Surreal photos from Britain’s UFO hotspot, Port Talbot

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Roo Lewis, Port Talbot UFO Investigation Club

Roo Lewis, Port Talbot UFO Investigation ClubGOST Books

‘All faith and folklore’: Photos from Britain’s UFO hotspot, Port Talbot

The photographer’s new book, Port Talbot UFO Investigation Club, paints a portrait of the town’s residents via local myths and legends

On summer nights in the small Welsh town of Port Talbot, you might just get lucky enough to stumble across a surreal sight, as rare plankton illuminates the sea with a magical blue glow. This annual phenomenon is captured in Roo Lewis’s new photo book, Port Talbot UFO Investigation Club, against the fiery backdrop of the local steelworks – on the beach, shadowy figures gather to witness the bioluminescent display. “Everyone just walks around like it’s normal, but I see it as some sort of mad dreamland,” the photographer says. “You have mountains, waterfalls, lakes, sand dunes, and this plankton [that turns] the sea a fluorescent blue. The steelworks flares at night, from the blast furnaces, and the sky glows beautifully on fire.”

Lewis’s connection to Port Talbot goes way back, beginning with yearly trips to see his grandad – a “proud Welshman” – as a child, when he and his brother would press their noses against the car window to admire the steelworks as they passed by. From the motorway that cuts through the town, they thought it was a space station, and they weren’t alone: over the years, rumours have circulated that the plant served as inspiration for everything from Star Wars to Blade Runner. Its extraterrestrial appearance is fitting, too, given the town’s reputation as a hotspot for UFO sightings.

In fact, it was a statement from Welsh actor Michael Sheen, about the ‘extremely high number of sightings’ of unexplained phenomena in Port Talbot, that inspired Roo Lewis’s two-year photo project. To gather his eccentric cast of subjects, he even hung posters around the town urging people to get in touch if they’d seen a UFO, and says he still gets responses to this day.

Port Talbot UFO Investigation Club isn’t really about flying saucers and little green men, though. Instead, the book shines a light on the people who gather around the fringe beliefs, folklore, and acts of faith that are interwoven with the town’s history – from Miss Wales, to old bikers, to a man who’s established the world’s only baked bean museum in his flat – and how they continue to pass on these stories to new communities that reflect the changing face of the town.

Below, Roo Lewis tells us more.

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Roo Lewis, Port Talbot UFO Investigation Club

Roo Lewis, Port Talbot UFO Investigation ClubGOST Books

What inspired you to dedicate this project to Port Talbot?

Roo Lewis: Port Talbot is this wild place. It’s surrounded by areas of outstanding natural beauty, but in the middle you have this industrial monolith. I think it can be tricky for us to get our head around history, as the timescales are baffling [but] with the steelworks you have visible evidence of a very human story. People that work in the same steelworks where their fathers worked, and their grandfathers, and so on. Port Talbot is set up around the industry, and the town looks like furniture pointing towards a television set.

In addition to all that, its ability to produce so many icons for such a small industrial town makes it worth a study. When I heard Michael Sheen speak about a high number of UFOs in the area, I had to do something.

How did you go about finding and approaching the people featured in your photographs?

Roo Lewis: My approach was to talk to as many people as possible. There is a wonderful storytelling culture in Wales, and the UK in general of course, so the pubs are full of characters happy to discuss anything, offering their take. I also put up posters around the town – ‘Have you seen a UFO?’ – which got quite a lot of attention. I met some great people, and some key figures in the community, who took the time to understand the project and connect me with others, for which I am forever thankful. Earning trust and building relationships is incredibly important. People can always tell if your motivation is good or not. 

A lot of subjects I approached through research. I became obsessed with the town and learned a lot about the background, context, history and so on. I was forever sifting through books about the area, library archives, community papers, anything I could get my hands on. I wanted to tell a lot of those stories, so capturing important cultural or historical aspects was essential.

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Roo Lewis, Port Talbot UFO Investigation Club

Roo Lewis, Port Talbot UFO Investigation ClubGOST Books

There’s definitely an eccentric streak that runs through the cast of characters – what do you think draws these kinds of communities together in one place?

Roo Lewis: Not everyone that I met and photographed made it into the book, but all those experiences fed into it. I like creating a sense of theatre when photographing people and, once discussing it with them, I would have a clear idea of the location and look we wanted to achieve. I guess I am naturally more attracted to the eccentric characters, but perhaps they are also the ones more likely to discuss these concepts openly and respond to the poster campaign. 

I think all communities have these characters, that’s why humans are so wonderful. With regards to Port Talbot specifically, I think the area is a dreamland, and its dreamlike characters represent it perfectly.

“Port Talbot is a dreamland, and its dreamlike characters represent it perfectly” – Roo Lewis

The town has also produced a disproportionate number of stars and pop culture legends, like its links to Blade Runner. What are some of your favourite tales to come out of the town?

Roo Lewis: There are too many to tell here, but one of my favourites is the George Lucas story I heard several times. Apparently, the director stayed in Port Talbot and came up with the idea of Star Wars after witnessing the nighttime magic of the steelworks (also an inspiration for Blade Runner, so the stories go). Lucas saw the dock cranes, which look like huge robots, and copied them with his ‘AT-AT Walkers’. AT-AT backwards is TATA, who own the steelworks. Sounds great, and it all makes sense, but like many of these stories [it starts] to come apart as you look into the background. (Why was George Lucas staying in Port Talbot of all places? TATA didn’t buy the steelworks until decades after Star Wars was made.) But, like all great stories, there is some truth to it – the Millennium Falcon was built in a boatyard in Pembrokeshire, so the production will have driven past Port Talbot regularly.… who knows? 

I met a steelworker who, during the 60s, was on his final warning for missing his shift – he would often lose track of time in the pub. When Saturday night came, and he did in fact miss his shift, he claims it was because he was abducted by aliens, a story he maintains to this day.

Another favourite tale is that Richard Burton was banished from his home in Port Talbot when practising his projection (an event too loud for a small house) so instead he would go outdoors sounding off across the valleys. They say you can still hear his voice rolling around the mountains. There is warmth and humour but also a romance and a rhythm in the stories, which I love.

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Roo Lewis, Port Talbot UFO Investigation Club

Roo Lewis, Port Talbot UFO Investigation ClubGOST Books

Why did you choose to include UFOs in the title of the book – what significance do they have in the Port Talbot mythos?

Roo Lewis: The project is about identity, hope, community and faith. I love how the topic of UFOs provokes conversation. It stimulates a response from everyone… you can just listen and get a glimpse into someone’s outlook on life. I think your take on conceptual things like UFOs reflects your own metaphysical views on the universe. Some go extraterrestrial, interdimensional, others to secret government black projects. Some people even go to God. Ufology becomes a faith in itself, a belief system we carve in the absence of knowing, or ability to ever really know… we tap into the innate fascination with mystery. 

This, coupled with our limited capacity for truth, makes a captivating subject – a hotbed of storytelling never to be ruined with facts. I think the lights in the sky represent hope. Who knows? We are emotive instruments, evolved as storytellers, and the Welsh are among the greatest. 

What are your personal beliefs about extraterrestrials?

Roo Lewis: I think it’s reasonable to expect other life to exist in the universe, and I don’t think that concept is that out there nowadays. It’s perhaps egocentric to think we are the only lifeform in the universe…. whether they are visiting, or are more advanced, I don’t know. I just like all the stories and concepts that surround it. I met someone recently who suggested that I was the alien visiting this town. I never thought about that before.

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Roo Lewis, Port Talbot UFO Investigation Club

Roo Lewis, Port Talbot UFO Investigation ClubGOST Books

The project shows how Ufology can sit alongside other acts of faith, such as religion, or Pagan folklore. How do these beliefs contrast/complement one another?

Roo Lewis: It’s all faith and folklore! We tell these wonderful stories to one another, passing down our values. I think humans learn best through storytelling and folklore is the best example of this. Any leap from fact to unknown is faith and we all make that jump about something at some point. I think the book is about that, and this eternal battle of trying to understand our own and others’ emotions. 

I don’t want to over-explain it too much, as I want people to understand it as how they make sense of the world, but the UFO Club is about the innate human yearning to connect to one another, and how we do that in whatever language we are able. It’s about being lost and found at the same time.

What would you like people to learn about Port Talbot, that they might not have known before picking up the book?

Roo Lewis: I think it’s easy to judge something for what it isn’t – it’s important to judge things for what they are. Port Talbot is a dreamland. This is not to say it doesn’t have its challenges (it’s by no means a utopia) but it is a place that’s proud of what it is, and full of proud people who haven’t had it easy. [There’s] an ever present tenacity. 

There is a poem by Dylan Thomas, who was born a few miles from Port Talbot, called ‘Clown in The Moon’, and I love it because there is a beauty in the sadness. It has this idea of being on the outside looking in, and memories and dreams being conflated. I made an image of a gentleman called Pancho (part of the MTV Dirty Sanchez crew in the early 2000s) rowing a boat under a rainbow by the steelworks. I got the moment on 16mm reading the poem too. He perfectly embodies the Welsh spirit for me. There’s a rhythm and a romance to it, and it’s like he doesn’t even know the rainbow is there.

I ask – what was the last meaningful dream you had, and was it just happy memories?

Port Talbot UFO Investigation Club is out now via GOST.

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