In July we welcomed Glasgow-based emerging photographer Ellie Hopkins to Canister to present her project Land of my Father, an emotional, intimate journey into her family's history. For those that couldn't make it we had a short chat beforehand:
Hi Ellie, welcome to Canister. Let’s jump straight in, tell us about Land of My Father.
Land of My Father is a project I completed during my masters program at Glasgow School of Art. The project hinged on a desire to explore my Welsh heritage and reconnect with family members in South Wales. I was born in Cardiff, and spent the first few years of my life in Treharris, which is an ex-mining town just outside of Merthyr Tydfil.
When I was two or three I moved with my parents to the West Midlands, and I’ve spent most of my adult life drifting around different places, though Glasgow seems to have her hooks in me now. Because of my slightly nomadic existence I’ve always felt a little bit jealous of people who can derive part of their person, their identity, from the place that they’re from, and I wanted go back to Treharris and explore what might have been my place. Land of My Father represents my response to community, post-industrialisation, alienation, and my own family.
What struck me with your images, in the portraits but also in the landscape details, was a real sense of intimacy with the people and the place. Was this something you were striving for? Were you even aware of this while you were shooting?
Thanks, that’s a nice insight - and a huge compliment. When I set out to shoot the project I very much wanted to reconnect with the Valleys and my own heritage, but I was very wary of being an outsider. From the outset it was really important to me that I made connections both off and on camera. It’s my experience that the communities in South Wales are incredibly tight-knit; they are family and neighbours in the purest sense. Having never done anything like this before I was initially very worried about being perceived as some sort of snobby voyeur. I had wanted to make it clear that I wasn’t there to indulge in “poverty porn”, however there was also no escaping the fact that I was there to make a photographic narrative. Because of this juxtaposition, and my own distant familiarity with the area, I found it very hard to situate myself within the role of “photographer” and read lots of interviews with photographers describing their methods and practices when working with different communities and sitters.
Ultimately the familiarity or intimacy that (thankfully) can be found in some of the images came from genuine connections I made with people. I was always upfront about that fact that I was a photographer and I was there to make pictures, but I also tried to make sure that I didn’t just steal a photo of someone and then bail. I explained to each person why I was there, and made a conscious effort to make the images collaborative where possible. Some of the pictures were made within five minutes, and for some I spent days getting to know people. Making my pictures with a medium format camera helped, because it looks so bulky and archaic, people were curious what I was doing and how it all worked.
Having said that, for every person who spent time with me, invited me into their home, introduced me to their family, or took me to choir practice, there were one or two who didn't want to know. I just learned to accept the knock-backs, respect people’s privacy, and relish anyone’s enthusiasm to get involved. In all I shot the project over two years, in 4 or 5 trips, so by the end of it, I was operating in spaces which felt familiar, with people whom I had come to regard as friends, and I’m really happy that this has translated into some of the work.
And what brought about the decision to shoot the project entirely on film?
That decision was a mixture of influence from my tutors at GSA, and my desire to emulate other artists who’s work I aspire towards (Laura Pannack, Gregory Halpern, Jack Latham, Bryan Schutmaat, Igor Termenon, and Sian Davey are all incredible standards). I know it’s very much in vogue at the moment, and that this has the capacity to sound very cliche but I think film has an absolutely timeless aesthetic that can’t be achieved digitally.
Was the choice of film important to you? Was cost involved in the decision?
As this was the first project I’ve shot completely on film, and I was (and still am) doing a lot of learning, the film stock wasn't necessarily my primary consideration. To be completely honest, I was more focused on operating the camera comfortably and making sure that through lack of experience I wasn't costing myself opportunities for great images or interactions.
I initially bought a box of Fuji Pro 400H from Amazon, and I swapped a few rolls with one of my tutors for some Kodak Portra 160, and shot them all at once around Glasgow. When I developed the negatives and scanned them, I loved the dewy pastel tones I had gotten from the Portra so made a conscious decision to continue using that stock. I bought some of my film online (praise be to Amazon Prime, lord of the last-minute panic purchases), and some from GSA, who bulk bought film and then sold it to students at face value. The majority of the project was shot on Portra 400, but I also shot some on Portra 160 and Portra 800. I experimented with Ektar 100 as well, and I would use that stock again, but stuck to Portra for this project so as to keep the aesthetic of the images cohesive.
Is the project now complete? What are your plans for Land of My Father?
I think Land of My Father is complete now, yes. I will definitely be returning to South Wales for some projects in the future, but I would like to expand the scope of my work beyond Treharris. I would love to do some site-specific exhibitions in South Wales, and I will continue to draw from everything I learned in shooting Land of My Father throughout my career.
So you’ve recently graduated with a Masters from Glasgow School of Art, what were the feelings towards film from your peers and tutors at GSA?
My experience with the Glasgow School of Art, is that they encourage students to apply analysis to every stage of their creative process, including the medium. They expect students to justify their chosen medium and because of this I’ve always operated with the idea that your medium has to at least be complimentary to your content. I had only ever used 35mm film before starting at GSA, and through trial and error and some very patient technicians learned the bulk of what I know about analogue photography during my time there. The school has some incredible facilities and very knowledgeable technicians at their disposal and several of my classmates moved from digital to film during their time there.
How important has your photography education been for your work? I see you’ve also spent some time in the States?
I would say that my photography education has played an enormous part in my work, I’ve benefitted from some incredible mentors, impressive facilities, and inspiring peers. I really genuinely count myself extremely lucky to have been afforded the opportunity to study photography as part of my academic career. It was actually in the States that I started learning about photography. During a study abroad experience for my undergraduate degree at the University of Stirling I was accepted to study for a semester at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and they had an incredible wealth of classes.
At the time I was massively interested in graphic design and felt limited by the stock photos I was using so I signed up for an extra class in photography and, as painfully cheesy as it sounds, just completely fell in love. The class was led by American photographer Jeff Sheng, and every week he invited guest photographers to talk about a portfolio of work, followed by a class in which we were given mini photography assignments. My final submission for the class was a photobook I’d made out of a gold bible I “liberated” from a Vegas hotel room. It was 99% glue and cheap photo paper and has since disintegrated, but ever since I’ve been infatuated with photobooks.
And what’s next for you now?
In October I’m starting my PhD at the University of Stirling. I’m returning to South Wales for my thesis which uses the 1966 Aberfan disaster as a model to explore photography and shared psychological trauma. There’s an incredible photography community operating in South Wales, which is something I hope very much to get involved with.
And finally any advice for folks just starting out with film?
Pursue other artists’ work obsessively, look at how they treat colour, post production, printing, editing, sequencing. Read interviews. Fangirl/boy. If you have spare cash money buy photobooks and zines and prints too, and look at the considerations other people apply to printing and narrative construction. Seek out places like Good Press, Street Level, and Stills and attend the degree shows we are so spoiled with in Scotland.
Make friends and swap film. Working with film is both wonderfully indulgent and horrifyingly expensive, and I find the best way to learn more about film is to swap rolls with friends and look at each other’s work as much as you can.
Also, if you can, scan your own negatives. I’ve learned so much from making my own scans and working directly from my negs. I have a crappy cheap flatbed scanner that I saved up for and I love the freedom it gives me to work with my images.
Thank you so much Ellie, really appreciate you spending this time with us and sharing so much.
Photo credit © Ellie Hopkins 2017