We happened upon the work of Donnie MacLean at a recent Street Level Photoworks portfolio review session. Donnie had come and had brought a small self-published book to show to myself and Sophie. It’s always a nervous moment for the reviewer, will the work be good, or will it be truly awful and you struggle for something to say, you search for any little thing to pick up on in the work. But with Donnie’s book there was none of that. It was presented as a fully formed, finished piece of work. It was intriguing to look through, to see the images of Glasgow, for me my home city, but to see a whole new take on the streets. I hadn’t been aware anyone was really working the streets photographically, and it was encouraging to discover. There was little we could tell Donnie about his photography, he already knows what he wants and how to achieve it, instead we offered our thoughts on the book itself and it’s design. It was a pleasure to see the work and graciously Donnie has allowed us to show some of it here… – Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert.
The Truth – Even If It Didn’t Happen, by Donald John MacLean.
Document Scotland- Donnie, Can you tell us how your project came about, and about the narrative/ story that these images convey?
DMacL- It all started when I was reading a book by Henry Miller, The Cosmological Eye. In the book he writes ‘the tragedy of it is that nobody sees the look of desperation on my face. Thousands and thousands of us and we’re passing one another without a look of recognition’ It really struck a cord with me and I started thinking how lonely the streets can be, so I started out on a project aiming to capture the loneliness of life within the realms of a busy city centre. To do this I decided to shoot with a Holga 120 and on black and white 120 film. The streets are unpredictable and so can the Holga be. There is a certain degree of lack of control of the camera very much like the streets. With using the Holga it offers the opportunity to capture unique images that are grainy and almost dream like, which for me was the style that would suit my approach to this project.
The images are unique, challenging, imaginative, inventive but at the same time are a reflective comment on the society that we live in. The subjects appear ghost like, lost within the busy realms of a city centre. People appear like strangers to one another. I wanted my images to be enigmatic and challenging. I wanted the viewer to feel and see the sense of doubt, pain and anguish that are visible on the streets. It is also a visual attack on consumerism, the pressure to spend money is all too apparent. I wanted to take my approach to street photography to a new level, that questioned the belief that street photography should be well composed, properly lit and in sharp focus. I wanted this project to criticise, challenge and raise awareness of the social injustices that I perceive to prevail throughout our society.
DS- Your images have a very particular style, how do you achieve that? And why do you choose that style for your work, or for this project?
DMacL- Using a Holga 120 it has allowed me a creative platform to capture grainy black and white imagery that seems to resonate with the anguish of the streets.
The creative aspect of shooting with a Holga is the multi exposure technique that I have developed within this project, this technique has allowed for the creation of dramatic street images without the need for advanced photo editing skills. I also looked at the effects of side burning an over exposed roll of film. This resulted in unique effect to the image, which added to the creative nature of this project. Another important reason for choosing to shoot with this particular camera was that allowed me to blend in within streets without being noticed. It’s small, lightweight, and thus easier to carry than a DSLR. Above all it is less threatening to people on the streets.
DS- Is it a style you use on other projects or just for this one?
DMacL- I use this style only for my street projects. It took me a few years to achieve a style that I was happy with and I will continue to develop and experiment with this particular approach to street photography.
DS- How long have you been photographing the streets of Glasgow? Are you out there every day? What made you want to be a street photographer?
DMacL- I have being photographing on the streets for a number of years now. I consider myself to be very fortunate to live in a city that is full of character and history. I view Glasgow as my playground where I can record and capture a rich tapestry of life. I see street photography as a very important medium in regards to understanding not only our place in the world but also as an ethnographical approach to the society that we live in. I love photographing on the streets as I feel a great sense of freedom, which is something I do not feel in the confines of a photography studio. The streets are a very exciting place to be. It helps me understand the nature of my society and also my place within it, in a sense I find a spiritual experience.
DS- I’ve found in the past, shooting in Tokyo, it is hard to be a street photographer, it’s cold, it’s lonely, it’s tiring. How do you find it on the streets of Glasgow? What are your days like?
DMacL- It can be a challenge at times. Due to my ‘in your face’ approach to street photography I have encountered many problems in the past. I have unfortunately had to experience a few violent attacks on the streets however I feel this comes with the territory. Due the society that we live in, many people are suspicious of a camera, which inevitably leads to many tribulations. However I have learned how best deal with such situations quickly. Violent and verbal attacks aside the streets are a fantastic place to be, its exciting, unpredictable, enjoyable and above all mesmerizing.
DS- What’s the key to street photography? What tips and lessons can you share?
DMacL- Here are some key aspects of what I have gained from the experience and what advice I would offer to a photographer wanting to embark on a street project.
Smile, if people spot you photographing them, just smile back. A simple gesture but it works. People mostly react well to a friendly gesture.
Do not run away. If you just shoot and run people will be very suspicious towards you. I would advice if you are spotted just simply pretend that you photographing something else, a building perhaps. You will find that people will ignore you and continue on their way.
Blend in. Do not wear bright clothes or draw attention to yourself. It is vital that you merge yourself within the street scene. This will get you close to the action. I decided to wear all black whilst shooting.
Be independent. Avoid going out with others, it is best to shoot alone so that you can go at your own pace. Although people will argue for safety in numbers I fell that will curtail your ability to express and to develop your own technique and style.
Avoid zoom lenses. For me this is an easy and lazy option. If you get close to your subjects the viewer in turn will feel part of the scene. This is a very important aspect of street photography.
Patience is key. I found that I took me over a hundred photographs to get an image that I was proud of. You have too keep shooting as much as possible as it will not happen in a days work. With this in mind it is so important to take a camera with you at all times as you never know what might unfold. I missed out some excellent images at the early stages of the project simply because I had forgotten to pack my camera.
Finally, confidence will overcome fear. Street photography is not as bad as first feared. It has a lot to do with experience; it is impossible to get over your fear in one day however the fear will fade away over time. Fear becomes excitement.
DS- I see echoes of Michael Ackerman’s photography in yours, is he an influence or inspiration to you? Which other photographers do you look to?
DMacL- As a Holga 120 user Michael Ackerman is great source of inspiration. His photographs are dark often blurred with heavy grain. The subjects that he photographs appear haunted that question fact and fiction. His images are best described as melancholic. His motifs are hugely influential to my approach to street photography. His book ‘Fiction’ has a had a huge impact on me as a street photographer. With his images and to a certain degree the images that I have captured, there is a great sense of tension between the subjects and the photographer. The viewer is brought into a world that almost seems unreal, a mixture between reality and nightmare.
Another inspirational photographer who has had a huge impact on my approach to street photography is Dadio Moriyama, I have been absolutely captivated with his work. His insight into Japanese modern culture is a heavy and inspirational piece of work. He can with one image capture sadness, desperation and despair, all at the same time. His aesthetic quality to his imagery is quite remarkable. His grain and black and white tones has great impact on the viewer and I see this as been very much suited to the subject matter that he photographs. His work has been of great inspiration to me.
DS- In the Blurb book that you showed us, you had a quote on each page facing the image. What was the reason for that and how did you go about choosing the quotes? Is using text alongside your images important to you?
DMacL- I had originally planned to imitate Robert Franks book ‘The Americans’, with an image on each right hand page. However this idea took a dramatic turn when I decided to include a quote with every image in the book. This decision was not taken lightly, for days I weighed up the pros and cons of including words with images. For some this a no go, however for me I felt it would not only enhance the quality of the book but also at the same time add further substance to it. Throughout the project I would collect quotes from books that have read and at time use them as inspiration for the subjects that I would photograph. So I felt that the pairing of the quotes alongside the photographs would complete the project because for me without the words I would not have been able to achieve the success of the photographs. I do not regret the decision, I am very proud of the book, I feel that the quote give the book a direction but also at the same invites the viewer to further analyse the imagery.
DS- Can people still buy your Blurb book?
DMacL- People can view and buy my book online at Blurb.
If people would like to buy a signed limited edition copy they can contact me via email at
DS- Where else can viewers see your work, or buy it from?
DMacL- On Facebook. Also expect to see a website dedicated to my street photography early next year.
As a member of the Forgotten Collective people can see my work through various exhibitions that the Collective has set up.
DS- Many thanks Donnie for your time to chat about your work, and for sharing it with us. Donnie is also on Twitter if you’d like to send him a message.