Margaret Mitchell: In This Place

Chick from the series Family, 1994 © Margaret Mitchell

"When I returned to the work, the notion of place became the focus precisely because of what had not changed in their social landscape over 20 years”

“There is a quote by Walker Evans, which I’m very fond of, that states, ‘[T]he matter of art in photography may come down to this: it is the capture and projection of the delights of seeing – it is the defining of observation full and felt.’” says Aaron Schuman, an artist, writer, editor and curator. Schuman is one of the judges of the Royal Photographic Society’s International Photography Exhibition 2018 – part of a world-renowned jury comprising Karen Knorr, Jack Latham, Christiane Monarchi and Jon Tonks – and will be looking for innovative work that strikes him as: “meaningful, in the most literal sense of the word and genuinely ‘full and felt.’”

Steven from the series In this Place, 2017 © Margaret Mitchell

Now in its 161st year, the IPE is steeped in history. “It is unique for being the oldest photography competition of its kind,” says Knorr, one of the judges. Established the year after the founding of the Royal Photographic Society, the exhibition has celebrated the work of some of the medium’s most eminent practitioners, including Julia Margaret Cameron, Roger Fenton, Edward Steichen and Paul Strand. The exhibition welcomes entries from photographers at all levels, working in any genre, style and format.“The fact that the competition is open to absolutely anyone means that I can look forward to an amazingly rich and diverse experience in terms of what I will encounter,” says Schuman. “Hopefully I will come across some entirely unforeseen photographic treasures.”

Glasgow-based photographer Margaret Mitchell won the Gold Award at the IPE’s 2017 edition with portraits from her series In This Place. A follow-on project to her acclaimed series Family, In This Place traces the lives of her sister’s three children, 20 years after she originally photographed them. Initiated in 1994, Family was born out of issues around stigma concentrating on the lives of Mitchell’s sister and her children in The Raploch, a district in the town of Stirling, Scotland which scores highly in the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation. Centred around Mitchell’s nephew, Steven, and two nieces, Kellie and Chick, the project focuses inwards, offering a glimpse into their childhood worlds, in the context of these challenging social and economic circumstances.

Chick from the series Family, 1994 © Margaret Mitchell

Kellie from the series Family, 1994 © Margaret Mitchell

“Over 20 years later, at a time when their mother, my sister, had died, I began to work with my family to update on where their lives had taken them,” she explains. “In a sense, it was a chance for me – maybe even an excuse – to become increasingly involved in their world again. I could hang out more, stay a couple of days, and become part of their furniture like before.” Where Family was more concerned with the intricacies of Kellie, Chick and Steven’s childhood, In this Place addresses questions about the effects of their social and economic situation on the trajectory of their lives. “When I returned to the work, the notion of place became the focus precisely because of what had not changed in their social landscape over 20 years,” she says.

The winning images capture Mitchell’s grown-up nieces and nephews, and their own children, in homes located on the other side of Stirling, in socio-economic circumstances almost identical to those from 1994. Depicting Steven as an adult, Kellie’s children, Kyla and Liam, and Chick’s daughter, Leah, the series: “Became about the environment on the outside; the lived experience but also about a place on the inside, in our own minds, where we believe we can achieve certain things in life.” The larger project weaves a story of love and loss, asking questions about opportunity, environment and the nature of choice; considering the equality in life.

Liam from the series In this Place, 2017 © Margaret Mitchell

Mitchell entered the IPE 2017 in the hope that one of her images might be chosen for the national touring exhibition. “I had been working on In This Place and had excellent local support but wanted to extend its reach outside of Scotland,” she says, “I liked that the IPE toured the work and thought that, if I was selected, it would be a great opportunity to exhibit nationwide alongside fellow photographers.” Mitchell won the Gold Award, for which, along with inclusion in the touring exhibition, she received £1,500 to finance current and future projects. The exhibition offers a number of other cash prize awards – including £1,500 for a photographer under 30 –  as well as a year-long membership to the society, print sales via theprintspace, press coverage and a feature in the award-winning RPS Journal.

Kyla from the series In this Place, 2017 © Margaret Mitchell

For Mitchell, the benefits have been significant on both a personal and professional level. “It’s a chance to gain visibility for your work and become involved in new opportunities and networks,” she says. On a personal level, working together on the project, and the resulting coverage and publicity, have been important to the family members with who she collaborated. “They have experienced a sense of pride seeing the images online, in newspapers and galleries,” says Mitchell. “Their story is of the kind historically relegated to the margins, so generating a sense of empowerment in their lives is fundamental to the work.”

The IPE is also distinct for the encouragement and support it offers successful entrants. “Being a photographer can be quite isolating at times; the positive feedback and supportive networks that the IPE fosters are a major benefit,” reflects Mitchell. This is a view corroborated by Schuman, who urges photographers to enter in order to further their engagement with the photographic community and participate in the collective development of contemporary photographic culture. “The IPE shows a genuine commitment on the part of the RPS to supporting talented photographers and the future of photography at large.”

Andrea and her three children – Steven, Kellie and Chick – from the series Family, 1994 © Margaret Mitchell

Steven from the series Family, 1994 © Margaret Mitchell

The RPS International Photography Exhibition 2018 is now open for entries. Submit your work before 4 April 2018 for a chance to win.