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Giants Causeway, Antrim© Frank Mcelhinney, Courtesy Of Street Level Photoworks

History and fine art combine in an exploration of migration

Moved by the plight of migrants crossing the Mediterranean, Frank McElhinney looks closer to home for his latest series

Dun Briste, Mayo © Frank Mcelhinney, Courtesy Of Street Level Photoworks
The Blaskets, Kerry © Frank Mcelhinney, Courtesy Of Street Level Photoworks
Pale Horse, Mizen Head, Cork II © Frank Mcelhinney, Courtesy Of Street Level Photoworks
Cahirkeem, Cork © Frank Mcelhinney, Courtesy Of Street Level Photoworks

Frank McElhinney has retraced his own family’s migration from Ireland to Scotland for his latest exhibition, Flight. Here, the visual artist, who worked in manufacturing before graduating from the Glasgow School of Art in his forties, explains why. 

How would you describe yourself as a photographer? 

I make photographs of outdoor places. I address contemporary issues such as migration and nationhood, working through a historical lens. 

Explain the background to your exhibition Flight.  

In 2015 I was moved to respond to the tragic media coverage of people trying to migrate to Europe from the Middle East and Africa across the Mediterranean. I began by photographing abandoned villages in the highlands and islands of Scotland. They were abandoned in the 19th century as a result of the Highland clearances. I soon began to reflect on the fact my own family had come to Scotland from Ireland – my maternal grandfather from Mayo and my paternal great-grandparents from Donegal. In late 2019 I spent a month on a residency in Donegal and, after a hiatus due to Covid, I made two separate trips down the ‘Wild Atlantic Way’. 

Was your project personal and in what way? 

It was mainly political in the beginning but turned towards the personal because of spending time in Ireland. I have a real sense of injustice at how asylum seekers are dealt with in the UK – and recently things have worsened. During my 2019 residency in Ireland I managed to track down, and go and stand in, the field where my ancestors had worked the land before migrating to Glasgow in the wake of the Great Famine. Making those physical connections made the political feel more personal. 

What photographic techniques have you used for the project? 

I enjoy using a variety of photographic techniques. Most of the photographs for Flight are simply made on black and white film using a handheld 35mm camera. All the work from Ireland was taken in winter, so the film is pushed and the photographs appear grainy and contrasty for practical as well as aesthetic reasons. While in Ireland I used a compact digital camera with a drone to make aerial photographs at Abbeystrowry Cemetery and at the deserted village on Achill Island. Back in Scotland some further photographs were made using pinhole cameras with paper negatives. 

How do your degrees in Fine Art and Medieval and Modern History influence your work? 

My starting point in researching any project is to look at the underlying history of it. This historical perspective also impacts my choice of what to photograph. The study of fine art photography has provided me with a means of investigating and making sense of complex and challenging subjects I am interested in. When I was at art school, I had a tutor who said art is "philosophy with stuff". I carry that in the back of my head when I am working on projects. Through the act of making stuff (photographs) I am also making discoveries and formulating new questions. 


All images by Frank McElhinney, courtesy of Street Level Photoworks 

Flight by Frank McElhinney is at Street Level Photoworks, Glasgow, until 30 October