07 April 2021
07 April 2021 - Written by Colin Pantall
In Passage, Margaret Mitchell documents the lives of her sister and her children from the 1990s to the present day. They live, they die, they have children, they suffer, they celebrate, they survive. The one thing they do not do is move out of the small town in Scotland that they call home.
Passage starts with a quote by Margaret Mitchell
“I want the viewer to ask themselves a question about how society operates, how choice is related to opportunity and environment. To see that sometimes people choose what they do because really, not much has been offered in the first place.”
It’s a quote that sums up British economic policy of much of the last 50 years, and all of it for the last 13 years. Why do some people prosper and flourish and are able to buy homes and go on overseas holidays and eat prosciutto and vintage comte, and some can’t.
It was a question that was asked (in equivalent terms) by Charles Dickens in his novels (via the time he spent in a workhouse), by George Orwell in the Road to Wigan Pier, by John Healy in The Grass Arena. It’s a question that governments have reluctantly asked and even more reluctantly responded to. I remember as an unemployed teenager in the age before the internet picking a government report called Cycles of Disadvantage off the shelf and reading about how cycles of deprivation became embedded in families through lack of access to decent housing, to education, to transport, to food, to heating, to justice, to health-care and so on.
The ideas have moved on since then but so have the barriers; there has been a demonisation of the poor, social exclusion and ideas of how poverty has become more embedded (‘for a teenager in the 1970s, the odds of being poor as an adult were doubled if his or her parents were poor. Similar calculations for the later cohort who were teenagers in the 1980s show that the odds of being poor in adulthood were nearly quadrupled by having poor parents’ are the words of one study).
That is what the book is about on one level, and it’s a rather beautiful work. It opens with an image of Mitchell’s sister Andrea, with her daughter Chick. They sit by a gas fire in a living room, the dedication reading;
‘For my sister, Andrea whose journey through life was too short. For her children and grandchildren whose choices were never equal to others.’
It’s a book about loss then, about things that are deeply personal and deserving of more than a quickly googled sociology essay. So we see Kellie, and Steven, and Chick in their bedroom, in the living room, in the kitchen. Chick stands tall and gazes directly in her knickers on a chair that lifts her above the sink. Wood-effect laminated formica cupboards hang on the kitchen walls, soft drinks, and own-brand washing up liquid stand by the sink, and on the carpeted kitchen floor there is a plate of cat food, a naked plastic doll, and a discarded bottle of Cresta (a brand advertised by a polar bear whose catchphrase was ‘It’s frothy man’). It’s an image where Chick rises above the mass of domestic detail that is very explicitly included.
There is tenderness in there. The love of Andrea as she washes Kellie’s hair, Kellie’s eyes closed and distant as the water runs down her back, the dreamworld Chick goes into as she embraces her doll, the concentration of Steven as he writes or draws, his back turned to the telly.
All life is there then; love, hope, learning, imagination, conflict, affection.
‘Sometimes life treats you differently to what you expected. Sometimes one thing leads on to the next. Then you wake up one day and all you can do is just keep trying your hardest with what has been handed to you,’ Andrea told her sister. That was true both for Andrea, but especially for her children. Because at some point Andrea died and Kellie and Steven and Chick lost a mother. And they lost her forever, and it changed their lives.
Mitchell returned to Stirling to photograph her nephews and nieces in 2016. They still lived in the same area; all that had changed was the children moving ‘from one area of scoring high in the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation to another. A simple bus ride across town.’
So we see a bus stop in the rain and we see Steven, Kellie, and Chick in their new lives. Steven lives in a ‘homeless’ flat, close to the 3 children he is separated from but still sees. Sometimes Kellie brings him food. She too lives nearby on the top floor of one of the blocks of flats. She has three children but doesn’t work because she needs to care for her children: to afford childcare in the United Kingdom you need to live in a household with a significant household income. Childcare, like many things, is not for the non-wealthy.
Chick also lives nearby, in a flat with her daughter Leah. She’s also been homeless like her brother and finds joy in her job at a nearby coffee shop, and sorrow in the loss of her mother. “We would all be together all the time if Mum was still here, me and Leah and Kellie and the kids.”
The limitations in housing, in work, in the possibilities of a global economy have passed Kellie by and she knows it. So do the children of the three siblings. Kellie’s daughter Kyla talks of getting teased for living in a flat and thinks of living in Glasgow.
The hopes are of a decent life, a decent job, of settling down and having a family. It doesn’t seem to matter where; the key is work and a standard of living that nobody has now. The environment that creates is not in the harshness of the bricks and concrete and tarmac of the neighbourhoods Mitchell’s family live in, but is also a psychological space. When survival is what matters, the world shrinks and ‘…the ‘place’ is no longer just on the outside, the environment, but also on the inside, in your own head.’
Passage is a thoughtful and considered book, one of a growing number of works from the UK that are beginning to examine class, development, and opportunity. Passage does this beautifully through an extended family of people who deserve whose hopes, dreams, hardships, and concerns are laid bare on the pages of this book.
Passage by Margaret Mitchell
Published by Bluecoat Press // Foreword by Alasdair Foster
112 pages // 70 photographs // 27 cm x 24 cm // Hardback // £38
Margaret Mitchell is a Scottish documentary and portrait photographer. Her work ranges from exploring communities and children’s worlds through to long-term documentation projects on environment, opportunity, and social inequality. Follow her on Instagram.
Colin Pantall is a photographer, writer and lecturer based in Bath, England. His latest book, All Quiet on the Home Front, focuses on family, fatherhood and the landscape. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.