Stuart Paton is a Scottish photographer based in Milan

In this interview, among other things, he explains some of his personal projects, how DonMcCullin influences him and his way to cope photographically with the pandemic… 

You say that “photography is my way of out-running my demons and re-enchanting my world.” Do you remember the first time you realized this? What is the image -if any- that you recall as your first “real” photograph?

I realized it one sunny afternoon in 2016. The wheels had fallen off my life and I sat in silence, surrounded by removal boxes and only my cat for company. I had wept every tear in my body for my sense of loss and betrayal. My mind can be my worst enemy, so it was a burning necessity to occupy it with something life-affirming. It was that or be devoured. So I channelled all that hurt into pictures I hoped might transcribe an inner scream. A cathartic exorcism via street ju-ju and Italian gelato. Ever since the first roll of Tri-X I suppose there was always a combination of hope and desperation to my photography because I saw it as my ticket to something more desirable than 9-to-5 drudgery. When I left school in Scotland, I started work in the local docks but my heart was never in it. I finally grew bored of ripping the piss out of my bosses and embarked on a long American road trip as a sort of initiation rite to a more singular, autonomous life. As someone wrote in relation to the ongoing Hong Kong revolt, ‘enchantment is a powerful weapon’. It’s hard to be precise with something as vague and subjective as ‘real’. The grainy snap of three old guys sitting on steps playing a trumpet in Harlem ? The scruffy kids playing on a street corner in northern England ? Or maybe a more ‘demonic” picture shot since 2016 ?

Always in your bio, you quote Hobbes saying: “’Hell is truth seen too late’.” What does this statement mean to you and what does it tell us of your idea of photography?

Just as in my photography, the personal is superimposed on the social. Or vice-versa. It could refer to stuff I’ve fucked up and regretted in my life. Or else a hunch about where civilisation is headed. I remember being at a barbecue about five years ago and the consensus around the table was that climate change was a big fuss about nothing. Fast forward to 2019 and that sounds very foolish. This century will be pivotal. ‘Cambridge Analytica’ was a taste of things to come in an era of surveillance capitalism where data is the new gold and we’re the ones being hacked because we’ve become the product. Bio-technology and artificial intelligence will infuse the body politic. The concept of individual identity will become fuzzy only deepening our sense of alienation. Demographic shift will strain society’s sinews. One of these issues alone would test a society but all at once may well be too much to cope with. Especially for a population which sees shopping as entertainment. This, dear chums, is the wider, dystopian background to what I shoot. Jeff Mermelstein hits the nail on the head when he says, ‘The best and most memorable street photographers offer a clear vision of the world from a personal perspective’. This is mine.

You have said that, for a time, you have thought of becoming a “war photographer”, but chose, in the end, to focus instead on the problems more in your proximity and reach. What brought you to this choice? 

The thought of the loud bangs.

Indeed you cite often as a source of inspiration the great Don McCullin. what do you feel are the aspects of his photography that most have influenced you? How can we trace them in your photography? 

His documentation of the day. His championing of the underdog.The inky blacks depicting neo-liberalism’s collateral damage. To me, his best work was shot in England rather than overseas. McCullin’s photography had a vitality and urgency to it. For him personally, those pictures had to be taken. There’s an emotional intensity to them. However much my style has changed since then, it’s certainly the legacy I still hold true to. There’s been a general disengagement with social issues over the years. Now much of the new street photography wunderkind seem to make it a badge of honour to avoid anything serious with their quirky ‘gagography’. There’s a sort of cult-like, blissful ignorance to it whilst outside, in the world of grown up photography, there’s little but disdain for its childish irrelevance. It doesn’t have to be so. Street photography could make a small but significant social impact if more people did themselves justice.

Hoi Polloi” is a black and white series of the streets of the United Kingdom. What is the theme and where has the idea came from?

Photography is more conversation than monologue so I might just as well ask you what its theme is, Paolo. It’s really just me finding my feet in photography. McCullin egging me on from the sidelines. It’s location aligned with political values. It came very naturally to me if I’m honest.

Haven” is about immigration. What have you discovered working on this matter through the medium of photography? What does this series want to convey?

‘Haven’ is the story of a group of twelve Pakistani refugees who had recently arrived in a tiny, Italian mountain village. I got a privileged insight into their individual lives during conversations over a curry or a game of cards. Their reasons for leaving everything and everybody behind. Their hopes for the future. The boat crossing. Their world view. And their lightheartedness despite all this. There wasn’t a particular message I wanted to convey a priori. It’s just that I appreciated their spirit so felt moved to document a chapter of their lives and the context they found themselves in. A psychologist might well link my motivation back to that afternoon back in 2016. Anyway, that page has turned now for them and me. They’ve moved out the ‘Haven’ and live a happier life down by the lake. I miss them. I miss the curry and the cards.

You offer also workshops and portfolios reviews. What are the most common questions you are asked? And the most interesting ones? What piece of advice you generally give out? 

It often involves ‘vision’; a curiosity about the way I see the world. I wouldn’t wish that on my worse enemy but for some reason, they’re happy to pay for the pleasure. Most of their questions are interesting, for one reason or another. I’ve been lucky because so far they’ve all been good souls and we’ve kept in touch since. I think the advice for good photography pretty much overlaps with what you’d tell a son or daughter if they asked, ‘What’s the secret to an authentic and fulfilling life ?’.

A living artist you want to give a shout out to and suggest us? Why? 

Vasiliy Lomachenko. The best pound-for-pound boxer on the planet and a true artist. The class, originality and single-mindedness of the man appeals to me. Before he was allowed to box, his father made him spend years learning dance and gymnastics. His holistic training technique places emphasis on mental agility and delicate dexterity exercises. Outside the ring he’s a gentleman who doesn’t indulge in any macho trash talk but once the bell rings he’s a man on a mission. Daring to be great. A fuckin wizard. So I source inspiration without prejudice then siphon it off subliminally.

How has the pandemic affected you and how have you engaged photographically with it?

On one level, the pandemic affected me like anyone else in relation to health precautions, national lockdown restrictions and the changed face of the streets. On the other, it made me an offer I couldn’t refuse (as Marlon Brando once said). I simply had to shoot pictures of an event as global and historic as this one. There never was any choice for me. So, although there are some perfectly good reasons for not doing so, I feel there are some compelling ones for tackling Coronavirus with a camera. The pandemic might be seen as a litmus test for ‘street photography’. It put into stark relief the separation between those who, to some extent, engage with the real world as they find it and those who seek escapism in a cosy feedback loop. People who saw the pandemic as an inconvenience to their usual routine of quirky shareability. Who were irritated by the esthetic aspect of face masks. Who stayed indoors and delved into their ‘archives’. These folks seem to be symptomatic of a wider problem of disengagement amidst a culture of puerile titillation. But I digress… So in answer to your question, yeah I’ve tried to document the pandemic situation here in Milano. But rather than using the obvious signifiers like masks, hospitals and coffins etc I’ve tried to evoke the psychological aspect. I think that’s key to our common experience. The result is a sort of emotional road trip that spirals down a dark vortex towards an unhappy ending. It’s by no means a chef d’oeuvre but it helped me through some bleak months via a minor act of resistance.


Next and upcoming projects?
Hopefully, a book. If a book is a song, then the photographs shot over the past 4 years form the basic melody and right now I’m trying to broaden that out with some subtler, percussive touches. The initial psycho-sociological dystopia has morphed seamlessly with the current pandemic. Speaking of which, I’m collaborating on a Coronavirus publication which should be published before too long. Otherwise, it feels as if I’ve squeezed Milan dry – run out of road – so maybe a gear change is on the horizon.

Credits: Stuart Paton

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