A discussion with Linda Brownlee
By Andrew Edwards, 27 January 2017
Andrew visited Linda Brownlee in her London Fields Studio, to discuss her new photo book - “I Zii”
How did the project come about?
I was at another friend’s exhibition, a furniture design thing, and I was chatting with a friend of mine. I had always known that she was half Italian and half Irish, but I didn’t know much about her Italian side.
We were having a casual conversation like we are now, and she was telling me about the Sicilian part of her family that live in Gangi; this mountain town. The remoteness and beauty of it, how everything about it is still quite traditional and how there are three generations of her family living in this tiny town. How they are all really tight, and that she massively connects with this side of her family despite growing up and living in Ireland all her life.
So we were just nattering about her family and about the stunning landscape. She knew I had done Achill (Linda’s first book), which was about the landscape and the teenagers on the island. I think she said Gangi reminded her a little of the Achill book, and the conversation stayed with me.
I was mulling it over and I sort of mentioned it to her a couple of weeks later. And she said casually “You should come you’d love it!” So we ended up then embarking on a little trip together. We went for two weeks back in Easter 2013.
Quite a while ago?
Quite a bit back. We drove from Palermo to Gangi in a white rented Cinquecento. Basically, it was a collaboration, she acted as a guide. She introduced me to everybody; we went to everybody’s houses for dinners. There were birthdays and Easter celebrations and because it was quite a festive season there was a lot going on, there was always a family occasion, so it was quite a good time to actually click in, people were off; having BBQ’s and it wasn’t warm, it was April. Actually surprisingly it was really misty and the weather was really quite grey not what I expected. When you think of Sicily you think of... oranges and sunny weather the whole time, but not at all, and because you’re so high up. It’s colder and the weather was quite moody.
You’d sit around at the dinner tables for hours, then it would be one course after another of delicious food and you’d be so full. They were just a gorgeous family and I was totally taken by them. I don’t speak any Italian, so communication was a little hard, a lot of them didn’t speak any English so there was a lot of just patting each other and smiling and nodding, you know haha! Basically, it was just a lot of gestures to communicate. Which in a way was quite nice because I was able to sort of stand back and do what I wanted to do. Just observe and take photographs and not have to be too entangled in the conversation. It weirdly worked out that I couldn’t speak the language, a bit…
Like a fly on the wall?
Yeah, I was… and you know I was integrating. That’s how it started and then I went back and spent another two weeks there in the summer. With the change of season, it was a very different atmosphere this time around. Everybody comes down from the mountain village because it gets extremely hot. No one has gardens in their apartments because everything is so close together. They all have these quite basic summer houses which they migrate to down the countryside. While some of them have another house down on the coast so we actually went down to a seaside town Finale; about an hour and a half from Gangi. I did some photos down there, so you see some more “Seascapey” beachy shots in that section, and that’s how the book starts in the Easter and ends in the summer. So you get that seasonal change because the images I took during the summer look so warm, and I couldn’t start to mix things up.
This is your second book of this style, what draws you to this type of documentary photography?
Well, I love landscapes, and as more of a portrait photographer, I don’t get an opportunity to shoot landscapes as much in my daily work.
Documentary is my favourite kind of photography, why I don’t know, it just feels like I get the most natural pictures and it feeds all the curiosities I have and it’s a really nice way to… I suppose; get to know different sections of society. You can get curious about a particular cultural thing, and documentary photography allows you to explore it in a very natural way.
It’s a way, a thing you can use to get in?
It gives you an incredible sense of access. To have the privilege to explore a community you would never really be able to, without it, it's harder to say "Hi, I'm just going to spend a couple of weeks with you". So yeah I think I see documentary photography as a bit of an excuse. More often than not people seem to allow you in with a camera in a way I don't think they do otherwise.
I’ve always wondered that myself because I’ve never really been able to ask anyone on the street to take their photo. So I’ve always wondered the best way to do it, and if it helps to have a camera?
Yeah, I feel like it gives you a reason, to start talking to people about things. Not that you should need that, but it is, very often, very hard and why would you butt your head into someone else’s life like that. It just feels like you need an official reason. The thing with the last book that I did, Achill, was I had been going to that area since I was seventeen. So, I knew the place but I only knew it from the point of view of being a tourist there, again because it’s really hard, how do you get to know the waitress or the barman, you know. You’re the tourist and they’re the locals. Whereas the camera seemed to, during that project anyway, get rid of these borders/barriers. It was really incredible and I went down on my own then. When you go with other people there’s always an agenda or an activity. Whereas when I’m doing documentary photography I have to just focus on that and I can’t be mixing it in with other stuff, it needs to be my sole focus. With Achill, I went on my own about three times. So maybe with Sicily, I was again drawn to the idea of the landscape and I seem to be interested in this remote sort of living. I think I find it to be kind of romantic and maybe it’s because I’m living in London at the moment and it’s the antithesis of what we are about here. It’s the calm, then slowing down, maybe there's a part of me that absolutely want’s that but can’t access it right now, it doesn’t suit my lifestyle right now. Maybe I’m just researching where I’m gonna live, later on, haha.
It just feels nice..
Yeah, it feels like things have just got a little too hectic.
I think even just living in London it feels stressful, even just being around people who are so stressed and busy.
Absolutely, there are just different vibrations, the minute you walk out the door, the traffic, getting on the tube, the everyday. Just the madness. Maybe I see these documentary projects as a little escape.
No, I agree when I was living up north, in a small village. It felt like people were born there and stayed there their entire lives, it was very calm too and, everything was in one place, it was a nice change.
It just feels like a slightly richer lifestyle, with a greater quality of life and a lot of beautiful old traditions; I think I may get a bit nostalgic about them.
It’s a bit lost sometimes, with everything moving so fast and the proliferation of the internet.
Social media has changed everybody’s lives, not necessarily in a positive way. Getting away from the furious, perhaps.
Could you tell us a little bit about the family you shot, and anything you may have learned from photographing them?
Aisling is in her late 30's, her father is Sicilian and has a number of brothers and sisters. He's probably in his late 70s and his brothers in their 80s. In fact, Salvatore who was the eldest in the family sadly died last year. Aisling adores his wife Zia Elise. All of their cousins are probably in their 40s & 50s now. Then, of course, their's all of their kids. Most of the cousins are actually working in Gangi I think, even though it's a pretty small town. There's a couple who are in and out of Palermo to work. A couple of them commute to Palermo. They're a very close and lovely family.
So all the generations are there?
It feels very much like the eldest generation rule the roost, and there’s a massive respect for those guys. And of course there’s Zio Mick, who is one of the uncles who is amazing, he’s probably in his late 80s, I think everyone listens to him. The way they keep their houses, everything is so immaculate, really tidy, really clean, so well kept. I loved the older generations houses, in particular. A lot of things like the curtains and the blankets over the beds were handmade. Then there's this really disposable side, where a lot of plastic cups were used at dinner time and it was all chucked in the bin and not recycled afterwards. An odd juxtaposition I think between what’s being revered and maintained, and what’s disposable.
Your friend Aisling Farinella (who also wrote for the book) invited you to visit her relatives, did this help when shooting the family?
Well yeah, I think what I will say about that is it’s the first time I’ve actually shot somebody else’s family so that was interesting because it brought with it this extra sense of responsibility. Obviously, these people are so precious to Aisling, so you have to really be even more sensitive to how you’re presenting them and how you’re editing it.
You want to say what you want to say but you also need to bear in mind, it’s someone else’s family you're putting out there. So that was different too, I’d have to say, and interesting. She was like a facilitator out there, introducing me to everybody, translating when she could, we became such good friends through the project, she was, in a way, delighted to have her family photographed and saw it as such a nice thing to be doing, that she just wanted to help me out and would say “Right, who would you like to see next”, “How can we organise that”, “Right this is what we used to do when we were kids we’d go here, I wanna bring you there”. So yeah, she guided me around the family. I guess she must have been a little nervous, family are so precious. When we came to editing it, I would do an initial edit and showed her what I was thinking of putting in, and we would have collaborated at that point, but she never asked me not to put anything in, I would bring her in at certain points in the project but again she was always like “This is your thing, I don’t want to get too involved in the edit, do your thing” but it would be very helpful at the same time.
As it was shot on film, you couldn’t show them the shots straight away...
Actually, I came back on the second trip and brought them back some prints, which they were delighted about ha! And again not being able to communicate too well, it was a great thing to do!
Did you know from the start that these images were going to become a photobook, or did that come later?
I did imagine the series might lend itself to a photo book series, and I think, despite some pain, I really enjoyed doing the Achill book. So I suppose I was very open to the idea, let’s just see what we get, could be a little mini project. If we don’t like the images I can give them to your family, they don’t have to go any further than that.
You’re kinda going in blind to something like that, it was merely in my head, to begin with. At first, I needed to see if any of it made sense or if it was worth putting out, you know maybe it’ll only sit online as a project, perhaps for my portfolio or it might never see the light of day, so it was a process.
So you were more interested in the process, rather than the end product?
I was interested in just pushing myself on this one a bit more. Cause it felt like with the Achill thing, it was very structured and I had a very particular idea of how the whole thing would look. Whereas with this one I really wanted to go in quite loose and push in all different directions and see what happened.
Yeah, I think with personal work, it’s easier to challenge yourself and there’s not really anyone else’s ideas that you have to adhere to.
You need to experiment, I mean the rest of the time, you have briefs, or there is a commission in place, or you've got to fill a particular criterion.
This is the second book where you’ve been close to a family or group and photographed them, have you ever thought about doing the same thing with your family?
I doubt I’ll ever do a book with my own family, I don’t know why, I definitely take photos of my family, but not a huge amount. I’ve always found it quite hard to take photos of my own family because I feel like I will miss out on the experience of being around them, I’m in London most of the time. So when I go home time is really precious with them, so I’m always reluctant to take the camera out and distance myself from the experience of just seeing them and catching up with them. I do feel the minute you get behind the camera; you go into a different space. You take yourself out of the situation basically. So it’s always very hard time wise, I’m just not around enough. I think if I was living back in Ireland, close to them and saw them all the time. I imagine I’d be taking a lot more photographs of them. So yeah who knows, they’d probably hate it haha!
I just saw your short with Simone Rocha "Hong Kong Dress", and I really loved it, have you got any new films you're working on?
Not at the moment. I shot that about a year and a half ago, we edited and put it out about a year ago. I’ve done a few commercial films since, but in terms of a project, I would love to do a new one this year. I absolutely love doing it, it’s such a different thing, yet lots of skills carry across, and I love the collaboration involved in film.
I really liked the landscapes and the architecture shots, and I didn’t know older women dress like that in Hong Kong ha..
It’s funny when I came back to London I started to appreciate how the older people dress here, and it’s wasn’t that different. The older generation in Hong Kong loves a floral patterned blouse and a short trouser. Simone was fantastic to work with and Eoin Mcloughlin who was the DOP was excellent. It was great fun, although it’s one of those things you always want to do better, that’s every project. You never look at a project and go that’s amazing, you think oh I’ll do that way better next time haha. You go off it, most of the things I do I can’t look at for about 6 months after then I kinda get brought around to do it.
What’s inspiring you at the moment?
Well, I collaborated with Studio Small on a project called ‘Visual Noise', and I did a series of pictures about a particular ferry crossing route. Every Christmas and summer I go back and forth to Ireland on a car ferry, it's gigantic and called the Ulysses. It takes about three and half hours to get across. It’s a long enough crossing compared to a one-hour flight, and you obviously drive all the way up through England. It takes about thirteen hours to get home, and sometimes it's completely chaotic, particularly around Christmas time, you get such a mad mix of people on it. You get the commuters, the guys who are earning their bread in Liverpool and coming back with the money for their families, all the people coming home for Christmas, there’s always a mad atmosphere on it. So for “Visual Noise”, I decided to concentrate on this and photograph the people onboard. It’s all about the chaos and the calm, how they play off each other, the chaos inside versus when you get on the deck and you’re looking out at this massive volume of water, and it’s so calm and you just feel so small and tiny, I love ferries’ in general. This is something you really miss with flights, it’s an incredible thing to be out in the sea like that, it’s really important to feel quite small I think.
Linda’s Book is entitled ‘I Zii’, all photographs are taken by Linda and text is written by Aisling Farinella. The book is published by EightyOne Books, London and is currently in its first edition (350). Linda is represented by East Photographic.
You can buy the book at lindabrownlee.com/