Robert Birtles is a landscape and documentary photographer living in Dundee, Scotland. This current body of work by him examines the relationship between the landscapes, culture and traditions of the highland and coastal communities of Scotland.
Robert is currently making photographs documenting the east-coast fishing port of Arbroath. The project explores the town’s romantic bond with the North Sea and the riches its shores provide. For centuries, these waves have carved the identity of this historic community, even reaching global recognition for its famed smoked fish, the “Arbroath Smokie”. The project aims to capture an intimate reflection of the town and the people who call Arbroath home. A selection of images from this series was featured at the “Contour 001” exhibition in Edinburgh earlier this year (Feb 2020).
Salaam is a short form for ‘As-salamu alaykum’ which means may peace be upon you, a universal greeting Muslims greet each other with. Salaam (peace) is the main concept of this body of work.
Islamophobia is a continuous problem in the world. There is a stereotype of how a Muslim should look like. Some examples will be donning the hijab or being brown-skinned. This body of work is to challenge the stereotype showcasing a series of portraiture to show the diversity of Islam in the UK
Beliefs and appearances should not be presumed.
Ili Mansor created this work whilst a student at Edinburgh Napier University in 2019.
DS: Hi Ili, can you tell us a little about how you came to make this work – it was made while you were a student, what made you choose the subject.
IM: My project is about the beauty of Islam in portraits. I really wanted to show the diversity in this religion that often society are not aware of. It started with me feeling really uncomfortable about the term ‘Islamophobia’. Every single time a person look at Islam they always talk about the hijab and a brown-skinned looking person. There is always a certain picture that comes to a person’s mind on how a Muslim should look like. Often, society relates Islam to terrorism. Honestly, as a person who practices and beliefs in Islam, I feel sad and I can’t seem to put my feelings into words.
I’ve experienced first-hand on how people were in shock when they found out that I was a Muslim. Then questions starts rolling in, “is it true, we can’t touch the head of someone wearing the hijab?”, “are you really a Muslim?! you don’t even have the hijab on, you don’t look like one either”, “your name doesn’t sound like one” and so on.
I have friends who have experienced harassment because they put on the hijab. There was that incident when there was a letter given to some organisations in the UK titled ‘Punish a Muslim day’ on April 3rd, 2018. A friend of mine was so scared she took her hijab off and went to class. She felt so ashamed but for her safety, she had to, she told me. I felt sad because to me hijab is part of an individual.
Hence, I was motivated to address this subject because it is so personal to me and I really want to play my part to talk about it visually.
DS: The portraits are captivating in their simplicity, why did you choose this style of photography to communicate this subject.
IM: Honestly, I got the inspiration from Thomas Ruff’s portrait series. If only I get to see it in person. I am amazed at the installation photographs online. When my lecturer, Alexander Supartono discussed about Thomas Ruff’s portraits in class, I can’t help but remembered what he mentioned, “officials trust your passport photo more than you in person”.
Many asked, why I made my subjects wear white against a white cloth as backdrop. Muslims have a common greeting when we meet each other, ‘Salaam’. That’s also the reason why I chose this title. The title ‘Salaam’ means peace and white is the colour of peace.
White eliminates everything else and get the audience to focus on the facial features of my subject. The gaze of each portraits is very important and lastly I really want my audience to know that in Islam, rich and poor should all be treated equally, They are all the same, there isn’t a bigger person. Hence, wearing white helps my audience bring their focus to the faces of the portraits. It’s really beautiful and that’s a part of the teachings in Islam that I would like to share through my portraits in the series, ‘Salaam’.
During the exhibition I presented my photos on a matte paper and printed them in A1. I enjoy looking at big photographs, it feels like I am communicating with the artwork. It grabs attention and gets the message across too. Simplicity is key, helps all age groups to understand easily.
DS: Who are these people – ages, backgrounds etc, how did you find them, how did you get people involved, why did they want to take part in the project?
IM: I photographed a total of 42 Muslims in Edinburgh from young to old, all came from different backgrounds and were residing in United Kingdom at that moment. I used social media as a platform to share (e.g. Instagram and Facebook), approached societies from different Universities in Edinburgh to join their meetings so I am able to introduce my project, and lastly talked to organisations such as Saheliya and The Welcoming to ask if anyone were interested.
I was touched because the people who I photographed supported the same views and wants to play their part in showing the world the diversity of Islam. I took about 30mins to an hour to photograph each portrait. During that time, I hear the individual stories and it is a mix of both beautiful and sad. All the people I photographed really wants the society to know that beliefs and appearance should not be presumed.
They supported my idea because just like me, they experience it first-hand too and have a story to share.
DS: What are you working on now?
IM: I just got a job as a Visual Journalist in Singapore with a local online news platform. It was a dream of mine to be able to work as a Photojournalist – why visual? Cause the work focus on doing photos and videos. This helps me practice on my skillset and really understand what it is like working in a newsroom. A really fast-paced job and you’ve got to be prepared for any types of situations… also, I always have to dress comfortably because there’s a lot of walking, exploring and sweating. As a visual journalist (for only a few months now), I always remind myself that it is important to adapt in any condition!
At the same time, I look forward to work on my project ‘Salaam’ again and this time, I aim to photograph more people. My goal is for my audience to see the message behind my portraits, “society should see colours in Islam and not just looking at a group or community that looks similar.”
Thanks Ili, your work raises important questions about identity, diversity and prejudice, both in Scotland and the wider world, thank you for sharing it with us, SG.
Keep up to date with Ili’s work on Instagram at @ilinadhirah and see her website at www.ilinmansor.com
Document Scotland photographer Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert caught up with Doro via email, kindly she’s allowing us to share some of her photography from The Gorbals, an area of Glasgow which has been much frequented by photographers over the years, including Bert Hardy, Bill Brandt, John Claridge, Hugh Hood, Oscar Marzaroli, and more recently Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert himself, Sarah Amy Fishlock and more.
Document Scotland – How did you get into photography, what do you do, tell us a little about yourself?
I studied Political Sciences and Psychology in Vienna. To gain some working experience I spent a year in Bangkok and worked with UNHCR (the refugee agency of the UN). Around that time I started to photograph my surroundings and the people I met, trying to avoid stereotypes. A group of (conflict-)photographers, who I was friends with, encouraged me to continue taking photos. Back in Vienna, I had made my decision to become a photographer, finished my studies and applied at Ostkreuzschule für Fotografie in Berlin, where I learned to deepen my documentary practice and started to work on long term projects, exploring Identity, marginalization and belonging and the question of how to depict these.
How did you come to be in Glasgow shooting in the Gorbals, as you come from Berlin?
I was invited by Street Level Photoworks due to a residency exchange called Photographic Parallels between Glasgow and Berlin. Robert Henderson, a Glaswegian photographer went to Berlin for a month and I came to Glasgow for roughly the same amount of time.
I only had a vague concept of Glasgow before I arrived, but I had read a lot about the different districts to prepare for my stay. In my research on photography in the more destitute areas of Glasgow I discovered Kirsty MacKay and Margaret Mitchell, who’s work I found deeply interesting, engaging and eyeopening. Steven Berkoff’s photos from the 60s, shot in the Gorbals, were on show at SLP and I was shocked how desolate the area looked back then—I decided to walk around Glasgow and ended up in the Gorbals. The area’s mixed housing, the streets and shops and the people I saw sparked my interest instantly. I wanted to know more about the people living there and how they conceived the the changes that had occurred in their surroundings.
“Save it for a Rainy Day“ is a personal encounter with the people living in the Gorbals, a chance to tell their stories, depicting the new and old and ever-changing Gorbals.
This was the first time in my photographic career that I planned on meeting people on the street. It took quite a few days until i summoned up the courage to just ask people if they wanted to be part of my project. In the end I walked into the Catholic church and started chatting with the very nice lady at the counter, Maureen, who then ended up to be the first person I photographed in the Gorbals. This gave me the confidence to approach other people and she also introduced me to Bridigin’ the Gap, a community organisation working in the Gorbals. They gave me some contacts and invited me to their community meals, where I met more people and from then on it was quite easy.
I mostly meet them upfront to get to know them a little bit and to see if they have a genuine interest in having their portrait taken.
I also spent as much time as they allow me to spend with them.
I spent basically everyday for 3 weeks in July/August in the Gorbals—walking around, exploring the area and connecting to people.
After realizing back home that some some elements of the series were still missing, I came back in October—this time with a different approach.
During my first stay I was looking around, trying to connect and had a very open approach to what would be happening. The second time I made appointments beforehand and knew exactly where to go.
I shot digital for this project to be able to process the photos straight away and to get an oversight over what I was photographing since 4 weeks isn’t a long time to realise a project. Digital also gives me the opportunity to shoot at night or in darker environments without needing to use flash.
It was great to work in Glasgow, particularly in the Gorbals. People were very openminded and welcoming. I drank tons of breakfast tea with milk and ate a lot of scones. Every day I discovered new facets of the district.
On the other hand I was staggered to see, how matters of religion and politics were dividing people. In Germany it is no issue at all if someone is Protestant or Catholic. Before I came to Scotland I didn’t know that this conflict existed outside Ireland. Some of the couples I photographed were inter-religious and experienced a lot of opposition by family and society when they married. Most of the people I photographed also went to segregated schools and some were really fond of their religion, taking part in the Orange March for example.
Also the state of the social system came as quite a shock—how little people were supported by the state and how the social played a more obstructing than supporting role. On the other hand it was great to see that organisations like Bridging the Gap and the Men Shed are keeping the community together and make a great difference.
Most of the people I photographed have seen the exhibition and their feedback was throughout positive. Four of the women were even at the opening, which was great!
The project is finished for now, but I would like to return and continue at some point, because I think there are a lot of characters from the Gorbals I haven’t met and a lot of things I didn’t get the chance to know yet. There’s also some issues I would have liked to focus on more, but lacked the time.
– The work is on show at SLP until September 8th, but are there plans to publish it, or exhibition it elsewhere? If it is published already is there a link to where people can buy the publication online?
Me and Jan Motyka have made a publication, a picture newspaper that is more extensive than the exhibition and grants a deeper view – it is available at SLP or online at http://www.streetlevelphotoworks.org/product/doro-book
The plan is that the exhibition will travel to Berlin, but the dates and venue are not set yet.
– What are you working on now?
I am currently on maternity leave in Italy, but thinking up projects to work on, once I am back in Berlin in October. In the meantime I am taking portraits of the people I meet along the way.
– Many thanks Doro for sharing your work and thoughts with us. It’s much appreciated.
‘Masc’ – by Craig Waddell is a series of queer portraits that challenge the outdated idea of conventional masculinity. Document Scotland first saw Craig’s work at The Edinburgh College of Art degree show in 2017, we wanted to know more and so Sophie chatted with Craig recently about his motivation behind making the work and what the portraits mean to him. We’re grateful to Craig for taking the time to discus the project with us which is exhibited at the RSA New Contemporaries 2018, opening this week.
DS: Hi Craig, thanks for taking the time to do this interview – what is Masc about, can you introduce the project?
CW:Masc is about contemporary masculinity in the queer community, and the different ways we can see it interpreted and realised in the individual. Personally, I’ve always been interested in the dynamics of masculinity – from my experiences in the gay community especially, I often felt there was a rejection of more feminine identities in favour of the masculine. Gender non-conforming behaviour and presentation is often celebrated as an act of performance or as an entertaining gimmick, but for many of us, it’s our lived reality and something that should be respected and acknowledged.
DS: It’s an interesting view point, in your opinion why do you think masculinity is an important subject to be talking about currently?
CW: In recent history we’ve really seen these issues come to the forefront of societal conscious, and I felt it was a very exciting and important time to document some of the incredible individuals that make up our community.
DS:You’ve mentioned your personal experiences and how they have motivated you and this project, is it an autobiographical body of work?
CW:Masc as a whole was borne out of my personal experience reconciling my non normative identity, so I would say there is a definite autobiographical quality. So much of my personal discovery was fuelled by my interactions with my contemporaries, so I sought to explore and record that.
DS: There’s a sensitivity to the portraits, each is naturally lit, fairly formal, in calm personal surroundings with some very giving expressions…. tell us a little about the subjects, who are they and who are they to you?
CW: I wanted to create a series of photographs that really celebrated diversity, and put the dignity and character of my sitters first. I chose to use the formal portrait as my medium to form a disruption of gender norms and societal expectation, which classical formal portraiture often reinforces.
The end result is inexplicably bound to the process of medium format analogue photography, that carried the drama, depth and subtlety I felt the subject mattered deserved and needed.
The only qualifying criteria for my sitters was that they identified with my concept, which resulted in a wide range of identities presented, definitely not limited to the outdated notion of the biological male. They range from close friends within the community in Edinburgh, to those I was connected with through social media and then photographed. Although the style of shooting is deliberately formal, the sessions were always inter-dispersed with incredible conversation. That was one of the best parts of undertaking this project – I really got the opportunity to learn about who they are and what they are about, as well as connecting further with close friends, which then informed the end result, and I feel gave that personal connection that comes across in the portraits.
DS:It’s interesting you say that, I personally feel that’s one of the greatest privileges about making portraits, that time and space to connect and share stories – people can share the most extraordinary things… Are there any stories you’d care to share with us – from those conversations?
CW:In terms of particular photo sessions, I’d have to say one of the most special ones was with Cameron Downing, who was 17 at the time and studying makeup artistry at college. Having never met in person – we were connected via a Facebook callout I did for sitters for the project – I shot the portrait in his bedroom at his parents house, and we spoke about what it was like to be that age and not really have access to a major support network for young queer people, which is the club scene.
Another great moment in the project was being able to photograph James Faulkner, who I think is such an important member of the community. I see James as one of the founding members of the queer community in Edinburgh as it stands today – as one of the original drag performers in the city, he’s nurtured and supported a wide variety of performers and other queer people, and is a member of the Dive performance collective. My portrait was by no means the first (and I assume definitely not the last) time he’s served as a subject and muse for artists, and we were surrounded by various prints of different works he’s been a part of, as well as his incredible collection of antiques and curiosities, many bequeathed to him from his grandmother. It was just really lovely to get to know James better, and hear about his rich, and sometimes difficult life story, and we spoke about how the queer community was evolving in Edinburgh. It was one of the first portraits that I took for the series, and it was a real defining moment for how the project would continue.
I’ve always tried to keep a diversity of viewpoints in the project, so being able to include Katharine, a dear friend of mine and a queer woman, and Zachary, a trans man and one of the loveliest people on the Edinburgh queer scene, was incredibly important to me. They also turned out as some of my favourite new photos of the series.
DS:Are the portraits all made in Edinburgh? How have your experiences affected your opinion on the LGBTQ community in this city?
CW:Most of the portraits are shot in Edinburgh, with a few featuring people based in Glasgow. I think the LGBTQ community in Edinburgh definitely has it’s shining moments, and some of the people in the series reflect that, from inspiring creatives and performers to some of the new generation of queer people in Scotland. In general though, I do think Edinburgh is a smaller scene than other cities such as Glasgow and Manchester, and maybe sometimes we have less opportunity and resources. However, I have a lot to thank Edinburgh for – it has had a really profoundly positive effect on my personal development, and enabled me to be ever more confident and comfortable in my identity, no doubt due to the welcoming and accessible nature of the community here.
DS:It’s mature work for an undergraduate final project. How have you found making the transition from BA to professional photographer?
CW:The project was originally created for my final year degree show submission, and has formed the main basis of my practice post degree. It marked a real turning point in my practice – although I think I’d created some really wonderful portraits prior to this project, this was the first that felt fully cohesive and realised as a body of work, and very important to me as it interrogated a lot of issues very close to my heart.
I still definitely feel that I’m still finding my feet in the professional world of photography, and I’m very excited and optimistic about what is coming next in my practice.
DS: Is this a continuing project?
CW:After continuing the project until recently, I’m thinking of taking a break from it and exploring some new avenues. However, I feel it has become a real centre-point of my photographic practice, and something I’ll always be returning to and working on.
I’m currently doing a bit of thinking and research about future projects – something I’m particularly interested in currently is the increasing phenomenon of younger people embracing their queerness, and being able to define themselves far younger than I was ever confident enough to. I imagine this is linked to more progressive attitudes in society, and something I think is incredibly exciting and something I’d love to explore.
Later this year, I’m going to be working on a new series of portraits of performers during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, exploring the concept of the persona of the performer, which I’m also very excited about. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some incredible people in the performance community in previous years of the Festival, and I’ve made it a priority this year to produce a series of portraits that attempts to capture that vibrancy.
DS: Thank you so much for talking to us Craig – we wish you all the best with your future plans and the continued success of your work.
Document Scotland were handed a newspaper a while ago of a project by photographer Peter Didbin, called The Southsiders. It’s always really interesting to come across a project which is shot in a place very familiar to you. Document Scotland’s Sophie was born and raised in the Southside of Edinburgh, she went along to meet Peter at his studio in Summerhall to chat with him about the project.
I saw it as a personal project, something I really wanted to engage with and work on, I’d been working on pictures of local traders – a series of portraits of Marchmont Traders, so it felt like a natural progression.
We worked together, we got a project manager, Shona Thompson and had a huge help from Lucy Brown who did the main fundraising. We decided not to start the shooting until the funding was in place and then I started making the photographs from May – August 2013. I was really lucky also to work with Joe (George Joseph Miller IV) who not only made the documentary about the project but also did all the audio and also Janine Sack who did all the design work.
DS – How did you decide who to include in the project
PD – For me as a photographer, it was important that I had total control over the choice of who I included in the project. I didn’t want any direction with that which the CDT were very good about it. The nature of who ended up in the pictures was partly serendipitous and partly planned. Some people recommended and suggested other people, then so on and so on, but some I came to entirely independently.
What I didn’t want it to be was a reflection of my personal group of friends – you know – not just people I knew or was linked to. It had to be about my perception of the Southside, a representation of how I saw the area as a whole.
I chose the elements I wanted to include, for instance I wanted to represent a range of ages, religions and political views. I created this big diagram and worked on it throughout the brainstorming process. This was important for me to be able to establish a kind of visual understanding of what it would become. It gave me a link between everyone, and a kind of narrative. The research part of the project was extensive.
Location was important to me too. I would say to my subjects that it was up to them where they were photographed. The only thing I wanted in terms of consistency was their gaze, I asked that they all hold the gaze of the lens, so in that respect I did control some elements but not all.
DS – Is that idea of collaborating, and working together with your subject important to you when you make portraits?
PD – Yes, During the process of the project, there was a constant dialogue between all of us, and alongside my collaborator Jo, about the concept of a portrait. The nature of what portraiture was.
Something which was interesting was that at talk about Valentina Bonizzi’s Exhibition at the Portrait Gallery, well known Scottish photographer Robin Gillanders was in conversation with Valentina. He made a comment along the lines of “the photographer is in absolute control” and for me – that’s something I had to disagree with. I think that the sitter is not that passive.
For me certainly, making a portrait is not only about the control the photographer has over the situation, it’s as much to do with the subject. I see it as a collaboration. Ultimately I think making portraits is about both of you. The photographer and the subject. So I think yes, there is an element of me in these pictures.
DS – The way you chose to exhibit this work was unusual, and site specific – can you tell us a little about that?
PD – It was really good to get away from the white cube of the Gallery as the exhibition had to happen at a point where West Cross Causeway meets Buccleuch Street. That is not to dismiss the white wall, which isolates an image putting it into its own context, but by putting large 5 by 4 foot images on walls in the street the buildings start to frame the images. It was integral that I used the space fully so that the Southside became physically part of the exhibition.
DS – You also produced a fine looking newspaper – we’ve managed to produce a couple of newspapers here at Document Scotland and we really like the format, can you tell us a bit about why you chose to publish the newspaper and the pros and cons of doing so?
PD – I was incredibly lucky to work with Janine Sack who is not only an artist in her own right but has worked as a newspaper creative director in Berlin. As I could only afford to put 9 images up in the street I wanted to expand the exhibition so that it could have all the images in and also the transcription of the audio. I needed it to be free so that I could deliver it to all the flats in the immediate area and people could pick them up and take them home. For me it is an extension to the exhibition showing in people’s homes. I love the utilitarian aspect of a newspaper but it is also really restrictive in the production side of it, especially as a photographer who strives to make the images as perfect as possible. It was a real eye opener how much you have to squish the images to make them OK for the colour gamut of newsprint.
DS – Tell us more about what you mean when you talk about the ‘concept’ of portraiture.
PD – I like to show some kind of vulnerability in my portraits. Not in the sense of trying to show them in a way which isn;t representative, but I mean more in the sense that I’m looking for some empathy. I loved the process of photographing the subjects and also interviewing them. That added to the process. It was really interesting. It allowed me to ask each one of them “what does portraiture mean to you”. I asked all my sitters that questions, one of the most interesting responses was from Nieve – , when I asked her “what is a portrait about?” she simply replied “me”.
I really enjoy looking at portraits too. I look for that empathy. It’s a study and recognition of what it means to be a human being.
DS – You’re a commercial photographer, how did this process differ in process?
PD – As a commercial photographer, when I am taking portraits, I’m used to working fast with a 35mm Camera. Straight away for this project I wanted to make about 40 portraits. I knew that was the number I wanted to do. The pace of everything was really the biggest change for me, not only did the research process slow me right down but I was I was using medium format, and that in itself dictated the pace. I had forgotten that pace, and really liked it.
The deliberation and thought process gave me time and space and the choice to choose moments rather than just taking the photographs. That’s what I mean when I say it was partly planned and directed and partly not.
DS – what’s next for you?
PD – I’m working on a project with Jeep Solid – he’s an interesting character. I’m working on that with a friend who’s a filmmaker and an artist. I’m much more into collaboration now than before, I see it as a natural way forward. I am really looking forward to expanding this project as well.
Many thanks Peter – it was lovely to meet you – we look forward to seeing you at future Document Scotland events in and around Edinburgh.