Looking into a land of contrasts.

We last caught up with Anne-Marie Atkinson when she was exhibiting in Holy Trinity Church on Boar Lane in last year’s Your Retail Soulmate exhibition. Now we catch up with her to discuss her solo exhibition, which opened on 11th March in White Cloth Gallery… 

So, Anne-Marie – tell us a little bit about the main project with the young people and how it came about..?

A few years ago when I was in the middle of my degree at Leeds College of Art I began a project about my sister, Danni. We have never lived together, and at the time she was in her early teens. The project moved in a few different ways and the story that eventually came from it was as much about her life in a remote rural village, as it was about our estranged relationship. I developed the idea of a wider project that explores the experience young people have growing up in isolated rural environments, and became intrigued by the contrast of these young transitional lives against the dramatic and seemingly ‘fixed’ landscape around them. The unique history, challenges and complexities of the contemporary British countryside sometimes go unnoticed, just like the lives that unfold in these spaces. IdeasTap gave me the funding to begin exploring these ideas in the North Pennines, and so I got shooting!

How did you get involved? What was your contribution/involvement?

First I contacted a few local organisations that work with young people: Dale Force was a project running out of Killhope Museum at the time who programmed events, workshops, training etc for young people in Weardale, Teesdale and Allendale, and UTASS (Upper Teesdale Agricultural Support Service) ran a number of youth clubs and other activities in the area. Both organisations were great to work with as they were so enthusiastic about creating opportunities for young people, and had a lot of support from volunteers. Just to be clear, the areas I was visiting in the North Pennines were not commuter villages, some of the primary schools had only a handful of children and some of the young people lived in farms that were 30 minutes drive even from the nearest tiny village!

I visited some of the activities programmed by these groups and also got involved with other families by word of mouth. I would talk to whoever I was working with to understand their opinions, and asked them to fill in questionnaires and direct some of the shooting to sites of significance for them- I really wanted to avoid bringing my own agenda. They were often very savvy, not country bumpkins! They shared a lot of the aspirations you would expect from adolescents, and confirmed for me this ‘land of contrasts'; feeling safe from crime and free to explore a vast area yet also prevented in engaging with a lot of things they had an interest in such as shopping, music concerts and even seeing their friends outside school. Some of them associated the city as being synonymous with crime and drugs, while others dreamed of New York and LA!

How did the project take shape?

I visited the area a number of times over a 6 month period, sometimes meeting with new people and sometimes revisiting those I had met previously. Collecting portraits, and then looking at the landscape and local community as well, to gather an encompassing picture of the area.

Was a book always an end goal of the project?

Not at all. I really don’t think too much about the ‘end’ of a project when I’m working on it. The goal is only ever to create a documentary, as honest to the area and the people as possible. It is impossible to be entirely objective but I am very aware that the work I create relates to real lives, real lived experiences. I don’t want to be the person who comes to an area, observes at a distance then leaves, I think about what happens in those lives after I’ve gone and I want my practice to be fair and responsible. Also, I personally find it very difficult to fully draw a line under a project, I want to be able to return to it should that ever be appropriate. I definitely want to continue working with some of the people and organisations I have met in the North Pennines.

The book came about when I began to collaborate with Bhavani Esapathi. She is a writer, so the book was a natural site we could share for both of our lines of enquiry. Bhavani is exploring the issues surrounding ‘the contemporary archive’, in a time when digital technologies make the nature of archiving a concern to all art institutions. Her project and mine intersect in that we both explore space in its figurative and literal sense: the archive relates to a specific time and place, just like the young people in my exploration, and both require documentation to bring them to notice. Divided We Fall gave us some funding to produce the book and exhibition together, and although I have been working on The Rugged Places for a little while now, this really represents the start of The Rugged Archive.

How did you find putting the book together?

Bhavani and I were in dialogue for quite a while before hand and spent some time with the collection of images I had built up, then I pulled some out and we edited them down and sequenced together. My partner James Wright did all the design work, he specialises in design for print and knows the project intentions and my style well, and we were very happy with his little touches. Also Chris Woodley-Stewart, the Director of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) Partnership, got involved in the later stages and wrote the introduction. He knows the issues of the area where the images were shot very intimately. He is an advocate for the area although he recognises the challenges it presents to some people. I really like his introduction as it again relates to the real lived experience, and provides some practical balance against Bhavani’s essay which muses over the problematics of documentational art.

Where next for the project and for you?

Bhavani and I intend to fully manifest The Rugged Archive. We want to spend some time in Scotland: Argyll and Bute, The Highlands, The Hebrides or similar! At the moment our collaboration is young, we discuss a lot and develop ideas together but we want to physically bring our work together as the primary component of our practice. In residence in a rural area, we will use local archives and collaborate with communities to produce an integrated multimedia project combining text, image, found and recorded materials.

We are also in the process of programming a series of photography related events for Arts@Trinity when it reopens after refurbishment.

The book is limited to 100 numbered copies and will be available to buy for £10 at White Cloth Gallery, Waterstones, Village and a number of other locations around Leeds when it launches.

The exhibition closes tomorrow – Saturday 24th March 2013 (they’re open for the Reel Iraq cinema season).
It’s then replaced by the Exposure Leeds ‘Just a little retail therapy‘ exhibition.

All image © Anne-Marie Atkinson. All rights reserved; used with permission.

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