This is a post that’s all about people, but without people. Only empty spaces where they’ve been, and the evidence of their passing.
One of the things that continually delights me in photography is the way you can plan, worry about, pursue, and compose the elements that will make the image you have in mind, and then have someone blithely come along and tell you what a completely different meaning it has for them. A meaning you either had not seen, or could not possibly know because it’s intensely personal and just needed the fuse of your image to ignite it.
For example. I was asked to photograph a beautiful Perthshire estate to gather a selection of images that would form part of a 40th birthday present for Lucy, the daughter of the family who’ve owned it for many decades, working to a brief prepared by her husband Will. Lucy was born and raised on the estate high in the Perthshire mountains and has a close affinity with it, and knows it’s hidden corners intimately.
The challenge for me was to record the four seasons, but to do winter and spring without her knowing I was about – it was supposed to be a surprise for her. So my first two visits were undertaken with all the cloak and dagger subterfuge of a well-planned commando raid, sneaking about through the trees and ensuring my passage went unseen. My carefully considered brief included trying to show her the familiar but in an unfamiliar way, quite a challenge.
I spotted this join in the fence wire on the exposed ridge high above the estate house, as I followed a well-worn footpath, and loved the idea it portrayed – new and old intertwined, symbolic of the succession that was taking place as the land passed through the generations. The family later admitted they’d passed this join numerous times but had never noticed it. The image was greatly appreciated, for the reason I’d intended, but also for a more personal reason. The family felt it summed up the attitude of their long-serving and loyal ‘keeper Hamish who they said would patch and mend rather than renew, to save a few pennies here and there. Waste not, want not, being his motto. And they said that they “just knew that such a carefully joined old/new wire is Hamish’s work, because although it’s a patch it’s one done with the great care he always takes with his jobs”. A lovely thought, that his handiwork is writ there to be read, but only by those who know.
A more emotional moment occurred when I was giving a talk on a book I’d done on remote and almost forgotten Hebridean islands, and which featured the tiny slate-mining island of Belnahua in Argyll. The island had had a considerable impact on me when I visited, because of it’s history and the huge atmosphere it possesses. The slate miners abandoned the island around WW1, and all that remains of their endeavours is a large hole in the ground, filled with water and abandoned mining equipment, and surrounded by the ruins of the slate miner’s derelict houses crumbling under the relentlessly harsh Atlantic weather.
Two women from the audience came up to me after the talk, the younger one verging on emotional because her mother had been born on Belnahua but she herself had never visited the place; the other older woman already red-eyed and tear-stained because she had in fact been born on the island but left when only a few years old, and had recognised a house featured in one of my photos as being the one she was born in, and could remember it with real smoke coming from its chimney.
Simple images, yet rich in meaning and deeply moving for the people who can read the content.
Every image you make has the power to touch someone, catching the echo of their hidden stories, their unknown lives. What more reason could you ever need for taking photographs?
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