Kirsty Mackay’s four-year project looks at health inequalities and life expectancy in Glasgow

The Fish That Never Swam is a stark and impactful project compiling research, interviews and photography of the city’s inhabitants.

Date
23 July 2021
Reading Time
4 minute read

Photography, for many, is a way of communicating without words. It’s immediate and telling; a door to the lives of the subjects at hand and a documentation of a particular moment in history. When Kirsty Mackay thinks of her first forays with the medium, she looks back to this moment as a “switch” going off in her brain, for it was a “completely new way of looking at the world,” she tells It’s Nice That. Having grown up in Partick, Glasgow, she’s always had an awareness of social class, which is something she strives to voice and document throughout her work. “The class system is written into the architecture. The streets closest to the river Clyde, those built for the workers, were plain and functional. As you climb up the hill towards the west end, further from the river, the houses improve street by street until you reach the mansion houses of Dowanhill. I am most definitely a product of this environment.”

Inspired by her surroundings, Kirsty went on to study photography in Glasgow, followed by a short stint in New York and roles as an assistant in London for several years in the fashion and advertising realms. During an MA in documentary photography at Newport, she soon landed on her own documentary style of image-making, “which really helped me change direction and put me on that documentary path.” Up until now, Kirsty pulled influences from the world around her. But this time, she’s looking back at her past – flicking through old family photographs and diving deep into her own experiences. As a result, it’s led to an immensely powerful series and new book, The Fish That Never Swam, which turns a lens onto her own upbringing in Glashow along with an in-depth study into the health inequalities and life expectancy gap in her home city.

A personal and political project, Kirsty’s interest in these topics started in 2010 as she was reading about The Carlton area of Glasgow, where life expectancy for men at the time was age 54. “That was less than it was in Iraq, which had just been through a war,” she explains. In 2016, she unearthed a research paper from the Glasgow Centre for Population Health, before realising that it was more than an issue solely situated in Carlton; it was Glasgow-wide. “People in Glasgow of all social classes suffer a 15 per cent reduction in life expectancy. It was that realisation [that sparked the project], and if affected me and my family. Was it going to affect my children? Knowing that I was part of this was the impetus for me being able to take this on as a project.” Kirsty also lost her father at the age of 62, so this also brought a level of personal emotion and intuition to the work, as well as impending questions about his passing: “Was he one of the 5,000 extra deaths that occur in Scotland every year?”

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Kirsty Mackay: The Fish That Never Swam. Debbie holds her newborn baby, Anderston, Glasgow. That first journey home from the hospital, depending on which area home is, has a profound impact on health, well being and life expectancy (Copyright © Kirsty Mackay, 2021)

The Fish That Never Swam has been compiled over the course of four years, where the photographer would travel across the city in order to research, interview and photograph her subjects. All in all, she sees the book as her own analysis of the research paper that inspired it, combing imagery and research to formulate something that's truly her own. Through a mix of portraits and architectural shots, the work is a medley of her own language, research and the stories of those she’s photographing. Brief interactions are introduced to people she's known for years, while others became good friends over the course of the project.

Throughout the project, you’ll encounter many different types of people. First, there’s Billy, who’s 19 and from Easterhouse. He's about to graduate with a degree in politics, even though his teachers told him that it wasn’t worth applying to university. Kirsty has been documenting him for four years now, and he once said to her: “The thing that has an effect is the perception that, because you’re from Easterhouse, you can’t do that sort of thing. If you look at the alternative, I’d be alone, I’d be in prison or I’d be dead.”

Another picture depicts Kinfauns Drive in Drumchapel, an almost desolate, baron landscape that places visual emphasis on a lamppost merging with a typically British sky and earthy green grass. It’s also a place in which council housing once stood, and where Kirsty’s cousins used to live. Revisiting the place in conjunction with the project brought on a shock, as she saw that much of the area had been demolished. “That first time I couldn’t take any photographs,” she says. “Drumchapel is one of the peripheral estates built in the 1950s to rehouse people from the inner-city slum tenements. In the post-war period, houses were built cheaply, had damp problems and the local council separated people by class, only moving the least well off there. Like many places, these areas were built without cafes, cinemas, pubs and restaurants, had poor transport links and limited employment opportunities. And what’s left now, are the scars of failed housing policies on the landscape and on the people who live there.”

There’s so much to learn in the work of The Fish That Never Swam, and even if these stories might be harrowing on the ears and eyes, they’re necessary narratives to absorb and reflect on. “The book is about the sheer pot luck of where you’re born and the family you are born into, and how that takes shape in the rest of your life,” she adds on a final note. “That can, in Glasgow and also in many other areas of the UK, impact how long you’ll live and the quality of the life.”

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Kirsty Mackay: The Fish That Never Swam. Billy, 19, Easterhouse. ‘Glasgow Corporation used a form of social apartheid, rehousing the people of Glasgow by class,’ says Kirsty Mackay. ‘The least well off were moved to the peripheral estates, with few amenities, poor transport links and fewer employment opportunities. These failed housing policies leave their mark on the landscape and in the lives of the people here' (Copyright © Kirsty Mackay, 2021)

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Kirsty Mackay: The Fish That Never Swam. Kinfauns Drive, Drumchapel. The land where council housing once stood. Failed housing policy leaves its mark on the landscape and in the lives of the people who live here (Copyright © Kirsty Mackay, 2021)

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Kirsty Mackay: The Fish That Never Swam (Copyright © Kirsty Mackay, 2021)

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Kirsty Mackay: The Fish That Never Swam. Kinfauns Drive, Drumchapel. Kaitlin, 23, at home in Springburn. ‘I’ve been diagnosed with a chronic illness, been through two blocks of therapy, left uni, started a new job,’ she says. ‘I feel it in my bones that good things are going to happen for me soon. I am powerful amazing and ready' (Copyright © Kirsty Mackay, 2021)

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Kirsty Mackay: The Fish That Never Swam. A memorial in Possilpark for Steph Russell, murdered in a knife attack at the age of 20 (Copyright © Kirsty Mackay, 2021)

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Kirsty Mackay: The Fish That Never Swam (Copyright © Kirsty Mackay, 2021)

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Kirsty Mackay: The Fish That Never Swam. Billy, scores 8 out of 10 on the Adverse Childhood Experiences questionnaire. People with 4 or more aces are twice as likely to develop liver disease, 3 times more likely to develop lung disease, 4 and a half times more likely to develop depression, 11 x greater risk of intravenous drug use, 14 times higher risk of suicide (Copyright © Kirsty Mackay, 2021)

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Kirsty Mackay: The Fish That Never Swam. Kirsty Mackay pictured with her parents in Maryhill, 1971. ‘This was the first flat I lived in. It was a victorian tenement flat called a “room and kitchen”. We had this room and one bedroom, the toilet was on the landing shared with the neighbours.’ Courtesy of Kirsty Mackay (Copyright © Kirsty Mackay, 2021)

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Kirsty Mackay: The Fish That Never Swam. Children walking home from school, Linkwood Drive, Drumchapel (Copyright © Kirsty Mackay, 2021)

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About the Author

Ayla Angelos

Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and has continued to work with us on a freelance basis. She has spent the last seven years as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.

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