Studies in Photography
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Interview | Margaret Mitchell in conversation with Iain Sarjeant
Iain Sarjeant is a photographer based in the Scottish Highlands. Margaret Mitchell recently caught up with him to talk about his work from his ongoing series Out of the Ordinary as well as his publishing and curating activities.
M.M. Can we start by you telling us a bit about your practice and what draws you to the subjects you photograph.
I.S. My interest has always been in landscape or ‘place’ in the widest sense, and how people interact with their surroundings. This can be anything from remote communities in the Highlands to the centre of major cities. But of course any photograph is a combination of document and personal response, and my work also explores my own relationship with the landscape.
My approach varies depending on the project – sometimes researching a subject or location and planning specific images, and sometimes exploring in a much looser way…wandering and reacting. I tend to work on more than one project at once – developing long-term projects while also reacting to smaller, more spontaneous ideas.
M.M. How long have you been working on your series Out of the Ordinary – can you tell us how it began originally and what keeps you working on it? Has there been any change in your photographic approach or thinking for example?
I.S. I started working on Out of the Ordinary about 5 years ago, at a time when most of my personal photography explored natural landscapes around my home in the Highlands. I wanted to challenge myself to work on something different, so decided to turn my eye to places where the natural and human interact, and seek to find visual interest in the commonplace or overlooked. I didn’t know at that stage where the idea was going, but I quickly started seeking out similar places around the country and from there an ongoing ‘journey’ through everyday Scotland developed.
On previous projects I had tended to work in a slower, more reflective way, but Out of the Ordinary has seen me adopt a more spontaneous, instinctive approach, often moving through places reacting quickly to elements within the landscape – in many ways more like street photography than landscape photography.
M.M. Can you share your thoughts of the process of working on an extended and ongoing piece of work?
I.S. I think the beauty of working on one project over an extended period is that it allows you to constantly reflect on the subject you are seeking to explore and also your approach to it. I have found both change as you refine your ideas. With Out of the Ordinary, as the project developed I became aware that it was important for me that the work didn’t just reflect people’s interaction with the landscape, but that it explored everyday places. I was drawn to the fact these landscapes were commonplace, experienced by most people on a daily basis, but were often overlooked. Long-term projects also give you time to ‘live with’ the images produced, constantly reviewing and editing the work – for me an important part of the process.
M.M. You recently brought out the series in book form. Do you see this as a finished project now or does it remain an ongoing piece of work?
I.S. The series is very much still ongoing – the recent book is Volume 1, with a second book planned for 2017. However, I do see it as drawing to a close. My hope over the next 12 months is to visit areas of Scotland that are not represented – I certainly don’t feel the need to visit and photograph every corner of the country, but I would like to broadly cover most areas. I’m not long back from a trip to photograph Kintyre and Cowal, and hope to visit Shetland next year – which will hopefully see me close to completing the project.
M.M. In looking at Out of the Ordinary many of the images have a sense of ambiguity – is that something you consciously set out to do in your image-making or does it occur in a more fluid manner?
I.S. I suppose the truth is a bit of both – it’s definitely something I aim to add to the work, but quite often it happens naturally at the time of photographing, rather than being thought through. For me the strongest images are the ones that leave the viewer asking questions.
M.M. People have featured in some recent photographs from the series. Can you tell us about this element in your images?
I.S. My main interest with Out of the Ordinary is in everyday places, the sort of landscapes that surround us but which we maybe never consciously look at in detail. People are part of that landscape, and occasionally I do include them where they add to the feel or balance of an image. The very first image in the series, which set me off on this ‘journey’, was of men painting the outside of a building in Inverness. This element continues to be an important part of the series, but it’s true to say that many of the locations I photograph for Out of the Ordinary are quite quiet, with few people walking about and this is reflected in the images I produce.
M.M. Out of the Ordinary features images throughout Scotland but you are based in the Highlands. Do you think location influences your work, both professional and personal?
I.S. I don’t think my location really influences my personal work. I suppose in the early days I concentrated on exploring natural landscapes, and being based in the Highlands certainly gave me plenty of opportunity for this. But over the years my main interest has become the interaction between people and place, how we change the landscape, and this can be explored in any part of the country.
Out of the Ordinary covers the whole of Scotland and I have travelled extensively to work on the project. So, for this particular project I don’t think my location matters so much – it would always involve a fair amount of time on the road!
In terms of commercial photography work – it’s definitely true to say there are far fewer opportunities in the Highlands, and this presents challenges in terms of earning a living without spending a lot of time away from home. But it’s also true to say that there are far fewer competing photographers based in these parts.
M.M. You are a supporter of other people’s work both through your publishing arm and website. What are your thoughts on this area of your work and how it ties in with being a photographer?
I.S. I have long had a keen interest in contemporary landscape photography (in the widest sense), and in 2014 I set up Another Place as an online space to share work which explores themes of landscape and place.
My aim was to help give exposure to some of the many excellent projects out there, and also provide those with a similar interest to me a place to discover new work. The idea was/is very much to feature a mix of more established photographers and those just starting out – a chance for everyone’s work to be seen. As the project was very much developed in my spare time I kept the format simple with photographers introducing their work by way of a very short statement.
From the start I had dreamed of extending the project into publishing in print as well – I have a background in graphic design (and a love of photobooks!) and it seemed a natural progression. The incredible interest the site received over the first year led me to start Another Place Press earlier this year. The project is primarily driven by a passion for interesting and exciting photography, but of course with the time it takes up now it also has to cover it’s costs.
In terms of how it ties in with my own photography – I think the process of preparing any body of work for print reinforces how important the editing stage of a project is. In truth it’s as critical as actually producing the work, in terms of how well the final series works. I really enjoy the editing process and working with photographers through Another Place Press to produce small books has definitely helped me develop my skills with this element of my own projects.
See more of Iain’s Work
Another Place Press
Margaret Mitchell is a photographer based in Glasgow