Margaret Mitchell’s new book documents the social and economic deprivation of her family over the course of 20 years
The Scottish photographer’s latest publication combines two seminal bodies of work, placing emphasis on issues around inequality.
- Ayla Angelos
- 5 March 2021
- Reading Time
- 5 minute read
Scottish documentary and portrait photographer Margaret Mitchell is endlessly fascinated by people. Sometimes, she'll be documenting children and the notion of childhood, evident in her past series The Youth House – a portraiture project photographing young people in an indoor space for children and teens, living in a socially disadvantaged area of Glasgow. Other times, she’ll lens those that are closest to her, like her family. This can be seen in her new book, Passage, now available at Bluecoat Press.
Passage brings together two bodies of work, Family (1994) and In This Place (2016-17), whereby two separate stories have been united with 20 years in between. “The years are different, but the subject is unchanged,” she tells It’s Nice That, where the former documents her sister’s three children while they were living in Stirling. The latter follows on from this project, and is the latest chapter of the lives of her late sister’s children and her grandchildren. “I first photographed my sister Andrea and her three children when they were living in the Raploch in Stirling, Scotland in 1994. It was an area whose reputation preceded it, a place that had many social difficulties but also offered a degree of community for those born into it,” she adds. “The series considered the children’s lives in all the complexity of being in the place, at that time and in the circumstances that they were in.”
During this time in 1994, the political landscape was bleak and single mothers were vilified by conservative politicians, “considered a stain and burden on the state, to be blamed for the supposed breakdown of society,” explains Margaret. Great stigma was attached to the non-nuclear household that places emphasis on the single mother, and Margaret witnessed this first-hand through her sister Andrea and many other women like her. This shame was created by the government who were “scapegoating some of the most vulnerable people in our society: underprivileged women and children,” she says. As her sister's children grew into adulthood, she noted how they hadn't managed to move far from their disadvantaged area of social and economic deprivation. This led her to wonder: “What was the role of environment and opportunity in their lives? I wondered how much choice had they ever actually had, and how much was predetermined for them? It became very much about the trajectory of their lives, a journey of love and loss with social inequality at its centre.”
Within Passage, Margaret places the two series in close conjunction with one another. Alongside a bus route map tying the stories together, the imagery from each project is placed side by side, telling the story of development – or lack thereof – over the course of 20 years. There aren’t too many differences in terms of location, but as it was shot over such a long period in time, there were some sequential alterations in terms of how Margaret made the work. She was studying photography in Edinburgh at the time in 1994, while she was first starting on the series Family, and she’d often visit her sister in Stirling on weekends and during holiday periods, meanwhile her mum also lived around the corner. “By the time we started discussing the new work in 2015, Andrea had died. I embarked on it for two main reasons, one to hopefully increase my closeness with them, and secondly to work together to tell this story,” she adds. As such, Margaret wanted to represent them in the most respectful, collaborative and truthful manner possible, all the while telling the story of this who often go overlooked, and those are constantly misunderstood in society.
A wide-spanning collection of imagery, Margaret notes how there’s one image that sticks out to her the most: that is, the image of Chick, taken from the 1994 series. At the time, she was five years’ old and standing at the sink in her kitchen in her childhood home, washing the dishes as Margaret entered the room. “For me, her whole character is embodied in the pose she took on. Chick was the proudest, most determined child I have ever known, and she remains so as an adult,” she says, stating how the area she lived in was consistently placed in the top five per cent in Scottish government statistics on deprivation. “When viewed with the later updating work, In This Place, the viewer is asked to consider how Chick’s early life opportunities might have affected her long-term prospects; not only in herself growing into adulthood, but subsequently in the life of her own child in that present day.”
Throughout Passage, there are countless stories to be told and heard. Many of which tell the narratives of those who’d been somewhat trapped in the vicious cycle of deprivation that leaves minimal room for progression. But there are some hopeful stories, too. Leah at age 11 on her Primary 7 Prom Night does as such, where Margaret documents her excitement for the primary school leavers party that evening. “She was leaving something behind, a part of her childhood as she embarked upon a new adult world. This image became one of the last for this series and it encompassed some of the complexities of the whole work. It felt like it was positive and forward looking, hopeful even. But it also felt like a child growing up too soon.”
There are two main ways that Margaret hopes audience will look at this project, the first being the observation of the lives and individuals in the images – witnessing the love, connection and resilience, as well as the loss and difficulty. “But also, I hope viewers are left with questions about how society operates,” she concludes. "Because I live in Glasgow, many people believe the work is in Glasgow, which it isn’t. This raises an important aspect of this work: that lives like these are everywhere. The cycle of inequality experienced by my extended family is universal."
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Margaret Mitchell: Passage. Andrea and her three children, Steven, Kellie and Chick, Family (1994). (Copyright Margaret Mitchell, 2021)
About the Author
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.