There’s an interesting article in the NYT Lens blog by Donald R. Winslow: ‘Eddie Adams: 10 Years On, and War Will Never Be the Same”
“When Eddie Adams died 10 years ago today, many people thought his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1968 picture, “Saigon Execution,” would be one of history’s most graphic, violent and enduring war photographs. It was hard to imagine its power — splashed across front pages and helping to turn public opinion against the war — ever being surpassed. Horst Faas of The Associated Press called it the “most perfect news photo I have seen in my 50 years of photo editing.”
But little did we know what was to come in the decade after Adams’s death.
When Adams was one of the world’s top photographers, professional photojournalists were guided by editors and backed by their newspapers, wire services and agencies. Today the perpetrators and combatants — from Mexican drug cartels to the ISIS rebels who behead their captives — have become a growing source of images, shooting, editing and releasing their own photos and videos. As they attempt to control the message, honest and ethical journalism risks being shoved aside in favor of images that are pure propaganda, if not outright fabrications.”
Donald Winslow goes on to lament what he sees as the loss of power of the images of today:
“But on this 10th anniversary of Adams’s death, I’m wondering if he would still say that photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. These images no longer connect me with the dead. They just don’t have the power they had in 1968. They don’t seem to move public opinion, government or the world as they once did. Are we desensitized by the sheer volume of violence? Have we as viewers become empathetically bankrupt?”
I disagree to some extent with the notion that images are losing their power. Quite the contrary. I suspect what we are witnessing is ‘simply’ * a change in the way that their power is being harnessed and used. (* except its not really that simple). And also the ease (as is pointed out in the Lens article) with which images may be misappropriated, or even created as deliberate propaganda tools – I would suggest there is no imperative to do that unless there IS still a belief in their power. That ISIL and others are adopting this strategy simply underlines THEIR belief in the power of the image to deliver a message, something we would do well to heed, however disgusting we find it.
Indeed I would contend that it was not just fear of offending people that prevented Jarecke’s Iraqi soldier from being published, but fear of it’s power. For the full story behind Jarecke’s image the recent piece in The Atlantic ‘The War Photo No One Would Publish’ by Torie Rose DeGhett is well worth reading.
But, in some respects, things have changed since Jarecke’s image was made, no longer is it solely a top-down delivery of ‘news’, with newspaper editors the arbiters of what was seen or not, rather it is a more democratic process of people appropriating, curating and sharing through social media, if not actually creating the representative images themselves (as done in Ferguson MO).
In fact if it were NOT for the images coming out of Ferguson from local (predominantly black) people the overwhelming narrative of that event would be hugely biased and condemnatory of the resident black community. But having said that – within only 24 hours of positive images of Ferguson residents being posted online by the community, they were themselves misappropriated by right wing white commentators and re-used out-of-context in a very pejorative way http://www.duckrabbit.info/2014/08/these-black-men-represent-a-threat/ But again I would suggest, amply demonstrating an unshakeable belief in the power of the image to deliver a (damaging) message.
But, that easy access to image creation and sharing has brought with it a problem – one that governments and police wrestle with daily – which is that images enable a degree of scrutiny (of their activities) that is hard to refute thanks to the ubiquity of imaging equipment in the hands of the wider public, and combined with the immediacy of sharing. http://www.duckrabbit.info/2014/08/the-thin-blue-line/
Where any true lack of power lies in my opinion is perhaps at a political level. Few ordinary people I know who were even remotely aware of recent events in Gaza failed to be horrified and profoundly angry, but our elected representatives chose the ‘diplomatic’ option (basically wring hands and tut-tut, but business as usual). If there is a perceived loss of democratic power it is perhaps towards government we need to turn, and more robustly question why. A compelling reason why I think some of ‘war photography’ needs to shift its gaze slightly, towards the purveyors of terror rather than to continually focus (often simplistically) on the damage that their policies cause. And that is not to ignore some of the powerfully compelling and important work done in this vein such as Hetherington’s ‘Sleeping Soldiers’, and Ash Gilbertson’s elegiac ‘Bedrooms of The Fallen’. We need more work like this which explores the high price we pay for conflict. Work that asks different questions, discomforting questions, ones that demand answers that are much harder to find.
Whilst individual images still can wield power I see more and more often the power of curation and forensic use of images, and whilst not specifically a ‘war’ image a good example of the forensic use of images is Pete Brook’s analysis of the death & photographing of Fabienne Cherisma in Haiti, a powerful piece of investigation of the ways images are taken and used, and what that may say (about all of us) http://prisonphotography.org/2010/01/27/fabienne-cherisma/
“Fifteen year-old Fabienne Cherisma was shot dead by police at approximately 4pm, January 19th, 2010.
On the 26th of January, the Guardian published an account of Fabienne’s life – her schooling, her sales acumen and her aspirations to be a nurse. The piece is not long, but it needn’t be. It is a modest effort – hopefully the first of a few – to remind us that Fabienne was a daughter, a sister, a source of love and pride for her family and, in the end, an innocent victim.
THE IMAGE THAT REMAINS, THE SYMBOL THAT EMERGES
There is a chance that Fabienne Cherisma could become a symbol of the Haitian earthquake and the problematic aftermath; that she become a tragic silhouette extending meaning far beyond the facts of her abrupt and unjust death.
This notion can be at once offensive and inevitable. If the visual rhetoric is going to play out as such, then if it is not Fabienne, it will be another victim.
What purpose could the emergence of a such a symbol serve?
If one believes that images fuel public awareness, thus securing donations and aid, and thus helping Haiti’s immediate future, then certain images and stories will carry that awareness and emotion.
All the accusations of media exploitation in Haiti do not discredit the positive effects a single image can – without any manipulation – have in the minds of millions. I wouldn’t call this the magic or the power of photography, I’d call it the mysterious perversion of photography. I don’t, and can’t, explain it. I merely observe it.”
And also more recently, for example, there is the examination by Shaun King of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, using widely available imagery for reference and analysis purposes, here: https://storify.com/VeryWhiteGuy/shaunking-exposes-ferguson-pd-lie-about… (which in an internal link also reveals the extent of the reluctance of Police unions to adopt body-worn cameras: http://www.kmov.com/news/local/Tensions-between-St-Louis-Police-officers… ) again, perhaps a good indicator of authority’s fear of the power of imagery to hold them to account.
All of which demonstrates that not only were the images taken by ordinary people hugely important in Ferguson, in real time. but they are proving useful afterwards to tackle head-on the possibility of Police corruption and collusion. That’s pretty powerful stuff being done by and with images.
But there is another side to that coin – the recent case of misappropriation of one of Ami Vitale’s images, used out of its original context to illustrate a campaign to free the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls, which attracted a lot of attention LINK. But as I discovered, using the same tools that enables images to go viral, was that the misappropriation and misuse of that image in very pejorative ways was massive, literally hundreds of uses, perhaps diminishing the integrity of that image (and definitely diminishing the humanity of its subject), but certainly uses that are wholly reliant on that image’s perceived power to affect and engage people.
Noam Galai’s ‘The Stolen Scream’ is a good example of an image becoming powerful and iconic simply by being shared and widely adopted. http://screameverywhere.com/ One unlikely image, not even of ‘conflict’, but unexpectedly, and powerfully misappropriated to become the visual slogan of many oppressed people.
So I guess what I’m saying in a long-winded way is that images still have power, and we need good photojournalists to produce some of them, but that the democratization of image-making and sharing has allowed many other ordinary people to participate in that process too.
But sometimes the power can be, and often is, imbued in those images by curation, or simply sharing. That latter point being the crucial one – ISIS rely on our willingness to collude in distributing their images, because they know absolute censorship is our alternative, and understand that such restrictions are virtually impossible today, and any attempt to do so would be contentious and damaging.
But here’s where it gets difficult. There’s one thing missing from Winslow’s lament. This paragraph provides a clue:
“But today’s generation of photojournalists can no longer cover many conflicts because the risks are too great. It’s suicide. Newspapers have stopped sending staff members, and freelancers — like James Foley or Steven Sotloff — are filling the void and paying the price. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, more than 80 journalists have been kidnapped and 71 killed since the war in Syria began.”
The depressing fact is that no longer is it sufficient to unearth compelling stories, take insightful nuanced images, and tease out the overlooked details of conflict, as was done by Hetherington, Hussain, Niedringhaus, Barakat, al-Shami, Martin, Ochilik and many others who gave their lives covering conflicts on our behalf.
The harsh fact is the work of some of these (western) (photo)journalists was relatively overlooked by the wider media. It took their untimely deaths to catapult their work into the forefront of media consciousness. Suddenly their true abilities were given public recognition, and quite rightly lauded. Each one finally, in death, given the praise they deserved for the work they’d struggled to produce and have seen whilst alive. But what kind of state is the modern media industry in that it takes the death of the messenger to enable the message to be seen, heard, and maybe even listened to?
And more importantly what message does this send to organizations like ISIL, bent on maximizing their media ‘reach’ in any way they can: that a guarantee of media exposure is to shoot (behead) the messenger?
To conclude, I think I agree with Fred Ritchin, that we need to take the long view, that these images still need to be taken however we may manage that – and this is all about proper training, equipment and education for young and aspiring journalists especially those foreign nationals doing dangerous work locally on our behalf – and not lose sight of the fact that these images may have their moment in the future, their latent power finally utilized to hold to account those whose actions deserve the harsh glare of justice, and the unrelenting gaze of history.
Maybe we just need to accept this as an evolutionary process, work through the disruptive influence of digital imaging and sharing, be dismayed by what it prevents and what we lose as a consequence of it…………but grasp all that it enables, and try to do this as best we can with an eye to the future, and the one thing we possess that can inform it: integrity.
And to answer (perhaps) Winslow’s own observation, and I hope, maybe to rouse him even just a little from the genuine dismay he imparts:
“These images no longer connect me with the dead. They just don’t have the power they had in 1968. They don’t seem to move public opinion, government or the world as they once did. Are we desensitized by the sheer volume of violence? Have we as viewers become empathetically bankrupt?”
Maybe they do no longer “connect (us) with the dead”, but what they can do, and do incredibly well through social media…….as demonstrated by the misappropriation and compelling use of the work of Vitale and Galai and others……….is connect us with the living. And therein lies something infinitely precious and powerful we have yet to fully realize the potential of.
And there, perhaps, is where Brook’s “mysterious perversion of photography” may lead us.
I love a good time-lapse, but endless footage of stars and landscape don’t hold the attention for long. This is a bit different – beautiful, inventive and eerie. I intended to watch just a couple of minutes but ended up seeing it through all the way to the end…
Ian describes the effects of Parkinson’s:
His condition is gradually and inevitably deteriorating. Along with the endless tablets consumed daily and the inherent side effects of some of those tablets the disease itself is making things increasingly difficult for both my parents. However if the medication isn’t taken at the right time then the swift onset of the violent tremors that are a major effect of the disease will quickly occur and the periods of lucidity are mixed with confused ramblings and difficulties in being able to carry out even basic activities.
This is a moving insight into the effects of living with Parkinson’s Disease. Not only are the images beautifully composed, but the structure of the piece, the order of presentation and use of subject placement within each frame, leads you elegantly through the work. But you really wont notice that, because these are images of Ian’s father, and the ‘connection’ afforded by this intimate relationship is woven through each frame, and draws you inexorably in.
You might assume that the access afforded by being so intimately connected with the subjects would enable a degree of ‘invisibility’ – that ‘fly-on-the-wall’ access that serious documentary photographers strive for. And in some of the images that is evident. But what is more striking is the connection between Ian and his father – the recognition in his dad’s eyes, but tempered by a hint of their mutual understanding that his condition is deteriorating. There is frustration mixed with fear, but wrapped in the familiarity with home.
Ian has managed to capture something very moving, moments of connection between a father and his son, and glimpses of a stubborn and proudly determined man fighting to retain his connection with his life, and his family.
This is an elegiac tribute from a son to his parents, and well worth taking a few minutes out of your day to contemplate.
Image © James Woodend. Winner of the Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2014 Competition. The exhibition is on at the Royal Observatory Greenwich but if that’s too far then there’s always the BBC photofilm by Paul Kerley – which is well worth 5 minutes of your time…
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Scotland is going to be in the news a lot in the next few weeks. I’ve already posted some historic images, most taken about 35 years ago. So I though it might provide some useful balance to show some more recent images, taken in the last few years. These are selects from various projects I’ve undertaken, as well as personal work.
Once again, this is a long post, but it’s mainly photos, so maybe not too taxing. But it is VERY long, so may be NSFW as you may end up not doing any work for a while if you enjoy it……… And for the faint-hearted – be aware it does contain images of tartan, orange highland cows and some scenes of spontaneous enjoyment.
Scotland, like most countries, is complex and multi-faceted, a mess of politics and passions fused together with aspiration. I can give you only a glimpse of it’s complexity in the following images, and it will reflect only my experience. I live in the north so this is very much the view of an eye biased towards that region. Others can certainly offer a different perspective.
Make of it what you will (and I’ll keep the politics out of it as much as I can!).
Might as well start with the twee. Eilean Donan castle is pretty famous – its on the main road to Skye and a must-stop for every coach and hire car heading to the misty isle. It has featured prominently in numerous films and uncountable magazine ads for everything from credit cards to kilts. It is rather nice though I must admit.
Castle Stuart though is less well-known, sitting on a back road between Inverness and the airport. You could easily drive past it, but when the conditions are ‘good’ such as on this winter afternoon as the sun was going down, just after a blizzard….I think it looks rather splendid too.
Castle Urquhart on Loch Ness is hugely popular. But on this particular day I was one of only a few vehicles on the road, thanks to my 25 year old Land Rover. Heavy snow had created havoc and the snowploughs were gamely clearing piles of the white stuff, and trying to keep main routes open. Through my long lens the falling snow created a beautiful soft pattern, adding to the mood of the image.
No matter where you go in the Highlands and Islands the history of people’s connection with the landscape and nature is writ large. Orkney has some of the finest prehistoric structures in Europe. Brochs, chambered cairns, stone houses, and many standing stones, but none as spectacular and imposing as The Ring of Brodgar. The exact purpose of Brodgar is not clear but it is thought to have some astronomical significance, and more we can only guess at.
I’ve visited Brodgar many times. Perhaps the most memorable visit was late one autumn when at midnight from the low horizon an Aurora Borealis rose up and danced a jig across the northern sky, all purples, greens and yellows, swelling and writhing in the space between earth and elsewhere. No photos. I just sat transfixed and watched in wonderment.
Scotland has BIG scenery. It may only be a small country but we are very fortunate to have what might best be described as ‘dramatic’ landscapes.
To be honest, Suilven, as Scottish mountains go, is a bit of a monster, rising abruptly from the Sutherland bogs. It dominates the landscape and is visible from all directions, changing shape as your viewpoint varies, but losing little of its majesty.
Conditions on these mountains in winter can be vicious. Sub-arctic, flesh-freezing and wholly unpredictable, a consequence of our geographic location on the edge of the North Atlantic, but with a prevailing moist westerly wind which makes it rather ‘warmer’ on our west coast thanks to the Gulf Stream. However we are also prone to chill easterly blasts from Siberia and when these two weather systems meet (over us) it can be very uncomfortable ‘on the hill’. I spent one winter working on contract for Scottish Natural Heritage (our Environment Agency) photographing the Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve.
On one particular day of violent wind and snow showers I made my way into a high corrie (cirque or cwm) and found the area surrounding the small loch was being covered in spray thrown up by violent katabatic winds slamming down on the water’s surface. It was so cold the spray was immediately freezing and covering everything in a shroud of crystalline ice, which was so clear you could see the individual blades of grass entombed inside. It was magical to witness such incredibly delicate confections being formed from such violent conditions, so violent in fact that the filter on my lens got smashed by flying ice, shortly before I was blown over by a particularly vicious gust.
Conditions such as these are not as common as you might imagine, as the last two decades have seen fairly mild weather thanks to climate shift. But when the snow comes it makes rural living problematic. The road from Lochcarron over to Kishorn and on to Applecross, like many west highland routes and despite the best efforts of the snowploughs, can be treacherous.
For livestock, and wild animals, this can be testing. Deer can cope pretty well with cold and snow, but struggle with persistent cold and wet conditions. In severe weather they come down to lower levels and seek shelter, but even so it can still be hard going.
And for humans too this weather can be a challenge. Or entertaining. Depending on your point of view. This couple left their car at home and spent their day on cross-country skis. Very sensible. And fun.
But if you really like snowsports, when Scotland gets dumps of snow the skiing & snowboarding can be spectacular. And where else can you sit outside a mountain ski lodge and watch the Atlantic tides wash through the landscape far below?
For others these conditions can be no fun at all. The Cairngorm reindeer herder has to check her herd regularly and this means traversing the hills in all weather.
Lower down the conditions can still be a challenge, although highland cattle are sufficiently hardy to be able to survive pretty much anything that nature can throw at them. This is a far cry from the traditional tourist image of orange cows in sunlit fields, and for me far more revealing of their true character.
But ‘bad’ weather brings all sorts of benefits, especially for photographers. Loch Morlich froze over a few years back, and when the thaw came, brought by a westerly front, the ice broke up and was blown into a heap at the east end of the loch, and with a splatter of sunlight between showers, it made for a rather splendid sight.
Weather, and water, means energy. Wind turbines are becoming more common, and controversial – simply underlining the current concerns over land ownership, public versus private benefit, landscape despoliation, property value diminution, our over-reliance on fossil fuels, and so on.
Many western glens in the Highlands have hydro-electric dams feeding power into the grid. And in the north such ‘new’ technologies as wind and wave power are being developed literally in the shadow of Dounreay Nuclear Reactor, which is now in the process of being decommissioned. Wave energy schemes are being developed nearby (and in other part of the UK) with much of the r&d work undertaken in the Pentland Firth.
But the legacy of the nuclear industry is evident in many positive, and negative ways. An influx of people and their myriad skills has enhanced the community, and many former Dounreay workers have embraced opportunities to develop their own businesses. But the downside is that thanks to ‘escapes’ of nuclear material warning signs have been erected on some of the beaches to alert users to the potential radiation risks from escaped particles. And it’s not uncommon in Thurso to see a UKAEA vehicle on the beach scanning the sand for these ‘escapees’ whilst local folks go about their business of enjoying the otherwise pristine environment the north coast is famous for. (Particle clean up details here)
It’s tempting as a first-time visitor to see Scotland’s landscape as ‘empty’ or as some kind of ‘wilderness’. I hate the latter term. Scotland has wild land, but little true wilderness. The landscape is tightly managed, for various uses, some sporting, some recreational, some scientific, some military, a lot for recreational and public good. But none of it is without some form of human intervention, legislation or designation. Such ‘control’ is always ‘there’ described in full on some piece of paper sat in a box file or computer hard drive, just not obvious to the naked eye that rests upon the land.
Crofting is one of the better known examples of land use in the highlands. Described by some as “a small piece of land surrounded by a big chunk of legislation”, it is still practiced today. All but a few crofters rely totally on the croft for their income, supplementing it with a range of other employment. Today crofters may keep sheep or cattle, maybe a goats and few hens, but are just as likely in addition to be employed in any one of a broad range of jobs, dealing on Ebay via broadband, and participating in a wide variety of web-based enterprises from education to export.
Sporting use is common around the north – deer stalking is a popular sport, both for local people, and as a contributor to the local economy, providing Americans, Germans, Dutch and many other nationalities with a memorable stalking experience in rural Highland Scotland. Deer numbers have increased dramatically over the years, and culling is a necessity to prevent their destruction of woodlands and of course to keep the herds in a healthy condition. Deer management is a tightly regulated activity and the Deer Commission for Scotland run many training courses to ensure those involved in it are skilled and responsible.
As a consequence of all this sporting use, gun ownership in highland Scotland, as you might expect, is relatively high. However across Scotland gun crime is relatively low (and falling), with air guns the most commonly identified weapon in the majority of recorded offences involving a firearm. (For the record I am not inferring any direct relationship between levels of gun ownership and the low incidences of firearm crime.)
You could travel all around Scotland and not see a gun, but they are evident when you visit Agricultural Shows and Game Fairs where there are often tightly controlled Clay Pigeon Shoots.
And sometimes when the kids get fed up with the toys and wander off to see the bouncy castle, mums get left holding the fort.
But the Army have much much bigger guns!
The military regularly use the live-firing range at Cape Wrath in Sutherland, lobbing shells onto Garvie Island from the vicinity of Durness village, surrounded by splendid beaches and dramatic coastal scenery. They access the firing and control point on Faraid Head by driving along one of Scotland’s most splendid beaches, Balnakeil. Although noisy, their training use provides a significant boost to the local economy as the military have a policy of obtaining their accommodation, fuel and food locally.
After the exercises are over the Royal Navy Northern Dive Group (bomb disposal team) are tasked with clearing the unexploded ordnance. This is difficult and dangerous work. ‘Duds’ are first located by diving around Garvie Island, and their locations marked. Explosives are prepared and fastened to the rounds on the seabed, with a long fuse to the surface. This is lit, the RIB races away and the water erupts. Job done.
The NDG team time their stay to coincide with the Durness Highland Games where the team members compete in the various games, doing pretty well in the tug-o-war – for obvious reasons! Their combined weight was so much they nearly tipped their Land Rover over while posing for my photo!
But once the military work is over, and the echo of high explosives fades away, the landscape quietens. Nesting birds continue the frantic feeding of their young, the cattle return to laze on the sand and to the casual visitor all is serene and wild. But no matter where you go, despite this deceptive appearance, the landscape is being utilized, managed, examined, monitored.
A far less obvious use of the landscape is for science and education. The peat bogs of Northern Scotland are repositories of very useful information. Contained within the soft dark layers beneath our feet is the history of vegetation growth, written in pollen grains. Tiny fragments of potential trapped over many thousands of years, waiting patiently to tell their story to those who care to read it. What can it tell us? Well quite a lot, about tree cover, vegetation density, its increase or decrease due to the prevailing climate, and layer by layer the deeper you go, the more complex this story becomes, providing insight and knowledge that can help shape our current understanding of global climate change and provide clues for more successful land management at a local level.
But it is not only on the land that science makes an impact, as it seeks to discover the hidden details concealed from our view. Fisheries biologists monitor the health of freshwater systems and the estuarine and coastal marine environments, trying to understand the complex ways these systems interact, and establishing what pressures they can exert, and resist.
Some of this work is producing remarkable results. The University of The Highlands & Islands (UHI) Inverness College is involved in a long-term project on the River Carron in Wester Ross, (River Carron Restoration Project) looking at the restocking strategies on the river system. This involves rod-catching wild salmon, stripping their eggs and fertilizing them, raising the brood stock and finally releasing them, with nose tags that allow them to be monitored.
Returns of fish to the river are considerably and consistently higher than in many other highland rivers, and the ongoing task is to establish precisely why this is occurring. The implications of this innovative research could have benefits for many highland rivers, perhaps playing a role in bolstering local fisheries and the communities that rely on them. More research is required, but this is a good example of the type of ‘hidden’ work being undertaken that could result in considerable economic, scientific, and educational benefits across Scotland and the UK.
Fishing, as you might imagine, is hugely popular in Scotland, and local angling clubs abound. I spent a delightful few days with members of the Inverness Angling Club recently and produced an affectionate multimedia piece which explores through their observations, notions of friendship, philosophy, tourism, and a lot more besides, particularly humour! To my surprise there was even some talk about fishing! (Link to the multimedia piece here).
Hidden behind a screen of trees well off the main path beside the River Ness, but well known to local anglers, is this lovely stainless-steel riverside bench, erected “In Memory of Jock Dyce, who loved to fish this river. 1926-2003″. This may ‘only’ be a bench, but for me it speaks volumes about ‘connection’ and ‘belonging’ and a reverence for place that is palpable, and important. The story of landscape and it’s many human connections can really only be told through the filter of experience of those who have reason to love it.
Woodlands are significant in Scotland. The old Great Wood of Caledon exists now only as fragments. But community woodland ownership and management has increased significantly, as has the impact and legacy of various environmental Trusts. Organizations such as The Woodland Trust manage significant areas of woodland, one of my favourites being the Ledmore and Migdale woods in Sutherland. Recent renovation of an old croft house for use as a community shelter has allowed woodland education opportunities for local school and community groups, fostering pride in, and connections with, these amazing woodlands.
The last few decades have seen a growth in interest in all things Scottish, particularly Scottish music. The growth is reflected in the Feis movement, festivals of traditional music, dancing and culture. In small villages and towns musicians prepare throughout the year for these events, and they are particularly popular amongst young people, with a terrific surge in the number of young musicians. There is some fantastic talent emerging in modern Scotland, and you don’t have to go far to hear spine-chilling renditions on fiddles bagpipes or simply the unaccompanied human voice.
A recent piece of multimedia work I was involved in featured a young highland woman musician who loved to play her fiddle in the forest, drawing inspiration from the sounds and echoes that accompanied her. It required illustration and this is what I came up with, by using a slow shutter speed and following the rhythm of the music downwards as I pressed the shutter to take a photograph of a group of trees. The light from the sky behind creates the white lines and gives some suggestion of the ways that music, and place and inspiration are intertwined.
I attended a festival on Skye a few years ago and one event was a ‘multi-disicplinary’ heritage walk. This was a fancy way of describing a bunch of people, a photographer (me), a poet, a historian, two women gaelic singers, a traditional boatbuilder, a painter and an archaeologist, on a walk through the ancient landscapes on North Skye. Each fold of the hill revealed a new view, which I captured on digital and we would consider on the camera’s LCD, then the singers would weave their voices around the wind and sing of the history of place and their and connection to it, going back hundreds of years. I did a very poor recording of this (with a newly-out-of-the-box recorder) which you can hear if you go to this page, and find the link at page bottom, which also explains the roles of all present. In the recording Sine Gillepsie sings ‘Ri fuam an taibh’ (to the sound of the atlantic) by Mairi nighean Alasdair Ruaih, the bardess of Clan Macleod who rests across the Sound in Rodel Church on Harris, whilst Anne sings a strathspey that tells of the history of the Clan Macleod at Duntulm Castle. It is spontaneous and flawed, marred by wind noise and my ineptitude, yet atmospheric, and beautiful.
Tourism is a big earner in Scotland, and one of the fastest growing sectors is environmental tourism. Where else (apart from Alaska, where enormous brown bears charge after huge salmon) can you see enormous sea mammals charge after huge salmon? In Inverness you can, only a few minutes from the city centre. Bottlenose dolphins hunting are a daily sight near the town in the summer months, often under the main road bridge north, at Kessock. Sometimes these huge animals even enter the marina following yachts into the moorings. These are impressive animals, up to 4m long and 400kg of explosive power. A lot of their hunting activity happens so close to the shore that on some days you might actually get splashed! These animals attract a lot of visitors each year, and dolphin tourism is estimated to be worth between £4.5M and £6.5m per annum to the highland economy. (Study report here.)
The Loch Ness monster still holds considerable appeal. You may think this a myth, but speak to some of the locals that live around the loch and they may, if so inclined, tell you deeply personal stories of things they’ve seen (and with decades of local knowledge to draw on to make guesses at what they’ve witnessed) that you would be foolish to dismiss. Boat trips are available on the loch all year round, whatever the weather. You can tell when it’s summer though, as the rain is usually warmer.
Scotland’s environment has changed considerably in the 35 years since I started photographing. Some changes are for the worse, but a great deal more is positive. In the cities concerted efforts to clean up the environment has seen remarkable improvements in water quality. On the River Clyde for example, fish stocks have increased, and that barometer of river health, the otter, has returned and is thriving, as it is in other parts of urban Scotland.
The Land Reform legislation has enabled legal access to wild land in Scotland. But such increased land use for recreation (a good thing) has its downside, and often such access and enjoyment results in increased litter and fly-tipping, which is a growing problem. However it’s one which in time, with education, could be changed, and in a few areas grassroots intervention by the community has had some success in reducing the worst excesses of littering.
But it is in the more rural areas of Scotland that people’s ‘closeness’ to the land is most noticeable. And interwoven throughout is the inescapable history of highland Scotland. Wherever you go the old and the new co-exist, communities stepping forwards but always with one eye to the past.
Where else could you run your fingers over a message scratched into a pane of glass in a church by the desperate residents of the glen who had been ‘cleared’ from their homes to make way for sheep, and who sought sanctuary here almost two hundred years ago? Touching the past, literally. (link)
And today that faith in ‘the church’ to guide and lead, and to protect, is still strong. In many rural areas of the Highlands & Islands, the Free Church is vigorously active and outspoken, however its fundamentalist interpretation of scripture has won it as many detractors as it has supporters. Whatever your opinions of its strict outlook, there is no denying its influence. And that said I’d defy all but the most hard-hearted to remain unmoved by the sheer power and sparse emotional beauty of the unaccompanied Gaelic Psalm. Like the landscapes that surround the singers and over which their voices echo, these psalms conceal a richness of heritage that is incredibly powerful and enduring. (Youtube examples here and here. The latter is more eerie and affecting.)
But there are other, more ancient beliefs still extant in the Highlands. Clootie wells are one such manifestation. The pre-Christian tradition is to wash an afflicted part of your body with a rag soaked in water from the ‘healing well’ and then to tie the rag on a nearby tree. As the rag rots and decays so too will your illness diminish. This may sound fanciful, but for those who believe, this is a powerful investment in the healing power of nature. (there is a short video piece I made about my local Clootie Well here if you want to get the full overwhelming effect).
And then there are the people. Modern Scotland is eclectic, vibrant and composed of a variety of nationalities. As we more enlightened Highlanders are wont to proclaim “It’s no where yer from that’s important, it’s what you do when you get here that matters!”. So here are a few characters and glimpses of their life in the north:
Ronan and Kenny, Mull natives, run a small inshore boat out of the north end of their island fishing for brown crabs and lobsters. Theirs is hard work in difficult seas, but their catch is highly prized and within 24 hours is on the tables of diners in restaurants in England, France and Spain.
Their catch is kept in cages on the seafloor in the bay and when the refrigerated lorry arrives they rise pre-dawn and sort the crabs ready for export. Their only light is from a portable petrol generator, feeding two bulbs that pierce the frigid winter night. I worked alongside them one bitterly cold December morning, and when I left the pool of light to fetch fresh batteries for my flash, realized that dawn was creeping in, and a picture was just begging to be taken. Sometimes being in the light conceals from you the exquisite beauty of darkness.
Ronan and Kenny’s parents, with help from Kenny’s brother and Ronan’s sister, run an oyster farm only a short distance away from the pier. This is tough work, wading in freezing seas and far from the rural idyll you might imagine. The winters I was there were characterized by intense and persistent low pressure systems which affected the tides, reducing the ‘window of opportunity’ to work on their oysters.
These are families working at the front line of climate shift, their income directly affected by the fluctuations of weather and tide; and the communities they are part of, although very much ‘on the edge’ are thriving thanks to their determination.
On the outskirts of Inverness, beside the Caledonian Canal which links the west and east coasts, Stan Fraser has built a scale model of the Titanic. Obsessed with all things nautical Stan has lovingly created over twelve years, a 90 foot long replica, a tribute to what he considers a beautiful vessel, and which is also his personal memorial to all those whose lives were lost. He has recently opened a small Titanic visitor centre in his house. (You can see a multimedia piece I did with Stan here). I have huge admiration for Stan, and the efforts he’s made to pursue his dreams.
Brian Green from Rogart in Sutherland has started a new business using a five year old Comtois he imported from France. Working in woodland areas, Brian and ‘Tarzan’ can extract timber with minimal impact and damage to what are often sensitive scientifically important sites. When I photographed Brian he’d only recently acquired Tarzan, who could not understand much English so Brian was quickly learning French in order to ease Tarzan into his new Highland life! C’est la vie, ye ken!
Jeff Reade fetched up on the Isle of Mull and built a dairy farm and cheese making business over several decades. (link to more pictures and history) When I say ‘built’ I mean literally built the buildings from scratch, renovating a ruined farm and recycling pieces of various buildings from the island that were being demolished, including the steelwork from the ferry terminal on the local pier in Tobermory. Now, with his wife and sons, he has a thriving business producing fantastic cheese.
Peter Cairns is a good example of the modern Highlander. Pete sold a successful haulage business in the North of England and moved to Scotland several decades ago, and with his wife Amanda created one of the UK’s leading ecotourism photographic businesses, based in Strathspey. As well as being a world-renowned nature photographer and writer, Pete is a respected proponent of sustainable tourism diversification for Highland estates, and practices what he preaches. He has developed his own thriving business in the woods and hills around his home, where he enables aspirant nature photographers from all over the world to gain intimate access to a range of highland wildlife.
Relying on other local businesses to underpin their own enterprise, Pete and Amanda offer their guests local beef from the village butcher, venison from the Estate next door, and local fruit and vegetables from nearby farms in the glen, which enables them to minimize their business’s environmental impact whilst providing a high quality sustainable experience. This is not an unusual approach in modern Scotland, and one that feeds directly into an overarching vision, shared by many in Scotland’s tourism industry, of a country which can offer high quality, sustainable tourism. Here Pete patiently waits by the Moray Firth for a dolphin (its fin is barely visible in the distance) to come a lot closer. He waited in vain on this particular evening! But that’s all part of the game.
And then there’s the ordinary, the humorous, the peculiar, the remarkable and the simply impressive that you’ll usually come across in any wander through Scotland.
And finally to the remarkable. A closer look at a place that you might not otherwise come across. It is a small island, concealed behind another larger island, itself hidden by a third island nestled in a fold of wild and rugged coast just south of Oban, and visiting it made a big impression on me. It is Belnahua. These islands, and the surrounding coast, are comprised of slate, and it has long been mined for house construction. The beaches here are black, slate-black, and on stormy days the contrast between slate and the wild foaming surf of the Atlantic is dramatic.
I was able to visit Belnahua whilst undertaking a book project on overlooked or little-visited Hebridean islands. It has no inhabitants now except seagulls, and its low profile on an impressive horizon of islands and dramatic skies, is more akin to a line of broken teeth.
But this place once had a thriving human population, who survived the Highland Clearances, the potato famines, the Salt Tax and the kelp slump. This was the home of slate miners who strove to meet the increasing demand for slate to roof the expanding Victorian cities. They had no fresh water on the island, it had to be brought in from another island nearby, and there was little space for agriculture either. The inhabitants were miners, so they mined.
Eventually the demand for slate decreased, the miners left, having almost broken the island’s back, leaving behind their cottages to crumble and once powerful machinery to rust in the corrosive ocean air. It is at once both impressive and forlorn, testament to the will of people who made a living in an otherwise inhospitable place, until they could do so no more.
I did a talk in Oban one evening, about this book project, my visit to Belnahua and the feelings it evoked, and afterwards two women came over, one elderly, in tears, the other much younger and barely holding her tears back. The younger woman explained that her mother had been born on Belnahua, and she’d not ever been there nor seen any recent photographs of it and wanted to thank me for providing her with this little glimpse, and added that she could tell from my voice that it had moved me, and that hearing that inflection in my tone had moved her too.
The older woman stood, tears rolling down her cheeks, and revealed in a soft west highland voice that rippled with emotion that she had in fact been born on Belnahua, and recognized the ruins of the house she had lived in briefly as a small child “I remember playing in the doorway watching the rain sweep across the open seas around me…..” before leaving for a different life on the mainland, and that my photographs had offered her the first glimpse of her birthplace in over 70 years. It was an emotional interlude, and a reminder to me of the power of photography to connect, inform and to simply move people.
Well, anyone who has found their way to this point, thank you.
I hope this has given you some insight, and perhaps revealed just a little more of the magic of this northern corner of the UK. Had I spent my life in Wales, or Ireland, or England I’m absolutely certain the images would have reflected something very very similar. It is quite simply, place, and people.
And if I am asked after all this what is the one thing (apart from the people) that impresses me the most about Scotland, I’d have to say “the weather”. It shapes the landscape, has done slowly over millennia, swells the rivers that carve through the glens, tests the patience and resolve of those who make their living from the land, or on the sea, and has inspired a multitude of painters, poets, writers and singers. And it has inspired me too.
I posted the following image (and the last bit of text accompanying it) on duckrabbit some time ago, I think it’s perhaps a suitable note to finish on. It’s about ‘edges’ – those places where tensions lie, where frictions may occur, and where often that point of ‘interplay’ between opposing forces reveals more about each other than in any other place. Many would argue that Scotland is on the edge, geographically certainly, much of it is coastline, almost 8000 miles of it. It is on the edge of the Atlantic, but also the edge of Europe. And some would argue it has been on the edge of UK consciousness too, back there somewhere, in the north. But that has changed, will change more in the next few weeks. How much change will there be? Time will tell.
This final image is one I captured whilst working on the Isle of Rum several years ago. It’s one of my personal favourites, I guess because it’s about the ‘risks’ we might take on occasion, and the rewards that often result; about the motivation we need to have in order to imagine that the effort expended will be worthwhile. The forecast for that day was grim, the reality was worse. The storm force winds were unrelenting, mountainous seas thundered ashore, all the western ferries were cancelled, trees were blown down, large vehicles turned over, and all along the coast in villages and towns the fires were well stoked in all the houses, fighting back the chill of sleet and hail that battered off their windows.
But yes, I went out.
I struggled up a small hill on the edge of Loch Scresort on Rum, against an increasingly resentful wind. And when I reached the top the sky cleared, only briefly, and Scotland did what it can so often do – offered a glorious reward for my foolishness.
I peered over the rise to face the gale and the dramatic light, and took a few frames, but a moment later as I bent down to unzip my rucksack to obtain a cloth to wipe the sticking sleet from my camera, my tripod was blown over, smashing the lens that took this image against a suitably robust boulder, a large lump of granite that had waited patiently for millennia through many such storms for this one moment of glory.
I like edges.
It is at edges that things occur.
The edge between sea and land. Shore.
The edge between day and night. Dusk.
The edge between night and day. Dawn.
The edge between weather systems. Rainbow.
The edge between woodland and meadow. Shadow.
The edge between awe and inspiration. Wonder.
Or as here.
As storms raced across the Isle of Eigg.
As hurricane force winds blew waterfalls skywards against gravity.
As dark clouds roiled and boiled and were cleaved by light.
The edge between art and reality. Imagination.