As You Are in North Ronaldsay

On a brilliantly bright, icy cold, winter Sunday afternoon recently I caught up with Giulietta Verdon Roe  over coffee and cake.

I knew that Giulietta had made several visits to the remote Scottish island of North Ronaldsay over a number of years to create a documentary photographic project of the population and character of the island. I was really interested to hear how her photographic project As You Are had begun and why, and what it had been like making the work. The relationships she established with the island inhabitants over time culminated in a body of work which has been exhibited in numerous locations in the UK including The Manse House on the island itself. In an ex-Royal Mail van, Giulietta drove the exhibition from London to Orkney and, due to a storm preventing the ferry taking her work to the island from the mainland, had to freight plane the entire show to the island.

With freezing hands that afternoon we looked through her box of prints and chatted about what had attracted her to the project in the first place.

John O ' Westness, Bay of Ryasgeo, North Ronaldsay 2008

John O ‘ Westness, The only fisherman on North Ronaldsay, doesn’t have a working boat, Bay of Ryasgeo, North Ronaldsay.
Photograph © Giulietta Verdon-Roe 2008 all rights reserved.

 

GVR: “I’d been living and working in New York for three years and in 2007 I found myself unexpectedly back in the UK. Maps have always fascinated me, I’ve always been drawn to the romance of far away places and after living in NYC I’d found myself looking, this time, to those out of the way places which were a little closer to home.

It appealed to me that for this project I would be constrained to a specific location when making the work. I began researching remote places in the UK and my attention was drawn again and again to Orkney and to North Ronaldsay in particular. Being the furthest most northernly island in the UK, it was its isolation which first fascinated me, that and the fact that it is home to both to the tallest land based lighthouse in the UK and had unique seaweed eating sheep. I bought a tent and booked my flight.

In 2008 I set off. Arriving on the island alone, I didn’t know what to expect.  the first thing that struck me was that island life is utterly dependent on the weather. By the time I’d pitched my tent that first night in North Ronaldsay in September it was cold, windy and dark and I was wondering what on earth I was doing…

I’d romanticised the idea perhaps, an island adventure, far away. My photographic process took quite a few days to begin, and it was almost 2 weeks before I made any pictures, I was interested in the stories and so I walked, and I met people and I talked to them, eventually borrowing an old bike to get around.

The conversations were what came first, with the photographs coming relatively late in the process. I was interested in understanding the everyday life of the island, of understanding how things worked there, I wanted to explore the past, present and future of the island and its community. The locals were used to ornithologists visiting, but not so used to people like me, someone who wanted to know about them and the land. It took time for a mutual understanding and confidence to start to become established.”

Heading towards Bridesness, North Ronaldsay, 2010.

Heading towards Bridesness, North Ronaldsay.
Photograph © Giulietta Verdon-Roe 2010 all rights reserved.

 

GVR: “Island life is all about the weather. You are at the mercy of it. I felt very aware of my size in relation to the elements, the vulnerability of everything. I felt that I couldn’t make portraits without shooting the elements. The people are so much part of the landscape, it meant that I didn’t want to photograph the people without photographing the land.”

Jennie O' Scottigar, The oldest lady on the island when this was taken, bringing in her washing, 2008, North Ronaldsay.

Jennie O’ Scottigar, The oldest lady on the island when this was taken, bringing in her washing, North Ronaldsay.
Photograph © Giulietta Verdon-Roe 2010 all rights reserved.

 

GVR “One interesting aspect of community life on North Ronaldsay is that people adopt the names of their houses, as a way to refer to each other. Jenny’s house was O’Scottigar, and that was how she became known. We spent a lot of time talking, We talked about the war, she remembers walking to school with her gas mask in her hand and how heavy it was. She was born on the island and didn’t leave its shores until she was in her very late teens.”

Point of Twingness, Seaweed eating sheep, North Ronaldsay. 2010

Point of Twingness, Seaweed eating sheep, North Ronaldsay.
Photograph © Giulietta Verdon-Roe 2010 all rights reserved.

 

GVR “The seaweed eating sheep are unique to North Ronaldsay, they are kept out to shore by a 12 mile long dry stone dyke that surrounds the island. There are about 3000 of them and they’re quite beautiful and wild, nearly everyone has some sheep of their own. Twice a year, there is an event that I have yet to see, it’s called Punding and its one of the oldest forms of communal farming still practised today. The whole community help round up the sheep into pens known as ‘punds’, once a year to separate the pregnant ewes from the flock to keep them on the land for lambing and at another time of year to sheer their coats and give them their injections.”

(Heather O' Twingness), Nouster Bay, North Ronaldsay.

(Heather O’ Twingness), Nouster Bay, North Ronaldsay.
Photograph © Giulietta Verdon-Roe 2010 all rights reserved.

 

GVR “Heather was the youngest female on the island when I photographed her in 2010. She is the daughter of the island doctor and the owner of the islands Bird Observatory. Heather commutes to mainland Orkney to go to school.”

The population of North Ronaldsay when I first arrived in 2008 was 63, just 2 years later in 2010 when I re-visited the project the population had dropped to 50. In a small community like this, this was a big change and the school was left temporarily without any children to teach despite being kept open. The orkney island council built two new houses on the island in response to the situation and launched a promotion to select two new families to move to the island, which was a great boost to the community and resulted in putting children back into the school.”

(The Manse), North Ronaldsay.

(The Manse), North Ronaldsay.
Photograph © Giulietta Verdon-Roe 2010 all rights reserved.

 

“I exhibited the ‘As You Are’ exhibition in this house in 2010. At that time it was un-lived in and had been empty for 40 years, but since then the islands school teacher has moved in and there is now new life in the building, it’s been brought back into habitation again. There’s been so much change. It’s also an important place for me as the exhibition was shown here. By seeing the exhibition, I’d hoped the islanders could really understand the project. It’s one thing to see the work online or as small images but to see yourself in a 30″x30″ print is a very different thing.”

(Jimmie O'Lochend). On his roof of Lochend, fixing his chimney. North Ronaldsay.

Jimmie O’Lochend on his roof of Lochend, fixing his chimney. North Ronaldsay.
Photograph © Giulietta Verdon-Roe 2010 all rights reserved.

Gavin O'Twingness). The youngest islander when this was taken, pictured here in a bird catching cage in order to ring and monitor birds. He has just put out some North Ronadlsay Mutton Bones down to attract the birds. 2010.

Gavin O’Twingness). The youngest islander when this was taken, in a bird catching cage in order to ring and monitor birds.
He has just put out some North Ronadlsay Mutton Bones down to attract the birds.
Photograph © Giulietta Verdon-Roe 2010 all rights reserved.

Lighthouse and Moon, the UK's Tallest Land Based Lighthouse. North Ronaldsay. Photograph © Giulietta Verdon-Roe 2008 all rights reserved.

Lighthouse and Moon, the UK’s Tallest Land Based Lighthouse. North Ronaldsay.
Photograph © Giulietta Verdon-Roe 2008 all rights reserved.

Jen in the Wool Mill.

Jen in the Wool Mill processing some of the islands native sheep wool. Many islanders have multiple jobs, Jen worked at the Bird Observatory, was an ornithologist and also work part-time at the islands yarn mill. North Ronaldsay.
Photograph © Giulietta Verdon-Roe 2010 all rights reserved.

Byre, North Ronaldsay, 2010. A native North Ronaldsay sheep whose lamb has died 'not taking' to a non-native orphaned lamb. North Ronaldsay. Photograph © Giulietta Verdon-Roe 2010 all rights reserved.

Byre, North Ronaldsay, 2010. A native North Ronaldsay sheep whose lamb has died ‘not taking’ to a non-native orphaned lamb. North Ronaldsay.
Photograph © Giulietta Verdon-Roe 2010 all rights reserved.

 

GVR: “Whenever I met people they would always ask where I wanted to take their portrait and if they should get dressed up or how they should be posed. So in a way the project named itself as I always explained I want to photograph you the way you are, just as you are.

I loved working in Scotland, it really became a huge part of my life and one that was important to me. It has meant that I have gone on to do other projects in other areas of Scotland and I am also planning future ones too. I now for example cannot watch a weather forecast without looking at Orkney. Just as the environment is so wild and changeable, so can my feelings and emotions be when I am there. Sometimes I loved it, and sometimes I just couldn’t place what on earth I was doing, but more importantly I’ve been left with a powerful relationship with the area.”

 

Many thanks Giulietta for talking to Document Scotland about this project. To see more of Giulietta Verdon-Roe’s photography visit http://www.giuliettaverdon-roe.com/#/home

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Clydeside

It is with great pleasure that Document Scotland has the privilege of highlighting the work of veteran photographer Larry Herman. Here we reproduce our interview with him about a specific body of work which he made in Scotland in the 1970s, entitled ‘Clydeside’. A selection of the images from the Larry Herman’s Clydeside project can be seen on our Portfolio page.

Andy “Ozzy” Oswald, Blackhill, Glasgow.
Photograph ©Larry Herman, 2012, all rights reserved.

In the 1970s, New York born Larry was commissioned to come to Scotland to make work. Out of his travels came Clydeside, an intimate portrait of the region based around the river. Here, Larry explains to Document Scotland’s Colin McPherson the background to the project and what became of the photography he made.

Document Scotland: Firstly, how did you come to the Clydeside project? Was it a commission, or something you undertook of your own volition?

Larry Herman: Around 1972, I was commissioned by Penguin to work on the book, Seven Modern Poets, and went to Glasgow to photograph Edwin Morgan. We spent several days walking around together and I listened, closely, to him talking about “his” city. He was enraptured by Glasgow and, after just longer than a week with him, I was too. I spent the next couple of years finishing another independent project and immediately began raising money to return to Scotland. I started reading and aspiring to becoming an authority on the West of Scotland and returned in 1974.

DS: Over what period of time did you make the work, and when?

LH: I began preparing the Clydeside project in 1972. I actually photographed for three years starting in ’74. I then spent about a year editing. So, from beginning to end, I worked on the project for nearly six years.

DS: The photographs in the Clydeside series feature many of the iconic locations (i.e. factories, housing schemes, etc.) which still have great resonance today, 40 years on. How did you find and research the subjects featured?

LH: I don’t go to a place without a good deal of preparation. As I said earlier, I aspire to become an authority about what I photograph and spend long periods reading and filling myself with information. I still wander about in the streets or, photograph a political event like demonstrations, but when I actually begin shooting long-term projects it’s after months, perhaps a couple of years, of reading and talking to people. I begin to feel a part of what I photograph! When that happens I know I’m working well.

Within minutes of meeting someone I want to photograph, I ask them “what would you like strangers to know about you?” I listen intently to what people have to say and this anchors me in a reality that I simply wouldn’t have as a stranger. Frequently, all I do is photograph what people tell me about themselves. I actually talk more than photograph. This method of working gives my documentary photographs their credibility and authenticity. People always ask me “how do I get into situations?” and the very obvious answer is that I allow myself to be led. And naturally, where people work, the conditions there and circumstances of where they live are fundamental to all of our lives.

DS: What was your impression of Clydeside as an area, in comparison to say London or other major British conurbations?

LH: I’m attracted to places for what they are. Some, well, I couldn’t imagine living there and others are extraordinarily inviting, mysterious and provocative and suggest that if I were to spend a thousand years I would still be uncovering interesting things. Glasgow is like that for me. Its interesting because of its industrial history – one of the places where the Industrial Revolution in the world began. I liked the huge, heavy industry workplaces. I liked the way language is used. I liked the way the city physically looks. I liked where it’s situated. I liked the competition or, rather perhaps more accurately, the humour of the antagonism, even hostility, towards Edinburgh. I just liked being there! It felt right being there.

Catherine Douglass, Royal Northern Yacht Club, Rhu.
Photograph ©Larry Herman, 2012, all rights reserved.

DS: Techie stuff: what camera did you use – and what film (you might not want to disclose this, some photographers are like that – but I think it’s interesting)?

LH: So do I! Of course, it’s what you do with tools, but nevertheless, it’s more information about the way I work. Over the years I’ve standardised a lot. I only use Ilford HP 5 and ID 11. I use three Leicas: M3, M2 and a MP. The MP and M2 have 35 mm 1.4 summilux lenses. The MP is the body and lens I use ninety – nine per cent of the time with the M2 as a breakdown back-up. The M3 has a 90mm 2.8 Elmarit on it. I don’t use this focal length every year, but when I need the “90” well, nothing else will do and I’ve got it in my bag. The 35 mm focal length is my standard lens.

DS: Where were the photographs seen? Were they published, exhibited. etc.?

LH: A huge exhibition, perhaps 130 photographs or so and lots of text, opened at the Centre for Contemporary Arts (the old Third Eye Centre, founded by playwright Tom McGrath), in Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street, in 1979. The exhibition travelled around Britain and a few other countries for a few years and bits and pieces have been consistently published since. I sold an edition of the complete archive to the Scottish Trade Union Congress. Penguin came close to publishing a book of it. They assigned an editor, Neil Middleton, and we had several meetings and were about to sign a contract when Penguin founder, Alan Lane, died, the company was sold to Pearson. Neil was forced to resign and Penguin was no longer interested in working class Clydeside.

DS: Have you returned to Clydeside since? If so, what are the major changes you witnessed?

LH: I’ve visited Glasgow several times over the years, but never for an extended period. There have been huge changes, especially, for me, the Broomielaw and the heavy industries along both banks of the River Clyde, right through to Greenock, are mostly gone. I don’t lament the past, but profound industrial changes have affected neighbourhoods that built up around the docks, the shipyards and all the many places where people worked and where I photographed. Of course, many of the highly skilled trades are gone, too. For me, Glasgow is now a different place and the Glasgow I inhabited doesn’t exist.

DS: Finally, which of the images stand out as your favourite, and why has it particular resonance for you?

LH: Obviously, I don’t sell or release photographs for publication unless I like them and liking them is often a relative thing. But, that’s not what you’re asking. If someone were to ask me for my favourites – images that I consistently like then, the photograph of Ozzy in Blackhill, the two young men hanging around in Greenock, Catherine Douglass. On the other hand, that’s not a fair question and I’m not going to answer it!

Many thanks to Larry for taking the time to answer our questions. More of Larry’s work can be seen on his personal website www.larryherman.net.

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Middlemen

Today here on Document Scotland we post a portfolio of Sarah Amy Fishlock’s ‘Middlemen’ series, work examining the lives of former Iraqi translators working for the British Governement and army in Iraq. We caught up with Sarah and she kindly agreed to answer some questions about her project via email:

DS- What made you take on this project, how did it come about ?

SF- I was interested in documenting the lives of people from the Middle East who have settled in Glasgow. I spent a few months researching and trying to make contacts, with limited success. As it turned out, the Scottish Middle Eastern Council were receptive to my ideas and helped put me in touch with three men who had worked with the British forces and government in Iraq, and who were now settled in Glasgow under the Locally Engaged Staff Assistance Scheme. My project then evolved into a portrait of these three families and their new lives in the UK.

DS- How difficult was it to gain the access to the people you’ve photographed, and what was their reaction to your request to show a little of their lives ?

SF- Once I had built up a rapport with SMEC, they passed on the email addresses of the three men, who had agreed to meet with me to discuss the project. I then met with the families individually to present my ideas and discuss how we might tell their stories without revealing their identities. All three men and their families were incredibly accommodating and enthusiastic about the project. I see ‘Middlemen’ as a collaborative project between myself and the three families: the images were born out of an ongoing discussion about the best way to present the stories while still preserving the subjects’ anonymity. One of the men is a calligrapher and helped me with the beautiful cover for my book, while another translated my interviews into Arabic for inclusion in the book. So I think it was also a way for them to tell their stories, and I hope that taking part in the project was useful in helping them to process their experiences.

Sarah Amy Fishlock’s ‘Middlemen’ book.

 

Sarah Amy Fishlock’s ‘Middlemen’ book.

 

DS- Was it difficult to build their trust, how did you go about this ?

SF- I had done a lot of research into Iraq’s history and customs beforehand: i think it’s really important to have a solid understanding of your subject, especially if your project involves a culture that you are unfamiliar with. I began by explaining why I wanted to do this project and what it would entail, as well as setting boundaries with my subjects so that I was completely certain of what I could and couldn’t photograph.  I then interviewed my subjects to gain background knowledge: I did this by asking general questions which then often led to specific recollections. My attitude to interviews is pretty straightforward: I research, prepare well, and turn up on time! I think most people will give you the time of day, if you show that you respect their time and attention.

DS- How long have you been working on the series, it is finished, or do you envisage adding to the work ?

SF- ‘Middlemen’ took about 9 months to complete – I see it as a finished body of work, although I am still in contact with my subjects and would consider revisiting the project in the future. I feel that it’s a very intimate body of work that encapsulates a moment in time: three families starting their new lives in an unfamiliar country. I don’t know if it needs to be added to.

DS- has the work been exhibited or published, or are there future plans for it to be shown or published ?

SF- The work was shown in the Scottish Parliament in 2011, and the Lighthouse, Glasgow and V&A London in 2012.

Sarah Amy Fishlock’s ‘Middlemen’

 

Sarah Amy Fishlock’s ‘Middlemen’ book.

 

DS- Many thanks Sarah, best of luck with your work, and thanks for sharing it here with us.
See further work photographic work by Sarah Amy Fishlock, and send her a note on Twitter @SarahFishlock.

 

 

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