Robbie Lawrence’s Northern Diary is a homecoming in pictures

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The Edinburgh-born photographer’s exhibition brings together three Scotland-based projects, providing a snapshot of life in post-Brexit Scotland

When Robbie Lawrence began discussing ideas for an exhibition with Ben Harman – director of Stills in Edinburgh –  the two of them came up with a concept that would tie together three projects, made over the past five to seven years. 

“We both liked the fact that whilst I’ve never necessarily considered myself a Scottish photographer, the three bodies of work are in fact all photographed and videoed in Scotland, so there is a thread of Scottishness that links it all,” Lawrence says. 

Born in Edinburgh, the photographer first left Scotland at 18, then returned to study at University of St Andrews before leaving again. Throughout all of this coming and going, the early concept for Northern Diary kept cropping up in his notebooks, and the resulting exhibition became about the notion of return – coming back to Scotland and looking at it from different perspectives.

Jim, A Voice Above The Linn © Robbie Lawrence / WEBBER and courtesy Stills.

Opening next week at Stills, Centre for Photography in Edinburgh, Northern Diary brings together images from three projects. A Voice Above The Linn tells the story of Lawrence’s visits to the home and gardens of the Scottish botanist Jim Taggart; the video piece Blue Bonnets documents a school’s Highland dance competition after the pandemic; and a set of images taken from The Atlantic documents life in the UK in the run up to Brexit. He shot the latter images during the second Covid-19 lockdown. These frame the tone of the exhibition as a whole: a snapshot of life in post-Brexit Scotland. 

“These images depict quite transitory moments – small, brief encounters,” says Lawrence. “When approaching people during Covid, I had to be conscious of distance, and I think that comes across at times, in the feeling of the photos as isolated moments. But I suppose in many ways, the Scottish images within that project are again about trying to understand the country that I’m from, and what my feelings on nationalism are.” 

Of course, Lawrence has his own opinions on independence and Scotland, he says, but he’s tried not to be too forthright with any one position. “I think the way that we ingest media right now results in a fairly binary perspective, so I always try to look for the middle ground.”

Lewis Daniel, Edinburgh, Northern Diary © Robbie Lawrence / WEBBER and courtesy Stills.

“It’s about finding moments that are emblematic of a wider feeling – encapsulating a theme or a topic that feels relatable”

Morning in Ayr, Northern Diary © Robbie Lawrence / WEBBER and courtesy Stills.
Waves at Dunbar, Northern Diary © Robbie Lawrence / WEBBER and courtesy Stills.

Northern Diary moves between sensitive portraits, to brooding landscapes, and subtler, more fleeting details of Scotland’s coasts and cities, like the spray of waves against a seawall in Dunbar, and a cluttered kitchen sink in morning light. Explaining this vision, he says, “I think it’s about finding moments that are emblematic of a wider feeling – encapsulating a theme or a topic that feels relatable”. 

In other words, it’s about crystallising fragments of normal life as it ticks on against a backdrop of greater events. A narrative-based, humanist approach resonates throughout the entirety of this exhibition, with Lawrence honing in on everyday happenings and encounters with individuals whose lives are part of a much larger story – the story of a country navigating an uncertain time.

Northern Diary by Robbie Lawrence is on show at Stills, Centre for Photography in Edinburgh until 25 June 2022, and the publication of the same name is published by Stanley/Barker. 

Joanna Cresswell

Joanna L. Cresswell is a writer and editor based in Brighton. She has written on photography and culture for over 40 international magazines and journals, and held positions as editor for organisations including The Photographers' Gallery, Unseen Amsterdam and Self Publish, Be Happy. She recently completed an MA in comparative literature and criticism at Goldsmiths College, University of London