‘Inside The Fort’Written by John Macpherson
(I first posted this article here in 2011, and promised that I would update it at some point with more images and better scans. Well I managed it at last so I’m reposting it! Images will appear larger if you click them.)
Inside The Fort
Photography, cameras, (dis)ability and empowerment.
Length of this post: long. Words: a lot. Pictures: a significant number. Apologies for that: none.
Almost 40 years ago, in 1987, I undertook a photography project with two men with ‘learning disabilities’ in the small West Highland town of Fort wiliam where I was born.
Tommy, a man with Down Syndrome, was moving into community living after more than 20 years in an institution. The other man, Malcolm, had suffered meningitis when young and it had caused brain damage. Malcolm was regarded locally as ‘the village idiot’ because of his rather unorthodox behaviour, not helped by his epileptic seizures and somewhat dishevelled appearance. But he was well respected by many and at least one prominent local businessman quietly ensured Malcolm had a decent new winter coat every few years (one of the benefits of living in a small community). He was a man I’d known since I was a child as he’d lived with his parents in a tiny wooden cottage in the glen close to where I lived. I’d regularly see him coming and going when I was out playing and he’d always talk and gently, humorously, tease my friends and me. He was very fond of my parents especially my mum, and they reciprocated, joining in his fun, and they often had hilarious interactions.
However Malcolm’s shabby exterior masked an astonishing brain and his abilities, rather ironically I think, were known only to a certain sector of the community – those who frequented the betting shop where Malcolm ‘worked’ off and on as a bookie’s clerk. Malcolm could calculate incredibly complicated odds, involving each way bets, multiple odds and roll-ups ALL in his head, and do so spectacularly quickly. He was never wrong. This ability spilled over into crossword solving and car number plate recall. Malcolm could breeze through most cryptic crosswords with ease no matter how complex, and recall the car numbers of everyone he’d ever met. Whatever damage the meningitis had caused to some parts of his cortex, it had triggered neural activity in others that was remarkable. Including a well-developed and infectiously impish sense of humour.
And so one year we three set out on our photographic project. Both men attended a Social Work Day Centre I was employed in and this was my final year project submission for my Social Work Qualification. The idea I’d come up with was simple – to enable Tommy to meet the community he would live in, through photographing the various people who provide the day to day support we all rely on – the bin man, the doctor, the minister, the bus driver, the shopkeeper etc. The idea was that this ‘exploration of community’ would allow Tommy to interact with these various people through the medium of an ‘intellectual’ activity, photography, and do so on the basis of his abilities rather than any perceived disabilities.
For Malcolm it was all about something he loved doing: getting out and about, meeting people, talking, interacting, laughing, basically ‘getting the craic’, and maybe doing some artistic stuff into the bargain. Differing aims for each man, but through a common activity, photography. My role was to oversee their endeavours, provide guidance on gaining community access, teaching camera handling skills etc and maintaining a diary of activity for my college submission.
We started by engaging in a process of learning how to use cameras (a Nikon slr and a Ricoh compact, both using HP5), playing with controls and basic techniques for handling and focusing, and writing and sending out letters to try to gain access to various private situations such as factories, distilleries, railway yards etc. Slowly over a few weeks permissions for access started to flow in, and we realised this might work, and so the two men began actually photographing, in ‘private’ work locations and quite often in public, in shops, supermarket etc
My initial thoughts had been that this was a social skills project, but as the two men laboured on, learning camera skills and starting to produce images, I was astonished at what I was witnessing. Every night after an outing I’d process their film and make contact sheets, often printing out a few of the images for them to share, and next day we’d review the contacts and think about the process. But with each passing day, each darkroom session, I could see the resulting work was utterly remarkable. It was insightful, often infused with humour, sometimes capturing easily-overlooked details, and I started to realise these two men were capturing a huge slice of ‘community’ – one they had been born into, and for various reasons partly excluded from, but here were being received with generosity and warmth simply through the act of creating with cameras.
They laboured diligently through a year and produced a remarkable body of work. It was picked up (as a Social Work social skills/art project) by leading UK social care magazines, and then the wider local and national press and went on to be toured nationally winning the two men a major arts award into the bargain.
But what surprised me and taught me a huge lesson (amongst many other lessons) was the reaction from people when they were confronted by the camera. One specific situation was in a shop when the assistant, who knew Malcolm really well and had put him out of the shop several times previously over many years for trying to kiss her – an old trick of his – said “What are you doing with a camera Malcolm!” and Malcolm explained about the project whilst I hung back behind a shelf aisle out of sight and listened. “There’s no film in that” she went on laughing. “Away with you, you rascal“. And Malcolm calmly did as I’d suggested which was to get the subject to move to a suitable background by politely asking and directing gently, and as the woman did as she was asked, she continued to say “Ha ha there’s no film in that camera!“. But she did as she was told! And both Malcolm and Tommy took her photograph.
And I was astonished. Normally Malcolm without a camera giving directions to someone would be ignored, but here now holding a Nikon he was empowered in some rather delightful way. The camera had somehow legitimized his intrusion into the ‘normal’ world in a way that I found remarkable.
This happened several times subsequently, and each time reinforced my growing awareness of the totemic value of cameras. When we returned to the same shop a week later to present a nice 10×8 b&w print (which we did often) the woman was both delighted and bemused “So there was film in that camera! I thought you were kidding me Malcolm!”
These two men had the launch of their nationally toured exhibition in Edinburgh, in a big venue, with lots of people and in the visitors book was left the following comment:
“Despite the fact I’ve been earning a living with cameras for 30 years, having viewed this exhibition, I now realize I cannot call myself a photographer“.
We went to an Edinburgh pub in late afternoon following their Edinburgh exhibition, to have a meal before the long drive home to the Highlands. Tommy and I sat with the drinks I’d bought us whilst Malcolm went to check out the food menu on the wall behind the bar. I watched him wander over, doing his usual shuffle, several daily papers stuffed into his pockets, and talking to himself “hmm pie ‘n chips, no , hm, maybe fish pie, ha fish! Well maybe steak and kidney pie?” and so on. Next thing I see is the barman shouting at Malcolm to get out. And what followed was shameful, and an insight into the prejudiced ignorance that people with any form of disability have to contend with. The contrast with our earlier exhibition experience with these two artists being celebrated will live with me forever. As will my anger.
I confronted the barman and the two giggling customers he was standing with and showing off to, and asked him what the problem was, pointing out that the two men were award-winning photographers who’d just been at their own exhibition launch. He ignored me and aggressively said “He’s drunk, he can get out”. I replied “No he’s not drunk, the only person here’s who’s not in control of himself is you.“ To which he retorted “Ok all of you out I’m not serving you, he’s drunk“. I went back to the seat with Malcolm to where Tommy was sitting agitated and on the verge of tears, and he asked me “John why is that man throwing us out, Malcolm’s not been drinking he’s not done anything wrong?” A good question I thought so I turned to the barman who’d followed us to ensure we actually left, and asked him to explain to Tommy why he was throwing us out.
Tommy stood looking expectantly at the barman, and put on the spot by it, the barman stammered in response, pointing to Tommy but directing his gaze to me “Well he can stay, but he’s out“, and indicated towards Malcolm. Anyway, briefly, I got very very angry and made my feelings quite clear about ignorance, intelligence, serving the public, human rights and a lot more, and we left, with no food and with a real damper put on the end of what should have been a wonderfully celebratory day. I have to confess we left because I was on the verge of committing an assault. It was another insight for me into the ways that people with ‘hidden disabilities’ can be discriminated against, publicly, blatantly and with complete disregard for their feelings.
Sadly Malcolm passed away far too soon, several years later. He’d suffered a major and prolonged seizure which caused further brain damage leaving him unable to talk or walk, and with eating difficulties, but thankfully with his sense of humour still intact. Sadly his health deteriorated and he succumbed to further seizures which prematurely ended his life. Tommy continued to enjoy independent living in the community for several years, exploring far wider horizons than he’d ever imagined in the institution, until his untimely death.
However the work the two individuals produced delighted, astonished and educated me and many others, their exhibition had a bit of a life in the years afterwards and was enjoyed by many people. Today their work still attracts attention, whenever I post images on Social Media it reaffirms for viewers the vital role of art, the value of community, and the importance of documentary photography. As time has passed these images have taken on a different meaning, crucially showing a pivotal period in West Highland economic history as industry such as the Corpach Paper Mill closed, overlapping with the rise of marine aquaculture.
The two men’s ‘local’ status also meant they were familiar to many of the subjects of their photographs, in fact several of those photographed were old school pals of Malcolm, some were drinking buddies, others frequenters of the betting shop Malcolm occasionally worked in, allowing some wonderful friendly interactions as they teased him gently about his new career as an artist! As a consequence the two men have created a record of ordinary working people who make up a community, and done so with a degree of insight that I doubt any ‘outside’ photographer could have achieved.
These two men have produced a significant body of work and the least I can do is scan more of it, post it, celebrate our small community, and celebrate also their photographic endeavours. The project title I chose 40 years ago was “Inside The Fort” a play on words describing ‘The Fort’, the affectionate name we locals call Fort William, and ‘Inside’ because in many ways these two men, simply by accident of birth, had in some ways been excluded. I felt that through undertaking this work they might be able to more easily be “Inside The Fort”. And I think they succeeded. In showing us ‘their’ community as they saw it, they simply showed us our community.
I’ve said it before and offer no apologies for saying it again: Photography is a remarkable activity. Cameras can open doors into new areas of experience that would otherwise be closed to you. But the process of becoming a photographer, and the act of doing photography, can change you in ways you cannot even imagine. These two men were chosen pretty much at random, and had no previous experience of photography, yet with modest support to explore their creativity they produced some remarkably perceptive work, and grew considerably as a result. How many other similar individuals, dismissed as having a ‘disability’, are denied this opportunity, and how much poorer are we as a society as a consequence?
Prejudice builds on the very few differences that separate us. Creativity can unite us on the basis of the far greater amount we have in common.
Creativity is more than just an indulgence, it’s a vital part of being alive.
The images below are by Tommy Sutherland, then Malcolm’s are further down. There are far more images by Tommy than by Malcolm. Tommy used a small Ricoh AF compact which proved a great success, enabling far more images in focus and correctly exposed. The Auto Focus function removed the focus difficulties and enabled more spontaneous image-making. Malcolm used a Miranda SLR on occasion initially but most often used a Nikon FM2 with a wideangle lens, and whilst this wide lens provided better depth-of-field in some circumstances, in others the need to manually focus quickly proved of lesser interest to Malcolm than having an animated blether with people! Consequently although Malcolm had a great social interaction experiences on each outing, his in-focus success rate was a bit lower. There were also occasions when due to his somewhat erratic lifestyle he might not show up when expected and so I would only have Tommy for certain visits. However the quantity of images the two men made is really not important, what matters is the experience they had, the social and creative rewards they earned, and the sheer quality of the images they produced.
The images below are all by Malcolm MacPhee.
To give you some insight into the process, here’s some images I took of the two men at work with their cameras. The sheer fun they had should be obvious!