LANDSCAPE IDENTITY COMMUNITY
A Photography Project based in the Western Isles
John Kippin and Nicola Neate
The Outer Hebridean island of South Uist is unusual on having an internationally acclaimed book to celebrate its people and places, and although much additional documentary material and many studies exist about the Outer Hebrides none match the intensity or impact of ‘Tir A’Muhrain’. Paul Strand’s humanist photography has been one of the key texts in defining modernist photography. Its (arguably) Marxist aesthetic looks at the people and places of South Uist is a manner which binds the images of people and their labours to the land, using a narrative structure in which links are made between and within individual images.
Today Strand’s work is considered exemplary within this genre, and many photographer’s have followed ‘the documentary style’ of photography repositioning photographic as a humanistic enterprise and developing a critical discourse within the politics of representation. Using Paul Strand’s seminal publication as a point of departure ‘In this Day and Age’ is a photographic project based on the islands of the Hebridean peninsula with special regard to representing the more recent settlers and ‘incomers’ there. Basil Davidson, in the essay accompanying Strand’s photographs asks;
‘land of bent grass, land of barley, land where everything is plentiful…Must it remain a dream of olden times?
Identity politics are very much at the forefront of our times, and this concentration on individual and group identities has changed the nature of our political and social conversation. Alongside offering the recognition of minorities it also atomises conventional political discourses and destabilizes convention. It offers both a positive and negative impact on our culture and society and is a critical mirror through which we can reflect our values. A new story will emerge, one that is rooted in the island’s history and traditions but reflect the changes that have occurred within the modern diaspora where social and economic developments, together with the forces of globalization have inexorably shifted the traditional relationships between people and places. In this is a world social media defines the ways in which we not only communicate, but how we act and think. This same technology creates a different kind of reality within which to shape our future expectations.
The Cultural Geographer Doreen Massey describes places as being bound up with the histories that are told about them and the ways in which those histories are told. Here is one such story. Massey comments that ‘the identity of a place is not inevitably destroyed by new importations’. This particular observation marks the starting point for this research fellowship. In the documentary film ‘The Shephards of Bernerey’ (1981) Crofter John Munro suggested that the traditional crofting lifestyle was no longer possible “in this day and age”.
Mr. Munro touched on a fundamental truth regarding the Hebridean Islands and its traditional lifestyle based on subsistence farming and fishing. Nevertheless other possibilities do exist and are essential for the future of these islands and all those who live on them. Our intention is to mirror the original photographic approach set out by Paul Strand as far as this is appropriate, and will look to ask far ranging questions about the relationships between people, places and history, bringing them into a contemporary, critical alignment whilst, at the same time, challenging the existing representational paradigm within documentary and landscape photography.
Collaborating initially with Taigh Chearsabhagh, the Arts Centre in Lochmaddy, North Uist and the University of the Highlands and Islands, the intention is to ask important questions about the relationships between people and places, bringing them into a revised critical focus regarding belonging and identity and the nature of community, viewed and represented within their contextual landscapes. We will produce both an exhibition and a publication and link the project to a social media forum involving a blog and website. Above all, we are committed to providing a useful legacy to the island communities.