In 1994, Margaret Mitchell, then in her mid-20s, was in her final year at Edinburgh Napier University studying photography. Her burgeoning interest in issues of identity, inequality and stigma led her to photograph an intimately familiar scene: that being, her sister Andrea’s children, who lived on a council estate in Stirling along with other members of Mitchell’s family.
At the time, Andrea, then in her early 30s, was a single parent to three young children, Steven, Kellie and Chick. “It was a very hostile political environment in which single parents were blamed for the supposed breakdown of society,” says Mitchell. “For under-underprivileged women and children, that scapegoating does wear you down eventually.”
Mitchell, who says she was very proud of how her sister managed these difficult circumstances, wanted to offer a more empathetic narrative to the one attached to working-class families in the mainstream media.
While poverty and deprivation were certainly an undeniable part of their lives, Mitchell stresses that this was never intended as the focus of that first project. The initial 1994 series, titled Family, was, she says, about “showing the children, and their childhood worlds”. And it was, in many ways, a happy childhood, remembers Mitchell: “Within their home environment, they had lots of love and support.”
“The first project concentrated on the children’s internal lives, inside their own home and that of their gran’s round the corner,” continues Mitchell, “and it could only hint at what would happen in the course of what was to come, how the external environment would influence their lives.”
Mitchell returned to Stirling 20 years later to photograph her sister’s three children and update the story of where their lives had taken them in adulthood, in a series titled In This Place. These photos, along with the original project, now form a new book, Passage (Blue Coat Press), which traces the trajectory of Steven, Kellie and Chick’s lives. Mitchell stresses that it was very much a collaborative project with the siblings, adding: “I have a huge responsibility as a photographer that they get represented correctly”.
In the intervening years between the projects, Andrea had passed away, and all the children, who now have their own children, had moved from one area that scores high in government statistics on deprivation to another.
“[Passage] is a story about lack of money and choice. The question was, ‘Why had that happened?’, ‘Why haven’t they managed to get increased opportunity, what had caused that?’. In this sense, the work, while being an extremely personal one, is also deeply political and offers a much wider social commentary.
Writing about the project before, Mitchell has said: “Life feels somewhat static in the housing estates of central Scotland; as the world changes, the lives of my extended family remain relatively still and immobile.”
“These places are not terrible and that is very important to stress: they are full of community, family and support,” Mitchell tells Huck, emphasising the sense of belonging the children feel to the places they grew up and now live. “I want people to see the love and connection between the family, and also, emotional resilience.”
“But I also want people to look at that loss and the difficulty that they’ve had in their lives. And to come away thinking: so how does society operate? Does opportunity and environment affect the trajectory of people’s lives?” says Mitchell. “And also, to think about issues of cross-generational inequality, and that cycle of disadvantage that can happen.”
Passage is available now on Blue Coat Press.
Margaret Mitchell will be in conversation with Fiona Rogers in May at the Martin Parr Foundation to discuss the book and the issues that it raises. Tickets are available here.
See more of Margaret Mitchell’s work on her official website.