“The term ‘Britishness’ has changed so much over the last ten years, I don’t really know what it means anymore to say ‘I’m British,’” observes Scottish photographer Niall McDiarmid, who has spent almost a decade photographing people in the street across Britain.
Raised in Aberfeldy, a small village in Scotland, he first became interested in photography after seeing the stories his grandfather wrote and sometimes shot for a local newspaper. After studying Engineering at university he landed a job as a reporter, like his grandfather writing and occasionally taking photographs. But his interest in photography piqued, he went on to study Photojournalism at the London College of Printing in 1993, and has been working as a freelance photographer in London ever since.
In 2011 he started work on his latest series, Town to Town, which has just been published as a book and which will be shown at the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol, UK from 31 January-12 May. Initially focussing on London, it soon expanded beyond the capital city and ended up covering 200 towns, tracing a journey around Britain and its diverse inhabitants.
“Most of the work was done on trains,” McDiarmid tells BJP. “I’d search for cheap tickets available online and catch a train out of London early every Saturday. Then, because it’s expensive to stay away, I’d come back on a really late night train crawling into London after a day somewhere up North. Other times, I’ll just turn up at Clapham Junction and see wherever’s cheap to travel on that day and jump on the train.”
The towns that interest McDiarmid are not the ones you might expect – he’s interested in the small scale and the overlooked, “market towns in the Midlands; places like Rugby, Northampton and Milton Keynes; places that haven’t necessarily been documented so well”. The resulting portraits are reminiscent of August Sanders’ ethnographic portraits of 20th century Germans and, like Sanders’ images, will serve as an enduring visual record of our time. But far from the monochrome, slightly austere portraits that Sanders shot, McDiarmid’s images burst with colour and light.
“When I began this project, I realised that it’s all very well to do street portraits, but you really have to have a distinctive style,” he says. “I’m looking to go to an area, town, city, and meet a group of people or an individual that represents that particular town. And I’m very keen in doing that in my own way, which involves colour, shape and pattern.
“With street photography, there’s a huge amount of luck, serendipity – whatever you call it, so I’m very interested in trying to find somebody that will fit into a situation or space that enhances what they’re wearing or how they look,” he adds. “Britain’s never been featured that well in colour, especially for people looking in from abroad, so photographing Britain in brighter colours is something I’m very interested in.”
McDiarmid is also less interested in categorising people by type than his predecessor, preferring to give a more general overview of the country at this point in time. His captions simply state where and when the photographs were taken, without attempting to say anything about the people depicted in them.
He typically aims to shoot two to three shots per person, and takes a philosophical view of the ones that don’t work out. “If it doesn’t happen, so be it,” he says. “There are plenty of other people out there [to photograph].
“Everyone wants to know my method, how I approach people,” he continues. “It’s different every time, but at the heart of it, it’s just the ability to chat, talk to people; shoot the breeze – as they say.”
But chat isn’t everything, he admits – he does get turned down “an awful lot”, and he has found people can be rude. “On these first few instances you take it personally, but then after a while you realise that it’s a bit of a game,” he says. “You just have to enjoy it and roll with it.”
Over the years, McDiarmid has built up a steady following on social networks – first on Tumblr, and more recently Instagram. “Social networks are great,” he says. “You can reach a wide audience. It still surprises me that there are photographers that still don’t realise the power of how many people you can reach with social networks.
“I often see people wasting the opportunity – we’ve got this great way of reaching people and they start showing pictures of their cats. But saying that, it is incredibly hard work and you need to go with the ebb and flow of it and find a way that works for you.”
Another blessing of social networks is that they offer a way for the people he’s photographed to follow his work, he says, and keep up-to-date with his projects. “It’s interesting because I meet someone and they tend to be from a completely different background to where I’m from,” he says. “Our lives don’t normally cross apart from that one moment.”
I ask if there are any photographers that influence his work, and McDiarmid pauses, before observing that he’s more interested in peoples’ methods now than their images. “Once you reach a certain age and you’ve been a photographer for a number of years, it’s difficult to be influenced by people’s styles, and you tend to forget the styles that you saw in the beginning,” he says.
But he does pick out Janet Delaney, the photographer behind South of Market 1978 – 1986, a series focused on one area in San Francisco. “Some of the images in there I find quite influential,” he says. “As regards to methods, I’m obviously interested in Martin Parr; he works incredibly hard and that’s also very influential for me.
“What he’s doing down in Bristol is amazing – he’s put a huge amount of time, effort and work into making his Foundation work, and I believe it will be a great success.”
Looking forward, McDiarmid hopes to take his work to new geographical areas, commenting that with a style he’s happy with, and an audience he’s reaching, he doesn’t want to change too dramatically. “I’m interested in taking my style of work and developing it into other areas,” he says.
“I will be working on smaller projects around the country, as well as one in Scotland, my homeland. It’s an interesting time to be a photographer in Britain.”
Niall McDiarmid’s Town to Town is published by RRB Photobooks, priced £35 (for a gift set that includes a poster) https://www.rrbphotobooks.com/
To coincide with the publication of the book, an exhibition of Town to Town will be shown at the Martin Parr Foundation, Bristol, UK from 31 January – 12 May 2018 https://www.martinparrfoundation.org/
Niall McDiarmid is taking over BJP’s Instagram from 22 January @bjp1854 https://www.instagram.com/bjp1854/?hl=en