It’s great to catch up with you again after your Fotodocument exhibition during Brighton Photo Biennial, 2014.
Your series, Drawn to the Land, is being shown as part of the Document Scotland exhibition The Ties That Bind, curated by Anne Lyden at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
Can you tell us what interested you about the idea of women taking on active roles in the landscape?
I began this project in late 2012 as a way of exploring my own relationship with the Scottish landscape. Having worked and lived away from Scotland for a decade, I wanted to understand the connection I, like many Scots, have with the landscape. It’s a great symbol of our national identity. It’s how many of us relate to Scotland when we are away from home, and yet how many of us actually know it well? And so began a personal journey for me, I wanted to scratch the surface, go beyond the romantic picture postcard view and learn about the land through the eyes of those who are responsible for it. I then realised that in so many cases, that view is presented as a male one – I was curious to see it from a female perspective and so I began my research.
Working and living in a male dominated world, women have a significant, yet under represented role to play in farming in Scotland. Drawn to the Land is an ongoing and exploratory project documenting the lives of the female who are themselves farmers, not farmers’ wives, who are working, forming and shaping the Scottish landscape.
PW: The farmers mention that they are looking after the land temporarily. Can you tell us how you use photography to capture those fleeting moments?
SG: When spending time with those featured in this project, sometimes I would shadow them and photograph their daily tasks and activity, other times we would only talk, and I’d take no photographs. The important part for me was learning their stories.
I went with them on their daily routine, shadowing them and spending as much time as I could with each of them. I photographed their everyday lives, walking the farm, hauling sheep over fences, out on the quad bikes and tractor. After time, and as the project progressed, I got closer and photographed them in slower, calmer moments too. It’s about women being embedded in their landscapes, being part of the elements, the changing seasons, and there is often a lyrical connection. I wanted to capture that, the poetry of it.
Minty, who farms on the Isle of Mull, for example was talking to me about her childhood and her strong sense of responsibility for the land and the island, and we were talking as we walked on her farm. Then she stopped to look at me as we talked, and I just suddenly saw all that passion, determination and commitment in her expression, and so the portrait of her at that time, to me, tells that part of her story.
PW: What are your thoughts on the changing photographic representations of women in traditionally male environments? Did the farmers see themselves as being exceptions or standing out from their fellow male farmers?
SG: Landscape has often been portrayed through a male gaze in a rather grand and epic way. For me, there is a link between women, landscape and farming that was underrepresented, so I wanted to look at the women who were looking after the landscape.
These women have a huge respect for the land and a desire to look after it and leave it in a better state for the future. They’re employers, accountants, midwives, vets, managers, and I have a huge respect for them, as people who are the managers and custodians of that landscape.
They don’t talk about the limitations or differences of being female in this environment, they just get on with it. There is an increasing number of women coming into the farming industry of late, and the last 10 years has seen a significant increase in numbers. Perhaps those females have always been there, but here I meet them as farmers, not as “farmers wives” they are in the foreground, taking control, they are the decision makers.
PW: You use diaries and personal objects in the series to give context and history to the farmers and their stories. How did you go about meeting the farmers and asking them to participate in your project?
SG: Personal artifacts became an important part of this project as I continued making the work. The inclusion of everyday objects, which link the women to their landscapes and histories adds an important layer of memory and poetry to the project. I wanted to elevate these objects from the ordinary and the everyday to things of beauty, importance and show, at times, their almost jewel like significance.
Old family photographs and diaries explore the connection the individuals have with the land. For example, Sarah on the Isle of Eigg has a lovely crook that was given to her by the uncle she took the farm over from, and she uses it every day. Sybil, whose family have farmed the land she now works on for over 170 years, has all the old diaries belonging to her father. They are an incredible record, which goes back throughout his farming life – they are also objects of beauty with great emotional significance – Sybil hears his voice when she reads them, his voice is part of Sybil’s story, and therefore something I also wanted to include in the project. Photographing these diaries was a way to do that.
I met the farmers in various ways, word of mouth, various connections they had with each other, and with those I knew and had heard of. Everyone I asked was enthusiastic about taking part from the beginning. Above all they’ve been incredibly hospitable and kind, generous with their time and with their hospitality, never tiring of my endless questions and always welcoming. The work they do is important – they are passionate and committed and sharing that story is something they care about deeply.
Find out more about Sophie’s work here.
Find out more about Document Scotland here.