Driving to work, driving around, driving back, I’d see it all the time, one word, scrawled on a wall- GOVANHELL.
Then I saw it on a bus shelter too- GovanHell. It was time to get the camera out. Time to go explore the mean streets of Govanhill district of Glasgow. Time to see why the residents thought it was hell.
Govanhill is traditionally an area where new immigrants to Glasgow first land. The Irish, then Pakistanis and Bangladeshi, and now Slovakian roma. A right little pot pourri of culture. You walk down streets with shops selling bedraggled vegetables with signs written in strange scripts. Men with unusual fashions hang around the streets. Shops declare their prices for cheap lager on dayglo card signs stuck in windows. Swimming pools get closed and the neighbourhood riots and protests.
I met Davy, or as he was entered in my phone ‘Davy Snake’, due to a picture I shot of him with his pet snake. I photographed protestors, one of whom was beautiful and maybe didn’t realise it. She kindly bought me two rolls and sausage.
It was the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, and a magazine, a large colour newspaper supplement magazine decided to photograph all over the UK. The events happening to celebrate the anniversary. I was given two days and free reign to do as I wished. Anything to do with Elizabeth- streets named Elizabeth, street parties, hairdressing shops named Elizabeth, anything named Elizabeth. A great little job, an excuse to go out and shoot a slice of life. Not that you really need much excuse. I scoured local newspapers for announcements of events, and telephone directories for unusual business with the word Elizabeth in their name.
I found some street parties happening, one at a museum where people were dressed in period costume. Some girls put on a fashion show of clothes from the 1950s. I photographed backstage as they dressed and undressed, no one checking my ID to see if I was a legitimate press photographer.
I saw Henry the VIII driving in a Mazda, beside a boy dressed as a Rubiks cube.
I visited pubs in the East End of Glasgow and found people drinking under portraits of the Queen in full royal regalia, and for some reason the painting moved outside and I continued photographing, this time as young teenagers gathered around it. Sectarianism and bigotry weren’t far behind.
I photographed an owl at a display of wild birds, somehow it was connected with the Jubilee celebrations. Avian joviality. Some young kids taunted the birds.
Everyone warned me against it. “It’ll be hard”, “you’ll get a kicking”, “rather you than me”, “for what ? it’s a shitehole”, “be careful”. I was warned my short hair would make me look like a policeman.
I was going to try and photograph at Paddy’s Market in Glasgow, Scotland, just to the south east of the city centre. A 150 metre long cobbled street, running parallel to, and tucked alongside railway arches. A flea market. The type of market people warned you that you’d catch fleas in. The type of market, it was said, where people went to buy one shoelace. And in recent years the type of market some people went to buy cheap cigarettes, alcohol, and heroin.
Its reputation was a long one with a 200 year old history. Rumours had circulated for years that it would close, but as these rumours got ever louder I decided I needed my own set of images from the market before it did indeed disappear (and it did indeed close years later). I chose a date, a weekday for it did not operate on weekends. I spoke with a colleague who worked nearby about how to approach it. I didn’t shave for a day or two. I chose my clothes carefully. Dressed down, jeans, and a loose baggy over the head type jacket, with a pocket at the front for a clutch of HP5. I settled on taking only one Leica, small, quick, easily put in the pocket.
The problem would not be the stall holders, or the people looking for one shoe lace. The problem would be the drug dealers down the River Clyde end of the lane, or of the junkies who had some stolen goods to offset against their hit of heroin.
So there I went, I mingled. I tried as much as possible to talk to people, stall holders, hang out as if I was part of the scene, but of course my face wasn’t known. But people are people, I was treated fairly. I would chat, stand, look at things, and shoot, shoot, shoot when I could. I never tried to hide the camera, to do so you look suspicious. When asked I would say I was shooting a college project, for some reason Glasgow folks expect that of “arty types”. I would shoot, and acknowledge the people I was photographing. I talked of the rumours of closure. I tried to be more Glaswegian than I am in my choice of words and sentence structure.
I forget now if I had trouble of any sort, maybe one or two questions, nothing that couldn’t be handle with a “no problem mate, sorry” and walk away. I survived the day, it wasn’t so hard, a few rolls shot. I think I planned to return for a second day, but didn’t, I quit whilst I was ahead. A fortnight later I heard another photographer went there.
I was on a self initiated shoot, down in the Scottish borders, shooting it in b/w on the Leicas – a story which I had already placed it with a magazine, when I got wind of another little story. Hound dogs. “So what’s that then, how does that work ?” I enquired.
A week or two later, I’ve sold the idea, and I’m down in the Borders region again, out in the fields, two Leicas and a pocketful of HP5. For those were the days (and for those that care it was either two M6s, or an M6 and an M4-P). Anyway, hound dog day indeed. Lots of them, lots of yelping hounds. We’re off on a hill, early morning. Earlier that day a rag, soaked in aniseed, oil and turpentine, has been pulled over the hills on a large looping trail. The dogs when released will follow that trail, sniffing all around the fields, over bushes and dry stone dyke walls, following the scent all the way back to the start line. The owners will watch with binoculars as the dogs disappear, straining to see them in the distance, and then shouting when they reappear. First dog back wins. Whilst the hounds are away money changes hands with the bookies, and when the hounds come back, running straight to their handler who blows whistles, flutters flags, urges them on with bowls of their special treat food, more money changes hands. I’m not sure now how many races there were, not so many. A morning’s worth.
It was a fun little shoot, over and done in a morning, bar one picture of the top dog receiving it’s trophy later in the afternoon. The journalist wasn’t there, but I remember she turned in a great article, nicely written. A week or two later and my pics graced another few Sunday supplement pages in black and white. And then more money changed hands.
Evening, and we’re driving back to our accommodation along the side of Lake Issyk-Kul.
As we drive I see on my right a yurt, out in the field, people milling around. It was the time of evening that the light is becoming magical, known in some quarters as the “golden hour”. I ask my colleagues if we can stop. Everyone is hungry, wants to go to the hotel, wants a beer, we’d been out all day. “Aw, come on guys, 15 minutes, look at the light”.
We stopped the car and ambled over to say hello to the people outside the yurt. The Doctor (as he was known amongst us) would chat away, an expert in making small talk whilst I photographed. The light was magical, low, dramatic, a beautiful sky above it. There were a few people and two kids. I photograph the kids with their turkey chicks, the chicks so backlit that they look like x-rays.
The kids are shy, and curious, not many Westerners stop their car here I guess. The boy goads the girl into saying something. She finds the courage and asks in perfect, but hesitant, English, “what is your name ?”. I tell her, she beams with pride, a beaming smile as luminous as the setting sun over on the horizon.
We say our goodbyes, and head on. The accommodation we were staying in was surreal. There were bedrooms accessible only by elevator in a tower, which revolved (this description does the place no merit). But we’d decided the elevator would be too annoying and slow to use on a daily basis, so we went for more normal rooms. The rooms I now forget, but the dining room was surreal. Think medieval banquet dungeon. So hungry and thirsty, and in keeping with the theme of the establishment, and the good nature of my two colleagues, (by now on our 2nd or 3rd assignment together we were great friends), we dined in the evening as if in a Shakespearean play. “Oh my dear fellow, would thoust kindly call thy maid and order two more flagons of those finest ales, for from my parched throat one has to wash the Kyrgyz dirt. I have been on my steed all day, over yonder, searching for images”. You get the drift, Shakespeare all through dinner. After all, one has to amuse oneself at the end of a long day.