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An interview with Margaret Mitchell

Steven / From the series Family 1994

We interviewed Glasgow based photographer, Margaret Mitchell about her outstanding portfolio of work, along with current projects and making it work as a photographer in Scotland in the 90’s. Margaret has produced both short and long bodies of work, which have gained wide respect from fellow photographers across the country. Mitchell’s work explores themes such as childhood and place and issues including social inequality, sharing stories from people for more than 25 years.

Words by Jonathan Tomlinson
Images by Margaret Mitchell

Chick / From the series Family 1994

Margaret, please give us a little bit of background about yourself and your work.

I was born in Stirling in central Scotland and now live in Glasgow. My main photographic interests cover childhood, youth, place and belonging. I work on both personal and commissioned projects that range from exploring communities and childrens’ worlds through to long-term documentation projects.

I studied photography at Napier University (1994) with a masters at Edinburgh College of Art (1999). I often feel as if I have two photographic lives, divided up by a period of ill-health in the middle – so I am in my second half now. I have been fortunate in this second life, with work starting to be shown more and have had some recent awards with exhibitions including Gold last year at the Royal Photographic Society’s International Photography Exhibition (IPE160) and at the 2018 Sony World Photography (2nd in Contemporary Issues). These have helped me bring awareness to the stories and issues I am raising and have helped to take the work outside Scotland.

I was also delighted that work from the series ‘Family’ and ‘In This Place’ entered the collection at the National Galleries of Scotland last year. It was of great emotional significance for both myself and those within the images and the stories they are telling. So, my second life is where most of my work is known from, but it is influenced by all that went before.

John and Family 1991

How was growing up as a photographer in the 90’s? What did you find inspiring and what were you focusing on the most?

In the early 90’s I was a photography student and spent my time between Edinburgh and Stirling where my mum lived. I was a ‘mature’ student in that I was 21 when I went to study and had been working abroad in a series of jobs in bars and hotels since I left school at 17. It’s quite a convoluted story but I didn’t really have a place to go home to as my mum had moved during the time I was away, and her allocated council house didn’t have enough bedrooms. What this meant was that my life at that time was quite dislocated so that probably influenced some of my work.

I photographed my own family a fair bit for in some ways I was pulling them back together, wanting to recreate something that had disappeared when my dad died, and my mum moved.
I photographed my brother and his family as well as my sister for the documentary ‘Family’. I was interested in people and would photograph those I came into contact with through my jobs when I was studying. I worked in hotels and in a bingo hall so, naturally for me, I photographed them too. I was intrigued by children, wanted to explore their worlds so that also featured in my work. I was mostly drawn towards documentary, felt a beautiful obsession with it, but became a little bit disillusioned with it at this time and so ended up concentrating more on environmental portraits which didn’t seem too far from my main love in photography.

Did you find there was much work around Edinburgh at that time as a photographer?

After I graduated I decided that I would give it three months and if I hadn’t found work in a photography related area, I would apply for anything. This felt natural as I had worked before going to University and then part-time all the way through it. It wasn’t a choice but a necessity, as many students experience. I was quite tough on myself when I graduated, that I would give it these three months and then back to hotel work or whatever I could find. Luckily, I got some work. I was very interested in collaborative projects and work surrounding issues of identity, so I concentrated myself within community arts initially combining that with personal projects. I ended up being a photography lecturer for over 10 years which I enjoyed greatly. Unfortunately, I became ill with a balance disorder but recovered after some time and embarked on my second photographic life. In my heart, I really wanted to travel, to work with new communities but I just didn’t have the financial resources. Many people headed to London if they wanted to ‘make’ it, but I stayed in Scotland. Nowadays I think it is different, life is different, as are opportunities – the internet has changed that. And sometimes it’s good to look within your own community if you can’t afford to travel either financially or due to other commitments. Where are the stories that need to be told there? The photographs that can be made. The people represented, and represented properly, with respect. Something I’d like to have told the younger me, instead of that thirst for travel perhaps. Nevertheless, I still have a yearning but that’s the wanderer in me.

Girl on her first day at school, 1991

Smoker, Poland 1997

Liam / From the series ‘In This Place’ 2016-7

Steven in his ‘Homeless Flat’ with photos of his nieces in the background / From the series ‘In This Place’ 2016-7

Your project ‘In This Place’ is a work in progress over the last 20 years. What were you trying to achieve initially and what was your aim 20 years on? Was it always your plan to revisit the project and is that the end of the project?

‘In This Place’ catches up with my late sister’s three children (and now their own children), looking at their lives and how they have turned out. It updates the series ‘Family’ which is from 1994 and is essentially a story of social and personal geography. Within it, I am posing questions about how society operates, about environment, opportunity and inequality. Whether the choices we have in life are ultimately predetermined by our upbringing, the locality and the socio-economic position we are in. Do we have choices in life, or are some predetermined and made for us?

It is also obviously a personal and emotional series, one that weaves strands of love and loss throughout as we look at my nieces and nephews and now their own children and ask through this personal geography of one family if choice is equal for all. Clearly, it is not. So, the work covers both the political and personal – the social conditions, but also the individual rights of passage such as my great-niece Leah on her ‘prom’ night, when she was 11 years old and leaving primary school.

The 1994 series was made in my final year as a student at Napier and it was a small part of a larger work posing questions around identity and stigma. ‘Family’ enters my sister’s life and that of her children within this context of stigma that they experienced because of where they lived—in an area of ‘deprivation’—and also for being a one-parent family. Like all work it developed as it progressed. The final series became about children, about childhood, about their allegiances to one another, in that particular place and in those particular life circumstances, in a somewhat imperfect domestic sphere where the external influences were beginning to seep in. My mum also lived in this estate at that time, so it was very much this story of family, with the photographs situated between my sister’s house and that of my mum round the corner.

There was never a concrete plan to revisit it but it was something I had been thinking of for a long time but not acted on. My sister’s children had grown up in some challenging circumstances and they had faced fresh challenges since the death of their mum. I thought the work, if I picked it up again, could offer important social commentary because of what had occurred in their lives. These were personal stories, my family’s stories, so I was very cautious about how that would be presented – and represented – and eventually understood. They had to be involved every step of the way in the work and contributing with many discussions around what might happen when the photographs go out into the world. There are also many parts of their story that are not shown because it is not necessary – you don’t always need to tell all. We worked together with discussions and a lead-in period starting in 2015 before starting to take photographs. We also reviewed the photographs together at each step, they helped formulate and approved all text that went into the newsprint that accompanied its initial showing at a group exhibition at Street Level Photoworks in early 2017.

Yes, the work continues. ‘In This Place’ as a series is finished though. In my mind, it came to a close last summer because situations develop, circumstances change, newer strands emerge in people’s lives. I have a further body of work but it is not ready to be seen, or more so, I am holding it back – I do not want to show it yet. When my family decide, then it will be shown. That might be soon or maybe in years.

Leah at age 11 on her Primary 7 Prom Night / From the series ‘In This Place’ 2016-7

Girl in the Woods, 2016

Marie and her Daughter Olivia 2018 (from the book Invisible Britain)

Your practice is often drawn towards children and younger generation. What do you think attracts you to this?

Children intrigue me, I think it is that simple – I am fascinated by their worlds. Whether that be in a series of portraits where they are interrupted in play or within more documentary based work like ‘Family’ and ‘In This Place’. I also grew up surrounded by children, I feel at ease with them, enjoy their company. I have one son myself but he doesn’t particularly like to be photographed so I don’t do much with him, only when he allows. He’s quite headstrong and knows what he wants, which is a good thing.

Even as I get older this interest of children remains. I photographed recently a young girl I had wanted to for a long time but we just hadn’t got round to it. I am glad we waited, it is the right time in her life. I like to observe, to see what happens, to ask children questions that influence how I photograph them. A large series ‘The Guisers’ (2015-7) that I recently finalised is quite different to my other work stylistically but thematically it remains about childhood, observation and the intrigue that children create in me as a photographer. It features 60 children out guising (from ‘disguise’), photographed in my home when they visit at Halloween over three years. It concerns the complexity of being a child as displayed through their costumes. They are photographed during this time when they are in a special emotional space in their minds of being someone else, when they visit and perform a song or dance for their sweeties and fruit. It is basically a portrait of contemporary Scottish children within a centuries old tradition and a small insight into their worlds.

I’m interested in why the majority of your earlier work was shot in black and white and then you made the transition to colour at one point. Was there any reason for this, other than colour processing getting cheaper over time?

I think that earlier work in black and white was initially a by-product of studying photography – we were all taught black and white first and after you grasped that you could move onto the colour darkroom. But I still continued working in both because certain projects were better suited to one or the other. I have a good friend who said that nowadays, to work in black in white there has to be a reason for it, a good photographic reason, and I think she is right. At the moment I have an ongoing project on children which is in black and white – I am enjoying the visualising of the images when colour is taken away and also the emotive reaction that I am creating within the images when they are ‘reduced’ visually. On a different but practical level, there are no C41 labs left in Glasgow so when I work in black and white, I process my own films – I hate posting C41 away, it makes me nervous. I still scan negatives but am thinking this new work will also end up with me back in the darkroom, so I am looking forward to that.

I noticed that you were recently shooting for Shelter Charity. I imagine this work can be personally quite touching. Would you say one of your main focuses through photography was to raise awareness?

It’s always great to get work for organisations like Shelter that you admire or causes that you personally support. Being a photographer gives you this wonderful privilege of being invited into people’s lives and meeting individuals you would have not met otherwise. It is a gift. The diversity of both people and circumstances is quite simply amazing.

Over the years I have worked with individuals from many backgrounds and this is usually reflected in my personal work too. In the 90’s I was working on numerous participatory projects across issues such as women and HIV, disability representation, women living with their children in dependency rehab units. Coming up to the present day, some of my work still concentrates on this with story work pulling me in. But often this can be for a portrait, not a full documentary.

I’m interested in awareness, in issue-based work but also in the psychology of people, in their minds and in their lives. I am pulled by the personal, the experiential in people’s lives and that often includes issues-based work. I think that people and their lives are complex, they are multi-layered and rich. Sometimes a portrait can pick up on one tiny aspect, it can present a clue into that person, into their experience. Photography is powerful but we must use it with care.

From the series ‘The Guisers’ 2015-7

Abbie at her friend’s house 2018

© Margaret Mitchell 2018

©Margaret Mitchell 2017

An interview with Margaret Mitchell