit remains strong, and people are willing to speak up and fight for what’s right.

And party, any excuse for a party.

I feel as though my photography is an attempt to document the free spirit that is felt here and capture what makes Hastings so unique - it really isn’t your average seaside town.

Photographs by Euan Baker

WT: Your documentation of Jack in the Green celebrates a successful folk revival in Hastings. Can you explain how you began the process of making this work?

'Folklore has been prevalent throughout Sussex for centuries. Jack In The Green has been a staple to Hastings life for years, but recently that culture has been brought to the masses. It’s growing every single year.'

EB: But to be honest with you, I just threw myself into the belly of the beast. I didn’t plan it and I didn’t think about it too much. The ironic thing is I was actually fired from my job on May Day because I was standing up for fair pay for my coworkers. This meant that I was free on the Monday bank holiday to take pictures of the procession and that has subsequently led onto a body of work that you see today. 

WT: A fervent spirit is evident in the faces of those you photographed, how does the weekend impact the local community? 

EB: The winters here are pretty long and depressing, so when Jack in the Green comes around it’s such an amazing weekend. The entire town dresses up green and houses and shops are adorned with spring wreaths. It’s a day of joy - celebrating the end of winter and the beginning of warmer, more exciting days. Everybody just gets so excited for it and it’s such a lovely thing to document. It’s a tradition that means a lot to so many people and I think it’s important to document it in a way that feels special and unique. 

WT: As a documentarian of the day, do you feel removed from the procession, or is the camera a vehicle for your involvement?

EB: Yes and no. There’s always a part of me that just wants to sit back, relax and watch, but there’s always a driving force behind me that has a need to document the moments around me. It’s hard to describe? Growing up I would always rather observe than join in - so I’m always looking for things that other people don’t see or notice, but it can be a hard balance being alert and present for these unseen moments.

 WT: There are moments of quiet and tenderness within your documentation of Jack in the Green. How do you find these amongst the freneticism of it all? 

EB: I like to capture the elements of what makes a festival special, the immense amount of time and effort that’s been put into people's costumes, the emotion that is felt by the people attending and the smaller details that some people don’t notice or take for granted. 

I’m a fairly quiet person naturally and I like to keep myself to myself most of the time. So I find these quiet moments easier to find as I’m naturally drawn to them. I might go and take a few minutes away from the crowds and I will notice something away from all the chaos. 

Photograph by Euan Baker

WT: What is your favourite image from within your zine?

EB: I’d say the green-faced child with the red headdress on. I feel it portrays the emotion of witnessing Jack in the Green for the first time and the feeling of being part of the community. It showcases the innocent sense of wonder that encapsulates the whole festival.

Because it is wild, it is weird, it’s crazy and that’s why we all love it so much. 

WT: How did you design the zine and who did you collaborate with during the process?

EB: It took quite a while to sift through the photographs and select pieces that I thought would work. And then even more time fitting that big jigsaw together. I tend to overcomplicate things sometimes, so my good friends and designers Charlie and Clare Noon helped me out a lot. They helped keep things simple and just let the work do the talking - which is a lot harder than you initially think. My partner Mel helped me find a poem that was written by The Bogies - the green people who escort Jack through the town and take him up the hill to be slain. It felt like a nice collaboration that was in keeping with the theme of the festival itself.


With thanks to Euan Baker for taking the time to answer our questions. Euan's images from Hastings Jack-in-the-Green feature throughout this article. More of his work can be seen via his Instagram, and his website (both linked).

His zine, Jack-in-the-Green, can be bought in Hastings this weekend (4-6 May 2024), or via his online shop.

To learn more about Hastings Jack-in-the-Green, head to the official website.


Design & build by In-Col Studio

© Tales 2024