The first picture in Dougie Wallace’s Blackpool series was of a man – “pissing himself laughing and bollock-naked” – securely wrapped to a lamp post by a few hundred meters of clingflim. “He should know better,” one of the lad’s mates said to Dougie as he framed the shot. “He’s been married three times before.”
“Even when photographers are most concerned with mirroring reality, they are still haunted by tacit imperatives of taste and conscience,” Susan Sontag wrote in her essay, On Photography. Dougie Wallace is certainly doing this. Largely self-taught after serving four years in the Army, Wallace calls himself a social commentator, and he isn’t afraid to relate these images to our leaders in Westminster: “It’s a snapshot of our times – a graphic nightmare,” Wallace says of his images of Blackpool, the binge-drinking, stag and hen party capital of the UK. “Blair’s dream of a Continental-style Britain, sipping wine with impunity, has mutated into Cameron’s binge-blighted Britain, with cheap alcohol available around the clock.”
Born and raised in the tenements of Glasgow, and influenced by the seminal New York street photographer Weegee – hence the moniker – Wallace’s Stags, Hens & Bunnies, A Blackpool Story took two-and-a-half years and 30 trips to Blackpool to complete. He would trawl the streets at night for eight hours at a stretch, “sparring, ducking, bobbing and weaving to get the right angles”.
On Mondays he would upload the weekend’s work to Facebook, and within a few weeks he had a hungry following of more than 5000 friends. “Once I started, it was as if people were expecting them,” he says. “So I knew I had to get the shots, and that was good discipline.” It was through the social network that he was first noticed by the The New York Times.
“In Blackpool the visual satire staggers up the street to meet you,” Wallace says. But there is no purist judgement here. “Sometimes I was on the drink doing the pictures, sometimes sober.” If he wasn’t boozing, Wallace would focus on the hours before the carnage, the train rides in, the quiet first pint. Or he’d capture the kebab shops, the taxi rides, the morning hangovers.
“Most of those pictures are reactions,” he says. “A lot of people are shouting at me, or looking at me, and I’m not scared of getting them to talk to me so I can get the picture. When somebody is acknowledging you, there is more engagement.”
Stags, Hens & Bunnies acted as a precursor for Shoreditch Wild Life, “a partly autobiographical book at least 10 years in the making”. Wallace has lived in the east London district for 15 years. There isn’t much difference, dress sense aside, from Shoreditch and Blackpool, he says, and it’s acted as a perfect training ground for his “visually exaggerated” photos. Shoreditch has plenty of its own seedy holes, and its people also play for the camera. The cover of Shoreditch Wild Life has a provocative image of two young women, both heavily made up, dressed in their gladrags. One is upright, her head thrust back, cigarette clenched between teeth and what looks like a gin and tonic held loftily above her; the other woman is clutching her companion’s faux fur jacket, spreading it open as she bends down to bite her nipple, red-netted fascinator popping out against her jet black bob.
Wallace says the scene was spontaneous, following the turfing-out of a club near Great Eastern Street. “It was snowing, everybody was larking about. They knew I was there, but it was not set up,” he adds.
His latest project, Glasgow, Second City of The Empire – which recently won Second Prize in the Portraiture category at Sony World Photography Awards 2015 – captures the gaping disparity in life expectancy between the residents of London’s Knightsbridge, the west London borough with the UK’s highest life expectancy, where the average male lives to 84, and Glasgow, host city of the Commonwealth Games, which has the UK’s lowest; the Calton area of Glasgow, just north of River Clyde, has one of the worst health records in Europe and the lowest male life expectancy – 53 years.
As a Glaswegian living in Shoreditch and shooting in the playground of the rich and elite, he understands this disparity only too well.
To see more of Dougie Wallace’s work, or to purchase a photobook, visit his website
Stay up to date with stories such as this, delivered to your inbox every Friday.