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).
The Shetland Project: Young Prospects was made in 2018 during a six-day trip to the Shetland Islands with the MAP6 photography collective. The Shetland Project was MAP6’s fourth project, following on from The Moscow Project, The Lithuania Project and The Milton Keynes Project.
“The route to developing a project with MAP6 is very different from working solo. MAP6 specifically makes work around people and place. Each project is centred on one place, be that a city or country. The criteria for selecting a location is that no one in the collective has visited before. The projects are also restricted to a set time period, which has ranged from 48 hours to 6 days. So it is a different yet interesting way of working. It’s easy for photographers to procrastinate about projects. However, with MAP6, once the date is set, that is it. With The Shetland Project we had about three months to come up with a planned project.
As a portrait photographer, projects require a lot of planning, as sessions need to be scheduled in order to make a body of work in just 6 days. Consulting the god that is Google for inspiration, I developed two project ideas. When lead times are short, I find it’s good to roll with a few project ideas in the planning stage to see which is most viable. The first was about making portraits of women in the oil industry within the landscape, but I could not get enough traction, and I think it was more a romantic idea rather than a realistic prospect. The second was about young people and their relationship with the islands and the landscape. This idea came up in my research as 2018 was the Year of the Young in Scotland. Using this as a hook was a great opener and reason to make connections with youth groups.
In order to complete the project in just six days I worked with the council’s youth services, who put me in contact with a number of young people to photograph and interview. I was particularly interested in their relationship to the landscape, their thoughts on the mainland and plans for the future. I expected many would long for a life on the mainland, but everyone I spoke with was content with their childhood and life on the islands. Many had plans to move to the mainland for a university education; however, they also were quite sure that they would return to the islands. Here are a few of their comments:
“The Shetland Islands are just perfect.”
“Shetland means a lot to me, from the people to the landscape. It’s very unique, secluded, with genuinely nice people that you wouldn’t get in a city. It’s one of the best places to live, and I hope to stay here for the rest of my days.”
“Very chaotic yet peaceful. Lots of noise, but quiet noise like birds, the wind and the sea.”
“Isolated, but in a nice way. You can’t really do much, but at the same time you are free to go anywhere.”
“Quiet – and you know everyone.”
“Everything we need is here, and it’s nice and safe.”
Some may wonder if this is the ideal environment for a child. Yet the younger generation has spirit and loyalty to their land. It’s a place where children can roam freely within the community and be in contact with nature. Some are more isolated than others, with school friends living many miles away, yet there is a sense of contentment and belonging. Or maybe the eyes of a child yet to be clouded by the complications of adult life present a more of a peaceful and romantic portrayal of island life? Living here, where a child can be a child, colours the inhabitants’ lives.”
Heather Shuker is a London-based, award-winning photographer. Her work is about people and place, and relationship between the two. She studied photography at the University of Brighton and Central Saint Martins College of Art. Her work has been exhibited and published both in the UK and internationally.
Govanhill Street Level, by Simon Murphy
Govanhill Festival 2020: 21st to 29th August. Photo trail. To be displayed in windows of small businesses within Govanhill, in the southside of Glasgow.
Photographer Simon Murphy aims to give an insight into the diverse and vibrant area of Govanhill with a series of portraits to be displayed in windows as part of a photo trail during the festival.
Simon’s career has enabled him to travel extensively shooting human interest stories in countries such as Bangladesh, The Democratic republic of Congo, Rwanda and Cambodia. His portraiture subjects range from individuals such as the Dalai Lama to musicians and actors including Noel Gallagher, Bobby Gillespie and John Hurt.
Up to now, the images have only been available through a limited edition newspaper that Simon publishes and distributes free around the shops and café’s in the area. “The idea is that to get hold of a newspaper, people have to come in to Govanhill and find one. “I post clues on my Instagram page. While searching for a newspaper the individual might buy a coffee or a record, contributing a little to the local economy, or perhaps change pre conceived ideas that have been formed due to negative publicity”
“The project is about community and diversity. Govanhill is not without it’s problems but it’s also a place where people come together and share culture and experience. It’s an exciting place that I love and where I have many connections”
“My images have always been about celebrating diversity and seeing beauty in our differences. Sometimes it’s important to ask yourself difficult questions and Photography has the power to trigger thoughts in people’s minds that can plant the seeds for change”.
On this below movie Simon talks of his career, and his approach to photographing at street level in Govanhill.
Thanks Simon for sharing your work! Most appreciated, see you out on the streets soon!
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.
We’re very pleased to be able to bring you the work of Glasgow-Based photographer Wattie Cheung, who has recently been working on a series of portraits of Scottish D-Day veterans. Wattie, who was Scottish Press Photographer of the Year 2018 (amongst other awards), shares with us some of the work and the story behind the project. – Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert
DS- Where did the idea for the project come from? WC- I’ve been covering many Remembrance Sundays and other jobs in relation to war veterans over the years in my capacity as a press photographer. WW2 has always been a fascinating subject since I was a child and over the last few years after meeting war veterans it had always been at the back of my mind to do something involving these men and women before it was too late. It wasn’t until I got the Graflex 5×4 camera and started doing portraits on it that the idea really got going. Also Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert has been badgering me for the last few years to do some kind of personal project.
What was your thinking behind your approach and style of shooting? A lot these veterans are in their mid 90s so getting them to do star jumps or anything like that was out of the question , so I decided to make it as simple as possible and have poses that could translate to each subject no matter what their physical condition was. I like to think it makes them look dignified befitting of their service to the country.
You used an old camera, tell us about that and why? How much did you shoot? I wanted get away from my everyday digital camera and thought that the Graflex 5×4 was an interesting subject that would interest the sitter and make it special for them . It’s also a connection to the era with the camera being made in the 1940’s. A lot more work is involved as its a very slow way of working from getting the dark slides ready, setting up, taking the picture, processing etc. It’s unlike my day to day work flow when I can turn a job around in ten minutes.
How easy was it to track down the men? How did that happen, did you have a charity or client helping you? I’ve used my contacts to help get other contacts to do a couple of the portraits and also Poppy Scotland came to the rescue with Fraser Bedwell really getting behind my idea and helping me with the subjects. It ended up with them commissioning me to do a series of portraits to publicise the charity which was helping men to go over to France for the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
How was it photographing the men? The men were really pleased to be photographed and when I showed them examples they couldn’t have been more helpful. Their families were important as they would help organise the time and place to do the pictures. It seemed a very collaborative thing between myself and them. I also made sure that I didn’t just sweep in and take a pic then sweep out . I made time to sit and chat to them and hear their stories, look at the pictures from when they were younger and basically just bond with them.
They must have incredible stories, what were the highlights? One veteran, Bill Glen, landed on D-Day +2 , made his way inland dodging fire where after a few days he was with some men and blown up by a German mortar. He says that he was lucky because he was invalided out, never having seen the enemy or firing his rifle. Many of his friends were not so lucky. A couple of them didn’t really want to talk about what they saw but rather talked about their role was in the landings. I think for many the memories are still too painful and after the war everyone just wanted to get on with their lives and that includes the families, so they just didn’t speak about it.
Why decide now to photograph them? Why do you feel it important to do so? I had been covering the Remembrance Sunday and memorial days and saw that the WW1 veterans had disappeared before my eyes, men I had seen coming back year after year were no long in the line-ups. So with the anniversaries coming up it seemed important to start document the WW2 veterans before they disappear too and with the my getting the Graflex, the timing seemed perfect.
How will the project go forward from here? Any plans to do more portraits or to exhibit them? I want to keep going and meet and photograph as many veterans as I can before next years VE and VJ anniversaries. I have a couple more portraits lined up including one lady who was in the WRENS. Finding them is the difficult thing, then getting them and working round my day job as a press photographer. I hope to try and get at least 30 portraits before the end of the year. What I will do with them is the next thing. Maybe an exhibition, definitely try use them in the media for next years anniversaries. I also plan to start videoing them for little 10-15 shorts, if I can figure how to do it. If anyone has anybody they feel would suitable and willing to have their portrait taken, then please get in touch.
From young to old, seasoned campaigners to those learning to take action, the streets of Glasgow, Edinburgh and further afield in Britain, have been occupied recently by those exasperated with council and government policy on climate change inaction. As the placards read, “The oceans are rising and so are we”, and “If you’re not rebelling, you’re not paying attention.”
Having seen first hand the problems we face, and are causing, I’m interested to see the actions taking place in the streets, to meet the youths striking from school and further education to protest outside the Scottish Parliament and to hear their views, and to photograph the actions of Extinction Rebellion protesters having their daily picnic outside the Glasgow City Chambers, or blocking North Bridge in Edinburgh. I honestly do fear for the world that the youth of today will grow up to inherit, the environmental problems that will have to be dealt with. Hopefully some of the youths I’ve met will continue to protest, and more importantly, ultimately find solutions to the problems the climate and the world faces.
Nil Desperandum – the motto of Bellahouston Harriers running club, a club based in Glasgow’s Southside and formed in 1892. Boasting a long and prestigious history, including Olympians, the club has won many District and National level trophies.
The club this week held a 125th anniversary run, commemorating the first recorded Bellahouston Harriers run on the 5th November 1892, a 5-mile paper chase handicap run which was written about in the Glasgow Herald two days later. As reported by the Herald about that historic run, “the pace throughout was very hot, the leaders passing and repassing each other time and again.”
Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert, who took this portfolio of images, says “I become interested in running about 9 years ago now. Before that other colleagues had invited me out running and I was never interested, but then to combat stress of work in 2009 at the time of the collapse of the world economy I began running. First in the gym, then tentatively venturing outside to run.
Now, I run 3 or 4 times a week, and my interest in taking part in running, and of the sport, has grown enormously. I joined Bellahouston Harriers a year or so ago, to try to improve as a runner, to get faster, to run better. What motivated me to start photographing within the club was seeing and meeting the diverse mix of runners, from young fast guys, to those runners who won’t win the medals, but train and compete anyway for the love of it. But the important thing is there is room within the club for everyone. It’s the same on a Saturday morning Parkrun event, it gives me great joy to see runners of all walks of life, of all sizes, shapes and levels of fitness. To see a heavy-built lady or guy, at the back of the pack, huffing and puffing, finding it hard – those people to me are heroes. I admire greatly those people who endeavour to get fit, endeavour to look after themselves and their health.
The sense of history in the Bellahouston Harriers club is written large, to know there have been Olympians in the club, to know that the club suffered during the Great War when 19 of the club’s fine runners didn’t come home, and again in Word War 2 when 13 runners didn’t come home.
To wear the Bella vest is to pull on a little bit of Scottish running history. To run in Glasgow wearing the iconic light blue St Andrew’s cross vest, and hear shouts of “C’mon the Bella!” from the crowds is a moving experience. I wanted, in this larger photo essay from which these images come, to capture a little of what it means to be a Bella Harriers runner.”
“I joined the club because I was running but not getting any faster, and wanted a more structured training with a network of runners who could support me. To be honest, I’m not actually sure why I run… there’s probably a multitude of benefits there that I can’t quite put my finger on, because it would span multiple paragraphs. Maybe better asking why you wouldn’t run?” – Becky, pictured above.
“I suppose I run because I still can! It keeps me reasonably fit and healthy despite problems with my knees and hips. I feel a sense of achievement in completing races or time trials even though I’m getting slower but I like to keep a positive attitude with a “hi I’m still running”. It’s great to be a member of Bellahouston Harriers and to be with like-minded individuals. It has a great social side where all are made welcome – I’m pleased to have so many friends in the club. The thing I like best about the club is the support you get in competitions irrespective of your standard (you could be last but you still get a cheer from club mates!)” – John, pictured above.
“Running to me is as much for my mental health as well as my physical. I started running to challenge myself and help me create healthy habits outside my own constraints. After completing a few races and wanted to improve my times, so looked at joining a running club. It absolutely terrified me and took me well over a year to gain the courage to attend a session, however it has shown me how strong I actually am. The club has given me some of the best friends, the best memories and the self-confidence that I didn’t realise I had.” – Steph, pictured above.
“I am a runner, not a jogger. I train hard and am motivated to improve. I run as it gives me a focus. I set myself targets and the thrill is in working towards them, whether that’s nailing a tough session, ticking off another long run or just getting out for some solo miles when the legs don’t fancy it – I always feel better for forcing myself out the door. I joined Bellahouston Harriers in early 2012 just seeking improvement and structure with my running and haven’t looked back. A great club with great people.” – Stuart, pictured below.
“Note to self: never get photo taken post race! To be honest I joined the club on a recommendation from my 97 year old neighbour who ran for Bella Harriers when he came back from the war. I think I’ve been running for Bella for about 7/8 years now.” – Mel, pictured above.
SEARCHING FOR THE ANTITHESIS / A TANGLED WEB OF PIPING
11th November 2013 – 12th August 2014
Being strapped to a seat inside a metal cylinder and then submerged in a large, deep pool of tepid
water, to perform helicopter safety and escape drills, was the easy part. Establishing a way of
getting onto an offshore installation in the North Sea to work, let alone undertake a photography
project, was definitely going to be the hard part.
In late 2013, a sequence of photography projects and wild notions had brought me to an Offshore
Survival Centre in Aberdeen where I undertook the Basic Offshore Safety Induction and
Emergency Training course – the minimum requirement for anyone wanting to work offshore in
the Oil and Gas Industry. Completing the course didn’t guarantee anything, other than a fairly
deep hole in my pockets.
For the following 10 months, while continuing my work as a photographer, I contacted all the
Recruitment Agencies, Drilling Contractors and Facilities Companies based in Aberdeen, trying to
find a route into the offshore world. I had to be very resourceful. Photography is not a
particularly transferable skill into the Oil and Gas Industry.
I got lucky, and in August 2014 I started my first, 2-week trip offshore. It was on the Janice Alpha
Platform, situated in the central North Sea, approximately 175 miles south east of Aberdeen.
I remember my first helicopter flight. I was simultaneously excited and anxious. It was the
antithesis of the life as a photographer I had known up to that point. Exactly what I was looking
for. As we approached the production platform, I looked out of the window and witnessed this
vibrant, bright orange gas flare and what appeared to me to be a chaotic, tangled web of piping
floating in the sea. It seemed surreal, alien and almost post-apocalyptic. My life offshore was
about to begin.
The genesis of ‘Starlings On Fire’ came in the form of two projects that I was working on
simultaneously during 2013, but which were conceived independently of each other. These
projects formed part of my ongoing interest in post-industrial landscapes. There was an
overarching dystopian nature to both projects.
I had been researching archival images that had the potential to be physically projected back into
some of the decayed ‘monolithic’ environments that I had been shooting in. I kept returning to an
image I have which dates back to the early 1900s. It depicts two diving men sitting opposite each
other, outside a telescopic gasholder, presumably about to commence interior test work on the
holder. I find the image truly captivating. It haunts me. I know nothing about the two men or the
photographer who took the picture.
Gas Holder No.1, Granton Gas Works, ca. 1905, Photographer Unknown.
I started to examine the cache of albums that accompanied this image. They document the
construction of the Granton Gas Works in Edinburgh. I wondered about the lives of the workers
depicted in these photographs, posing with a steely, emotionless gaze towards the camera,
dwarfed by the construction of huge buildings and machinery that surrounded them. I was lost in
the notion of living during that time – documenting the construction of this vast world. I started
to consider the idea of producing a body of work now, which could act as a kind of ‘time capsule’
and be something looked back through in 20 or 30 years time. I needed an industry that
remained relatively unchanged since its beginnings and was somehow cocooned from the social,
political and economic pressures exerted on more land based industries.
I was intrigued by the incongruous existence of the offshore Oil and Gas Installation – a collision
of industry and nature. I quickly established that the only way I was going to be able to produce a
body of photographic work offshore was to try and work out there.
I worked for 2 years onboard a Drilling Rig in the North Sea, situated approximately 130 miles
east of Aberdeen. After about 5 months working on a 3:3 Rotation (3 weeks on/ 3 weeks off) and
having bedded myself in to the demands and culture of offshore life, I was granted permission to
start shooting on the rig. Initially, this was restricted to seascapes only. I shot the entire project
on 120 film, which aside from what Roger Ballen calls the ‘great alchemy of analogue’, meant that
I didn’t have to get a Permit to Work every time I wanted to shoot. This was a good thing. It gave
me relative freedom to work around my 12-hour daily shifts and I often worked at night, where
shooting opportunities often only presented themselves at 2 or 3am in the morning.
The seascapes were more than just a photographic opportunity however. The entire process
became ritualistic and a means of escape, metaphorically speaking. This was my incentive and
motivation for getting through an arduous shift or trip. The magic hour (at both ends of the day)
became a period of reflective solitude, yet the perpetual humming of the rig always prevented the
experience from developing into something more spiritual.
A positive acknowledgement of my seascape work allowed me to extend the scope of the project.
I was granted unprecedented access to the entire rig and with the approval of the on-shift driller,
I could shoot in and around its fulcrum, the drill floor. I was constantly drawn to this area.
Between the driller’s digital control hub, ‘The Dog House’, and the machinery and workings on
the drill floor, I often thought it was like entering the combined fictional worlds of H.G.Wells and
William Gibson. I was a photographer documenting heavy industry in the late 1800’s, but in a
strange parallel universe where there had been a sudden spike in technological advancement.
I developed a strong relationship with the core and third party crews onboard, but I had an
almost equal interest in the architecture, machinery and layout of the rig. There’s an underlying
feeling of isolation, volatility and danger offshore. The confined physical environment can be
claustrophobic, the natural elements harsh and brutal. By combining the seascapes and the
portraits I wanted to convey these qualities, but maintain a certain level of distance and
anonymity between the crew and the viewer, referencing the archival industrial photographs
that had inspired me three years earlier.
There are many areas within the Oil and Gas Industry that are deeply problematic and
controversial. The offshore installation almost acts as a provocative totem for the industry.
When I started this project in August 2014 the price of oil was approximately $110 per barrel
and there was much speculation that the industry in the North Sea would continue to thrive for
another 30 – 40 years.
By February 2016 the price of oil had slumped to an 11 year low of $28 per barrel. Oil companies,
suppliers and contractors started streamlining their operations, which lead to many people
across the industry losing their jobs. The North Sea was particularly hard hit. Its waters are
amongst the most expensive in the world for carrying out Oil and Gas exploration and
production. This year the Industry approved less than £1billion to spend on new projects,
compared to a typical £8billion per year in the last five years. According to Oil and Gas UK’s
Activity Survey, published in February 2016, if the price of oil were to remain at approx. $30 for
the remainder of 2016 then nearly half (43%) of all UKCS (UK Continental Shelf) oil fields would
likely be operating at a loss, deterring any further exploration and investment.
The number of Drilling Rigs operating in the North Sea plunged in September to 27, the lowest
number since records began in 1982. In the same month, the drilling contract for the Drilling Rig
I worked on expired. The vast majority of the crew onboard were served notice of redundancy
and the rig was towed into the shipyard, where it remains today.
Decommissioning in the North Sea is being viewed across sections of the industry as being the
major investment opportunity of the future.
The village of New Lanark, nestled in the sprawling Clyde Valley on the Falls of the Clyde became world renown in the 19th century as one of the earliest examples of a socialist utopian community. Built as a cotton mill by the industrialist David Dale in 1846, here workers conditions were revolutionised with the implementation of hospitable housing conditions, social welfare for mill workers and education for all children resident in the village under the guidance of Dale’s son-in-law, philanthropist and social reformer Robert Owen. Saved from near destruction after falling into decline in the mid-20th century, today the village thrives as a popular tourist attraction, having been designated a world heritage site in 2001 for the continued relevance of Owen’s ideals and as an exemplarily model of urban planning. Alongside New Lanark’s role as a tourist destination, some 250 people continue to live in the village for whom this beacon of utopian philosophy is simply called home. The New Lanark Trust has recently secured funding to renovate the last remaining unrestored tenement block as a museum, completing New Lanark’s rebirth as a perfectly preserved model society.
Uncanny Valley explores the dichotomy which exists between New Lanark’s past and present, contrasting it’s dual role for visitors as an almost perfectly preserved model society with the current residents whose very homes, kitchens and living rooms are world heritage sites, symbols of a bygone yet persistent utopian ideal. As the last remaining unrestored tenement block in the village awaits restoration as a museum, my intent was to create a document of the last remaining untouched traces of New Lanark’s utopian past before it is frozen in time for future generations as a reconstruction. For Sigmund Freud, the uncanny effect was most noticeable in the compulsion to repeat, for instance when becoming lost and repeatedly (yet seemingly accidentally) returning to the same point. Retracing ones steps, the viewer may discover they have travelled from the past to pastiche, no longer in ruins but perfected to an uncanny degree. In the valley which lies between past and present, the ruins of utopia stand side by side with it’s uncanny reconstruction, signifying the cognitive dissonance which exists between the cherished utopian dreams of the past and the reality of modern society. – Alan Knox
DS– Thank you for sharing your work Alan, it’s great to see. What drew you to New Lanark in the first place? What was the attraction?
AK– Growing up in Lanarkshire, I always remember being aware of New Lanark and it’s history as one of the world’s earliest examples of a utopian socialist community. Under Robert Owen’s leadership in the 19th century, labour conditions were revolutionised with social welfare provision and free education for workers and their families, royalty came from across Europe to marvel at how such a society was achievable. I was fascinated that such a small place could become the cradle for such revolutionary ideals: a beacon of social equality for visitors from around the world yet most importantly, a home for some 250 people to this very day. New Lanark has become famous as a place where people come to gaze but in this project, my attempt was to show the village from the gaze of the residents: what is it like to live in a world heritage site? Were Robert Owen’s ideals still in evidence? Is utopia an achievable ideal or a work in progress? As I progressed, I felt very honoured to be treated as a guest in resident’s homes as they told me their perspectives on life in the village.
I was also interested to learn that Double Row, the last remaining unrestored tenement block closed to visitors is about to undergo renovation as a preserved museum, having stood derelict for 40 years. I wanted to create a record of these interior spaces as untouched evidence of life in bygone New Lanark before their renovation for visitors. By juxtaposing these images of dereliction with portraits of the residents who currently reside in the village, I hoped to convey how far the village had travelled from near total ruin to a flourishing home for over 200 people. By also contrasting them with images of New Lanark’s re-enactment of life in the time of Robert Owen, I hoped to convey a landscape poised between the past and it’s uncanny reconstruction.
DS – What are the feelings of the people that live there to living in this museum-like Utopia? And to being in your project, did they buy into the project and idea?
AK– All residents I photographed took a great deal of pride in the village and were eager to convey a view of New Lanark which tourists do not normally get to see. Though they all saw value in the village’s role as a world heritage site, the recurring theme I found speaking to residents was the importance of balancing their experience of the village as first and foremost their home with it’s role as an icon of Robert Owen’s utopian socialism and a busy tourist attraction. One resident told me stories of tourists accidentally wandering into their home and others of visitors tapping on their living room window, mistaking it for a restored mill-workers house. Generally though this was all taken in stride, some have lived in the village since restoration work first began over 30 years ago and had watched as the village was reborn from near ruin to a flourishing attraction. Others had family ties to the village stretching back generations. Speaking to James Arnold, the first director of the New Lanark Trust and former director of the Utopian Studies Society, he stressed that a utopia should never be viewed as an ideal of perfection but always as a work in progress. This term certainly seemed to apply to New Lanark.
DS – Are you continuing with Uncanny Valley, how far to completion are you, and what are the aims for the project?
AK –North of the village lies the sprawling Hyndofrd Quarry where I’m hoping to shoot this autumn. Many of the residents I spoke to were very active in campaigning against it’s encroachment upon the village, forming the Save our Landscapes group which recently scored a major victory when the quarry owner’s bid to extend excavation into the protected buffer zone surrounding New Lanark was rejected by the Scottish Government. Ultimately I hope to document how the village sits within this wider industrial landscape and produce a book of the series to coincide with the renovation of Double Row.
DS – How was it gaining access to New Lanark, and how much time are you spending there?
AK– The New Lanark Trust was very welcoming in allowing me to photograph inside both the visitor attractions and Double Row and I’m hoping to be able to return to there in the future to photograph it’s restoration. Chance meetings with former residents such as David Dunlop meant he was able to give me a personal tour of Double Row where he was born and raised. The picture he drew of growing up in New Lanark was one where family and a sense of community were central to the village and as the last surviving resident to have been born there, I was eager to photograph David in his former home before it is fully restored.
DS – What do the inhabitants think of the work, have they seen it? Will the work be exhibited there at all?
AK–I’ve since been able to show some of the inhabitants prints of their portraits and the response has been kind. I’m also hopeful of exhibiting some of the interior images of Double Row in the New Lanark search room in time for the Doors Open weekend on September 12th-13th.
DS– You’ve just graduated from the Glasgow School of Art, how was the course there? What other bodies of work have you been recently working on?
AK– Studying Communication Design at Glasgow School of Art allowed me to specialise in both digital and analogue photography whilst encouraging me to explore new skills such as book design. During my final year I worked on a series of projects which first began several years ago when I started documenting the process of scattering my grandfather’s ashes. Over time, it seemed a more sensitive way to document this process would be to convey only the trace of the ash. The most natural way of doing this appeared to be the photogram which involved scattering my grandfather’s remains directly onto a roll of large scale photographic paper and exposing them to light in the darkroom. Once exposed, the shadows cast by my Grandfather’s remains appear as stars against an inky black sky, reconnecting the remains of the dead with the origin of all life. Through this, I hoped to question the relationship between photography, death and the sublime, as the astronomer Carl Sagan famously said, “We are made of starstuff.”
Images shown during my degree show are currently on display at Peacock Visual Arts in Aberdeen as part of the Futureproof 2015 showcase of photography graduates from across Scotland. There is also a plan to exhibit my Man in the Moon project in the future which I’m very excited about.
DS– We saw the work of Made of Stars project, on Creative Review site, which was fascinating also. Are there plans to exhibit that project or make it into a book?
AK–I recently made a photobook dummy from the project which I’m hoping to self publish in the future. Prints from the project were recently displayed at the Daniel Blau Gallery in London as part of their 5 Under 30 exhibtiion where afterwards several people told me they had recently experienced a family bereavement and had found a healing quality in the images. I was very humbled that others were able to find meaning in a project which had originally been so personal to me.
DS– What next for yourself and your work? You’ve certainly been noticed with a lot of your recent work, both the projects mentioned above and also your borders project The Debatable Land which I believe was shown at Carlisle Photo Festival in a waiting room, at the same tie as Document Scotland exhibited on a bridge across the train tracks. A great venue for photo shows we felt. Did you enjoy showing work there?
AK – I was really honoured to be invited to exhibit work from two of my borders projects, The Debatable Land and Schengland at Carlisle Photo Festival alongside Document Scotland and other photographers and it was great to see the images displayed in such a busy setting. Photographing the border during such a momentous year for Scotland was an experience I’ll never forget, in many ways the issues raised during the debate seem to have only grown since the referendum result and I’m hoping to return to the Border region soon to continue the project alongside Uncanny Valley.
Fareweel to a’ oor Scottish fame Fareweel oor ancient glory Fareweel even tae oor Scottish name Sae famed in martial story Noo Sark runs o’er the Solway sands Tweed runs tae the ocean Tae mark where England’s province stands Such a parcel o’ rogues in a nation
– Robert Burns, 1791
Exactly two years ago, I embarked on a 12-month journey to trace Scotland’s border with England. The result was A Fine Line.
Starting in the frontier town of Gretna, separated from England by the tiny river Sark, I followed a meandering series of paths, tracks and roads and over the next year drifted from west to east, finally ending my journey at the North Sea, a few miles north of Berwick-upon-Tweed.
The purpose was part-documentary, part self-discovery: I wanted to explore my identity as a Scot exiled in England through photography and with the referendum on Scottish Independence on the horizon, it seemed to be the perfect time for such a project.
My travels took me to towns and villages, moorland and hilltops. I photographed people I encountered along the way and events which make up the fabric of life on the border. I researched my trips, looking at the geography, history and topography of my destinations, but beyond that, I left it to my mind and eyes to wander across the stunning landscapes and ancient settlements. The only restriction I placed on myself was that all the images should be ‘made in Scotland’.
Shooting everything on a single, medium-format film camera allowed me to focus on the content of the images without the distraction of choices of different lenses. The result was a fusion of documentary, portraiture and landscape photography which was put together to reflect my personal experiences and points-of-view.
As the debate and discussion around Scotland’s ongoing relationship with her bigger, more powerful neighbour continues through the ballot boxes at Westminster and Holyrood, I envisage retuning to the border lands some time soon and rediscovering the people and places of this unique habitat.
Ahren’s condition is atypical – an intelligent and articulate child, he wasn’t officially diagnosed with high-functioning autism until January 2012, at the age of eight. In the previous three years he was moved between three different schools, as staff found themselves unable to handle his disruptive behaviour. The family’s struggle to find a suitable school for Ahren is ongoing. This uncertainty means that Ahren struggles to make social and academic progress: as he matures, he is becoming increasingly aware of how his condition is holding him back. He often comes home feeling frustrated, and directs his aggression towards his mother, Amye.
One of autism’s main features is a lack of social intelligence: the usual rules that adults use to define appropriate behaviour are confusing to autistic children. Unable to fully process the meaning behind a stern face or angry words, much of the ‘bad’ behaviour of children like Ahren is an attempt to test the limits of a social code that they experience as impenetrable. The organisation of the home, and of family life, is forced to change in order to manage this.
Similarly, my initial ideas for documenting the family’s home life similarly had to evolve to accommodate Ahren’s unpredictability: he can swing from contentment to rage to hyperactivity within a few minutes. Each day is determined by Ahren’s whims – cake-making, den-building, hide-and-seeking, as well as more unstructured activities. The project evolved into a portrait of this chaotic, unconventional home life, and Ahren’s attempts to deal with the isolation of his autism. The resulting images convey the life that Ahren lives inside his own head: a little boy who knows that he is different, but is just trying to grow up like everyone else, in a world that is often experienced as indecipherable.