4.3: A subjective voice

TASK: To help develop your personal voice as an independent practitioner, it is important to acknowledge your subjective attitude towards the subjects you’re researching and photographing. Right now you’re dealing with themes around landscape.

Write an entry in your learning log (around 300 words) reflecting on any current and previous circumstances and experiences that you think may influence, or may have influenced, your view of the landscape. Describe how you think these factors might inform your ideas about landscape photography or related themes. If you’re stuck, consider the following:
• Did where you grew up / spent time whilst growing up influence your view of the landscape?
• What sorts of engagement have you had with the landscape? Leisure? Work? Negative or traumatic experiences?
• Are there any social or political issues that particularly concern you in relation to the landscape?

I grew up on the outskirts of Manchester. Although I could see the sunrise over the hills of the Peak District from my bedroom window, my father was generally out and my mother preferred to go shopping at weekends, so visits there were only once or twice a year on large family summer picnics to gather bilberries. And from the car window on the frequent visits to family in Bradford and Yorkshire – where the world was particularly magical at night with all the stars, and in the snow at Xmas.

I went to school in the middle of Manchester and so lived a long way from my school friends. My main companion was a cocker spaniel called Kim, and when he was run over by a lorry, by Jason his replacement springer spaniel. With these dogs for company I was relatively free to go for walks on my own through the pathways and horse fields just down the road from our house. Those places were bot magical – early morning dew, sunsets and many different types of bird. But also rather scary, with periodic reports of murders that worried my mother. So going out in the countryside became also an act of defiance and bravery against a world that seemed to conspire to make women and children victims of a violent unknown. I was not exactly scared of people (generally men) I met on my walks, but I saw them as a nuisance, something I should be wary of and avoid.

As an adult in Cambridge my connection with dogs and walking continued. This time in the much safer and tamer countryside with winding rivers and reflections in water. But again, it was really the peace and quiet I wanted. Though it was more common to meet women on their own, not only men. So I started to see people more as possible kindred spirits rather than people to avoid – except during the years of the Cambridge rapist when country walks on my own continued to be heightened with adrenaline rush. As soon as I could I got a big dog, so the freedom could be enjoyed in relative peace, except when I was busy trying to get the dog back from chasing rabbits or swimming across the river to chase another dog or the swans.

Nowadays I still live by the same Cambridge river I have walked for the past 30 years. There have been very many changes. The area was traditionally where ‘lower classes’ employed in Cambridge or local farms were housed, with large council estates for ‘problem families’ as well as private semi-detached housing. Large new estates were built in the 1990s as council house tenants also bought and sold their houses. Much of the very recent influx has been of middle class and more affluent people working in the Cambridge Science Park who (like me) want a healthier lifestyle and like the cycle ride into town and river walks. This is likely to increase with the new station at the end of the Cambridge to London line in May 2017. Tensions with the traveller community down the road have become markedly more tense since Brexit. The place is now quite crowded and much of the empty space has been built on – an example now of suburban living rather than rural outskirts. No longer a wild place to escape to, but a tamer friendlier place looking with new cycle routes to the fens far beyond….This is the area I am working on in my project Transitions.

From the age of 18 I  started to travel a lot, first to Asia (Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan) and later to Central America and Africa. My first travels as a student were on a very low budget, often hitch-hiking. Later as an anthropologist I lived for long periods in quite remote villages. I saw the countryside both as an outsider in all its beauty, also as an insider guest – a place of snakes and scorpions and mosquitoes and where one should not go around at night because of bandits (or gossip about impropriety as a woman). Now when I travel for work I have more money, generally travelling by car with local people and development workers, and staying in hotels in urban areas or a very honoured temporary guest in villages.  I still get to know local people well as friends. But I have much less time outside my core work to explore, so my views these days of ‘landscapes’ and photographic opportunities are more as a tourist. It is the conflicting views and my own conflicting reactions about the countryside seen from a car that I explore in Assignment 4 ‘safari’ and work on travel books and on-line slideshows for Assignment 5.

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