Photographing Family

Childhood and family are recurring themes in the work of photographer Margaret Mitchell. In this blog she writes about the experience of photographing her own family members in two series of work: Family and In This Place. Works from both series feature in the exhibition When We Were Young at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

Photographing our family is something that most of us do, recording moments and aspects of our lives as our families grow and change over the years. As a photographer, my own extended family has appeared within my work, sometimes a portrait, other times a larger series. Photographs for me start with observation, in thought and vision: a person, a situation, an idea, taken into a visual to convey a message to an audience. Photography as social commentary is what drew me into being a photographer and my family work respects that approach.

In the series Family, carried out in 1994, I concentrated on the daily lives of my sister Andrea and her three children Steven, Kellie and Chick with the project’s background rooted in the stigmatisation of certain strands of society. I admired my sister as she managed as a lone parent in difficult emotional and socio-economic circumstances and this personal perception led to a photographic series centring on her children and their childhood world.

Margaret Mitchell, Andrea and her three children, Steven, Kellie and Chick, 1994 (printed 2017) © Margaret Mitchell
Margaret Mitchell, Chick, 1994 (printed 2017) © Margaret Mitchell

Part of the power within photography is that one image can offer the viewer a complete story. If the image belongs to a series, an additional layer of meaning surfaces with the collective association from each photograph. In Family, individual images let us into the lives of my sister’s three children. Subsequently, when viewed together, a multifaceted account of those children at that moment in time and in those particular life circumstances, emerged.

Over 20 years later I decided to revisit the work, scratching a ‘photographic itch’, returning to a very personal series but one I also considered offered important commentary in terms of both personal and social geography. My sister had died in 2008 and I knew the challenges her now young adult children had faced and by revisiting the series, important personal stories as well as larger socio-political questions could surface.

Margaret Mitchell, Chick, 2016/17 © Margaret Mitchell
Margaret Mitchell, Chick and her daughter, Leah, 2016/17 © Margaret Mitchell

The new series In This Place (2016-7) works with my extended family looking at how their lives have turned out and why that may be. In 1994 my sister lived in the Raploch, an area in Stirling that scores high on the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation including aspects such as health, opportunity, education and housing. By 2016 all her children were living on the other side of town, in another housing estate, in a comparable socio-economic situation.

This led to questions regarding the role of environment and opportunity in life choices -  do we have choices in life, or are some predetermined or made for us. Whether that comes from an interior place - what we (are led to) believe we can do - or an external place, that ‘allows’ us choices in life. In This Place became about a personal space in the mind and an external space in the environment.

Photography has to be careful not to be facile in life stories that are complex. People such as my sister’s children are often dismissed or categorised due to their experiences in life and where they live. Part of the aim of working with them was to reclaim a sense of who is represented in photography and how they are represented.  As photographers, we have a responsibility to treat those photographed with dignity and respect. Working on this personal project added an additional layer of emotive reflection across this story of family and love, loss and survival.

Margaret Mitchell, Leah in the Backcourt, 2016/17 © Margaret Mitchell
Margaret Mitchell, Leah's Bedroom, 2016/17 © Margaret Mitchell

The complexity of my family’s experience is succinctly presented in the six images acquired by the National Galleries of Scotland. The narrative flows from an image of my sister in 1994, through her youngest daughter Chick as a child, then as an adult, and onto Chick’s own daughter Leah. Three generations laying out a story reflecting not only on the personal but also on economic and social questions.

Photographing the family in my case has grown into a collaboration which I hope has been an empowering and reflective experience. It has brought me closer to my late sister’s children as I weave my way personally and photographically throughout their lives. A true gift to me in their evolving life story.

By Margaret Mitchell, 30 January 2018