The Story behind the Portrait
This photograph is of my great-niece Leah and is from spring 2016. I mention the date from the outset because it feels like a much older image. The portrait is part of a project In This Place which revisits a 1994 documentary series Family – a fairly personal project involving my late sister and her three children.
Following my sister’s death in 2008 I felt a growing disconnection, especially from her grandchildren that I wanted to repair. Photography has allowed me into so many peoples’ lives so perhaps it is what I turn to for help – it is the excuse, the reason, and the justification to be there. Or at least a possibility, an entry point to grow from. I hoped to become increasingly involved in their world again and become part of their furniture like before.
Over time and with many discussions I started working with this part of my large extended family who live in areas around Stirling in Central Scotland. The original work focused on three children but now they had grown up and had seven children between them.
This is a portrait of one of them. Of Leah.
I photographed Leah by asking her to go for a walk, to places she thought were important, where she would like her photo taken. This is the last spot we went to, just at the back of her home and as such shows exactly the environment she lives in, sees and passes through on a daily basis.
As a portrait I wanted her to be in a place of significance and when we ended up at the back of her flats, we achieved that. It tells more of Leah and her life than other portraits from that day.
In many ways she looks older than her 10 years but she is also just a child, finding her way into being a teenager. In looking at this image, it felt like not much had changed in over 20 years since the first project. Yet change was evident: the children were adults with children of their own (Leah wasn’t even born) and the location had changed. But really this was only a bus ride across town from one area scoring high in the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation to another.
This portrait sits well in the overall project which is fundamentally a story of people and place; of people’s lives – what they do and what they want. Alongside my personal connection sits a larger narrative on social mobility and aspects of opportunity, environment and the cycle of inequality across three generations. Essentially, it asks questions about choice – do we have choices in life or are some predetermined or made for us?
The ‘place’ from In This Place is both mental and physical; where we put ourselves and where we are put, sometimes by others and sometimes by circumstance. What puts us there, what keeps us there, and do we want to be there?
Leah on this day wanted to be exactly where she was.
Alongside my personal connection sits a larger narrative on social mobility and aspects of opportunity, environment and the cycle of inequality across three generations. Essentially, it asks questions about choice – do we have choices in life or are some predetermined or made for us?
Margaret Mitchell is a documentary and portrait photographer who lives in Glasgow. Projects range from exploring communities and children’s worlds through to long-term documentation projects on environment, opportunity and social inequality. The inner and lived worlds of others are central to her photography, which explores the intricacies and complexities of people’s lives.
Work has been exhibited widely including Street Level Photoworks, Glasgow; the National Portrait Gallery, London; Festival Circulation(s) Paris; Somerset House, London; and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh. Work from the two interlinked projects Family (1994) and In This Place (2016-7) entered the National Galleries of Scotland collection in 2017.
She is the recipient of both national and international awards including the Sony World Photography Awards (2nd place Professional: Contemporary Issues, 2018) and The Royal Photographic Society’s IPE160 (Gold Award, 2017). Selected features include Firecracker, PhMuseum, It’s Nice That and FotoRoom.
She works on both personal projects and editorially with interests spanning curating, participatory arts practice and a love of (most) things web.