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Frozen Bodies: January 2021

Winter in the Highlands of Scotland can be harsh. It’s cold and the weather can become extreme. Snow and ice is the norm for January, February and March.

Where I live is coastal and so changeable, with regular days of bright sunshine and others of endless rain and darkness. The dark days are dark, the bright ones bring out a child-like wonder and appreciation of the beauty in the natural landscapes in which you find yourself.

With harsh weather comes inevitable dangers to the residents and workers in such remote Highland coastal areas. Many locals work on boats, fishing and transporting goods or people across the bays and inlets. The seas are cold and the tides unforgiving. On average over 50 people drown in Scottish waters per year, twice the UK average.

In 2020, approximately 100 people drowned in Scotland. Many of these were fishermen, locals, as well as tourists visiting and being unaware of how rapidly and powerfully tides can come in and claim their victims. Falling over the side of a boat or getting into difficulty and drowning in the freezing cold waters of our section of the North Atlantic Ocean, the Sea of the Hebrides (‘An Cuan Barrach’) or within one of the many lochs is common.

Talk to any of the locals and they all have stories of friends and family who worked on fishing boats, and tragically fell overboard and drowned, or who got into trouble in one of the lochs and couldn’t be revived, or of tourists visiting who had to be airlifted out of the sea or were found some days later by police divers. Even in summer, the water here is deathly cold. People die here, frozen to death, enveloped in cold amidst such stunning beauty it is quite literally breathtaking.

I love it up here. It is remote, hard to find work, hard to get around without a car, and brutal in winter. But the landscape suits my solitary, introspective and slightly feral, independent nature. I feel I am where I should be.

The wildlife and semi-natural landscapes (and the promise of future rewilding projects in the Highlands as well as other parts of Scotland) are the attractions which drew me here. As a zoology graduate and biological photography masters graduate, the North West Highlands is the perfect location for me to spend my time photographing local wildlife and landscapes. Making a living here is the hard part.

In spite of my mood drop I look out at the world and I’m rendered silent by the beauty of it all. It is truly awe-inspiring. Frost coats everything, and remains for days. The mountains glow as the sun rises and fades across their snow-laden peaks, often turning ice-cream pink in the evenings.

In the morning my walk to a nearby beach begins with me standing and marvelling at the frost-encrusted sand, something I have never seen before. Small burns which pour into the sea across the sands have frozen overnight but are just beginning to thaw. And littered across the beach are the bodies. Frozen bodies. Ocean-tossed, dismembered, ripped apart and previously living bodies.

Frozen Bodies

As I pick my way between each piece of jewel-encrusted sea debris and peer at it, inspecting it, photographing it, it becomes apparent to me that I feel a bit like a forensic photographer photographing a crime scene. I peer into seemingly random seaweed strands and visions of sadness and horror peer back.

Bodies are scattered across the ground. Bleached bones twinkle with frozen moisture, lying abandoned across other bones. Strands of hair lay spread tragically across frosted sand. Tendons and joints jut out at disconcerting angles. A section of brain nestles into a dip in the sand. Limbs grasp each other for comfort. Bones protrude in defiance of death. Legs spread and bodies hang limp. It is a gruesome sight. A gothic horror scene on the beach.

I feel compelled to photograph it exactly as if I were a crime scene photographer. Choosing angles which capture the essence of this cold, frozen and dramatic landscape in micro; details in the frozen matter stand out and almost sing to me. It’s an old sea shanty, a song of lost loves and family departed, people taken by the sea and washed up overnight on the frozen sands of a beach in the high reaches of north west Scotland.

Inverts in July

During a pretty low period in life I’ve taken to just wandering about (again) with my camera and allowing the process to help slow my breathing, slow my mind and calm me down. A lot has happened in a short space of time and it’s taken a toll on me and my mental health. The camera has once again brought sanity and stillness to my hyperactive and overthinking brain, even if just for short bursts.

We’ve had some really hot spells where everything was dry and parched, then some rain, and now the insects are out in force in the Derbyshire garden, along with all of the late-flowering summer blooms including two magnificent and insect-friendly buddlejas. It’s a joy to sit and watch so much frenetic insect activity, whilst remaining calm and still, taking it all in, enjoying the spectacle of invertebrate life buzzing and fluttering around you in its ongoing quest to survive.

Bluebells of Calke: May 2022

One of the things I look forward to seeing each year when I’m in Derbyshire is the bluebell and beech wood of Calke Abbey, the nearby National Trust site. I still don’t have any spectacular images of these woods when they’re in full blue bloom, but I managed to get the odd image. It really needs a very early morning visit as the sun is coming up, or a wide sunset shot. I clearly haven’t had the energy to attempt that yet! Maybe next year?

Punchy Papaver: May 2022

Papaver orientalis can hardly be accused of being shy. In fact, it’s almost crude in its flowering process and its colour! Bright fire engine red, hairy flower buds open seductively, then burst dramatically into large, frilly and showy blooms.

The only downside to these is that they don’t last too long. Best grown as a grouping so that the flowering period seems longer and more worthy of all the drama.

Flora – Spring 2022

Living in Derbyshire for work purposes, I’m seeing more advanced plant growth than was present in Scotland when I left in April. The garden here is full of budding plants, and I’m looking forward to seeing them burst and open. As they did, I made a point to photograph a few.

April and May’s flowers included numerous hellebores and fritillary.

The red oriental poppies began to burst open and the Allium bulgaricum too. Of course forget-me-nots were out in force, and a little later, Dicentrum spectabilis (bleeding heart) coloured up and opened. The bluebells and unfurling bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) fronds were soon to follow.

Less is more: January 2022

One of those things we do as a new photographer with a camera we like and which we’re exploring is to take hundreds or even thousands of photos during a session. We head out on each photographic mission, see a scene or composition that we like, and keep shooting the exact same scene or similar scene, repeatedly. Putting aside the fact that this is adding a huge shutter count to your SLR camera and reducing its life in your hands, this is madness.

As an analogue camera user, back in the day, I was far more mindful of every shot I took. Obviously, this was because it involved film, and film costs an extra amount of money to process if you’re sending it off to a lab. With this in mind, and the fact that you usually have a limited supply of film, you chose your shot carefully and clicked the shutter button when you were truly happy you’d (probably) captured a nicely exposed, nicely lit and well-framed image. That image would be your final image. With digital photography, the motivation to be mindful has gone. We can shoot the same scene multiple times and pick the best of a bunch in post, then crop, flip, whatever, and process to our heart’s content.

Having had a major fall out with photography – lost motivation for photography, and developing a disillusionment with the photography world at large – I have distanced myself from the process and from my images for a while. Coming back to it in small steps purely for my own enjoyment and development of my skills, I’ve taken a wholly different look at my own photography and at the process, including the approach others take.

I’m more able to be critical of my own work from a very different perspective.

The adage that less is more absolutely applies in photography. Choose only the best, choose them carefully (often this means not looking at processed images for a few days and then going back to them), and only share one or two images. Share them sparingly, share them only when you really want to, share them for yourself and maybe for a specific audience, and then walk away from it onto the next interesting project.

Photography is an art. Art is subjective. Art is personal. When you share it, you’re putting a piece of yourself out there. Share it when truly happy to do so and not for likes or a confidence boost or for confirmation of skills.

It’s kind of liberating, and can only mean more development and more fun. I don’t really care what anyone else thinks anymore, and I’m not trying to be a great photographer. I’ll keep exploring photography regardless, as I have done for over twenty years.

Images of rhododendron and an early snowdrop added here for tax.

Hope is the thing with feathers

Before heading to Derbyshire for the summer to work in ecology I spent a lot of time just with the birds in my Highland garden. By “a lot of time” I mean months. Primarily January through to April, during the coldest time here, I walked and sat by the sea, walked on the Machair, and sat in my garden photographing birds.

With the purchase of a number of varying types of bird feeder during my first year of owning the house, and three new bird nesting boxes installed on trees and a shed, the birds had begun to flock every day, all day, to my little corner of Scottish heaven. So I sat out in freezing temperatures in the snow – and suffered from exposure on two occasions – and in rain, and in a heatwave, and photographed the various species which deigned to visit me in the garden.

To my delight these included a Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major); two Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos); four European Robins (Erithacus rubecula); a Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris) who I named Sascha (so sassy); a few Great tits (Parus major); Greenfinch (Chloris chloris); Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs); a group of very noisy House Sparrows (Passer domesticus); a very typically land-based and mouse-like Dunnock (Prunella modularis); a random pair of Long Tailed tits (Aegithalos caudatus) who sadly didn’t stay for long; a pair of Blackbirds (Turdus merula); a beautifully songful Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus) who visited for only a few days; a glorious pair of Reed Buntings (Emberiza schoeniclus), a Snipe (Gallinago gallinago) named Wesley, naturally; and later on a small group of European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) began to visit in their own chaotic fashion every late morning.

Not all of these species used the feeders, but they came because of the food and other bird traffic, and stayed in the garden long enough for me to watch and study their behaviours and photograph most of them.

Snow, Mountains and Goats: April 2021

Just two weeks ago we had the most snow we’ve had at all since lockdown began here in the Highlands. 4-5 days of sub-zero temperatures overnight and heavy snowfall resulted in a lovely cover of snow most mornings and continued snowfall throughout the day. It was blissful. Who doesn’t love the world covered in a blanket of snow? Everything softens and quietens, everything is still and slowed for a time.

As the cold snap was so late in the year, temperatures through the day had otherwise been rapidly rising and the snows soon melted once the cold front had passed. Whilst awake and enthused by the light reflecting off the snow on the ground I pulled out my camera and went for a long, early morning wander. I was primarily looking to see if I could find the wild baby goats. They are born each year in January to parents who have spent the year hugging the gorse which lines the roads and generally hanging out along the coastline. These babies are born at the coldest time of the year in what is already a fairly cold and exposed climate on the SW Scottish coast. Yet they seem to survive and thrive, always closely monitored by their attentive parents.

Goats have a complex matriarchal social structure and tend to be found in groups of around 15-20 individuals. They may parent as a group – called alloparenting – rather than individually care for their own biological offspring although I can find little research covering this topic as it relates specifically to goats. Many mammals and birds utilise alloparenting to raise healthy offspring using a kind of collective group effort to raise the next generation of young. I did see young goats following individual females closely, so maybe they are more bonded to their own individual offspring.

As I wandered around in the snow I photographed the goats, following them a little way down a track towards a burn. They were wary of me; but they seemed more concerned for their group and the location of individuals in the group than with me. I did my best to remain as unobtrusive as possible.

Here are a few shots of the best snowy morning we had here in Wester Ross.

Going Within

I ditched my camera for a few weeks. I was emotionally exhausted with taking images and wanting approval and validation. I love photography and it’s been genuinely heartbreaking to me that I can’t make some level of living from doing it. I’ve accepted that now. I have questioned myself every single day, questioned my ability and my love of learning the art of photography.

On the most beautiful snowy day here I took my camera out without thinking and wandered on the beach and in the woods taking only a few images and only what I liked, and not what I thought would look good for others. The result was achieving some of my best images. I don’t care if anyone else thinks they’re good.

And that’s a lesson for me. Not doing a thing for approval or a desired result – just for the art and self-fulfilment – is my way forward with this thing that I love, and with all things.

Photography is an art, after all – art shouldn’t be done with the goal of being acceptable or desirable to others. Art is an expression of life, environment and surroundings, experience, values etc. I don’t need to make that saleable or acceptable to others.