Kirsty Mackay began the photography series The Fish That Never Swam in 2016 after the Glasgow Centre for Population Health published a report into Scotland’s excess mortality rate. 5,000 more people die in Scotland per year than the UK average. Glasgow is at the centre of the spike with male life expectancy being seven years less than the UK average, and a woman’s four years less. Mackay started to photograph the people whose experiences tell part of the city’s story, wanting to show the reasons for Glasgow’s lower life expectancy and highlight the action that needs to be taken at government level to address this major issue.
To welcome six of Mackay's works into the national collection, curator Louise Pearson speaks to the photographer about the issues addressed by the series.
Louise Pearson: Kirsty, your series The Fish That Never Swam was informed by statistics published by the Glasgow Centre for Population Health that show that life expectancy in Scotland, particularly in Glasgow, is significantly lower than the UK average. Can you tell us more about the project, and how it was shaped by the findings of this report?
Kirsty Mackay: I had been reading about this phenomenon that used to be termed the ‘Glasgow effect’ - it is now called Glasgow’s excess mortality - in the papers for about ten years previously. It was a subject that I wanted to tackle but it wasn’t until I read the report from the Glasgow Centre for Population Health that I felt that I could. I think the key point in the report is that Glaswegians of all social classes suffer a 15 percent reduction in life expectancy. Finding that out and realising that I was one of these people really gave me the confidence to take on the subject.
LP: One of the main things that comes out of the project is the importance of making portraits of the people and communities behind the headline statistics, the faces behind the numbers.
KM: I think when you read the statistics it is very easy to just think it only affects these communities and it is easy for people to hold on to prejudice and their own preconceptions.
But then when you see someone’s face it is less easy to hold on to that. You end up looking at someone and thinking ‘they look just like my daughter or my neighbour’ and so I think it is incredibly important.
It’s also important that we speak to those most affected, and we really listen, as they are the experts on this situation and many of the solutions I found are coming from the bottom up, from grassroots organisations and individuals that have gone through recovery and healing, that now dedicate their lives to helping others.
LP: One thing you explore within the series is the fact that, even in the same city or town, opportunities and life expectancy can vary dramatically. It shows that there is great inequality and need for improved services. I wondered if you wanted to speak about what needs to be done to change the statistic or reduce the gap.
KM: I am seeing some things being done through policy from the Scottish Government. What I would really like to see is universal basic income in Scotland. I would really like to see a proper benefits system and the big question is independence and Scotland will have an opportunity, next year, it looks like, to choose whether the most vulnerable people in our country are looked after by the UK Government or the Scottish Government.
LP: I wondered if you wanted to speak about any of the individual portraits we have acquired.
KM: There is a photograph of a boy on his bike watching a football match. I was working with a group called Men Matter in Drumchapel. In my mind I wanted to try and take a photograph of the division between Bearsden and Drumchapel because life expectancy for men varies by 12 years depending on which side of that divide you are on.
Geographically I couldn’t take a photograph because the golf course is in the way so you’re not able to see it in the geography of the streets. But then I photographed this young boy watching the football match. They were playing at Colquhoun Park which is right on the border between Drumchapel and Bearsden and because there was a line painted on the grass, that became the metaphor for me between those two places.
LP: One of the other photographs that struck me was the baby in the Scottish Baby Box and that stark reminder that where you go home has such a strong impact on the rest of your life.
KM: I had been looking to photograph a baby because so much of the work is about place of birth and I was really interested in that first journey home from the hospital that a baby makes.
A friend told me about someone who just had a baby and had arrived home from the hospital and I went round to Debbie's house to photograph her and the baby.
She showed me the Scottish Baby Box and all the useful stuff that comes in it and how it is also a safe place for the baby to sleep. And so we photographed her baby asleep in the Scottish baby box.
LP: It is quite a unique initiative. One of the other photographs shows children walking home from school in Drumchapel, and the regeneration of Glasgow. That is something photographers have been interested in since Thomas Annan was working. I don’t know if that is something that you were aware of when you were making that particular picture or some of the others that relate to it.
KM: It was reading the research that pointed me in that direction. One of the causes of excess mortality in Glasgow is to do with housing and the scale of change when they moved everyone from the slum tenements on to the peripheral estates and into high-rise buildings.
My cousins lived in Drumchapel, so I went there to find their house. When I went back to Drumchapel after several years it looked to me like a third of the place had been razed to the ground which was quite shocking, so it was a place I kept going back to. The picture was taken on Linkwood Drive where my cousins lived.
I kept going back and photographing that landscape where the houses used to be. There are no houses now, there is just waste ground and streets and street lamps so it makes quite a strange-looking landscape. But for me I was photographing what wasn’t there anymore and photographing failed housing policy.
I was aware of Annan’s work. Part of my research was to look at the wealth of photography made about Glasgow and see what had been done before me. Some of my pictures refer to those pictures of the past, but it also showed me what I could do now. I was asking myself 'what could I add to that? Could I add something of value'? And my answer was to add people’s lived experience and connect that to the research.
LP: I know it was important to you that something from the drug-related death theme that runs through this series was included. I wondered if you wanted to speak about the powerful portrait of JD Clark that we have included in the selection.
KM: In 2019 I went to a memorial in Springburn Parish Church to commemorate the people who had died in a drug-related death. I met JD and he made over 1,200 wooden crosses that they hammered into the ground outside the church. I went to the service in the evening and there was a candlelit procession around Springburn. A lot of people got up and spoke. There were politicians and councillors and family members who had lost people in drug-related deaths. It was incredibly moving.
Witnessing that really galvanised my desire to take photographs about the drugs death crisis and to link that into the work that I was doing about excess mortality because they are linked and the people that we have lost to drugs deaths are the people that have suffered the most trauma.
It is connected to the overall story, so I feel really passionate about doing something to mark this moment and I just hope that perhaps I have made a picture at the peak of these deaths and that soon they are going to turn around.
It is really interesting to notice the effort that everybody has made to protect vulnerable people from Covid-19, and I would love to see the drugs death crisis tackled in that public health approach and for all of us do more to prevent us losing more people to drug-related deaths.
This interview was conducted in February 2022.
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
The Fish That Never Swam by Kirsty Mackay (paperback)
The Fish That Never Swam is a book that takes Glasgow as a case study and compiles 104 photographs and text written by Kirsty Mackay, who spent 4 years traveling across the city researching, interviewing and photographing people’s lives to illustrate the health inequalities and life expectancy gap in her home city.