When a photographer can transmit their own passion for a project and make you care about it to, that is something quite special. This is an even more incredible feat when you put into context that the project I am talking about was about girls and the colour pink, something I had never remotely shown any interest in at all!

Kirsty Mackay was the photographer behind that project, and I have been hooked on her work ever since. We caught up with Kirsty recently to talk about successes and struggles with her early work, and also about her ongoing project ‘The Fish That Never Swam’.


1. So you’re currently working on a new project called ‘The Fish That Never Swam', can you tell us a bit about the project?

The work is about Glasgow, where I grew up. It’s looking at the real reasons behind the ‘Glasgow Effect’, which is the disparity in life expectancy and general health across the city. The work is based on research that came out last year. Finding this research was like striking gold for me. When we make assumptions, especially about other people and whole communities, you can quite often get it wrong and this research is much closer to the truth of what happened in this place. The people responsible for the ‘Glasgow Effect’ are Westminster politicians and local councillors. It is not to do with lifestyle choices, drugs, alcohol and smoking.

2. I’ve always struggled when it comes to photographing a place I know really well, for example the place I grew up, it’s just too familiar. Is that the same for you? Did you have to have a significant time away from Glasgow to be ready to go back and photograph there again?

I have not lived in Glasgow for more than 20 years, so when I go back there I’m able to see it clearly. I’m aware I've got an emotional connection to the place, but at the same time I see it as it is. I have these two view points and that is a great starting point for making photographs. There is a quote from T.S. Eliot that perfectly sums this up for me and has also given me the confidence to pursue this story, that no one else is reporting.  

‘We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time’, T.S. Eliot

I remember going on holiday when I was a teenager. I had just been to Italy for two weeks, and when I got back I was really struck by how grey people's faces looked in Partick, where I lived. For me these problems are visible - you can see it etched on people's faces. That's what made me think I should photograph this, it’s a problem that is visible, but we choose to ignore it.


3. Looking through the series on your website, I noticed that you have included images of your sketchbook as part of the series. What were your thoughts behind doing this? 

My sketchbook started because I wanted to write about the project. When I was making my book I kept a blog and I didn't want to do that this time. I really wanted to write on paper, so I keep the sketchbooks, photograph them and share them online. It has become a way for me to separate my personal experience of growing up in Glasgow from a more objective point of view, and it is giving the project another layer, a deeper level. I am a product of this place, not apart from it. 

4. Do you find it helps to have a sketchbook to note down ideas whilst shooting a project?

I see the sketchbook and writing as separate to making the photographs. When I’m photographing I’m not thinking in a way that is deeply routed in language, it’s more visual and instinctive, and responding to what is in front of me. It's only afterwards that I want to write things down and try to understand and recognise the most relevant material that I’ve got in my head. 

5. You ventured into the world of self-publishing for your series ‘My Favourite Colour Was Yellow’. How did you find the experience, is it something you are looking to do in the future, possibly with the current project when it is finished?

‘The Fish That Never Swam’, will definitely become a book, because I have self-published before I’d like to do it differently this time and go with a publisher, just to have another experience. I’ve done a lot by myself and I’m really interested in collaborating with other people. It’s tough to self-publish. You have to do everything by yourself, but it also gives you confidence that you don’t need anyone else and I know that I could do it again.

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6. I was first aware of your work, when I came across your street studio portraits. The setup was simple and yet so effective with the portraits you got. Do you feel that your work at that time informs the way you approach your current work now?  Would it be something you would go back and do again at some point?

The street portraits I was doing at the time, I now see as practice. I really had a desire to take better pictures and I set myself a project where I went out onto the street every day for a month and just photographing people against a backdrop. I do still photograph some people on the street and approach them that way. Now I’m much more interested in getting behind close doors and getting to know people over a long period of time and getting more intimate portraits.


7. Instagram is an easily accessible platform to share work, and for some its a way of testing the waters to see what kind of reaction they get to new work. How do you find sharing your work on social media, is it something you are apprehensive about?

I really enjoy sharing my work online. I work on long-term projects and I kind of use social media to share some work in progress. As a motivational tool that direct feedback can keep you going for a bit, but a ‘like’ doesn’t translate to a book sale. It is a way for me to get a feel for how a project will be received. I am often apprehensive about sharing new work, sometimes I hold things back for a while until I figure out how I feel about it, before I share it and sometimes I just put it out there straight away. I think it’s good not be too precious about it. 

8. There’s an image on your Instagram feed that always sticks in my mind, it’s the photo of the pushchair with copies of your photo book loaded into it ready to be dispatched. I find your Instagram to be a very honest and endearing account of what life can be like as a photographer and a mum, Is this something you make a conscious effort to show, or has it developed naturally?

I'm so glad you mentioned this picture. It is easy to forget, when you share a picture online that someone else might actually be paying attention. This is a picture born from frustration! I’d spent years making my book. I’d made a book dummy and had been showing it to some people in the photo book world, and I knew that it wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea. You know that some people just won’t be interested. But I was just met by indifference, and I had no idea how hurtful indifference could be. It was never going to be easy for me to publish a book about girls and the colour pink in this market. It wasn’t. This photograph was a ‘fuck you’ to all of that, I actually fucking did it. 

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9. Looking at your website recently I noticed that you mention that injustice on any scale fuels your work. Is this something that has always driven you with your own work?

I think I've always been motivated by injustice, but it's only in the past couple of years I’ve come to recognise this. It’s what’s at the root of all my projects - that’s the fire that fuels my work.

10. With the previous question in mind, whose work do you look at at the moment and see similar values to your own (if anyone)?

I’ve really got into Chris Killip lately, but I can’t put myself in the same ball park. 

11. If you could choose a photographer/project/book/exhibition to be posted about on Left a Bit, who would you choose and why? 

Sian Davey because her work is so straight, by that I mean - from subject, through her to you the viewer, without pretensions. She is such a clear communicator and her work is refreshing because of it. 

To keep up with Kirsty's work, you should check out the links below: