Passing Place – Sandy Carson’s new book

Passing Place by Sandy Carson

Passing Place is an intimate portrait of both Sandy Carson’s mother and the ex-mining village he grew up in the West of Scotland after emigrating to America at a young age. This photographic memoir deals with separation, space, and the invisible family bonds that exist despite physical distance incurred by geographical displacement.

The name is inspired by one-lane rural roads with wide spots that are common in Scotland, allowing vehicles to pass each other and continue on their journey.

These photographs and memories made on annual visits home since 2001, are a testimony to Carson’s upbringing and a gentle reminder that absence creates longing and nostalgia across the miles. Carson was drawn to make a record of everyday domestic rituals and routines during the rare times he and his mother spent together, to distill time with her portending passing in 2016.

By uniting his photographs with the ephemera and family photos left behind by his mum, Carson is striving to fill the void by retracing their lives, embracing the formative years they spent together, and absorbing the ones they lost.

See images from the book, and an interview with Sandy Carson, here, previously on Document Scotland.

Within the book there is an essay by Stephen McLaren, of Document Scotland.

Hame Is Where The Heart Is, by Stephen McLaren.

A few years ago I wrote a book for the publisher, Thames and Hudson, called, Family Photography Now. It was an anthology showcasing recent photography projects from thirty-five photographers around the world who were using their families as a source of inspiration. The impulse for a photographer to use one’s own family as material has always been there, but in the last few years the number of photographers with at least one project delving into those complicated relationships with parents, children, and siblings, has exploded. “Stick close to what you know” is a totem that many educators pass onto students who are looking for a project to launch their career, and it seems that examining one’s own clan, has become the obvious choice for many emerging talents looking for inspiration.

Family Photography Now was reacting to a moment in the medium’s development when the domestic, the intimate, the close-to-home became once again, a keen source of creative camera work. In previous decades trailblazers like Richard Billingham, Larry Sultan, and Sally Mann, created seminal bodies of work in photo-book history, but Family Photography Now, picked-up on a new wave of artist who were using old family albums, casual iPhone snapshots and more formal portrait-based images of their family to good effect.

It’s encouraging that many photographers are re-taking ownership of their families life-stories in photography. Many have been taking a fresh look at their parents’ and grandparents’ family albums – often slightly battered and dusty from years of inattention – and finding pictures which, in their analogue, un-filtered nature, are suggestive of more innocent times and which they can adapt for their own ends. When telling a tale of the most complex and emotionally-laden institutions in all our lives, that approach of using family archives in conjunction with more considered formal portraits gives a richer and more nuanced take on the emotional maelstrom of family life.

In this book, Sandy Carson, has similarly used a mix-and-match approach to tell a story about his family, more specifically, his recently-passed mother, and it is one of the best exemplars of how photography can be used to investigate, record, and re-consider how our loved ones permeate and enrich our lives. One of Sandy’s inspirations involved a family heirloom which most of us will recognize from our own family past.

“ My mother had a collection of family photos, dictaphone tapes and artifacts she keeps in a big biscuit tin that date back to the 40’s onwards, all shot by different family members, passed on from my grandfather, who was an artist. Those snapshots and sound-bites had quite an influence on me growing up and I enjoyed revisiting the nostalgia each time I went home.”

Susan Sontag and Martin Parr have had much to say on how families represent themselves through the collected family archive. Sontag once astutely wrote, “Through photographs, each family constructs a portrait-chronicle of itself — a portable kit of images that bears witness to its connectedness.” Parr also recognized this tendency for families to create their own life-mytholgies through photographs when he said: “Most family photo albums are a form of propaganda, where the family looks perfect and everyone is smiling: we try to create fabrications about who we are.”

Sontag also wrote that “The photographer both loots and preserves, denounces and consecrates” and this suggests that the photographer runs the risk of being too embedded to make a dispassionate or objective account of their family story. This is something that Sandy seems to have taken on board.

“When I started making the photos I didn’t have any intention, other than to take back some memories of home, but after numerous visits over the years, the photos began to navigate towards a narrative, based on my family and their immediate surroundings. “

While Sandy’s book makes great use of the family archive, of a working-class family in central Scotland, he also spent much time and effort in the last years of his mum’s life to slow things down and create lasting portraits which are overloaded with loving intent.

“I found that the bigger the format, the more quality time I could spend with my family in set-up time – just slowing life down in general. I’ve shot digital on occasion but didn’t like the process or the end result. There just wasn’t any magic or nostalgic physicality to the digital files versus a piece of film. My family are old school and I feel like it’s only fair to shoot analogue with the aesthetic. “

Families by their very nature tend to be tight-knit units where secrets and certain intimacies are instinctively protected, hidden, and often denied. While some photographers may regard their family-based projects as a form of therapy or psychoanalysis, this camera-assisted examination does not necessarily lead to good outcomes. While each family is intrinsically unique, and therefore at least endlessly fascinating to those embedded in it, it takes an extra level of photographic intelligence to summon-up a body of work which elevates the unique narratives of each situation into something more rewarding by virtue of the universal themes it explores.

Sandy’s book accomplishes that goal by bringing a sense of unease and mystery into his story. Everything is not as it seems. Several of his featured relatives appear not to be “on the same page” either emotionally or perhaps genetically. The edited flow, over three distinct chapters in his life, is astute and largely chronological, but there’s plenty of room for us to speculate, as Sandy seems to suggest, whether the members of his family actually get on with each other, or whether a multitude of secrets and lies remain hidden.“All families are creepy in a way,” Diane Arbus wrote to a friend in 1968 and Sandy seems to acknowledge that fact in this complex and multi-faceted photographic memoir. What remains, though, beyond the speculation, is an enduring son’s devotion to his mother and the gifts she gave him in life.

The book is available now for pre-Order from YoffyPress.

Anticipated release Fall 2020

Photographs by Sandy Carson
Introduction by Allan McNaughton
Essays by Daniel Kalder and Stephen McLaren

Hardcover, 9 x 6.5 inches
108 pages
Edition of 350

ISBN: 978-1-949608-23-6
Trade Edition:  $40.00

Pre-sale runs through October 31.

Glasgow Women, by Nicola Stead

I had already noticed Nicola Stead’s portraits of Glasgow women on her website, stumbled into by chance following links and clicks, and I was taken by the simplicity of them, but also the strength of the women that showed through the great use of light, and sharpness of focus, as well as their expressions. Lovely portraits.
Then, surreptitiously, Nicola reached out to us here at Document Scotland asking if we’d be interested to run the work, to share her story…. – thanks, Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert.

Janet is 84 and has lived in Govan all her life. “I think there are good opportunities in Govan for women my age.” ©Nicola Stead 2020
Julia has lived in Glasgow her whole life. She is a regular member of The Govanites. At 79 years old, she is considered the baby of the group. ©Nicola Stead 2020

The struggles and achievements of Glasgow women are highlighted within this series, offering a celebration of their lives as well as acknowledging their historical and cultural contribution to the city. Forging links between Glasgow women’s history and women in the city today, the work explores the legacy of Isabella Elder, one of Glasgow’s greatest philanthropists. I discovered Elder through Glasgow Women’s Library. Through research at the library I found the grave of Isabella Elder in Glasgow’s Necropolis. The story of her life and her good deeds fascinated me and from there the journey began.

Elder took a particular interest in women’s education, financing and supporting the foundation of Queen Margaret College in 1883, which enabled Scottish women to be admitted to higher education for the first time. Elder also took an active interest in the welfare of the women of Govan, the site of her late husband’s shipbuilding business. She established a school of domestic economy for local women as well as founding the Elder Cottage Hospital, Cottage Nurses Training Home, Elder Park and the Free Library in the area. She is one of the few historical women commemorated with a statue in Glasgow, which stands in Govan’s Elder Park.

Gilded Lily is a women-led organisation in Govan, which aims to support women to succeed in their own ambitions. They offer a variety of workshops and weekly group meetings. ©Nicola Stead 2020
Salma is originally from Syria and has lived in Glasgow for 1&1/2 years.“There are good opportunities for women from the asylum seeker and refugee community to be part of the wider community of Govan, however the women really need to invest their time to see the results’. ©Nicola Stead 2020

By examining communities of women in Glasgow now, my aim is to discover if Elder’s legacy of female empowerment is still apparent 135 years later. This strand of the series focuses on a variety of women’s groups and organisations in Govan, which reflect the cultural diversity of the area. These groups provide support, nurture, and inspiration for the women involved.

Fouzia is originally from Algeria and has lived in Govan for 2 years. “I am a regular member of Govan Community Project’s women’s group. I also attend cooking and sewing classes at Gilded Lily. All these opportunities have helped to build my confidence.” ©Nicola Stead 2020
Traci is originally from Falkirk and has lived in Govan for 4 years. “There are lots of community groups, and lots of women-led activities in Govan.” ©Nicola Stead 2020
The Women’s Group is a place for women from the asylum seeker and refugee community in Govan to come together and share food, discussion, and participate in arts activities. ©Nicola Stead 2020

In my conversations with the women I asked them to consider whether they thought there were good opportunities for women in their area. I also asked them to choose a place that they would like to be photographed, somewhere that represented a safe space for them. Many chose the location their organisations meet, others chose their home or a place where they felt at home such as a local park or favourite café. I have been greatly impressed and inspired by the women I had the pleasure of meeting throughout this project. I believe that they collectively represent a positive continuation of the legacy of the pioneering and empowering work that Isabella Elder carried out before them. These strong, determined women of Glasgow are well and truly keeping Isabella’s spirit alive.

Nancy is 89 years old and has lived in Govan her whole life. The Govanites is a social group for pensioner aged women in Govan where Nancy goes to meet with her friends. ©Nicola Stead 2020.
Eveleen is originally from Malaysia and has lived in Glasgow for 47 years. “There are opportunities here for women to learn and meet new people.” ©Nicola Stead 2020

Nicola Stead’s photography website, and on Instagram.

Homeless in Covid, by Iain McLean

A few days back photographer Iain McLean told Colin and I that he’d been working on a series of portraits of homeless people, and assisted by the Simon Community Scotland. Today he shares with us some of the work, which is still ongoing and due to be exhibited in October, along with his thoughts on the project. – Jeremy

DS – How did the project come about?
Iain McL. – I wanted to volunteer during the Covid epidemic and after a conversation with a client they offered me a commission to photograph a charity’s work during Covid. 
The Simon Community Scotland were fairly local and I was already aware of them and the work they do, so I contacted Hugh Hill (Director of Services and Development) and put my idea to him.

I imagine gaining access, and trust is difficult in such a situation, how did you go about that?
My contact at the charity is Julie and I felt our very first meeting went well and she really understood what I could offer. In my experience it is rare to be given the opportunity to work with an organisation who encourage you to pursue a creative idea. A refreshing experience! 
I initially did some volunteering in their warehouse, sorting clothes and helping load and unload food deliveries all the while taking some casual portraits and recording the events. This seemed to go well. We then visited the Ibis Hotel where I met the Simon Community staff and managers to have a look around and say hello. Once they realised I wasn’t a blow-hard they began to allow more access to travel to other services to meet and photograph both staff and clients.

Radislav from Poland
Radislav was in Glasgow with his friend. He was photographed in the Ibis Hotel showing his open hand with a drawing of the landscape of his homeland which he missed greatly. ©Iain McLean 2020.
Paul from England
Paul was looking for a way to get back home and to see family members he missed. Paul had literally nothing, which in itself was distressing but I was amazed to hear that he had saved a girl from drowning in the River Clyde last year in an apparent suicide attempt. His open hand is seen reaching out to help. ©Iain McLean 2020

What was your aim and goals for the project?
It quickly became apparent that there were 2 threads to the project – one was creating a library of stock images for the charity and the other was producing a conceptual project challenging the common perception of what a homeless person should look like.

How long have you been working on it?
I first contacted the Simon Community in mid April, with May and June being the most productive months.

Have you worked on these issues of homelessness before? Were there any surprises, or any issues you’ve learned from the project?
I had not worked with homeless people before but it was a profound and moving experience. My expectations were probably the same as most people’s, namely that I’d be meeting down-at-heel people with substance and/or mental health problems.I couldn’t have been more wrong. I’ve met travellers, religious people, immigrants, refugees, professional people, young and old and all races & genders. Many of them victims of circumstance.

Liah from England
Liah was very active in selecting her photos and interested in how she was presented. She was photographed with and without her glasses and took an active part in selecting what images we used. Her phone was her lifeline, although she was one of few people who saw their phone as an item of comfort. ©Iain McLean 2020
Hatim from Sudan 
Hatim was very widely travelled, and over the past 5 years had stayed in Sweden, London and Wales. He was a confident, eloquent man who was enjoying the welcome he received in Scotland and intended staying here to see what opportunities came up. He talked highly of the help he had received from the Simon Community Scotland and was pictured holding a card he kept with their contact details on it. ©Iain McLean 2020

How were the sitters themselves about being photographed, was it easy to gain their trust and collaboration?
The sitters were all invited to participate with the promise of a free print (or prints) in the week following the shoot. 
Most were keen to tell me their story but a few were quiet participants so were simply photographed and then left.

How did you decide on the manner in which you’ve photographed people against the white backdrop, and with the idea of photographing items they own and cherish?
The items were photographed in the hand of the sitter, with the hand being a metaphor for hope and open-ness as well as being symbolic of the Covid crisis – hand cleanliness etc. I felt the portraits needed more than just a short explanation of the person and their circumstances so used the idea of ‘comfort’ during this troubled time to give the work some extra depth. The white background was a deliberate act to take the homeless person away from any cliched location and to present them as a dignified, empowered person. A blank canvas. I was trying to develop the idea when my friend John Linton pointed me to the work of Stefan Ruiz who’s project ‘Cholombianos’ is shot on location against a white backdrop, and I saw that this technique would be perfect for my homeless project.

What are your hopes for the project? Are there plans to exhibit it or publish it?
We hope to exhibit in October. There are a couple of venues in the pipeline but we’re keen to get the portraits shown in as many locations as possible, so would be happy to hear from any suitable locations….and of course we will be back on the phone to Document Scotland too!

Thank you Iain for sharing the work, we look forward to seeing how the project develops.

Nevertheless, She Persisted by Mhairi Bell-Moodie

Mhairi Bell-Moodie’s work, Nevertheless, She Persisted telling the stories of women who have faced adversity is currently being exhibited at Out of the Blue in Edinburgh.

Mhairi worked closely with 25 women who have overcome child loss, domestic abuse, rape, self harm, body dysmorphia, suicide attempts, breast cancer and much more. We spoke to Mhairi about the work and her exhibition….

From the series “Nevertheless, She Persisted” – portraits of women who have overcome domestic abuse, child loss, breast cancer, gender and sexual identity issues, mental health issues, rape, chronic illness and much more.
From the series “Nevertheless, She Persisted” – portraits of women who have overcome domestic abuse, child loss, breast cancer, gender and sexual identity issues, mental health issues, rape, chronic illness and much more.
From the series “Nevertheless, She Persisted” – portraits of women who have overcome domestic abuse, child loss, breast cancer, gender and sexual identity issues, mental health issues, rape, chronic illness and much more.
From the series “Nevertheless, She Persisted” – portraits of women who have overcome domestic abuse, child loss, breast cancer, gender and sexual identity issues, mental health issues, rape, chronic illness and much more.

DS: Can you introduce us to the project project Mhairi –  why did you start this, what’s it about?
The idea to create a body of work around women came to me in November 2016. In one week, I’d photographed two women who gave me some really positive feedback – both on the process of being photographed and with the end results.  They’d both been going through a tough time (chemo and bullying) and I wondered how I could use my skills as a photographer to help other women feel stronger.

One of the women was a friend of a friend.  Mette ended up being in the project but it was still a few months before I had a fully formed concept.  In early 2018, I researched as many women’s issues as I could think of and contacted several charities asking if they would be interested in teaming up to help me make some meaningful work.  SANDS Lothains, Breast Cancer Now, Edinburgh Women’s Aid and Changing Faces all put me in touch with women who were keen to be involved.  The rest of the participants answered my socail media shout outs.  Before I met any of the women, I told them a bit about myself, showed them my previous work, and explained what I hoped to achieve with this project.  I reassured them that anything they told me would be kept confidential until they decided to commit, and always made sure to give them time and space to think about it before deciding.  It was important to me to spend time building a relationship with the women as they had trustsed me with some very intimate details of their life.

From the series “Nevertheless, She Persisted” – portraits of women who have overcome domestic abuse, child loss, breast cancer, gender and sexual identity issues, mental health issues, rape, chronic illness and much more.
From the series “Nevertheless, She Persisted” – portraits of women who have overcome domestic abuse, child loss, breast cancer, gender and sexual identity issues, mental health issues, rape, chronic illness and much more.

DS: “Nevertheless, she persisted” became something of a strapline in the US last year, is this why you chose the title? How do audiences respond to it here?
I wanted a title which could encompass many stories.  With 25 women involved, it was important that the title was relateable to all of them – and to audiences.  The response to the title was very positive – many of the women said they felt like it fitted them perfectly.  Many of my friends said it was also appropriate for my own journey.  Several people have also commented that the loved the title and that the words have given them strength.  It was great to have such a positive response before I’d even released any of the images.  When Chelsea Clinton tweeted about the exhibition, I saw someone comment that they had never understood the title of her book (She Persisted) until he saw my series and realised the struggles we face.  That really touched me.

From the series “Nevertheless, She Persisted” – portraits of women who have overcome domestic abuse, child loss, breast cancer, gender and sexual identity issues, mental health issues, rape, chronic illness and much more.
From the series “Nevertheless, She Persisted” – portraits of women who have overcome domestic abuse, child loss, breast cancer, gender and sexual identity issues, mental health issues, rape, chronic illness and much more.

DS: Can you talk a little about your approach visually and how the images help tell these womens’ stories.
The aesthetic of the project ended up quite different from the original idea, but I think I made the right decisions in the end.  Almost all of the women were photographed in their own homes.  My first shoots were wider, including more of their environment.  However, apart from Nicky, whose portrait was taken in her stillborn son’s empty nursey, I found it hard to visually communicate their stories through their envirnoments.  I decided that it would be more effective to create strong portraits and tell their stories seperately.  I asked the women to write hand written postcards with comments on their journeys.  It was important to me that the women had some ownership of the project and I think doing this worked well.

The project has taken me on my own journey.  I’ve been affected by all the stories and the women have become very important to me.  They trusted me with their stories and I felt a huge responsibility to share them respectfully.  Because I worked with each woman one-on-one, they weren’t really aware of the scale of the project or the other stories.  It was really rewarding to see them support each other when I started sharing their stories on social media.  They have all said how honoured and privileged they are to be part of something with so many other strong women.  I think many of them women didn’t know their own strenghts when I first met them, but I have really seen them grow in the few months I’ve known them.  It’s been a rollercoaster ride for all of us and I’m delighted that the project – and the women – have received so much support.

From the series “Nevertheless, She Persisted” – portraits of women who have overcome domestic abuse, child loss, breast cancer, gender and sexual identity issues, mental health issues, rape, chronic illness and much more.

Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us Mhairi and congratulations with the exhibition.

Nevertheless, She Persisted telling the stories of women who have faced adversity is currently being exhibited at Out of the Blue 30–36 Dalmeny Street, Leith, Edinburgh, EH6 8RG until 18th May 2018.

See more of Mhairi’s work here

Seedbed – new work in progress

Document Scotland was delighted to receive support recently from an organisation called Seedbed, which supports projects with start-up funding. The support has allowed two of our photographers, Sarah Amy Fishlock and Sophie Gerrard to each undertake a small project looking at different aspects of land use in Scotland, with a view to developing the work into a broader and wider series of Document Scotland projects over the coming months.

Sarah’s project focuses on community gardening in Glasgow, exploring how urban gardeners engage with the land around them and the social and cultural effects of green spaces in residential areas, while Sophie’s work introduces us to a number of young farmers based in and around Edinburgh and The Lothians, exploring their unique landscapes and every day working lives as well as the financial, logistical and industrial challenges of working in an ageing industry.

Document Scotland are extremely grateful to Seedbed for their support and look forward to sharing the completed projects.

© Sarah Amy Fishlock 2017, all rights reserved
© Sarah Amy Fishlock 2017, all rights reserved
Cameron, East Lothian © Sophie Gerrard 2017, all rights reserved
East Lothian © Sophie Gerrard 2017, all rights reserved

Last chance to see

Photographing conflict and post-conflict arenas is one of the most interesting sub-genres of documentary photography.

There are many different approaches which make for outstanding viewing. From the monumental landscapes of Donovan Wylie and Simon Norfolk, depicting the theatre sets of war to the late Tim Hetherington’s claustrophobic and intimate moments with the dramatis personae, there is barely a facet of modern conflict which is not explored and exploited by photographers today.

In ‘Legacy’ Scottish artist Roderick Buchanan focuses on post-Troubles Northern Ireland and uses two Scottish flute bands to demonstrate the current and historical links between the peoples of the two territories. Using simple, striking portraits on the one hand and film footage of re-enactment scenes and marches on the other, Buchanan produces a tableau which invites us to examine our own links with the Troubles and our attitude to history, conflict and memory.

As Buchanan states: “My proposal was to make a portrait with grass-roots activists who had lived through the Troubles, processed the Good Friday Agreement meant for them, and who continued to march and stand up for what they believe. As both bands say about themselves, ‘We’re still here’.”

Although chilling to look at, there is something almost charming about the men depicted. The faces are earnest, determined, hard and unforgiving, but there is something almost comedic about them too. These are men you could meet anywhere in Scottish society and you wouldn’t presume that they could be so passionate about a cause which most people regard as a hangover of a bygone age of pugilism and insanity. But these are the men (and boys) of the Parkhead Republican Flute Band and on the other side the Black Skull Corps of Fife and Drum and they mean business. You walk away from the portraits casting a glance back to make sure they aren’t actually following you.

‘Legacy’ by Roderick Buchanan is on at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh until 16th September 2012. Admission free.