Anne-Marie Atkinson graduated with a first class honours degree in Photography from Leeds College of Art in 2011. Since then her work has been recognised by a number of awards and grants. Her practice is assembled through collaborative action with communities and other artists. A recent project, The Rugged Places, explores the young people living in the remote rural North Pennines, and foregrounds the landscape. The project has been exhibited at Killhope Lead Mining Museum and White Cloth Gallery in Leeds, and is the subject of a book. I caught up with her to discuss her underlying aims and aspirations in relation to working with the landscape……….
WL: The WALKing Photography project is about exploring practices that combine landscape, walking, knowledge and art, with the art specifically being photography based. It was WJT Mitchell who said that ‘landscape is an exhausted medium’. So I guess we are exploring whether there is any critical landscape work in the 21st Century and just what is about. We are also looking for practices which represent an affirmation of life. It would seem much easier in photography to do a polemical rage shouting look how crap everything is – its something photographers seem to be particularly good at. But does it have to be that way?
What intrigued me when I saw your work was that I read it as something fundamentally about the landscape, the rural landscape, even though you were not necessarily photographing the land. I also read your work as sort of elegy rather than a polemical rage – an elegy which is still asking questions about how we reach a oneness with nature and ourselves?
AMA: I was looking at the land as a contradictory thing – ‘the rural’ is idealised when you live in the city, but the lived experience of it is often very different, particularly from the perspective of the young people who grow up in very remote locations. The project was shot in the North Pennines, one of the most sparsely populated area in Britain, so for young people without their own transport even going to see friends or popping to a shop presents a challenge. Of course there are a lot of positives to the area as well, and its the interplay of positives and negatives that I was interested in. I didn’t want the work to be miserable because I don’t believe rural kids are miserable I wanted to explore both the barriers of the area and what it uniquely offers it’s inhabitants.
WL:: Do you think the contradictions are only an issue when young people want to stay in that environment?
AMA: While making the work I was considering isolation and solitude, space and place, liminality and permanence. The land seems to necessarily encapsulate all of this at once so the contradictions that go along with that are always present. It probably becomes more of an issue when it interferes with your life, which is why the young people were such an interesting group to work with in this environment. As they grow older and have more control over their lives, it becomes easier to negotiate the landscape. I found their expectations of their future varied as well: some expressed that they wanted to become farmers or work the land in other ways, and some had prejudices bordering on fear about urban areas. But others felt that they were missing out on big things and experiences, partly motivated by their connection to the wider world through TV and social media. They become aspirational, and the urge to leave was very strong in some. But it was very personal, and there was no single story.
WL: From your perspective, was it almost then a straight documentary of rural contradictions?
AMA: ……or what it means to be a teenager in a rural area.
WL: Why did you chose the location that you did?
AMA: There was a personal connection. I grew up in the North Pennines myself until the age of 11 and my younger sister has lived her whole life there and is still waiting to leave when she starts university. I had been visiting the area more often to see her and we worked on a photographic project together. When that project started to incorporate her friends, I became curious about other young people in the same position. The Rugged Places then became a survey of the subject. The area is also interesting to me because it doesn’t get the same levels of tourism as similar areas, such as the Lake District or the Scottish highlands. I wanted to look there at the raw rural.
AMA: Yes, I did intend it to be neutral, because I want to be open to learn about places and people. I was working on this project just as I was starting to consider collaborative processes, so I didn’t want to project any prejudices or romanticise the area, but rather draw elements out through being present and active.
WL: So me coming along and saying I saw it as an elegy was perhaps putting my personal spin on it rather than it actually being there or at least intended by you?
AMA: Once you put your work out into the world it transforms again, you can’t control how people look at your pictures! And you shouldn’t want to, as it’s all part of the exploration of knowing.
WL: ……very much agree, but within Rugged Places there is an absence of the stark polemical images that John Darwell, for example, might have included in the past? I think that’s where I was coming from in terms of finding a mournfulness?
AMA: That’s very interesting because the Director of the North Pennines AONB Chris Woodley-Stewart seemed to feel the opposite to you! He wrote the great introduction to the book, and we engaged in a few conversations leading up to the final edit of the book. I shared some test prints with him and a couple he found controversial and difficult. As an advocate for the area, there were a few he worried showed the area badly – for example the closed shop fronts and boarded up window with profane graffiti – and he commented that I’d captured ‘the rougher edges’. He thought that was quite a stark view of the area…..
WL: …..starkness wasn’t what jumped out to me….
AMA: Perhaps it’s because the images that could be described as stark have no people in, whilst the images showing the young people are lighter, because the kids themselves bring that?
AMA: Not in landscape terms, no.
WL: Was that a conscious effort not put something like that in, or was…..
AMA: The area is so vast and beautiful, I just haven’t yet been able to capture all of that into an image! The shot of a young boy running through fields to check his animal traps with the dark sky behind probably comes closest.
WL: Yes, OK …but its a closeness rather than match………to put it directly, did you avoid the beautiful simply because it is so clichéd? So that even though you were not trying to say ‘look how grim this is’, there is a mental block to including a traditional aesthetic in something that is meant to be read critically?
AMA: Yes as an emerging practitioner I do feel I want to avoid the clichés of photography. But also the area itself doesn’t contain the traditional aesthetic of beauty. There is beauty, but it is a beauty that is raw and has a bleakness. I was more interested in capturing that, not the beautiful landscape but the real one. I’m not painting watercolours after all.
WL: Going back to the walking,…
AMA: I love walking, my dad is very outdoorsy so I was brought up hiking. I like being out in all weathers, as long as I have my waterproof socks!
WL: Were you consciously using the walking to reveal things?
AMA: Walking is just something you naturally have to do in the area. I’d have to go out with my sister for one reason or another, so we combined it with taking the camera along.
WL: You were not walking uncluttered then, seeing something and later going back to photograph it?
AMA: I suppose in practice it was a combination of approaches, sometimes I’d head out with a camera with something in mind, other times my sister and I would take the camera as we walked the dogs, shooting as we went along like a visual note-taking. Then I make an edit from an array of images for the final portfolio. I suppose my imposition came mostly through the editing and selection of shots.
WL: would you go as far as to say then that in the editing…the act of selecting to produce the book and the show …was actually another journey on top of the physical one you took when you were there?
AMA: Yes, definitely
WL:…so you are not a Thomas Joshua Cooper with the one photograph per location?
AMA: No, no… I deliberately use a medium format camera so its portable and I can shoot quickly and freely. I always take a big bunch of films and aim to shoot them all whilst in the area.
WL: Compared to what you could have done with digital you are still quite constrained, why stick with the film format?
AMA: Whilst I was at uni I hired the medium format cameras, then I bought one second-hand before I graduated. It was affordable, and now I have it to hand so it’s my go-to camera for project work. I do really like it, the physical thing of the camera and the aesthetic of the colours of the film. I’m not a total purist though and think you use whatever is right for the project that you are doing.
WL: It seems that for you walking and making go together. What about the ‘numbness of walking the dog repeatedly? You read a lot about how walking lets you see the familiar in an unfamiliar way , but actually it can become that familiar that you might as well be walking in the vacuum….
AMA: I never get tired of walking my dog, I’m lucky to have found a place between Woodhouse Ridge, Meanwood Park and the Urban Farm so even though I’m only 10 minutes from Leeds centre, I get a lot of greenery, trees and fields in my daily life. I feel grateful for this, not numb to it. Plus, being absent minded when walking in familiar areas isn’t actually a bad thing, it can be deceptively helpful when you are trying to work things out. When I have work that I am focusing on, I can get to a point where it’s all crunching up in my head and I can’t get it out. Going for a break and a dog walk can clarify my thoughts, and it comes to me even though I have not deliberately thought about it. By the time I get back its unravelled.
WL: In terms of you going out and making the work, was there also an element in terms of – sounds 1960’s, very hippie – finding yourself?
AMA: Rugged Places, as I said, sprang from a project I worked on with my sister. She’s 7 years younger and a half sister; we have never lived together. I have only visited, usually once a week but even that was sporadic at times. When she reached fourteen, I thought about the huge transition I went thought at that age and realised we didn’t know each other well, and I wanted to be there for her as a big sister. She was growing up in a place that I left when I was around 11, and I wanted to know more about that, and her experience of that place. It was almost the life I could have had. The project did bring us much closer and then I got a grant from IdeasTap for a wider survey of teenagers in in rural areas. At that point the project changed, as I wanted to give space for each subject to get their own story across without being heavily mediated through my personal experience or perceptions.
Personally, I’ve gone like full circle with the area, from loving it to hating it and loving it again. Now I think it easier for me to love it because I don’t live there. I love to visit but I do like to come back to Leeds!
WL: Does that result in you seeing things differently or seeing say a beauty again in things things that otherwise you would find mundane? I recently came across a Chinese guy, Muge. He was brought up in a village that Chinese government decided was part of an area that they wanted to flood to create a reservoir. When he’d finished university he went back to photograph the area, in effect to photograph the demise of his village. He says that he got that bitter and twisted about it that he could not photograph any more.
AMA: You mean that he resented everyone…
WL: Yes, he resented everyone who had destroyed it, so he stopped photographing. Then this work that I found is where he has come back to photography because in taking the camera away…..I should say that also he fathered a child and the two came together – he started looking at things around him in a completely new way, a sort of enchanting way. So he had this great shift, with the first work being very dark cos it was about this destruction, now its not so much light as mystical
AMA: Maybe the first piece was dark because it was erasing his history and childhood. Then when he had a child he started to think about what makes childhood significant and what are the things that stay with you as become an adult.
WL: He talks about now noticing all these things which five years ago he never saw, because he was so intense and agitated
AMA: Do you think that is because he is looking at it through the eyes of his kids?
WL: Yes, yes,
AMA: That’s nice, it feels like more of a happy ending
WL: So who are you photographic inspirations?
AMA: Well at that time it was Hannah Starkey, Tina Barney, Trish Morissey …..
AMA: I don’t see it as portrait. I also really like Tessa Bunney who is from Yorkshire. In Hand to Mouth one of her images shows four frames with four stages of a tool being manipulated by hands. In Home Work there are images to do with weaving, wrapping rice leaves… I think it’s more about process than portrait, how we process the environment. I like that both of these projects and her work in Yorkshire all seemed to fall under the same story
WL: I certainly can see her work in the Carpathian mountains as very like yours ….. an elegy to a life that used to be everywhere?
AMA: But landscape isn’t a fixed thing – its always changing. Romantic landscape paintings appear to present the land as a fixed thing that you can depend on and return to, but that’s not what the landscape is for the people who live in it or who really know it.
WL: Do you think that its the fact that we don’t in general appreciate that insight that we struggle with things like ecological crises?
AMA: The lack of relationship with the land must have something to do with it. Also, the enormity of nature and the crisis associated with it is a lot to comprehend, but being closer to the land would make it more relatable. I think it goes back to the aspirations of those in the city to escape to the countryside, it constructs an imagined space full of potential but the reality might be very different. For example it seems that a lot of people who migrate to Australia end up returning to the UK, still the same people inside. How much can we rely on the environment to change us?
WL: You wouldn’t see what you were doing as some sort of search for enchantment or whatever? Or see it related to a neo-Romanticism….with big R?
AMA: No I would see that as counter to what I want to achieve. I want to be an artist in the world, not just the art world, working horizontally across the ground. Romanticising certain people or places is only going to be a barrier. The reality of things is already interesting in it’s own right, I wanted it to be truthful to that experience when shooting so I was trying to be neutral and receptive rather than searching for something out of it.
WL: Yes, but Wordsworth would probably describe his view of rural people around him as reflecting how they were ….but he put a very different tilt to it in terms of Romantic angle
AMA: I was also wary of the ethical side of photographing people, how you represent people and respect them, and the fact that their lives continue after you leave. But I hoped that because I have a personal connection to the area that I wouldn’t be an outsider but would have a better sympathy for the nuances of the area. Finding a more of a ‘natural’ view hopefully. Part of the project also involved conversations with the people I was working with, and they wrote down their thoughts for me too. Sometimes I attended events
WL: Were you conscious of reducing a multi sensual experience into a two dimensional image?
WL: how did you deal with that? When you look at it photography is a restricted art?
AMA: Sometimes the photograph is better than reality, the way the graphic elements interact, juxtapositions and so on. Having the still frame around these elements can bring them to light in a way that wouldn’t be noticed in life. Yet it is very frustrating when your images fall flat compared to the enormity of the experience of a place when shooting.
WL: ……..but its also more than the enormity of a visual experience?
AMA: Yes, for example when I went up Ben Nevis recently, everything fell totally silent when we reached the top. The wind dropped and birds disappeared… It was a beautiful, eerie experience that we were not expecting. I couldn’t capture that on film.
WL: I find that I can end up quite frustrated when reading good ‘nature writing’ with the limitations of the visual…..its 2D, its in this little box, and then you look at the eloquence of language…..
AMA: Yes but you can’t expect them to be comparable. Video does something completely different again, adding a sound element. But it’s still not the whole story, you can’t feel the cold on your skin watching a video for example. Yes I did have that worry that I wasn’t translating all of these sensory elements into the project. Ultimately I was using the skills and equipment I had available and trying to get the best I could from that. I am not the greatest technician but I do care a lot about the things that I approach.
WL: Do you work with any other medium?
AMA: I have started to recently. My ideas about art are always changing. When I was studying for my degree I fell in love with photography because the course leader Adrian Davies was amazing. I believed that photography was the superior art form to tell us about humanity. But I’m much more fluid now and have been working with lots of other people with different perspectives. Since The Rugged Places I have done more work with young people, but also worked extensively with people with learning disabilities and am about to start working with a group of elderly Asian women. I have also been drawing for zines. My priority now is to pragmatic, to base my practice on action not rhetoric.
Now I am more about a journey. My art better reflects what I want out of life: to be part of something positive for humanity. It’s less about the medium and more about solidarity. The art word is changing as funding avenues change. This opens up a lot of opportunities for those who are innovative, and I think the best path is the ethos of DIY and sharing to strengthen your scene . My key influences at the moment are Steve Pool and Kate Genever, who work in collaboration and create lots of great opportunities for other artists. I’ve been lucky enough to work with them on a few projects and what is shared – conversations, knowledge, food – forms the artwork as much as anything physical we make. Steve and Kate also do great work in communities, and Kate still works half the time on her family farm so has also created work around the rural.
I guess I’ve just tried to open up and think about what the artwork achieves. I no longer want my work to be about me creating things, but about making things happen. Previously I wanted to build a reputation in the contemporary British documentary scene. Now I don’t want a specific career, but just to be positive in the world. Art and photography are just tools in the toolkit for building a better world.
WL: What better place could we have to end? Many thanks indeed.