Without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist.Stephen Hawking
Families are important. They are the most important relationships we have. It is all too easy to idealise an image of family life; to set it up as a domestic utopia to which we should aspire. But the truth is that, as human beings, it is our imperfections that make us who we are. How we manage our imperfections, how we rise above them or are held down by them – this is the reality of living. Families are created and held together in the constant negotiation of imperfection: imperfect individuals in imperfect circumstances. The strength of a family is not measured in its degree of perfection but in the depth of its relationships; not in its successes but in its struggles shared.
This is particularly true for those in the lowest social and economic communities. Those, who live precarious lives, making do on inadequate income in turbulent neighbourhoods. Neighbourhoods that are all too often an amalgam of the best and worst: solidarity and violence; generosity and theft; warm hearts and cold houses.
Spanning three decades and three generations, the photographs of Margaret Mitchell are set against that troubled wider context. The homes here are located on some of the poorest housing estates in the city of Stirling in Scotland. Government statistics for housing, health, employment and social problems across the country consistently score these estates in the worst five to ten per cent for multiple deprivation.
That is the context: the challenge of an imperfect life. But it is people that are at the heart of Margaret Mitchell’s images and the focus is on those better human qualities of solidarity, generosity and warm-heartedness. These are families the photographer knows well because they are her brother and sister, her nephew and nieces, and their children. She began this extended series of environmental portraits when she returned from a period working overseas. An insider coming back from the outside, she saw the families with fresh eyes and a familiar heart. Her evolving approach of environmental portraiture sets each study of familial domesticity in its context; honestly, bravely, but never seeking to sensationalise the complexity of each individual life.
Alasdair: Why did you begin to make photographs of your family?
Margaret: I had always been interested in photography from a young age but didn’t own a camera till I was an adult. My Dad died when I was sixteen and I left home a year later and went to work overseas where I did various jobs in bars and hotels. It was during this time away that I managed to save up for my first SLR and bought a book to teach myself the basics. After four years away, I returned to Scotland and applied to study photography.
My sense of belonging had become fragmented since my dad’s death and I think I began photographing my family as a way to reconnect. When I came back from abroad, my mum had moved from where I grew up and was now living in a housing estate alongside my sister, my brother and their young families. Through my photographs, I was looking at their lives and the familial bonds between them; something that for me, had disappeared quite abruptly when I left home.
What did you want to capture in your images?
I first photographed John when he was at a difficult point in his life. Things were tough for him socially and financially. There was also this sense of the incongruous (to other people) in John that I thought was quite interesting. Outwardly he was a tough biker, but I knew him to be a sweet and loving man, devoted to his children above all else in life.
His family’s life was transformed when they later moved to live in a farm building with a small commune of like-minded bikers. This later series looked at how this move had been good for the children, how surrounded by people and loved they were, even though it might be seen by some as a non-traditional home environment.
Tell be about the image of John and his family [above]?
This image is really a reflection on belongingness and love. It was taken not long before they moved to live in the biker commune. John and his wife are in their living room with their three daughters and, on the left is John’s son, Andrew, from his first marriage who lived close by with his gran (my mum). For me this image emphasises that, even though he no longer lived in that home, Andrew still belongs within the family, within that circle. It is not a perfect situation, but it is these little imperfections of family experience that draw me in. It is important to show the good in life, the love.
What did this early work teach you about photography?
I became quite disillusioned by documentary photography at one stage during the very first photographs of John and his family, which were taken in the Raploch, a housing estate in Stirling known for its economic and social disadvantage. I learned an important lesson with this work. As photographers, we select and frame the story, the scene, in front of us. We then further edit the images down to convey a story, just one story of multiple ones possible from the same subject matter.
At university, I was looking through my contact sheets and a classmate asked if the photos were from a Romanian orphanage. To put this in context, he was mistaking my family photos for images of children in appalling conditions which were appearing in the Western media following the fall of the Ceausescu regime. I remember the powerful mix of emotions that comment caused me to feel. Anger that they interpreted my brother’s children as neglected, deprived and unloved, which was farthest from the truth as possible. An unsettling and uncomfortable shame at this being my family… and then further shame that I was ashamed. Why should I be? Then more anger.
Photography’s power, and how that power had to be handled carefully, became apparent to me in that instant. For a viewer with no experience of this kind of economic hardship, the only way they had to interpret the image was through cliché. I learned many important lessons from this work, my responsibility to those I photograph, that class systems and different lifestyles are not always understood and that massive assumptions are easily made within documentary photography. I determined then that I would always approach the people in my photographs with dignity, with respect. This disillusion with this early documentary work made me turn more towards environmental portraiture, which I felt was more collaborative.
Do you think documentary photography can be problematic?
I think there’s a danger that it can end up being overly reductive and not represent the complexity of people’s lives. Images can be overpowered by stereotypes and sensationalism. In the desire to make ‘strong’ images, the process can end up simply ignoring the intricate realities of individual life stories. Photography must avoid being facile and sensationalist in depicting situations that are complex and multi-levelled.
In 1994, you made a series called ‘Family’ that features the daily lives of your sister Andrea and her three children Steven, Kellie and Chick. What was the family’s situation at the time?
The work was made in the Raploch, where the earlier work of John was also made. This area consistently scores in the top five per cent of government statistics of deprived areas across factors including social, housing, health and employment disadvantage. My sister married someone from the Raploch, moved there and her three children mostly grew up there. My mum also lived there throughout the 1990s and, as mentioned, my brother lived there for a time too. It is an area which over the past fifteen years has gone through much regeneration but still remains in the highest five per cent in the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation.
People have preconceptions of what the Raploch is, which is unfair because like all places there are good and bad aspects. During my sister’s time there, she had loyal friends and a supportive community around her. There are massive amounts of good in people in communities that are not considered desirable locations by some. My sister did however have much personal difficulty in her life; she was coping in challenging social, emotional and economic terms, as by now she was a lone parent in the early 1990s under a government that was very hostile to people in her situation.
In these images, you focus primarily on the children.
Yes. Andrea (the mother) initially said to me that she did not want her face to appear in the photographs [above]. As time went on her opinion softened, but her comments had by then shaped the work. Instead of pursuing a documentary on how she managed her life within the circumstances she found herself in, it had become about the childhood world of her three children. The work developed to concentrate on the child experience and their domestic childhood world. Steven, Kellie and Chick became central to the work, while their mother remained on the periphery. Their interaction and involvement with one another was the most important aspect within this home life. Their mutual reliance, their involvement, all revolved around their sibling experiences within the home and the external environment remained mostly unseen, although its influence would always be present.
The image of Chick standing on a chair at the kitchen sink has been widely reproduced – what is it that this image captures, do you think?
In this photo, Chick was five years old and she was in the kitchen washing the dishes. When I asked if I could photograph her, she turned round and adopted this pose: celebratory, proud, determined. She was always ‘being busy’ – in earlier photos when she was about three, she is tidying up, picking up clothes from the floor, always doing, never still. For me, this is an image of a child displaying her determination and pride, a quality she has retained to this day.
This perhaps contrasts with your image of Steven asleep on the couch.
In this photograph he is at his grandmother’s house waiting for his mother to collect him after her work. For me, it’s an image with many layers. There is a certain ‘cosiness’ about the homemade toy café and a child asleep after play and that’s probably what a viewer sees foremost. But I also know that, to survive financially, his mother had to do multiple jobs, often late into the evening and the children often fell asleep waiting for her. In the wider domestic situation, I would say these images portray both vulnerability and willpower experienced in the children’s lives at that time.
There are a couple of images of Kellie that seem to affirm something I have noticed in other work about Scottish working-class life: that the women are often the stronger, more dominant figures.
That’s an interesting observation and not one I encounter much. Perhaps, being an ‘insider’, I am too close to see some things that others perceive as apparent. Kellie is the middle child and fought to protect what was hers. In one image she is hitting her brother because (she believes) he is taking over when they are making a cake. In the other she just instinctively raised her fists at me in one of the few images in the series taken outside. Growing up on the Raploch estate, she had to be quite tough at times and, to be honest, Kellie was tougher than most – that seemed to be part of her character. She told me recently that she stood up for Steven at school even though he was older than she was. I always saw it more as a character trait than as attributed to class but then I grew up within that class system so am perhaps less aware of it.
In 2015, twenty years after you made ‘Family’, you returned to photograph your nieces and nephew. They were now adults and their mother (your sister) had died seven years earlier. What did you find one generation later?
For me, this new work took on both a personal and social geography, looking at where the family began in life, where they were now and why that might be. When I began this new series, my nieces and nephew were already adults with their own children. They had moved away from the Raploch to live on the other side of town, to a new area which had similar levels of socio-economic deprivation.
Overall, I think that, in socio-economic terms, the lives of my nieces and nephews were worse than when they were children. By then, they had no mother, they were parents themselves but only one of them was able to work, and there was a degree of dysfunction, of adversity in all their home lives. However, within all this they were still very close, as if they depended on one another, even though their relationships could be quite imperfect at times, as many family relationships are.
The title, ‘In This Place’, puts an emphasis on location. While the earlier series focused on family relationships inside the home, this series sets the subjects in the wider context of the housing estate on which they live. What prompted that opening out of the domestic context?
‘Family’ had been all about interior worlds, the domestic environment, how the children experienced that, and the outside world seemed to have less relevance. However, beginning this new series, the external locality became the focus precisely because of what had not changed in their social landscape in over twenty years. This sense of social inertia – that things did not seem to change from one generation to the next – raised a very big question about how society operates. Do we have choices in life or are some lives largely predetermined by social and economic circumstance?
In this work, I wanted to consider how a place can also be inside of ourselves – in our own minds – because of what we have been told we can and cannot do in life; what we can and cannot achieve. That slow trickle down into young minds by their surroundings: by policy, by community and, yes, even by family. Are the choices available to us in life ultimately predetermined by upbringing, locality and socio-economic position? I think they are.
These environmental portraits are accompanied by things that each subject has said about their life and, sometimes, their aspirations.
Yes. For example, in the image of Liam (who was 11 years old at the time) standing at the back of the flats in which he lives. He would often come out here and run around and jump up the walls, climb them. We recorded interviews as part of the series and some of the words accompany the images as extended captions. Liam was very positive: he would get a girlfriend, a job, a family and have a good life. That was his ambition.
Kyla [above] is a couple years older. She was more affected by what others thought of her because of where she lived. She is also standing at the back of the block of flats. She talked of how people mocked her for a living in a flat, in a town where (as she perceived it) most people lived in a house with a garden. This sense of being ‘different’ has seeped deep within her.
Steven is pictured in what appears to be a very tidy apartment. How should one interpret that image [below]?
Steven is sitting in his ‘homeless flat’, that is temporary accommodation given by the local authority until a permanent home is found. When he moved in, he had so few possessions that his sister Chick gave him things such as salt and pepper, dish towels, mayonnaise, bin bags. But she also gave him some other items: a metal love heart for the wall and photographs of his nieces to display – to make the house more like a home, to show him he was part of something, of a family. So again this image is about love, belongingness.
What kind of response to your work do you get from the public?
The work tends to spark conversation and debate around the issues it raises. Conversations with the public have ranged from their personal experiences or what is happening in their area, to wide-ranging discussions on politics and social issues. Because I live in Glasgow, many people believe the work is in Glasgow which it is not; lives like these are everywhere. And that’s an important point because this situation, this cross generational inequality, is universal. It happens here in Scotland but also widely within the UK and elsewhere in other societies, other cultures. So it is really a comment about ‘stuckness’, about the privilege of others and about social structures which are a universal issue.
To my surprise (and perhaps I should have anticipated this), some people have cried when they see the photographs. I hadn’t really expected it but it has happened multiple times when people have viewed the work. They told me how emotional they have found it. For some they take some of the experiences and extrapolate these into their own lives. For others they feel they identify with aspects of the individuals and their circumstances, even though they might come from very different backgrounds. Other people are just very touched by the work. I hadn’t anticipated such an emotional reaction, but then again, I was immersed in the work, so not considering how it would be received. When you make work, it comes from somewhere inside yourself and, as a photographer, you then lay out not only the subject but yourself, to be viewed by others.
What do your family think about your photographs?
They tell me that these photographs give them a sense of pride, we have worked on this together, through a long process and produced something not only meaningful about their experiences but also reflected outwards to others. My niece Kellie said that they show the importance of “ordinary people with ordinary lives”; that their lives and experiences have significance, not just for them but in a wider social context. I personally think my family are quite extra-ordinary, with their resilience within their experiences. To see these photographs in local and national newspapers, online, in exhibitions and soon in a book has been an empowering experience for them on many levels. Six photographs entered the National Galleries of Scotland collection and for me that is important. That long after I am gone, the life and experiences of my late sister, her children and their children, and the cycle of inequality that they experienced, are maintained in a national archive.
Margaret Mitchell was born in Stirling, Scotland, in 1968. Her projects range from those exploring communities and children’s worlds through to long-term documentation projects on environment, opportunity and social inequality. She graduated in photography, film and television from Napier University, Edinburgh, and received a Master of Photography from Edinburgh College of Art. Her work has been published and exhibited widely including Street Level Photoworks, Glasgow; the National Portrait Gallery, London; Circulation(s) Festival of Young European Photography, Paris; Somerset House, London; and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh. She has received a number of accolades including those from Sony World Photography Awards, Kuala Lumpur International Photoawards, and the Royal Photographic Society. Her work is held in the permanent collection of the National Galleries of Scotland and other public and private archives.
In March 2021, Bluecoat Press published a beautiful artist’s book of work by Margaret Mitchell.
Spanning more than twenty years and three generations in the lives of Margaret Mitchell’s extended family, the book reflects on both the personal and the political implications as it unfolds its story of love and loss with, at its heart, the spectre of social inequity.
Signed copies of the book are available here
Or unsigned from the publisher here
This article was initially published in Chinese, in the October 2018 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.
First published in English at Talking Pictures in January 2020.