The Story Behind: Document Scotland photography project

FORMED two years ago, Document Scotland is a collective of four acclaimed Scots photographers brought together by – they say – “a common vision to witness and photograph the important and diverse stories within Scotland at one of the most important times in our nation’s history and to encourage, promote and support photography in Scotland”.

The four photographers – Colin McPherson, Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert, Sophie Gerrard and Stephen McLaren – have worked for many years on individual projects, commissions and assignments, both at home and internationally.

Document Scotland has already staged a number of events, including an exhibition featuring ten of the country’s best contemporary photographers as well as publishing two newspapers and an e-magazine.

Here, Colin McPherson, answers the questions…

What exactly was the brief?

To work collaboratively and to record, document and disseminate through photography the stories, ideas and themes behind what is going on in Scotland at this pivotal moment in the nation’s history. We wanted a new model for working, pooling talent and resources and setting up something which could benefit not only us as individuals but the wider photography community in Scotland.

What first struck you about the job?

None of the four of us had ever worked in a collective before. Each one of us had spent varying amounts of time living and working outside Scotland – so it was all about timing, really. Jeremy had been in Japan for ten years, I had spent a decade in the North-west of England, and Sophie and Stephen were London-based. We all felt the time was right to return to Scotland and make work. The question was, how could we make it work for us?

Describe the process from conception to completion.

Ironically, the original idea for Document Scotland was not cooked up in Edinburgh or Glasgow, but in Beijing. Jeremy, Stephen and I were working on an assignment there together and, over a couple of beers, we hatched the plan for the collective. It was relatively straight-forward, in terms of organisation: we wanted to keep things simple and carry on working to our own agendas but allow areas where we did coincide and overlap to become the basis for Document Scotland. With Sophie soon on board, we built a website which we filled with our own content and invited contributions in the form of blogs, photo-essays and portfolios from other photographers shooting stories in – or about – Scotland.

Once we built a bit of momentum, we began to reach out to some of the key players in Scottish photography and initiated conversations about what could be achieved in the short-term and what was strategically important in the long-run. We weren’t surprised to find that photography in Scotland is a ‘small world’, but it’s an environment which is very supportive and constructive. I think most photographers working at present understand the political and cultural backcloth at present and are very focused on making work. Being able to use social media has also helped network photography in Scotland. We’re as prolific as we can be on Facebook and through our Twitter feed (@DocuScotland) without it diverting us from our central mission: taking photographs.

Within our first year, we had staged a group exhibition in which we invited six of Scotland’s best new contemporary photographers to show their work alongside ours. In addition, we produced two newspapers and have subsequently produced an electronic magazine and a downloadable PDF, all featuring our own and/or other peoples’ work.

This is an especially busy year: we have a show at Scotland House in Brussels, followed by a major show of new work at Impressions Gallery in Bradford (one of the UK’s major photography venues). Thereafter, there is an exhibition at Street Level Photoworks in Glasgow (from August 30) which will show work made in collaboration with the Welsh collective, A Fine Beginning, as well as salon events, artists talks and more publications.

Pantone numbers, fonts, use of space, kit, etc?

We have taken a lot of pride in developing our own ‘brand’ or ‘image’ – to use two much-derided words. The designs of our two newspapers (by Yuko Hirono) and the e-magazine produced in conjunction with Glasgow-based designers, Start Digital, involved a lot of thought, opinion and tweaking. The exhibitions in Bradford and Glasgow this year will be delivered by specialist teams at established galleries, so will look excellent. As with everything, the more resources you have, the more polished and professional you can make things look. That said, however, we started Document Scotland with nothing but an idea and lots of goodwill and are pleased with how it all looks and feels so far.

What most excited you about the project and what pleases you the most about the finished article?

I think each of the four of us have our own personal perspectives about our motivations to get involved with something like this. Working collaboratively always poses problems, but we have always tried to be honest with each other and also not over-extend ourselves or become too ambitious. In the end, it is about being a part of something: part of a collective and also part of the photography community in Scotland and beyond. Just to know you are out there, making work that is being seen, gives a photographer great pleasure.

Any particular inspirations from your past that have shaped you and your work?

I think we have all been inspired by a variety of different photographers from down the years. As we are documentary photographers (admittedly a very loose description), there are great practitioners whose work stands out – Robert Frank, George Rodger, Joel Sternfeld and Edward Burtynsky spring to mind. As you can see from those names, we are quite an eclectic bunch.

Been impressed recently by someone else’s work?

There’s so much great photography being made, not just at home but all over the world. It is a privilege to be able to highlight so much of it on our website. From photojournalism to documentary work which hangs happily in the gallery space, there is an abundance of riches. Of the current crop of emerging Scottish photographers, we have enjoyed highlighting the work of Martin Hunter, Graham MacIndoe and Sarah Amy Fishlock and we hope to continue to do so in the years to come.