University: De Montfort University
Statement: The Debatable Lands is based on a walk, the length of the Anglo-Scottish border and inspired by the debate around borders and nationalism. During the 100 mile journey, I met people who live on both sides of the line and learnt about their relationship with place, past and present and how two recent referendums have exposed angst over sovereignty and the significance of the border. Much of my recent work has explored the rural experience and relationship to place, how this forms identity and represents belonging told through story. This work is an extension of my practice and interests in landscape, and particularly a desire to experience the ‘sublime’. I wanted to ‘experience one of the wildest parts of the country and to see first hand how people either side of this generally invisible political divide felt about their sense of place and belonging. I wanted to physically and viscerally experience this unique landscape.
What is your favourite photobook by another photographer? So many to choose from… love the classics that have had so much influence like The Americans by Robert Frank or The Ballad of Sexual Dependency by Nan Goldin, but also more contemporary books with innovative takes on narrative structure such as Christian Patterson’s Redheaded Peckerwood.
Direction: This book came about in conjunction with an exhibition, both of which were part of an artist in residency programme in the UK called VARC (Visual Arts in Rural Communities). I have been working as an artist using photography and mixed media for over 10 years and residencies have formed a core part of my practice, I find them an invaluable way of gaining and maintaining focus for an intense period. Previously, I have been an Artist-in-Residence in Joshua Tree, California, Museum of Friends, Colorado, the University of Wales and the Jamaican High Commission. These experiences have often led to exhibitions, some of which have had catalogues but this is the first stand-alone photobook I have produced. It was a chance to think about the book as an object in its own right rather than a record of body of work.
Considerations: I wanted the book to be a distinctive from the exhibition not just a version of it in publication form. The concertina format was a natural extension of a large map I drew as I walked. I was able to follow the route from coast to coast and I used the OS map scale 1:25,000 structure. This means it measures 5.5 metres end to end. One side has the hand drawn map of the border and text, while the opposite side contains the images. The A5 size, hardback covers and heavy paper stock were chosen to help the book stability when folded out and lend gravitas to the nature of the expedition. I felt that the dark blue covers and silver foil blocked text of the title was a classic choice, reminiscent of cartographic documents.
Interior: You can open the book from either end; one side starts with a short introductory text and the hand drawn map starts on the West Coast and continues the length of the book as it folds out through forests, alongside rivers and through the Cheviot hills ending at the North Sea. The other side has the photographic images ordered somewhat geographically but I found it just as important to consider the photo sequence to create a context for meaning between the images - creating a paper movies as I dipped in and out of people’s lives across the country.
The text on the map is also important, it follows the line of the border walk and consist of place names that seem to define the history and identity of this debatable land. Windy Gyle, Murder Cleugh, Hanging Stone, etc. There are also newspaper headlines that featured borders during the time I walked, alluding to issues which had both local and international significance; for instance: 1 June: Mediterranean death toll reached 1000 this week. 9 June: Bid to replace Border Saltires with Berwickshire and Union Jack flags. 11 June: Russia could expand border to Poland and Germany. This entire rich well of information (places, portraits; its rivers, hills, villages, communities, forests, mosses, fields, flora, fauna, geology and geography) is captured a detailed cartographic rendering and photographs in the book.
Inspiration: The people I met along the way were a key inspiration for the context of the book as I learnt about their history with the borderlands and how they feel about each other and the future. I was particularly interested in exploring the political and human ramifications of the issues raised by the referendum and the fallout from the decision taken by Scotland - and to examine how this decision affected the people of the Borders.
The historical background was also important, this is some of the quietest, darkest and least populated parts of the country, but it has a tumultuous and bloody past. Wandering through the forests, moors and the mires and miles of peat hags, it’s hard to imagine the lawless days of the murderous borders Reivers.
Visual influences come from the documentary tradition of photography and I’m interested in the fluidity of the idea of truth telling and evidence, using a documentary aesthetic to tell a more personal, nuanced and poignant story. I particularly like recent books by Cristina de Middel, Gregory Halpern, Todd Hido and Eamonn Doyle to name but a few.
Advice and Future Goals: Despite the rising popularity of the photobook, unfortunately it is extremely costly and difficult to get them published. My main advice would be to do your research and take your time, think about it from the publisher’s point of view - where’s the market for your book? It needs to become a distinctive object, otherwise the work may as well shown it in an exhibition or online. So I’d recommend working with a designer and getting plenty of input on your dummy. There are so many amazing photobooks out there, how is yours going to stand out? Have a look at books you love and find out who designed them. There are a wide range of approaches so it’s important to find the right person to work with. Here are a few things I’d recommend looking at for advice and inspiration; Imprint, Visual narratives in Books and Beyond, which features several essays discussing methodology, sequencing and visual syntax; Aperture’s Photobook Review; Gerry Badger’s writing and his three volumes of photobook history with Martin Parr; Unseen Dummy Award and Flak Photobooks.
Future goals are to follow my own advice and take longer over the next book, I’ve been working on a book about the desert communities of Southern California for a couple of years and I’m keen to develop innovative ways to integrate the drawing and images. I am also a member of a new photobook collective called A&E Photobooks, it’s been great to have that peer support and in the new year we have plans to collaborate on projects and publish ourselves.