Interview by Poleta Ianeva –
Nicola Muirhead is a London-based documentary photographer. We featured her project In Brutal Presence, which explores issues of social housing in London, in Issue 5 shortly before the Grenfell tragedy. In this interview she discusses how her work changed in response the event, then reflects on the power of words and photography to lift people up after such tragedy, before going on to talk about her new projects Grace Notes and The Last Place on Earth.
Poleta Ianeva: Tell us a little about your process. Where do your ideas come from?
Nicola Muirhead: My ideas and process as a documentary photographer come from a genuine curiosity about the people and places I encounter, through both conversations and historical research. Using photography as my tool, I try to get past any barriers between myself and the subject matter, connecting with a time and place through the act of photographing it.
PI: Why do you use photography rather than another medium to explore these curiosities?
I am constantly making notes with the camera, and it is often those initial images that start my journey into a project. But the act of photographing is only one part of my process. Once I have an idea, I spend time researching and familiarising myself with the history and/or narrative surrounding a community or place. It is then a matter of gaining access and building trust through conversation.
I keep an open-mind to wherever the story will go, and to make room for the unexpected, to be authentic to myself and the subject matter. Photography emphasizes to me the truth of a moment, and it is in that feeling of the present moment that I make connections between ideas and visual storytelling.
PI: Why do you choose to focus on people as a documentary visual story teller?
NM: I have always valued authentic and meaningful encounters with people, whether it be in my personal life, or in my work. I suppose this desire to connect with others is where my photography and my love of portraiture really comes into play. I often start a project or series based off one conversation, or one connection, that touches me or moves me to photograph more.
PI: You created a newsprint publication of In Brutal Presence, what was your motivation for doing this and how was it used?
NM: After finishing the first part of In Brutal Presence at Trellick Tower, and following the horrible fire of Grenfell, I took a step back from the project. I wanted time to reflect on the disaster and decide whether or not I would continue with the series.
When I made the decision to continue, I knew that it would be difficult to gain access into the community again, especially since many residents surrounding Grenfell were left traumatised. The last thing I wanted to do was cause any more distress.
I then came up with the idea of creating a small newspaper zine that I would post around the neighbourhood or use as a talking piece when introducing myself to residents at the Grenfell marches. The newspaper had an introduction to the project and showcased the portraits and interviews of the Trellick residents I interviewed a year before – a kind of testimonial about the work I had already done in the community previously. The newspaper showed what would be asked from residents, visually and in written form, when requesting for participation. Luckily, it worked.
PI: The Loupe feature was before the Grenfell Tragedy, how did it affect the project?
NM: It had a huge impact on the project, in the sense that it was an event that symbolized everything that is wrong with the housing system here in London.
PI: You incorporated quotes from the residents you photographed, what was the importance of this for you?
NM: The only way the narrative of this project could have been thread together was with the words and reflections of the residents, I wanted to give voice to their own experiences. The interviews are an integral part of the series; their words are on equal footing with the portraits.
PI: How was it working with the people who had been affected by the tragedy? Were they receptive to the project?
NM: I really felt moved by the strength and resilience of the residents in North Kensington, and the sense of community that exists there. They have maintained such dignity in the face of so much injustice. I was honoured to have been able to spend time with them. Those who were comfortable being part of the project were very receptive to the process and enjoyed the opportunity to just speak freely, without interruption or prejudice from the media. They enjoyed it even more when they were given back their interviews, to read over. It was a collaborative effort and I wanted that to be clear, I took the portraits, but it was the residents interviews that brought life and context to the work.
PI: Apart from inner city London you also seem fascinated with the environment in both Grace Notes and The Last Place on Earth. Where does this stem from?
NM: Both Grace Notes and The Last Place on Earth are works in progress, set in important backdrops to my childhood and young adult life. In both these places the environment plays a huge role in shaping the narrative. Both projects will be looking at the importance of the land, the history and folklore of the people, and the collective identity of these two locations. The landscapes that surround these narratives are integral to the story.
PI: What pushed you to create La Femmina?
NM: La Femmina is a portrait series of the women I encountered while traveling through Italy in 2017. It was a playful response to the idea of the ‘male gaze’, in a country that gave birth to feminine portraiture during the renaissance, starting with iconic paintings like The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli or Piero del Pollaiolo’s 7 Virtues. I thought it would be interesting to use my ‘female gaze’ to produce a short series of images.
PI: What’s next for you as an artist and photographer?
NM: I will continue to revisit and work on In Brutal Presence and issues surrounding social housing, and eventually finalise the work into an exhibition or book form.
I am also continuing to build on other existing projects, such as Grace Notes and The Last Place on Earth, and currently exploring alternative practices in photography to incorporate in the projects. The themes in these two personal projects are complex, so I want to use a less traditional approach to the narrative. I’ll have to keep the rest quiet for now.
PI: We look forward to seeing those projects develop, best of luck.
Nicola was featured in Issue 5 of Loupe. Most of our stockists will have run out of copies, but they can be purchased along with annual subscriptions here.