Samantha Brown’s project A Blanket of Gold explores the blanket bog of the Flow Country in the far north of Scotland. Through picturesque landscapes, Brown portrays the stark contrast between the beauty of the land, and its potential danger. In addition, the series includes portraits of the scientists working tirelessly to guard the bog, preventing its disastrous levels of carbon from being released. I interviewed Samantha about her practice, the project and its connection to sustainability.
Your project A Blanket of Gold gives insight into the blanket bog of the Flow Country. How and why did you become interested in exploring this narrative?
In June 2021, I took part in a month-long creative residency with Cromarty Arts Trust, an Arts Organisation based on the Black Isle in the North East of Scotland. My aim was to create a new body of photographic work, based loosely on the subject of sustainability.
My first week was spent researching, learning about sustainability issues within Scotland and how they relate to the landscape, and importantly how I could interpret that from a photographic perspective. I used the Arts Trust as a base for research, and as a means of reaching out to contacts, before venturing out in my campervan, to take photos on the bog itself.
It took me a few days to decide on the subject of the Flow Country. I think what sold it for me was the landscape itself. It’s incredibly remote and desolate, with a strange and otherworldly beauty. In parts, the landscape is quite raw and uncompromising, it looks almost prehistoric. It also contains a huge amount of carbon, around 100 years’ worth of emissions from burning fossil fuels, which requires careful management. It would be disastrous if it was released. I liked the idea that something so strangely beautiful contained this chemical element which needed careful guarding, almost as precious as if it was gold.
My original residency was for the month of June 2021, but I actually ended up going back in September 2021 to continue my work as I wanted to make use of the autumn light.
I’m taken aback by how picturesque your landscape images are. What camera equipment did you use to create such beautiful photographs?
Thank you. I use a digital camera from the Sony A7 series. I really love the way the A7 handles low light. It brings out the colours beautifully.
In addition to your landscape images, you include portraits of the scientists fighting to preserve the blanket bog. How did you build a relationship with these scientists and in doing so, what did you learn?
I did some research into some of the scientists who were instrumental in protecting the bog, starting with those who were involved in the 80s before anyone really understood climate change, and including those who are highly involved in its preservation today. This is definitely an area where I feel that I could have benefitted from having more time to photograph the scientists involved, and it’s something I hope to build upon in the future.
A Blanket of Gold explores complex topics such as environmental preservation and sustainability. Did you intend for your project to raise awareness in these areas and if so, how do you hope it will help?
That was the aim, although I have to confess that I want it to be a photographic project too. I had initial conversations with the team who are putting in a UNESCO application for the Flow Country who have expressed an interest in using some of my images as part of the application.
Has the development of this project impacted how you view the importance of sustainability?
Yes absolutely. I had no idea about the importance of blanket bogs previously and now I know a fair amount. It has also raised my awareness of how sustainability issues are given much more promotion and prevalence in Scotland. Local people are very aware of the impact of climate change on their landscape, far more than those living in the south of the UK. Many of us are detached from our surroundings in the south but that’s not the case for Scottish Highlanders.
You released a special subset of images titled A Blanket of Gold – Through the Veil. Can you explain how you created these images and the intention behind them?
Those images were taken in an area of the Flow Country known as the A’Mhoine Peninsula. The blanket bog in this area was the most raw and uncompromising that I came across, visually speaking. The sphagnum moss covering the blanket bog which is largely responsible for creating the peat below its surface was a bright, lurid green. Lots of other strange fauna sat on top of this, and below the moss sat deep, black peaty bog pools, which had formed channels across the land. To me it looked almost prehistoric; the sort of landscape you might encounter before humans roamed the earth. I loved its rawness, but I knew that if I photographed it close up, it ran the risk of looking like a muddy mess, and most people would find it hard to appreciate the otherworldliness of the landscape, which I had encountered.
To overcome this challenge, I used a muslin veil over the top of the camera to act as a light diffuser and a sort of metaphor for the moss itself. This gave the close-up shots a really magical air, almost mythological in the way it was rendered. I felt happy with the outcome, so I kept the images as a subset of the whole series.
Did you face any challenges when creating this project?
The light was very difficult to manage in June. The far north of Scotland has a latitude of around 58.5, it’s as far north as parts of Norway, Sweden, Alaska and Russia. At that time of year daylight starts at 4am and ends at 11.30pm. This gave little opportunity for softer light; daylight shots often came out over exposed in the sky and too dark in the foreground. I overcame the issue by trying to shoot on cloudy days and by going back in September, when the light was more forgiving and the colours in the landscape were warmer. In retrospect I could have used a filter, but I just wasn’t prepared for the light having not been that far north before.
If you had control over the interpretation of the project, how do you hope it would be received?
It would be wonderful if the images were used to create awareness of the issue, however that might be.
You mention that the project is ongoing, how do you see the work developing?
I would like to return to Scotland one day to continue photographing the scientists who have been working on this area over the years. I’m also interested in creating another sister series based on the blanket bogs of Ireland.
Do you have any future photographic plans and are you currently working on any projects?
I would like to spend more time publicising this project, and potentially planning a return to Scotland in the near future. I’m also quite busy with my day job as a self-employed marketing consultant so that keeps me busy as well.
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Sustainability permeates every aspect of our lives and is now a necessity, not a choice. Human innovation, determination and persistence is more important than ever and will ultimately decide the fate of our planet. In this issue, through photography and writing we explore insect-based protein, space colonisation, childfree people, the importance of payphones, the world’s largest blanket bog, support for artists, sustainable photobooks and Universal Basic Income.
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