Q&A: Margaret Mitchell

Art Bahrain / 2018 Sony World Photography Awards

Authors: Irene Butera, Emma Double, Valentina De Vincenti

The Sony World Photography Awards is the world’s most diverse photography competition. Free to enter and open to all, the 2018 Awards attracted more than 320,000 entries from over 200 countries and territories.

Produced by the World Photography Organisation, the Awards are now in its 11th year.  The shortlisted and winning photographers selected by the Awards’ expert jury showcase some of the world’s finest contemporary photography captured over the past year.

Photographer Margaret Mitchell is shortlisted for Contemporary Issues category, Professional competition.

Based in Glasgow, Scotland, Margaret Mitchell describes her main interest as “people and their stories.”  The artist’s career spans 30 years and she works within a documentary tradition but with a strong emphasis on environmental portraiture.  Mitchell is the recipient of multiple awards and has been exhibited extensively.

Can you tell us when and how did your passion for photography start?

I have always been intrigued by photographs and to a certain extent the devices we make images with. As a child I can remember an old box camera lying about in a box of random toys. My dad had used it for family snaps mostly in the ‘50s. That was probably my first introduction to a camera and I was quite fascinated by it – this box with this weird little distorted viewfinder but you could take photos, record specific moments of what was happening. A little bit of magic. It was a good toy anyway. Years later, I saved up and bought my first SLR from two jobs that I was working and went on to study photography.

You have been shortlisted in the Awards for your series “In This Place”.  What brought you to photograph your sister’s children, the focus of this series?

I initially photographed my sister Andrea and her three children Steven, Kellie and Chick back in 1994 for a series called Family. At that time my sister was a lone parent living in a (statistically) deprived area, but one with a good sense of community and support. That work was not really about the place but more so about their internal lives – inside their home and with each other. It concentrated on the childhood world of the three children at that moment in time and in those particular life circumstances.

I had been wanting to update the series for a long time but was apprehensive because my sister had died in 2008 and I knew the emotional, social and economic challenges her now adult children had faced. We discussed the idea of working on this at great length before I started. Why do it, who might see it and how they would feel about that. In 1994 the family lived in an area scoring high on the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation including aspects such as health, opportunity, education and housing. By 2016 all the original children and now grandchildren were on the other side of town, in another housing estate, in a comparable socio-economic situation. For me, 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.

What aspect of their lives did you most wish to capture or convey with your series?

Most of the images came from conversations and observations with my sister’s grown up children and grandchildren. I work quite intuitively, and I think the emotion of how both I, and they, perceive their lives is what comes through in the images. I am both an outsider and an insider in their lives and this plays a part in how the series developed. I wanted the work to convey this story of family, loss, love and survival but framed within the larger social issues it raised. The project developed to be very much about place, an internal place in the mind and an external place in their environment. I wanted to convey this sense of inertia and pose some questions as to why that inertia happens.

The Awards require those entering the Professional competition to submit a series of 5-10 images.  Are the shortlisted images part of a larger body of work?

The full In This Place series is quite large with multiple people and multiple life stories, in total there are ten children and grandchildren who are involved. It is an ongoing and evolving story which I work on at intervals. As their lives change so will my documentation. Some might be published, some remains for the family’s eyes only. It is a self-directed personal project with natural pauses and bursts of activity. My intention was always to branch the issues it raised out to related series so that will be a further step.

What do you hope people will take away from the work?

I hope that people will look at the project in two ways. Firstly, at the lives that are lived and the individuals in the images. That they see the love, the connection, the resilience but also see the loss, the difficulty. Secondly, I hope viewers will be left with some questions about how society operates, about the role of opportunity and environment, about issues around (in)equality. Essentially, I hope they see the importance of these lives, lives that may not always be visible (and there are many lives like this). Some of the work is already in a self-published newsprint with additional text from interviews and my own writing. In the future I hope to develop ideas around taking it into book form, but time will tell.

How do feel about being shortlisted the 2018 Sony World Photography Awards?

I feel incredibly honoured and quite speechless to be honest. For this work to be selected and recognised is a very emotional experience both on a personal and professional level. I don’t feel like it is just me being shortlisted but that I am carrying my late sister with me, acknowledging her and her family and their experiences.