For photographer and photojournalist Angela Catlin, photography’s greatest strength lies in its ability to place inspire individuals to unite as a powerful force for change.
Throughout her career Angela has travelled the world to give voice to pressing cultural stories that the media has overlooked and she has recently released her second portrait book, Natural Light II: A Book of Portraits of Scottish Authors.
Here, Angela discusses how she got involved in photography, her career so far and what she believes are the necessary skills needed to establish a career in the profession.
Growing up, did you always want to become a photographer?
I had no idea what I wanted to do, I just knew I didn’t want to work in a 9-5 office job.
I tried to join the police but I didn’t like the straitjacket of the uniform because as soon as you walked outside, you were on call.
As a cadet, people would take the piss, ask me stupid questions and it was just embarrassing. At that point women weren’t allowed to wear trousers in their cadet training, just a skirt, so I felt a bit vulnerable wearing the uniform.
I lasted about six months as a police cadet, having seen two dead bodies too many. Funnily enough, at the end of each day I went back with stories to tell my brother, who then went on to establish a career in the police.
I worked as a painter and decorator for Craigmillar Festival Society’s Neighbourhood Improvement Team and Community Arts Teams, which mainly involved renovating pensioners houses.
I did that for about a year and had a great time. Then a job came up as a photographer’s assistant within the Community Arts Team, which I was fortunate enough to get having met the requirement of being interested in photography and living in Craigmillar.
I was assistant photographer to a professional photographer called John Brown. He taught me everything including composition, perspective and framing, but most importantly, he taught me about light.
Give us a potted history of your photographic career so far.
1985: I released Natural Light: A book of Portraits of Scottish authors. The corresponding exhibition opened in Edinburgh Book Festival and toured Scotland.
1988–2006: I was a staff photographer at The Herald newspaper in Glasgow. During this time I won several Scottish and UK photojournalism awards, including Scottish Photographer of the Year (twice) and Scottish/UK Feature Photo of the Year (four times).
2007: I decided to go freelance, with a focus on humanitarian and social issues.
2008: My Life after Iraq exhibition, featuring work from Syria and Glasgow, opens in Glasgow and tours the UK.
2009: The Peacemakers’ exhibition opens in the Scottish Parliament and tours Scotland.
2010: Pictures from the Middle East opens in Edinburgh Film House.
2011: Victims of Torture exhibition opens in Glasgow. Focuses on asylum seekers seeking refuge after enduring mental and physical torture.
2012: I was awarded a 3 month fellowship in document photography at the British School at Rome.
2013-14: I received a Creative Scotland grant to revisit Natural Light: Portraits of Scottish Writers with view to a book and exhibition being launched on 30th anniversary in 2016.
2015: I visited Peshawar, Pakistan, to document the work of a local non-government organisation, Aware Girls, who are raising awareness of the Talibanisation of the north through education.
2016: Natural Light II is published.
Why did you make the move to go freelance and how did this differ from working at The Herald?
There comes a time that even though you enjoy what you do – and I did because every day was different – your personal focus shifts.
I loved working for The Herald magazine any chance I got, and wanted to do more reportage style photography. I was doing stories in my own time and witnessing them being used for salient purposes was very satisfying.
When journalist, Billy Briggs, joined the newspaper I found the perfect partner in crime. After covering a few stories together for The Herald Magazine, we realised we both shared the same interest and passion for humanitarian and social issues and decided to pursue this creative endeavor together.
Over the past ten years we have focused on issues close to home and have travelled the world covering stories that are sometimes overlooked by the media spotlight.
What have been the highlights of your career so far?
Photography has allowed me to meet so many amazing people from all backgrounds. Witnessing individuals working together to help the less fortunate is a powerful force of good and a faith-restoring sight to see.
Billy and I visited Peshawar, Pakistan in 2014 to highlight the work of Aware Girls, a young-women-led organisation striving for female empowerment, gender equality, and peace in Pakistan.
Founded by two sisters, Gulalai and Saba, Aware Girls operates in the face of severe violence, not just in Peshawar, but also in Pakistan’s tribal areas and other troubled parts of the country.
The organisation trains young women on their rights – and through its Youth Peace Network, makes efforts to encourage more women into politics – who then try to stop their peers being radicalized. Leaving Peshawar for villages and towns, they try to dissuade young people from joining extremist groups, with a focus on raising awareness through education.
It’s highly dangerous work, so that makes the organisation’s achievements all the more remarkable.
Tell us about your latest book, Natural Light II.
Natural Light II: Portraits of Scottish Writers was published this summer and is a sequel to my first book released thirty years ago.
Funded by Creative Scotland, I set out to photograph writers from Shetland to Dumfries, London to Chicago and lots of places in between. Many of the featured authors are new, reflecting Scotland’s changing literary scene but there are some revisits to the likes of Alasdair Gray, Liz Lochhead and Jim Kelman.
Gratifyingly, as more female writers come to the fore in Scottish publishing, there are far more women in this book than in the first book.
The black and white photographs are, as the title suggests, taken using available light. I worked during winter light, from October to March, so the light was going down at about half-three or four. Location was crucial for each shot and there was most often a connection between the writer and the place.
I photographed Douglas Dunn in a rolling field of stubble and round straw bales because I felt that reflected his work. Alan Bissett’s photograph was taken in the shadow of Grangemouth, his hometown, so there’s a bit of that story in the picture. Ronald Frame is a big Italian film fan – Fellini and so on – so underneath the M8 suited that urban landscape feel of his Glasgow.
It was a great project to work on and everything came full circle from the inaugural Natural Light. My experience in newspapers shaped a totally different approach and outcome to that of 30 years ago.
What do you think it is about photography as an artistic medium that people connect to so intensely?
The camera can record what it aims at, giving an instant value for reportage in a far more powerful way than the painter can. It records instantly and truthfully.
The camera and light are the photographer’s tools – just as brushes and paints are the painter’s. The eye meets the heart at the right time to create the resulting image. Intuition.
I think photography is open to artistic debate. People’s opinion is subjective and whether they see the final image as art is a personal observation. There’s no right or wrong in an opinion.
Which photographic projects have you got your eye on at the moment?
George Catlin was a portrait painter and recorder (early reportage) of the First Nations Peoples.
His work coincided with the time of ‘Indian Removal’, when the great eastern tribes were banished to the west. Sioux, Ioweh, Missouri, Sauk and Fox were just a few of the reservations he visited.
George Catlin was the first artist to document the Indian tribes of the Upper Missouri. I would like to follow in his footsteps, exploring the journeys, landscapes and people observed by him 150 years ago.
What advice would you give to those striving to become professional photographers?
Just like anything in life, if you want something, you need focus and determination. Seldom will your life’s goal be offered on a plate plus there’s more satisfaction and wisdom earned in the journey to achieving your goals.
If you have a specific interest, whether it is sport, music, newspapers, use your camera to open the door and gain as much experience as possible.
Go to lower league matches where entry to pitch side will be easier, offer services to concert venues, approach local newspapers and suggest events you could cover and then submit the images to them. Persistence will pay off. If your photograph is used, take encouragement from this and repeat, repeat, repeat.
If you’re a student, use your work experience wisely. It’s an opportunity not just to learn and observe but to make an impression. Keep in touch with your new contacts and be willing to help out when you can.
Studying other photographer’s work can influence your own style without compromising your individuality. Technical information can be learned, but it comes down to the personal eye-meets-heart moments that make a photographer unique.