Wild West

Nearly 20 years ago I made a filming trip that quite literally changed my life

It’s the first official working day of 2011 and I’m in the midst of organising new shoots; stills and video, professional and personal. This year I really want to do more with both still imagery and DSLR video. Professionally, there’s half a dozen projects in the pipeline, but it’s the personal ones that have been occupying my mind for the majority of a flu-filled Christmas and New Year. Personal projects are often what define us – our interests, style, opinion – and it is so often the case that clients are drawn to us having seen our personal work. Sometimes we are lucky enough to be so busy that there is very little room for such projects.


Nearly 20 years ago I made a filming trip that quite literally changed my life, and it was the place and the people that have become a major part of my life ever since.


And yet if we choose correctly, they should burn like a fire within us; sometimes an ember, sometimes a blaze and sometimes a raging inferno. I was struck by a comment made at Canon Pro Photo Solutions 2010 in an interview by this magazine with Zed Nelson, when he made a point about how much more interesting it is to see a photographer’s personal work. I had recently been to a lecture by Paul Hill. He has given a great deal to photography and taught many big name photographers in his long career. His book, White Peak, Dark Peak – a series of black-and-white landscapes taken in the Peak District National Park – is a personal favourite, and inspired me to take a closer look at my home county and get out and shoot landscapes, which I do with a passion to this day. And yet it was hearing Paul discussing his new work, Corridor of Uncertainty, that really gripped me..


‘Bereavement, for me, is being between two states: what has been and what may take place in the future. The work that I have made mirrors this interstice. I was greatly affected by the deaths of my parents and close friends, but the death of a spouse is overwhelmingly different. I had no map, as I had obviously never been here before. To pick up a camera is not the normal thing to do when confronted by a family tragedy, even if you are a photographer like me. But it was surprisingly the most natural thing for me to do.’ I sat there transfixed listening to Paul talk about how he had felt at the time of shooting this set of pictures. This touched me in a way that I will never forget, and reopened my eyes to the power of the still image. It seems to me that in times of deep despair and pain, as creatives we are often drawn to somehow search for an explanation, understanding or acceptance through the medium in which we feel most comfortable; whether it be paint, the written word or, in Paul’s case, photography..


For the majority of the time I am shooting fashion, beauty and portrait – both stills and now increasingly DSLR video. I love what I do and wouldn’t change a thing.Yet there is a yearning deep down to extend myself, to use the skills that I have worked so hard to perfect and refine and channel them into meaningful, personal project work. I have a number of ideas that I want to explore this year, and yet this must be balanced with making a living. Of course, motivation is at the heart of all we do, so whatever project I choose it must be interesting, involving and come from the heart. Committing oneself to an idea is just as important, and once chosen we are then able to focus. As I said, there are several possibilities on the table. But one stands out above all, and whatever I choose to do this year this place and its people will somehow be a part of it.  Nearly 20 years ago I made a filming trip that quite literally changed my life, and it was the place and the people that have become a major part of my life ever since. Back then I was shooting film stills and compact professional video (Hi8 and S-VHS). My shooting was semi-professional, as was I. For more than a decade I remained a graphic designer, even though I had already spent two months in Spitsbergen – a group of small islands in the Norwegian Sea, north of Norway – where I was shooting a documentary of a scientific, environmental, research expedition. I also had shoots on Hoy, in the Orkney Islands, and on the Eiger in the Bernese Alps in Switzerland for BBC Television. This budding film career may have even blossomed into a profession had there been the technology we have today. But alas, compact video was used only when a Betacam (the professional standard of the time) could not be carried into hostile or inaccessible areas. As exciting as climbing on to icebergs, filming polar bears or scaling mountains was for me, it was a surprise trip to Scotland that was to change everything..


In September 1994 I first set foot on the Inner Hebridean island of Islay. I was there to support a film crew sailing around the Hebridean isles, shooting from the top of yachts’masts, off the sides of lifeboats and from the water around the nets of local fishing boats. All the shoots back then left a huge impression on me, and yet it was this one shoot on a little Scottish island that sowed the seed for a lifelong love affair with both the place and its people. If life is about experience then this one trip opened my eyes to the possibilities that travelling, places and people can offer to all of us, at any age. I knew as we waved goodbye to this magical place and its friendly, solid, kind and mischievous people, that I had found another home. In fact, to this day I know more people on Islay than in the town where I live, and Islay feels very much like a second home. Islay (pronounced ‘eye-la’) is known as the Queen of the Hebrides. It is the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides. It lies in Argyll just west of Jura and around 25 miles north of the Irish coast and Rathlin Island. It has just over 3,000 inhabitants, a third of whom still speak Gaelic.With a total area of almost 239 square miles, its main industries are malt whisky distilling and tourism based largely on whisky and birdwatching. Needless to say, the place and its people have had a profound effect upon me. The best way to explain this is simple – go there! In the meantime, to get a feel for the island wit and atmosphere, there are few better examples than the 1954 British comedy film The Maggie; the story of a clash of cultures between a hard-driving American businessman and a wily Islay steamboat captain..


Islay is a community unlike any other I have ever encountered. People rely upon each other in a way that we have, for the most part, lost or forgotten in mainland Britain. Over the past 16 years I have forged great friendships and shared in some of the happiest and saddest of times. Indeed, it was Islay that played a significant part in me turning professional; shooting three charity sailing expeditions in 2003, 2005 and 2007. Many of the islanders turned out to support us as we rowed and sailed Irish skiffs alongside a flotilla of fishing boats from island to island, and even across the channel to Portrush, picking up whisky from some of the world’s finest distilleries and then blending and bottling it for auction. If I could pin down my long association with Islay, and the key that has unlocked the door to this second home, it would be in the form of one of my closest friends, scallop fisherman, coastguard station officer and submarine liaison, Harold Hastie. Quite simply, Harold and his wife Margaret are the reason I have this bond with the place and its people. An unlikely friendship, fisherman and photographer, separated by 400 miles, and yet we speak nearly every week; usually me from the car and Harold from the boat. Many of the residents of Islay have nicknames. Harold’s is ‘Kamikaze’. Need I say more?Well yes actually, because Harold is like many Ileachs. On first impression he is laid back, disarming, charming and yet, underneath, there is a strength of character, depth and a fierce pride of place that I can only assume comes from a lifetime at sea and living on an island.Wit and humour are at the very centre of the people, and it comes quick and often. It’s a humour that is hard to explain in words, but must be experienced through the soft Islay lilt and in the twinkle of the eyes. I suppose it’s obvious, but nevertheless worth mentioning, that as photographers and film makers we cover subjects that are close to us and generate opportunities from our personal connections with people and places. And as I move down the list of possible personal projects, Islay and its people appears, and will remain, near the top. But it’s what I do with this association and unique connection that is the biggest challenge.  Will it be master distiller Jim McEwen, creating vatted malts and talking with tears in his eyes of Islay and its people, both past and present, with an unrivalled passion and emotion earned from nearly half a century of experience within the whisky industry? Or the gentle and kind creel fisherman, Alec Campbell, known affectionately as ‘Nazza’, hauling off the south side of Islay and catching bait off the back of the boat, only to give it all to the rather large and ever-hungry grey seal named by the locals as Rupert? (Nazza once fed him 40 large mackerel, just to see exactly how many fish he could eat at a single sitting.)Will it be retired policeman Ian Smith, walking his dog Ben and then teaching me how to sing traditional Scottish anthems back at his flat? Or Jim McFarlane, fisherman and historian, regaling me with the local fishing history and attempting to teach me Gaelic over several drams in his front living room, overlooking Port Ellen harbour? Or Kevin ‘Cloudy’ Campbell, Lagavulin distillery man and charity fundraiser, playing England versus Scotland pool tournaments in his shed, or peat cutting at father-in-law Alan MacDougall’s croft. Or Duncan McGillivray, distillery manager, indulging his passion for rebuilding an old steam puffer? Or Callum Anderson, retired commercial ships captain and first to sail into communist China, reminiscing as he looks out to sea from the cottage he was born in at PortWemyss? Or Duncan ‘Budgie’ MacFadyen, distillery man, just being himself in the wonderfully atmospheric stillhouse at Bruichladdich Distillery? Or RB and his wife Marat (Harold’s father and mother-in-law) who spoil me with Scottish pancakes on every visit? Or will it be Harold Hastie himself, at the wheel of his clam fishing boat, The Clansman, cooking me bacon, egg and sausage sandwiches as we steam out of Port Ellen at 5am with a bottlenose dolphin called Henry on the bow? To the locals this is just another day on Islay, yet to me it’s like unlocking the gates of heaven itself. Making the right choice of subject and then
seeing where that will take me is where this work will either stand or fall. Most importantly, it has to be personal, distinctive, individual, particular, peculiar and one’s own. And so, while I would like others to enjoy and appreciate my work, in this case I am the ultimate client and it is myself that I want to please and my own expectations that I aim to meet.