Helen Kellock interviews Arpita Shah about her recent exhibition in Street Level Photoworks 'Portrait of Home'. The exhibition consists of photographs of diverse families who live all around Scotland, from the Shetland Islands, to Stirling, to here in Glasgow.
Can you tell us a little about your background and how this informed Portrait of Home?
As an India-born artist, I spent an earlier part of my life living between India, Ireland and the Middle East before settling in Scotland, and this experience is reflected in my practice, which often explores culture, identity and diaspora. Collaborating with individuals from diverse backgrounds and cultures in Scotland, I create work which responds to the experiences of migration. Predominately using portraiture photography, I am fascinated with exploring one’s cultural identity and the notion of home and belonging for individuals, who like myself, share narratives of cultural displacement.
Portrait of Home is collection of photographs of families based in Scotland who also have cultural roots in other Commonwealth countries. The project was a very natural progression for me as an artist as the notion of home is a constant and reoccurring theme in all my work. Scotland is home to so many diverse individuals and communities, all with really unique stories that lead them here. Portrait of Home celebrates these journeys between the Commonwealth but also looks at the complexities inherent in the meaning of home for families with scattered histories and identities.
Portrait of Home was commissioned by the 2014 Cultural programme and was recently exhibited at Trongate 103 and also outdoors in Glasgow Green, as part of Street Level Photoworks ‘Commonwealth Family Album’ during the 2014 Commonwealth Games.
The exhibition encompasses a number of diverse families from all over Scotland, how did you go about finding and selecting your subjects?
I often collaborate with individuals I’ve photographed in the past, so Portrait of Home includes some families from my previous projects Ghar and Nymphaeaceae. I also sometimes just stop people on the street that I’d be interested in photographing and actually met the Shittu Family (who feature in Portrait of Home) on Sauchiehall Street. I saw Hakeem and his beautiful daughters in a restaurant and just went in and got chatting about the project. I’m so glad I spoke to them, because their family portrait is one of my favourites in the series.
I also work as an arts community facilitator and have previously collaborated with a diverse range of communities around Scotland, so when looking for initial families within particular communities my previous contact were really supportive in introducing me to potential families. I also just distributed a large call out to local families through community and arts organisations around Scotland and it was through this that I made contact with most of the families that featured in the project.
In terms of selection, I wanted to document as many families as I could with links to as many Commonwealth Countries as possible, so tried to meet and photograph as many families that were interested in the project.
The idea of entering someone’s home and capturing their familial relationships sounds like an intimate experience. How important was it for you yourself to get to know the families and form relationships with them in creating the work?
Getting to know each family and forming a relationship with them is really important to me as a portrait photographer, because I’m attempting to capture and represent the family in one single image and I want them to be as comfortable and natural around me as possible. I think that’s one of the reasons I have ongoing relationships with previous sitters, and photograph them in various projects because for me, getting that level of trust and understanding between artist and sitter can sometimes take time.
The work I create is always closely linked to my own personal experiences and I think this really strengthened my bond with the families in Portrait of Home. As part of my creative process, it’s really important for me to connect with and understand the subjects I’m photographing on a very personal and internal level.
The photographic sessions are also just as important in forming that relationship when creating the work because it’s actually then, when I get to observe each family in their home environment, through the camera lens. Each photo session is usually around an hour because it’s gives me time to watch the family interact and also time for them to feel comfortable around me. I usually shoot around 10 frames per family and photograph with analogue film. Some of the families are quite surprised at how long this takes but I really enjoy the slow process of photographing this way. It really gives me time to think about the composition of the portrait and observe the sitters in their environment.
What challenges did you encounter in creating the work?
I think my initial challenge was finding willing participants for the project, but as the work was linked the 2014 Commonwealth Games, there were lots of families around Edinburgh and Glasgow who were keen to get involved and celebrate their cultural links to Scotland and the Commonwealth. I had hoped to include more families from all over Scotland and represent as many Commonwealth Countries as possible, but due to the timescale of the project and distances, it was difficult to include everyone. I did travel all the way to Shetland though, to photograph some families there, and that was an amazing experience, although the 14-hour ferry ride was quite intense!
Portrait of Home is one of my first bodies of work where I have shot entirely with natural light, and so relying on Scotland’s unpredictable weather proved to be challenging sometimes but again I was really lucky and got a good amount of natural light for the portraits.
The photographs seem to include normal families in their natural environment, yet at the same time the images have clearly been designed. How much guidance did you give to the families while photographing them and what was the reason behind this?
The positioning of the sitters in each portrait is really important in my work, because each portrait to an extent visually portrays a story about the family. Although Portrait of Home is not staged liked a lot of my previous works, it is composed in the way the families are standing/sitting with one another, and the way they are positioned often reflects the familial relationships between them.
For me as photographer, strong composition is really essential when making a group portrait. Especially when taking it in the home environment, there are many factors to consider such as what’s in the background/foreground of the subjects, what angle the natural light is coming from and how the composition of the family members works together as a whole in the frame. And so as part of my process, these are all essential creative decisions that I make as a photographer to ensure the portrait I’m taking will be as strong and striking as possible. Sometimes the composition doesn’t work, and if that the case I go back to reshoot.
I’ve always been really fascinated with the history and traditional of family portraiture, especially how certain portrait paintings and photographs from the past can tell you so much about the sitter’s status and relationships with one another in the image. I think this interest is reflected in Portrait of Home and also in my previous works. For me as a photographic artist, I always want each portrait to transcend beyond capturing just a particular moment, I want the portrait to tell a story and reveal something about the sitters.
You invited some family members to share some words on the meaning of home which were available to read in accompaniment to the exhibition. The responses vary somewhat, underlining the difficultly of pinning down a definite meaning of home in our increasingly globalised world. Did you feel you were able to capture a sense of these struggles and differing views in your work?
I think due to the timescale of the project, I only really touched upon the issues surrounding the meaning of home for the individuals who are rooted and dispersed between various cultures. I wanted to represent as many different perspectives as possible, and think I captured a sense of the different experiences and diversity but only really touched upon it.
I chose to print the quotes in the information sheets as an optional accompaniment to read, because I didn’t want them to affect the viewer’s initial experience of the portrait, by having them under each image. However, after getting some feedback I think the quotes really strengthened the viewer’s connection with the work, because whether they were local or international they could all identify with particular quotes and experiences shared by the families.
How did the families respond to the images?
The families were really positive about the images, initially I think they were little nervous about having them exhibited, especially the large posters in Glasgow Green but when they saw all the work together as a whole, I think it really enhanced their understanding and experience of being involved in the project. Some of the families even sent me selfies of them standing by their large portraits in Glasgow Green which was fantastic!
Portrait of Home was part of the city-wide project Commonwealth Family Album. What are your reflections on having your work linked to the Commonwealth Games? Was there expectation at all in regards to how you depicted Scotland’s diversity?
It was an amazing opportunity for me as an artist to have Portrait of Home supported by the 2014 Cultural Programme and linked to Commonwealth Games. The project was exhibited as part of Street Level Photoworks citywide project ‘Commonwealth Family Album’ and shown alongside great photography work by other Scotland based artists. The exposure was great, as was the experience of seeing the work on large scale posters around Glasgow Green. It was also really exciting seeing the family’s reactions to the posters when they saw passersby looking at them.
In terms of expectations, although the project was commissioned, I had proposed the project brief, so had all the creative freedom to explore the project and allow it to develop in any direction. I really wanted Portrait of Home to represent as many diverse cultures and communities as possible just so everyone could connect and identify with the families and their experiences in some way.
Finally, what can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?
I’m planning to continue developing Portrait of Home and also hope to tour the work around Scotland, so will keep you posted on that! I’m also off to India next year for a few months to work on a personal project with my own family.
To see more of Arpita's photography visit: www.arpitashah.com
Interview by Helen Kellock