The photographer Elaine Livingstone has been building a portrait of a city almost every weekday for five years – she has interviewed and photographed more than 1,000 people for the series Glasgow Lives.
Some of her most recent portraits in the series, published by the news website Glasgow Live, have featured NHS workers at the frontline of the pandemic.
Livingstone was formerly picture editor of the award-winning Sunday Herald newspaper and The Herald Magazine. She co-founded the New Photographers Guild, and acts as a mentor on behalf of the National Union of Journalists.
What does photography mean to you?
In my work and personally, I’m drawn to people and their stories. Portraiture and documentary make up the vast majority of my work. Photography is really about a connection, and that can be pertinent in portraiture – connecting with the person you’re photographing – but for me it’s also about connecting with places. I’m happy photographing empty spaces and locations as well.
I grew up in the east end of Glasgow and walked a mile and a half to school every morning through a very industrial, quite gritty landscape. That’s what first compelled me to take black and white pictures of buildings.
Why did you begin your long-running series Glasgow Lives?
It was an editorial commission from David Dick, the head of digital in Scotland for Reach Media. He had been tasked with creating new digital platforms across the company, and Glasgow Live, an online newspaper.
It’s the kind of project that sounds great, but you’d maybe never get round to doing it unless you were asked to because it’s a lot of time and commitment. I was intrigued by the idea, though, so decided to give it a try. I’m not a writer but the words are just as important as the pictures – they both have to work.
The concept for the series was the ordinary stories behind ordinary Glaswegians – they’re the ones people react to. Some of the stories are very powerful because people share some pretty incredible things, even if I’ve just met them on the street.
How many portraits have you created – and over how many years?
More than 1,000 portraits over five years. It should have been more than that, but things came up like family bereavements or if I suddenly came down with the flu and had to take time off at short notice.
What have been your most memorable and why?
A friend introduced me to Tich – he spoke to me openly and honestly about addiction and his struggle with sobriety. It was very honest. He wasn’t letting himself get away with anything. It was a very powerful account of a life story and I liked his portrait as well. You can see his strength and vulnerability, so it was memorable for me.
Another was Vanessa, a Scottish artist. On 9/11 she was in the Twin Towers as part of a six-month artistry programme She’d been living in New York and applied for a residency. She was on the 96th floor with all the other artists, getting ready to paint views, but went downstairs to make a phone call and grab a drink. On the way back up she held the lift door for somebody, and that’s what saved her life.
What has the series taught you about life in your own city – and about humanity?
Glasgow’s a city that people really gravitate towards. The city has become wonderfully diverse as a result, and that diversity is just brilliant for Glasgow. It has a lot to celebrate – there’s stories everywhere of great things going on. There are also people living in extreme difficulty, and that makes me sad and angry, but there’s a lot of unsung heroes out there helping them. Connection and community is really important to people and doing this series throughout lockdown has reinforced that.
How does this series sit with the rest of your work?
Storytelling through photography is a big part of my work. This differs slightly because there’s no text involved with my other work. This is much more spontaneously done, whereas [with] other shoots there’ll be a lead-in or a brief. That’s the concept of Glasgow Lives – quick little slices of people’s lives.
Looking back over five years of these portraits and rereading some of the stories has made me feel very grateful to have been asked to do this series, and even more grateful to everyone who has taken time to be part of it.
All images by Elaine Livingstone from the series Glasgow Lives
Above, top to bottom: ‘Nafisa, assistant registrar for Glasgow City Council’, 2019. ‘John, clinical director of theatres and anaesthetic, Glasgow south sector’, 2021. ‘John, DJ and artist’, 2016. ‘Constance, principal dancer with Scottish Ballet’, 2019. ‘Tich, volunteer recovery worker’, 2016. ‘Vanessa, artist’, 2016.
Below, top to bottom: ‘Halim, fitness instructor’, 2016. ‘Ruth, potter’, 2019. ‘Pinkie, Glasgow Fruit Market delivery driver’, 2016. ‘Magdalene, journalist’, 2017.
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