For This Week's Focus Angus MacKinnon shares his compelling series BOLO. Head over to the World Photography Organisation Instagram account to enjoy his takeover.
We are featuring your project BOLO on our Instagram feed this week. Tell us more about what BOLO is and why you wanted to create a project about it.
BOLO is shorthand for “Be On the Look-Out”. It’s a project that focuses on some of the issues faced by the community in my family’s neighbourhood of Kensington in Johannesburg, South Africa. I produced the project because I felt it was time to work on a subject that is personal to me, something that I know well. I was living at home at the time, in 2017, so I took advantage of the great access to the community that I had. Security became a central theme to the work, although it isn’t highlighted specifically but it is something that people are often thinking or talking about and the community has organised itself around it.
You were born in London, spent your childhood in Johannesburg, studied in Cape Town and now you’re now based in Glasgow. How has living in four different cities impacted your photography?
Travelling in general has had a huge impact on my work, and a positive one for the most part. Constantly moving has given me a window into the lives of countless individuals, which has shaped the person I am today and how I approach photography. My experiences have really helped develop my sense of empathy and often allow me to form common ground with a stranger. Street photography is always very exciting in a new place, I get motivated to shoot and explore a fresh environment.
On the other hand it’s very challenging to travel and produce in-depth and honest work about others, because as an outsider you always remain as such. It doesn't matter how well you gel with people and get them to open up. Without spending considerable time with them, it’s very difficult to tell a story from their point of view. This is something that I’ve come to learn. I used to think I could throw myself into any story but you really can't, and you shouldn't.
You have taken part in several mentorship programmes including the World Photography Organisation’s free portfolio reviews we ran this spring and summer. What three lessons have you learned by participating in these programmes?
I really believe that mentorships and portfolio reviews are invaluable. Having someone else go through and critique your work is how you grow a project meaningfully. I know that I can’t put a body of work together by myself. Indeed, I can do everything the way I think it should be done but without someone else’s input, the project is never going to reach its full potential.
I’ve also learnt to take the time to listen to everyone’s reactions, not just photo editors and other experts in the industry. People who don't live and breathe photography can highlight things that those of us who are chained to the medium sometimes miss. If the ultimate goal is to have your work experienced by as many people as possible, then this is a very good way to gauge that audience.
Finally, always apply to those programmes, you never know who will see your work! When I was sitting with time on my hands during lockdown and made a submission for the World Photography Organisation portfolio review I had no idea that within a few days I’d be talking about my work with Scott Gray, the founder and CEO of the organisation!
Most of your series are project-based. How do you approach a new body of work? Do you write yourself a brief that you then stick to, or is it more of an organic process?
No, I don’t write briefs myself, although I should probably start doing that as it is a good way of collecting your thoughts beforehand and measuring your progress throughout. I usually let the work guide the project. At some point, I’ll begin to think of the final form that the project will take and once I’ve got that in mind it’s easier to bring things together and work out what images hold value or what’s missing. I find that deadlines are a good way of getting my work done, these deadlines can be either self-set (which I usually miss) or meetings with mentors for example.
What is your relationship with the people and the communities you photographed for BOLO? Did you have a particularly memorable experience you’d like to share?
The people in the project are either my neighbours, immediate family, or people who work in the houses in the neighbourhood as domestic workers and gardeners, so to that extent they all represent personal relationships. The project was born out of a WhatsApp group that was set up to organise the community against crime in the area. A neighbourhood watch, made up of volunteers, was initiated after this, which still continues to this day. A lot of these relationships were built through that as I had moved back home after spending years away. The demographic and sense of community had really changed during the time I had been living elsewhere, which was definitely a catalyst for the project.
There are many memorable moments, for example coming home one afternoon to find four people painting in the middle of the road. The council had done some roadworks but had left a really bad speed bump very close to the roundaboutLots of people couldn’t see it and it was damaging cars. I think about that almost every time I drive over it.
A neighbour of ours even put her daughter through university by selling home-made curry and other food to neighbours using the WhatsApp group. A lot of these anecdotes are presented in the text accompanying my book, so if anyone’s interested, it can be found on my website.
You've won a number of awards and have had numerous group and solo exhibitions. What's next for your photography?
Aside from ongoing projects such as Taxi Drivers and general street photography series, I’m not working on anything else just as yet, but I am trying to find a project that explores my identity as a South African with English and Scottish heritage. Living in Glasgow, which was built on the profits of enslaved people and tobacco trade, is increasingly bringing this to my mind.
I’m also involved in a really exciting project being launched out of Johannesburg very soon called Art of This Place (www.artofthisplace.com), which is an online platform that will promote and sell works of unsigned and emerging South African artists. The goal of the platform is to present curated work to established collectors looking for new voices and to people who are looking to start their collections but are intimidated by the high prices and exclusive nature of the gallery world.