Recent post by duckrabbit on trust, and responses from Ciara about getting close to people, struck a chord.
I was working on a book project to photograph a bunch of widely scattered Hebridean islands, mostly within a few miles of the Scottish coast, but a few of them pretty remote and awkward to get to. The loose theme was to contrast the uninhabited ones, with their ruined cottages now filled only with memories, with other still thriving islands.
Of necessity the latter would involve showing island people, and what they do. One thread all about absence, and the other, presence and vitality.
I was on a couple of the ‘easy access’ inhabited islands over a few days. First of all Kerrera, only a short ferry hop from the bustling tourist destination of Oban, and met several people, all of whom I spoke to (well tried to) but who were unbelievably rude, either ignoring my salutations by turning their backs, or offering rather unfriendly responses. Although one response was just strange, but more about that another time. And the signage in various places was less than welcoming. I left the island earlier than I’d intended.
The next day I went to Lismore, a mile or two further up the coast. As I photographed a small detail on a derelict rusty roofed cottage, a woman who was hanging out the washing on a clothes line of a house nearby, and to whom I’d waved good morning, came charging towards me with an angry expression on her face and berated me. And my heart sunk, here we go again.
In 30 seconds I’d an insight into the local housing situation as she ranted that “you should be ashamed of yourself buying up all the cottages and selling them as holiday homes and doing young people a grave disservice forcing them to leave the island and ruining the community, and you’ve no permission to take this photograph” and so on and so forth. When she stopped to breathe I explained quietly what I WAS doing, a documentary project on remote island communities. And she stopped and listened, to where I’d been and what I’d seen. And then she visibly warmed, and we did that lovely indirect Highland thing where she ‘interrogated’ me with a deftness that any CIA operative would envy and found out where I was from, and my grandparents too (Mull and Arisaig) which pleased her as I obviously had some island blood. So we parted amicably, and I walked on up the narrow road and Lillian returned to her washing line.
Half an hour later and half a mile further on, I heard a car coming behind me, and I stepped aside to let it pass, but it stopped. The door opened and there was Lillian again “Take the car” she said. “What” says I. “Take the car, its a big island, you’ll see none of it if you walk” she says. “Whose car is it” I ask. “Mine of course, whose else would it be?”. “What will I do with it when I’m finished?” I ask. “Bring it back to my house!” “Will you be in?” “Probably not, just leave the key on the kitchen table, the door is never locked. Bye”, and off she walked along the road, apron flapping in the warm summer breeze.
Now that’s trust. And the fact I had Lillian’s car opened many doors that day: meeting a group of farmers at the CAP Reform discussion in the village hall, access to several farms, and more; but the ongoing gag that accompanied it was that EVERYONE on the island knew the car and its owner, but did not know me, and the rumour that I was her fancy man sped far ahead of me and awaited me at every stop, in every nod and greeting. Great fun!
But how to portray such a degree of trust in an image? I pondered that all day as I photographed this small but vibrant island community. And then I stopped at St Moluag’s Cathedral in the late afternoon, where some beautiful stained glass windows were catching the sun and casting a warm golden glow over the cool interior. And there in the Offertory Plate was a £5 note, left in an unlocked church. A simple scene, but one that speaks volumes about life in a small community, about respect and values, and trust.
The contrast between two similar islands was dramatic, the treatment I received on one was just unnecessarily hostile, with no attempt to find out who I was and what I might be doing. It’s an attitude that’s perhaps a consequence of too many gawping tourists on day trips from Oban poking their cameras in people’s faces? Who knows. And to be fair on another day I might have a very different experience. I will return and see.
And on this other island, an initially defensive response to my presence, but one which revealed a protectiveness of aspects of the way of life it values but is seeing eroded. And behind this thorny reaction I discovered warmth and generosity in abundance. One island seemed to have turned its back on its shores and the possibilities that arrive there with every tide, whilst the other faces out, confident and prepared to welcome new arrivals, and that involves trust. I know which community has the better chance of surviving.
So much of photography is based on ‘the contract of interaction’, and the value of talking to people can never be underestimated. Sometimes it leads nowhere, but other times it opens doors to experiences you’d not have imagined.
That’s why it’s worth talking, and listening.
And yes, the house was empty and the kitchen door was unlocked when I popped the car key back on the table.