Image from the series The Flows © Sophie Gerrard 2018 all rights reserved.
Sophie Gerrard (Scottish, b.1978) is an award-winning photographer specialising in contemporary documentary stories with environmental and social themes.
She began her career in environmental sciences before studying photography at Edinburgh College of Art followed by an MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at London College of Communication.
Her editorial and long-term personal work has been published widely by clients including The Guardian, The New York Times, The Telegraph Magazine, FT Magazine, The Washington Post, Esquire and many others. Her work is held in a number of collections including The National Galleries of Scotland, St Andrews University Special Collection and the Sir Elton John private Collection.
Last year, she began a project focussing on the gentle and undulating peatlands of the Flow Country, to document this starkly beautiful landscape in Caithness and Sutherland, the people who work there, and something of its social and cultural history. RSPB Scotland has helped Sophie make this project happen, and the resulting work – ‘The Flows’ - is now on a touring exhibition around Scotland. Here Sophie tells us about this experience, and how the project came about.
A Contested Land: Photography and The Flow Country
When I was a child in the 80s, the vast, flat land known as the Flow Country was an area of Scotland I was familiar with, but only as we drove through it on family holidays to get to the wild beaches and cliffs of the north coast beyond. As far as I remember the peat bogs that dominated it, endless and exposed to the firmament, were not places to linger for picnics or family photographs; they were “empty and bleak”, a part of the journey to be endured as I watched them fly by from the back of the car.
But in 2017 I was assigned several editorial commissions on the north coast and so once again found myself journeying through the Flow Country. This time it was me doing the driving and, naturally, I did stop to explore. Through adult eyes, I found the place to be breath-taking.
From the series The Flows © Sophie Gerrard 2018 all rights reserved.
The Scottish writer, Cal Flyn, captures the very essence of the place in a recent essay for Granta magazine: “North of Helmsdale, the land opens up. It is a rare and unusual landscape, stripped back and open to the sky – a blanket bog, to give it its proper name. Wet as a dropped cloth and as heavy as sin, the earth wears a black mantle of peat that smothers the surface for mile upon mile into the far-off distance.
“What strikes you first is the utter absence of the picturesque. A single sweeping line demarcates the heavens and the earth: God’s rough draft, the Earth formless and empty still. The cow-brown flats tussocked and pockmarked by puddles and pools. Slow gradients slope off in every direction; in the distance a few low hills poke their noses into the air.”
This stark beauty had now piqued my interest. I learned, through RSPB Scotland, of the Flow Country’s global significance, its controversial political past and the vital conservation efforts taking place to protect and restore it.
© Sophie Gerrard 2018 all rights reserved.
It is often said that photographers look to the edges - whether it be of societies, communities, traditions or landscapes. For me, the vastness of the Flow Country was one of those edges to be explored. My next project had begun.
I have since made many trips to Caithness and Sutherland int he last year to form this project, which is now being exhibited in Scotland in various venues*, though the work is ongoing, and a book of the work is to be published in 2020.
The work is made more interesting by the challenge of the landscape and its associated climate. The conditions are unpredictable – wind and wetness are ever present, scouring both the landscape and any exposed part of the body – but it continues to be a landscape I love, and a hugely important story to tell.
Each time I make the trip my packing list includes a large format field camera (think the sort of large camera on a tripod used with a black cloth covering the photographer’s head), many boxes of 5x4 film, a tripod heavy enough to withstand the wind out on the peat bog, but also light enough to prevent it sinking into the bog, a midge net thick enough to stop me being bitten but thin enough for me to focus through, wellies comfy enough to walk miles in, but still long enough to withstand numerous inevitable mis-footed water logged disasters. Being out on the bog is a never-ending adventure.
I have learned that peatlands are a globally rare habitat vital in combatting climate change. They cover only a tiny amount (3%) of the planet’s land surface, yet peatlands hold almost 30% of all terrestrial carbon - twice as much as all the world’s forests. Scotland contains a vast amount (13%) of this vital global resource, and the Flow Country is widely considered to be the largest expanse of blanket peat bog in the world.
Historically peatlands have been seen as empty and valueless wastelands, of little benefit to humans and yet still forced into marginal production for the very leanest of economic returns. During the 1980s, the Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher offered tax incentives to the super rich, resulting in vast areas of the Flow Country being planted with non-native coniferous Sitka spruce, which drained, damaged and ultimately killed large areas of the bog. Over 80% of the UK’s peatlands have been damaged by years of such mismanagement.
The project aims to examine this remarkable place: its story, politics, wildlife and its people. Large format images of layers of blanket peat bog uncover rich detail, colour, fragments, all in pin point sharpness, whilst portraits introduce us to locals, conservationists, farmers, land owners, managers and scientists, each of whom have a significant and unique relationship with the landscape.
The Flows looks at how this precious environmental resource has been desecrated and denuded over generations and how these almost magical places are being revived and reinvigorated through careful and considered conservation by RSPB Scotland and their partners. This is no abstract notion: survival of the peatlands is a touchstone for the environmental health of the nation. Once seen as ‘fair game’ for industrial-scale exploitation, the project poses a metaphorical question, asking us to consider our relationship with local and national areas of outstanding beauty and how these places of natural resources fit into Scotland’s topography and consciousness, linking people to the land, and vice-versa.
Currently the work is being exhibited in a group exhibition by Document Scotland the photographic collective I co-founded, and you can see it at Perth Museum and Art Gallery until the 23rd June, for further exhibition dates in Dunoon, Inverness and Harrogate see below.
For further information about Sophie Gerrard see her website at www.sophiegerrard.com
Also see Document Scotland’s website at www.documentscotland.com
*The exhibition A Contested Land by Document Scotland is showing at the following venues:
Perth Museum & Art Gallery 23rd April - 23rd June 2019
Dunoon Burgh Hall, 20th July - 18th August 2019
Inverness FLOW Photofest, September 2019
PhotoNorth festival, 30 November - 2nd December 2019
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