Document Scotland is an admirer of Margaret Mitchell’s work here at Document Scotland, having worked alongside her and featured past projects of hers on the site from Family, In This Place and The Guisers.
Margaret’s most recent body of work The Youth House, explores what happens when a community decides to empower its young people. Not choosing to lay down rules with detached judgement but offering care and support to help them grow and develop.
These portraits are of children and teens who come from one of the most socially disadvantaged areas in Glasgow. A local charity ‘The Children’s Wood’ reacted after experiencing antisocial behaviour on their outdoor community space. But they decided not to react with anger and judgement but to engage through kindness, offering the young people activities and skills on the land, in the outdoors. They then opened the project up to the wider youth community. These portraits were taken at the start of a new chapter: an indoor base being established, creating a safe space with a support network to access opportunity, to encourage potential.
In a society where it seems that some children have all the opportunities whilst others have none, let these young people grow, let them flourish.
Sophie spoke with Margaret earlier this month.
DS: I first saw The Youth House on Instagram. Bright colourful rooms with young people front and centre. Your work has always explored family, young people and individuals with such care and dignity and this project is no different.
How did you come to start this project, what drew your attention to the place?
MM: I came to this project because it is something that is happening close to where I live in Glasgow and I felt connected to what the organisation is doing. The Children’s Wood is local to me and I followed and supported them over the years as they campaigned to preserve open land for community space, groups and outdoor education. Once they had done this, they didn’t stop at that success but also initiated a youth-based programme called the G20 Youth Festival. This relates to the G20 postcode where The Children’s Wood is situated, a large locality that has much disparity in terms of health, employment, education, crime and housing.
Following some antisocial behaviour on the community land, the organisation decided to determine why this was. Instead of judging the teens by reporting them to the police, to remove them from the community space, they actively engaged with the young people, asking them what it was they wanted, what they needed. As a local resident, I admired the goals and dedication behind this grass roots venture. I came in to document the young people at a time in 2019 when they had just established an indoor base in addition to meeting outdoors. These portraits were taken at the start of this new chapter of The Youth House being established, creating a safe space with a support network to access opportunity, encourage potential and empower young lives.
DS: Why are the young people at this youth club so interesting to you, and how did you connect with them, there’s trust between you and them – how did you build this?
MM: My work has looked at issues of inequality in the past and this work along with other projects I am working on continues that concern. There is great inequality over very short physical distances in Glasgow: the G20 postcode has areas of affluence close to areas that score in the top 5% as the most disadvantaged on the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation. The young people in The Youth House live in such an area where their life choices and chances shrink remarkably through these multiple disadvantages. Obviously, the work I did with my extended family informs and pulls me into working in certain areas. That background drew me into this, not only to create photographic work but to volunteer in the longer term and offer photography-based projects to interested young people. It’s about building and maintaining relationships over time with the young people, offering more than just quick visits but be someone who is reliable in their eyes.
DS: There is a deep sense of connection here. We see a relationship between you and the sitter – what’s the process of engagement for the portraits?
MM: Most of this series was done at the start of building my connection with them at the end of 2019. I also worked with some of them during the day, accompanied by their youth worker, helping them to make their own photographs. This resulted in me knowing some better than others. Nine months on, some of these teens know me well, chat as I pass on the street about what they are doing, shout hello as I walk through the estate. This might sound a small thing, but it is not – gaining trust is super important and I need to handle that with respect and with care.
But like constructing any portrait and working with people, it is about the connection you make, even quickly, with the person you are photographing. I am doing environmental portraits here, within spaces that are important to them, their place. And it is an evolving space, a base that is getting painted and changed and used differently all the time. It develops gradually as more funds are raised and importantly, the decisions the young people make will influence that space and how it is used.
Although I mostly still work on film for personal projects, this work was shot on digital as it was a Leica Loanpool award. This meant I showed the young people the photos right after doing them and we discussed them there and then. I also returned with prints for them so they all had a copy and we also started to work on thoughts to go alongside their photos and discussed if we would make the text anonymous or not.
Lockdown put a pause to meeting the larger groups but that will hopefully change as time goes on. I am already seeing a few of them weekly again in the outdoors, sometimes just catching up and seeing how they all are, sometimes we do photos. Again, prints are taken back to them and the next stage is to sit down together and look at new photos and deciding what the images are saying. Although I am the photographer, the one who presses the shutter, it is a collaborative method of achieving it. This makes it a longer process but one that is more reflective of their lives, more relevant to their experiences.
DS: What are the stories of these young people’s lives – how have they come to attend a place like this – and why is it beneficial to them.
MM: Some of the young people came to the base through engaging with youth workers, either through outreach or following the initial problems in The Children’s Wood. Others are from the general community and came through their friends, so now there is a mix of children, teens and young adults from ages 10 to 25. Some individuals have greater support requirements, so the team concentrate on addressing specific needs within multiple histories of disadvantage. Sometimes this is done in consultation with schools and other agencies but it involves the young people in that decision process at every stage.
The young people’s backgrounds are varied but all live in the G20 postcode, most within areas of high disadvantage. The youth workers offer diversionary activities, ones that will let them flourish in their interests or introduce new interests to them. This has included aspects such the older teens running outdoor play sessions for local children, starting up a ‘Food Pantry’ after a successful community food delivery service during lockdown, establishing an allotment, training in various sports, help with college applications and apprenticeships. It offers potential for them to think of doing something different. It gives them a place to go, with adults who support and encourage them and ask their opinions and develop their interests. Basically, it gives encouragement and support and offers opportunities – hope – where before there was none. Importantly, the G20 Youth Festival needs ongoing funding to do this vital work without which many young people in this area would be left to flounder.
DS: What are you trying to show with this work – why did you feel it had to be made?
MM: My main interest as a photographer is in people, in the human condition. Within that I often photograph childhood into adulthood and the experience of being a young person within a certain set of circumstances. For me, these portraits reflect on an aspect of the individual but there is the larger social question that surrounds them. Seen together as a set of images, another story emerges: the overview of a time and a place and the representation of lives lived in an unequal society. It’s also showing the power of a grassroots community organisation that doesn’t lay down rules with detached judgement but offers care and support to help young people grow and develop.
Teenagers from all backgrounds are often unfairly judged but it is even stronger with those from disadvantaged backgrounds, where the individual instead of the system is blamed. I hope that by bringing awareness to the disadvantage right under our noses, these teens can be valued as people whose life choices should have been much better but are not because of structural inequality. The G20 Youth Festival is trying to address that with youth workers, school liaisons, volunteers etc. My ongoing work and connection with them is just another support mechanism feeding into that.
As photographers, our subject matter and the stories contained therein drives our work. The faces looking out at us in these portraits perhaps ask us some questions about how well we as a society are measuring up in offering fair and equal opportunity to all.
DS: How do the young people respond to the portraits, and what are your plans for the future?
MM: This first set of portraits was made over the course of a numerous visits but because of the nature of the club, not all of were there every time I visited. Then the lockdown happened. As mentioned, prints were taken back to the base and I also chatted extensively with some to start the process of adding personal but anonymous text that would be relevant. This text for example might only be displayed in their base for them to see; that will be a decision we take together. That part for me is about making the photos into something that is circular, that comes back to the source, how we make use of this photography in addition to traditional exhibiting.
This work continues. The Youth House project was done at the end of 2019. I continued working with some of the young people in these portraits up until lockdown, helping them doing their own photography and making handmade books. I had this dual approach from the start: one was my work and the other was theirs but within that crossovers happen because my own work comes from what I observe throughout this process and the time of being with them.
My connection with these young people continues, some of them are involved in my ongoing long-term project work outside of The Youth House. Work that will be shown once finalised, reflecting as previous projects did on place, opportunity, inequality and belonging. This becomes long-term work because the lives of those I am working with are complex and in order to produce work that is fair and has depth, time is needed.
Thank you Margaret for taking time to talk to us about The Youth House – we really look forward to seeing how the project progresses.
To see more of this project go to Margaret’s website at www.margaretmitchell.co.uk/the-youth-house