The photography series Girls and their Mothers was inspired by photographer Kim Simpson’s own experiences of bringing up her daughter, who is mixed race, in Scotland. Simpson observed that her daughter was on the receiving end of negative stereotyping, ignorance and racism which she as a white child growing up in the same town had not experienced. The project aims to raise awareness of the specific issues that individuals from a mixed-race background face growing up in Scotland, and to encourage people to question their perception of what it means to be Scottish.
Portraits of three families from Simpson’s project are entering the collection at National Galleries of Scotland. To mark this occasion, curator Louise Pearson speaks to the photographer about Girls and Their Mothers.
Louise Pearson: Girls and Their Mothers explores family identity and aims to question perceptions of what a family unit looks like. Could you tell us more about the project?
Kim Simpson: The project was inspired by the experiences of raising my daughter who has just turned 18. Although myself and my daughter don’t feature directly in the wider series of images, we do hold shared experiences with the sitters which were discovered during conversations. I had the Oscar Wilde quote ‘All women become like their mothers’ close at hand through this because many people assume that my daughter and I are not blood relatives because of our visual differences.
To give you an example, when she was a baby people would come up and say, ‘your baby is beautiful’ and then continue with ‘where did you get her?’ When she was a little older and able to understand, people would ask me if she was adopted, right in front of her face, and I had to explain what adoption meant to her when she was about five years old. I can’t even describe something like that as rude, I still can’t quite figure out the dynamic of asking such a personal question like that.
The visual difference was, I think, confusing to many and was a continuous reminder to us that we don’t look like what many would assume to be a family, just like any other. And this made me question what effects this would have on my daughter’s growing sense of self. So I explored this the only way I knew how and that was through the medium of photography. I invited mothers of mixed-race children to meet and share their experiences and there were a lot of similarities, so it was great to form those connections.
LP: Each family is represented through three portraits. I am interested to know why you chose that format and what you felt that brought to the series.
KS: Many of these families have more than one child, they certainly do now, all these years later. I chose to focus on the relationship between eldest daughter and her mother rather than the whole family unit. My original intention was actually just two images per family, single portraits of the mother and the daughter. These were to be displayed side-by-side in order to display both their disparities and their similarities, something which of course exists in all families. At the end of each session I shot a portrait of mother and daughter together just to gift prints to each sitter to say thank you for taking part.
And I became more and more drawn to those images. They just exuded such warmth and were so natural after the formal portraits were finished. Altogether in the whole series there were 16 families so the whole collection is made up of 48 images and those ‘together’ images as I call them are crucial to the whole thing.
LP: There is definitely a real warmth in those joint portraits that brings the whole series together, I really felt that when I saw them.
We have discussed before the reasons why you didn’t name the sitters in the portraits. In the context of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, we try and name sitters to give them an identity but your reasons for not doing so were very compelling, so I thought it would be good to hear a little bit more about that.
KS: My decision to leave the images themselves as untitled was to remove a common layer of othering which is something that regularly occurs for individuals whose names don’t sound Scottish or British or Western.
An example of this is when I was booking a holiday some years ago. My daughter was at school at the time. I went to the travel agent; found a great deal and I told the agent it was for myself and my daughter and that I couldn’t wait to pick her up from school later to tell her. But when confirming the booking they took our names, mine first and then as I usually do, I spelt my daughter’s name and she went quiet for a second then said, ‘that’s lovely, what nationality is she?’ And I said ‘Scottish,’ and reminded her that I told her that the holiday was for myself and my daughter. We had a bit of a laugh, it was a mistake. She apologised and then asked me ‘do you usually take her on holiday with you?’ And then she laughed again and apologised again.
And so, without seeing my daughter, throughout the whole conversation she obviously pictured my daughter as being white, and this name just led the conversation in another way. So it is something I am very, very conscious of.
Through research I had done as well for this series of images and others I had created I found a lot of collections of images of mixed-race individuals which were titled with the names of the sitter and then a breakdown of their ethnicity. So, for example, ‘50 percent Nigerian’, ‘20 percent white’, ‘25 percent Indian’. That really indulges that ‘where are you from’ narrative and this is what made my decision for me. When viewed beside images, text can be really powerful, one way or the other, and my intentions are to encourage the viewer to seek connection with these women and children and look at their relationships without any bias.
LP: In the context of other things in the gallery I think it really makes us think about what we do when naming sitters. Is there anything else in the series that you’d like to talk about?
KS: My daughter has just turned 18 and will be recorded as an adult for the first time in Scotland in this year’s census.
I am very aware that Scotland is becoming a more diverse nation and so I am looking to create some portraits that demonstrate that and tell some stories that really deserve to be told.
We talk an awful lot about the ‘new Scots’, people who move to Scotland and I think Scottish people who are of colour who have always lived here, who were born here and whose parents were born here too, they don’t really get spoken about or get enough shine so it’s something I am really interested to explore.
Welcoming new artists to the collection
We want to show you who lives in Scotland today and Art Fund are helping us do that.
Census year is an opportunity to think about who isn’t in our collection. We know some of you don’t see yourself in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. We want to change that.
There are lots of new acquisitions in Counted: Scotland's Census 2022. We hope they give you a sense of the wonderful range of people living in Scotland.
We’ve worked with photographers from a range of backgrounds. For many of them, it’s the first time they have had their work shown in a gallery.
We’ve got plans to do more. We’ll be commissioning new portraits over the next few years. We’re thinking about what else we can do to make it a Portrait Gallery for everyone.
We’d love to hear your views. Get in touch by emailing [email protected]org