Sunday, 1 August 2010


When I was young my family had a sort of nickname for me, teasing me with my much used phrase "BUT WHY?" - I was very keen to learn and how could I learn if I did not question the world around me? And so, I did!
Today, when I study the work of others it assists me in reaching an understanding of my own output. I choose the word 'output' because - it will be open to interpretation as to whether or not what I produce is 'work'.

With my Celtic Reflections photo gallery site on Facebook, people can comment about the photos I share with them there. Taking photos for myself, for magaizines, clients etc - I have many additional photos which may be of interest to others so, I share these through my Page. Recently however, I was much amused when a person commented "nice photos but don't you do any work?" I had just finished a cover feature for a magazine, produced photos for a guide book and covered several events in that week - having worked far in excess of a 9-5, 5 day week, it felt to me that it was 'work'. Therefore, I asked the person if he did not consider photo-journalism to be work, he said he did not know I was doing this. Apparently, that knowledge changed the interpretation of my output in to work and what I had produced appeared to take on a new credibility. But why? - nothing had changed except his perception. And today, I find myself asking a question about my 'work' - is it art? When do photos become art? After attending an exhibition featuring black and white photography, I felt tempted to experiment with the above 'snap' of myself and reflect on art.

In black and white, does my 'snap-shot' become a meaningful insight in to who I am, a deep and movingly intrinsic study of my character?  Or - does it need to be taken by someone else to be thought of as 'art'?

It seems to me that the interpretation of a photo can say much more about the viewer than the photographer or the 'visual artist'.

Does it matter? Whether a photo is art or not? Is it important to know the difference? Unfortunately, in the world of grant 'funding' it is VERY important. For two years I sat on a committee that funded the distribution of a £9m arts fund. To be in a position to make informed decisions a truly amazing amount of paperwork had to be read through and accessed before a committee show of hands to support or reject each application. Robust debate surrounded some of these decisions but personally, I was satisified with the end results made by the group.  Nevertheless, I myself have been on the receiving end of rejected applications for project funding. For example, my touring 2009 People of the Sea exhibitions were rejected by several funds. Yet, believing my exhibitions had great value to the folk of the fishing community, I went ahead with them, paying to stage them myself. When over 10,000 people visited my free exhibitions that was personal reward enough for me. Nevertheless, winning international recognition for the People and Songs of the Sea CD - that arrived as yet further icing on the cake. However, personal experience makes me wonder and question "but why?" - Why do I see such institutional support in Scotland (and the UK) for contemporary 'art' which must challenge the viewer - in contrast to art celebrating heritage, educating and entertaining people (the art projects that the masses actually appear to want).

In my 'artistic work' - where I am seeking to challenge people is in their stored 'vision' of their own environment. I want to open people's eyes to the world around them.

Why? For one thing, I like to take photos! But, I also have another reason? I think than an appreciation of beautiful things awards improved health and well-being (social and economic arguments support this).

In addition, if we think more about our environment we have a greater chance of slowing down the damage we are doing to it. So, we leave a world for our children's children to inherit. Rushing through our lives, do we take enough time to appreciate the beauty around us? Here at dawn, in the first few moments as the sun just peeps over the horizon of the sea - I find this a truly beautiful sight. I don't care if it is or is not art. Yet, I do care that people know where it was taken, for it is a place where people pass by every day.

The photo was taken from a busy road skirting Seafield in Edinburgh - a road like too many others where, some driving past throw out the litter from their cars. Just a crisp packet, a drinks or a plastic bottle, just 'one-off' items... Each careless, thoughtless action building to make a big negative impact.

If people's eyes are opened to the beauty around them, I don't think they will be so careless to destroy it?

The change required is in education, it is in our own interests to have a greater realisation and appreciation of our environment, something I was encouraged to have from the earliest age. A member of the Young Ornithologists Club, I learnt about birds in my garden and the landscape I visited beyond. As a teenager I would cycle to Edinburgh's sea-front, the first place I reached being Seafield - not the most scenic area. And yet, I still had my own 'special place' there, somewhere quiet to appreciate the ever changing scenery of the sea, to listen to the gulls calling each other and watch the birds which flew by (oyster catchers, herons, swans).

Climbing over the railing, from the long concrete walk way in to Portobello, more concrete sloped down to the beach. The incoming tide would close of access to all but a small piece of sand making it like a private beach for only me and my dog Corrie to play on. On the concrete next to the sea, there I could sit undisturbed in peace. In the distance, I could see large crowds of people on the sands and, at times, music from the fun fair there would drift to me on the breeze.

I knew the fair well, my friend and I used to go swimming once a week and afterwards we'd go to the fair to buy an ice-cream or a candy-floss. Other friends might play the 'Penny Falls' but not me or my pal! At twelve years old I had received a very small but none the less valuable sum of pocket money. On my very first visit to the fair I had spent all of my money on the Penny Falls. Seeing the pennies so precariously stacked, I just KNEW if I got some more money I would double my lost pocket money. Indeed, my best-friend Barbara was persuaded to share in this SURE WINNER with me... Then, to get back Barbara's pocket money (in addition to my own) I gambled my bus fare home, Barbara then gambled her bus fare. The long walk back for the two young friends, in a guilty, angry silence, did not damage our continuing friendship but, from that day on, all desire to gamble money on a "sure thing" was forever gone for us!

I remembered the gambling machines at the fair, on a recent trip to the beach this week. I can honestly say that what prompted that memory has since caused me considerable thought. Deciding to make a photo trip to the beach at dawn I was amazed by what I saw, as was everyone else stopped in their tracks by the 'vision' there!

My photo shows "ART" or alternatively, it shows 13 gambling machines (with battery packs included in them to ensure the lights flashed). 13 machines (lucky for some?) placed on the sands at Portobello. My exhibition tour went to 14 venues, many photographs of Portobello were included but it was the only place where I did not exhibit as the Council owned venue cancelled my booking too late for me to hire another. The cost of JUST ONE of these machines would have paid many times over for all of my 14 exhibitions. I wonder, will 10,000 people come to this art exhibition entitled "Black Swan." After taking a quick 'arty' photo, I ran past the machines to capture the amazing colours in the sky, the 'art' in nature's canvas.

The incoming tide was moving quickly. Again and again, I had to move my camera and tripod back up the beach to safety, out of the deepening waves.

So little available light, I needed to use a long exposure for each shot. All the time, the sound of the Figgate Burn, gushing on to the beach beside me. The river mixing with the breaking of the waves. Over head, the gulls swirling around and calling in excitement to each other in the dawning of the new day.  

Eventually, I turned away from the sunrise, the pinks had all merged to an orange glow and the sea looked black with a huge rain cloud opressively hanging over head. Now, with more light, I suddenly noticed a white huddle of feathers on the sand, walking over I saw a black headed gull. It didn't move its body, just its head and immediately it was apparent something was very wrong. I believe all creatures can pick up something through the sound of the voice and so, crouched on the sand, I spoke to it in a quiet soothing manner.

I used to work at the PDSA and have handled injured birds but - not this one.

Just by looking at it I could tell it was very, very poorly and I wanted to cause it no additional distress. Without using my camera's flash, I took a photo and stepped back to examine it. My instinct was try and help but, I could see from the photo the bird was absolutely intact and its movement, the breathing, becoming more laboured.

Such a beautiful creature, such a beautiful day, I stood and watched and shed a quiet tear. All around gulls were calling but it was alone on the sand. I stood a while. The tell tale signs of the gull's weakening muscles bore witness to a life slipping quietly away.

Along the beach, the "Black Swan" artist arrived to take video shots of his art installation and a man arrived with his two dogs running around, I spoke for a while to them both. The man with the dogs put them on a leash, to ensure the sick gull was left in peace. The artist politely answered my questions and smiled at my remark that I had thought his machines were like the invasion of the Daleks. He said he hadn't heard that one before and I suggested if he hung around he was sure to hear some more remarks from the locals. He remarked that he was from England - I remarked I didn't think a local would have had the idea to put gambling machines on Portobello beach.

The man with the dogs returned and I waited to take his photo against the glow of the sun. Then, with the tide rushing in, we left the artist to filming his machines. The artist crouched on the sand had his back to the sunrise. What a shame I thought, to be missing such a spectacular sight - but don't they say, an artist suffers for their art?  The man and his dogs walked off to Seafield and I returned to check on the gull. Other birds had flown down and I waved my hands to scare them away. But, of course, it was all 'just Nature'. And, as I drew near, I could see the gull's life had passed.

I knelt and took another picture to check but yes, as I sat on the sand there was no breathing visible and it's wings were spread out as if it had taken one last flight - it WAS gone. On the sand, the body remained. Overhead the gulls still circled and cried out to each other, life was going on and the passing of this life was just part of the continuing circle of life and death. Yet, it had flown in it's life, seen things from high above the ground, soared on the currents and no doubt dived in to the sea for fish. I wondered what had killed it -pollution or injested plastic discarded by some unthinking person?

As I walked back along the sands the artist had gone but, blowing in the wind, were the printed flyers about this publicly funded art installation.  I looked around at all the rubbish left discarded on the beach, I thought of the dead gull and the work being done by friends of mine Chris Jordan, Jan Vozenilek and Bill Weaver photo-journalists working to document the increasing amounts of marine rubbish, the discarded plastic and other litter being inappropriately discarded or disposed of by man. Their work shining a light on the extent with which marine rubbish is killing birds and animals.

For more details see:
and film clip

Now standing alone, looking at the beach in 'my part of the world', I read one of the discarded flyers lying there on the sand. In the now grey morning light, the question in BIG bold writing was very clear:


Looking at the litter on the beach, looking back towards the dead body of the gull I felt that this public money could have been much better spent but then, who am I to comment. Maybe I am not interested as to whether or not this art challenges me. Maybe I see this in terms of 'value for money' and 'accounatble spending in a time of osterity.' Perhaps I will never see the art in machines on a beach but prefer instead to appreciate the sight of a bird in flight. Maybe, I am just a person who cares more about the world that I live in.

Portobello has so much going for it, I certainly think it is beautiful place and it has had such a rich cultural heritage. Indeed, recently, the community came together in great numbers to support a Coastal Rowing project, enjoying boat races there as in the years gone by.

In 2010, I am left greatly saddened that any visitors to Portobello beach may be left with an image of gaming machines used in an art installation on the sands. Portobello has SO MUCH MORE going for it!

Those who sat around, discussing this project and authorising its funding, what were their motives? Are gambling machines an iconic image that Portobello wants to promote? Does this installation bring together the local community with pride or is it so misplaced that it actually becomes more of an insult to the area? Is such a project, less about 'art' and more about 'shock tactics' to gain publicity? 

Recently, a company has been using dead animals to package the sale of expensive beer. Yet another business chose to use a live donkey, strapped in to a harness to absail it over a beach resort. In the celebrity world of pop fashion, Lady Gaga has announced her desire to use dead human bodies for her stage show.

A Chartered Marketer for many years, I do not believe that all publicity is good. I find myself greatly cynical about the perceived artistic value of the Black Swan installation - is this art, or is it just a blatant attempt for media attention? Taking one of the discarded flyers, I gave my feedback and posted my response. 

Did commissoners ask:

Do people of Portobello want public funds allocated towards such a project in their name?

In a time of such osterity, (the civil sector in Scotland facing a potential loss of 60,000 jobs) is this project best value for money?

With so many local artists - Why are we engaging people so far removed from here?

Portobello is unlikely to enjoy again the crowds which once flocked to it in Victorian times. Yet, careful fostering of appropriate community development and artistic projects, can and do make a difference to an area. Emphasis firmly being on the correct selection of projects which come forward for funding. It is for those who sit on funding panels to make the correct decisions just as, when they get it wrong, the community they represent should make that known.


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The tragic photographs of dead albatross chicks were taken in September 2009 on Midway Atoll, a tiny stretch of sand and coral near the middle of the North Pacific. The nesting babies are fed bellies full of plastic by their parents, who soar out over the vast polluted ocean collecting what looks to them like food to be brought back to their young. On this diet of human trash, tens of thousands of albatross chicks die on Midway from starvation, toxicity and coking. To document this phenonmenon as faithfully as possible, not a single piece of plastic was in any way moved when taking these photos. The images depict the actual stomach contents of baby birds in one of the world's most remote marine sanctuaries, more than 2,000 miles from the nearest continent. Please get involved and support the midway project through joining their Page on Facebook.


"Black Swan" is an Imagine Porty art commission from Big Things on the Beach, part of Edinburgh Festival 2010. Big Things on the Beach is a public art trust in Portobello. Imagine Porty is funded by the Scottish Arts Council (now Creative Scotland) and The City of Edinburgh Council. Black Swan is by Miles Thurlow, interested in "challenging our conventional expectations of public artwork." Thurlow was born in Colchester, Esse in 1975 and today he lives and works in Newcastle and Gateshead, England.

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