Review by Asiya Hussain: Artist Talk with Document Scotland

Beyond the Border explores the different perspectives of Scotland from four Scottish photographers, bringing them together to portray the uniqueness of Scotland. For those of you who have seen the exhibition, you may be thinking, “What inspired these photographers and how are they all connected within Beyond the Border?”

Well, in further providing the public with some interesting information which will stimulate your mind about the exhibition Beyond the Border, Impressions Gallery held a talk on the 26th July which provided an insight towards the personal and historical meaning of the exhibition. The talk was lead by the photographers who collaborated in making the exhibition; Sophie Gerrard, Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert and Colin McPherson. Unfortunately, the photographer Stephen McLaren, who worked on the piece American Always, Scottish Forever was unable to attend the talk but Anne McNeill was able to provide some input towards his piece in explaining what it means. It was amazing to attend this talk as I gained an understanding of how each photographer has a different yet similar outlook towards Scotland and how each piece is distinctly unique to the other, despite their clear linkage in being based in Scotland. Even though it was an incredibly warm and pleasant day outside, that didn’t deter people from coming to the gallery enjoying the thought-provoking talk along with the cool refreshments being served. As requested from Document Scotland, the talk was very informal and casual in order for everyone to just relax and enjoy the flow of ideas and thoughts surrounding the photographs and of Scotland.

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Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert Edge of an Empire

Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert was the first to being the talk by exploring his project ‘Edge of an Empire’. work places focus on historical aspects of Scotland which are not well known have been forgotten over time. In discussing and exploring his project, he takes us on a journey through Scotland and also shows us how this project portrays his reconnection with his homeland. He began by discussing how for the past 10 years he was living in Japan and even though he had become accustom to the lifestyle in Japan, he still felt a strong connection with Scotland, the land itself and it’s cultures and customs. Jeremy stated that he wanted to work on a project which would explore modern Scotland but also to revisit it’s past as well and it seems clear from the variation of photos of the Antonine Wall, Roman soldiers and the local stores, that he has achieved his aim.

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When the topic of the Antonine Wall was introduced,  I became very intrigued as I had no idea that there was another wall within Scotland that wasn’t Hadrian’s Wall. There was a clear display of reconnection between the photographer and the land as he explained how he took a walk on the wall so that he could feel the Scottish weather on his face after 10 years of Tokyo humidity. The history behind the Antonine Wall was quite interesting to hear as Jeremy explained how no one was really certain as to why the wall was built – was it in order to expand the Roman empire or merely something for the Emperor Antoninus Pius to boast about?

What I found to be interesting as the discussion proceeded was when Jeremy explained that when he was exploring what remains of the wall, he had discovered how parts of the Antonine Wall had become lost to modern development, modern towns, motorways and canals had cut through the wall. From a personal viewpoint, this definitely made more sense to as to the relevance of the photograph of the NEXT store, representing the emergence of modern Scotland from it’s past.

The Antonine Shopping Centre, Cumbernauld Friday 3rd May 2013 © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert

The Antonine Shopping Centre, Cumbernauld Friday 3rd May 2013 © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert

In addition to the Antonine Wall, Jeremy also discovered through his research that there is a group known as the ‘Antonine Guards’. The Antonine Guards promotes the Roman history of Scotland through re-enactments of past events and in promoting sites such as the Antonine wall which became part of the UNESCO world heritage site. I thought that it was amazing that this group promotes Scottish history which has been lost or forgotten over time, to educate people through festivals, school visits, special events etc… Jeremy explained how the men dressed as Roman soldiers were very committed to their role and also very knowledgeable in Roman

military history and of the Roman Empire. But it was funny to learn how the group avoided contact with a puddle by tip toeing around it, so that there woollen socks wouldn’t get wet, but only to be reprimanded by their Centurion leader as he shouted “Just walk through it, you’re meant to be Roman soldiers!” Looking at the photographs of the Roman soldiers, Jeremy placed emphasis upon the fact that he didn’t want any of the men to be looking at the camera as he wanted to represent an anonymous Roman soldier rather than being focused on one particular soldier. If they were to look at the camera, then it would become a portrait of that one person and I felt that this was quite ingenious as the lack of eye contact leaves room for the soldiers to be acknowledged as a whole.

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Sophie Gerrard Drawn To The Land

The discussion was then passed on from Jeremy to Sophie as she began to discuss her project of Drawn to the Land. I really enjoyed listening to her discussion and exploration about her project as it places focus upon the women working in Scotland and provides them with a voice as they remain to be unheard in this area of work. Sophie started out travelling and working as a photographer in order to make her work. Most of her work consists of environmental issues, land use, toxics and the impact it has on the people as well as the landscape. Similarly to Jeremy, she wanted to reacquaint herself with Scotland, particularly with the landscape and in educating herself about the terrain. There was also the exploration of the land use, land conflict and of environmental issues surrounding the landscape, but she felt that she wasn’t really getting underneath the surface of the landscape, she needed to go further. When she made the comment of referring to herself as a ‘city girl’ and not knowing much about the Scottish landscape apart from the car drives into the countryside when she was younger; I thought this was an interesting remark to make as she has gone outside of what she knows, into something foreign and alien to her to some extent and yet she has managed to extract the beauty of the Scottish landscape and to learn the intimate stories of the female workers on the landscape.

 

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When looking at the women who manage the landscape, Sophie felt naturally drawn to them in wanting to know more about their lives. When thinking of the people who manage and work on the landscape, initially we think we think of the men from the patriarchal histories; male farmers, male landowners and how it is recognised as being a masculine role. This is where Drawn to the Land comes in, to show people how there are more female farmers and workers managing the land. It’s really refreshing to see women taking on roles that would be typically expected from men, to show that they are capable as well and Sophie felt that there women farmers from Scotland weren’t given any representation. The women who are represented within this project all share a deep bond with the landscape they work on and they also speak of nurturing the land which is quite admirable, to see someone who has such a passion for their homeland and can think of nothing else which could replace that passion. The women who are photographed portray a character of determination and enthusiasm towards their work, they are the custodians of the land who endure tough and brutal conditions but there is the constant nurturing of the land. Patricia is a farmer who runs a livestock farm and one of the photographs of the sheep in the snowy landscape displays one of the coldest springs in which Patricia had to work in.

There is also the character of Sybil who acts as a key character within this project as her family hold deep roots within the land on which she works on – the landscape has been in her family for 175 years which is quite amazing, to be working on the land which her great-great grandfather had worked on and I thought that it was fascinating to learn of Sybil’s story, how she resembles a strong and determined worker on her land. Sybil similarly expressed her deep relationship with her land, being an extremely powerful and emotional bond which is irreplaceable. In order to have a better understanding of the lives these women lead.

Sophie explained that she wanted to become involved with the subjects in the project in order to tell the story from the eyes of the individuals instead of telling their story from an outside perspective. This explains how the photographs taken of the inside of the women’s houses help to illustrate their personality and to display their personal life, for the viewer to understand what type of person they are and to see a side of them which would be hidden.

 

Colin McPherson A Fine Line

The talk then progressed to the project A Fine Line lead by Colin McPherson as he began to explain how his project reflects the referendum of Scotland. This project places focus on the border between England and Scotland, looking at the physical aspect of the border but also on the metaphorical meanings surrounding the border. The way in which the photographs of the border were displayed reflected how the photos had been shot – the photos starting left to right resembles how Colin started at the west end, around Gretna of the border and proceeded to the east and I thought this was a clever way in representing his journey on the border, to see where it began and where it ended.

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Colin explained that he wanted to do something based on the border which would reflect the upcoming referendum and to display how the political situation in Scotland should make people think about their country, their identity, their community and how significant these aspects are. Colin indicated how for a photographer, it is quite a challenge to capture these features but it seems clear from his variety of photographs of the border that he successfully captured these qualities. He described the process of his project as being an eternal monologue, meditating on the vast meanings surrounding the border and exploring the different sections of the border. Three elements were incorporated within the project: portraiture, landscape and documentary and these elements helped to highlight the different aspects of the border, in displaying the landscape surrounding the border and capturing the lives of the people living around the border.

 

Berwickshire coastal path, 2014 © Colin McPherson

Berwickshire coastal path, 2014 © Colin McPherson

Colin indicated that he wanted his project to be a visual exploration but he didn’t want too much to be happening in the photos he shot and I feel that the simplicity of the photographs in not having too many things happening allows the viewer to perceive what the border looks like from Scotland. What I also thought was interesting to learn was that this project also represents what Colin had discovered on his journey across the border, being viewed as found photography according to Colin. This made me think of how even though these photographers are from Scotland and have strong connections with the country, they are still able to discover something new and amazing about their home and are able to capture that through the use of photography. When looking at the physical form of the border – one of the photographs depicting the border fence on Cheviot Hills for instance, there was the question of whether or not you could tell which side is England and which is Scotland.

Scotland - Cheviot Hills - A Fine Line

Border fence, Cheviot hills, 2014 © Colin McPherson

Obviously if you are not the photographer you wouldn’t know which side is which as they both look the same, yet each side have subtle signs in indicating the difference in country. This is evident when Colin provides an explanation towards the photograph of one of the members of the Gretna bowling team – how the bowling team in Gretna do not play games against the teams from England as they both have different rules in how you play the game. In photographing the people, Colin had the opportunity in talking to the people about their community and where they live and also in learning of different opinions as to what their community means and what the border resembles to them.

The metaphor of marriage and unity had been explored through the photograph of the married couple, in displaying ideas of union and separation through the border. Even though the border is a physical divider between England and Scotland, Colin has shown the public through ‘A Fine Line’ how there are also shared spaces near the border for both Scottish and English individuals to enjoy – reinforcing the idea of union, which is evident in the photograph of the river near the border. Similarly with Sophie and Jeremy, Colin explained how this project allowed him to reconnect with his home, the sheer indulgence of exploring Scotland after living in England for 12 years.

 

Stephen McLaren American Always, Scottish Forever

As Stephen was unable to attend the talk in discussing his project American Always, Scottish Forever, Anne McNeill provided some useful and interesting information towards what the project represents. She explains how this project was made in order for Stephen to get over his homesickness, bringing Scotland over to California. Everyone in the photographs are wearing different coloured kilts which would indicate the different clans within Scotland, but interestingly enough, Stephen has explained that the choice of kilts was more for the different styles and appealing colours rather than indicating which clan they belonged to. What was also interesting to learn was how during the process of this project, Stephen was the most Scottish person there in attending the festival, yet the American individuals knew more about the cultures and customs of the Scottish festival, it was as if he were an outsider to the Scottish customs of this event.

All three of the photographers then discussed how they had enjoyed working together as a group in Beyond the Border. Even though they all worked independently with their research and in travelling to the country, they explained how they were able to learn new things from each other when bringing ideas to the group, it always remained to be productive and stimulating in learning new points about their country. I feel that the impact of this exhibition came from the fact that they have all spent a large amount of time away from Scotland. These projects explore their reconnection with their homeland and also portray their amazing journey through Scotland, feeling as if you are experiencing their journey. By the end of the discussion I was amazed with what I had learnt about Scotland during the talk, with there being many secrets of the past hidden in certain areas but also how the people and the landscape captured within the project possess a sense of individuality and portray their uniqueness onto everyone else.


Listen again to the Artist Talk with Document Scotland here

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