THE GUARDIAN March 2013
TIME LIGHTBOX - GREAT BRITISH PUBLIC EXHIBITION May 2012
THE GUARDIAN - FREELANCERS: Artists & Designers in Pictures - August 2010
December 18, 2012
Interview by Sophie Gerrard
AS YOU ARE in North Ronaldsay
On a brilliantly bright, icy cold, winter Sunday afternoon recently I caught up with Giulietta Verdon Roe over coffee and cake.
I knew that Giulietta had made several visits to the remote Scottish island of North Ronaldsay over a number of years to create a documentary photographic project of the population and character of the island. I was really interested to hear how her photographic project As You Are had begun and why, and what it had been like making the work. The relationships she established with the island inhabitants over time culminated in a body of work which has been exhibited in numerous locations in the UK including The Manse House on the island itself. In an ex-Royal Mail van, Giulietta drove the exhibition from London to Orkney and, due to a storm preventing the ferry taking her work to the island from the mainland, had to freight plane the entire show to the island.
With freezing hands that afternoon we looked through her box of prints and chatted about what had attracted her to the project in the first place.
GVR: “I’d been living and working in New York for three years and in 2007 I found myself unexpectedly back in the UK. Maps have always fascinated me, I’ve always been drawn to the romance of far away places and after living in NYC I’d found myself looking, this time, to those out of the way places which were a little closer to home.
It appealed to me that for this project I would be constrained to a specific location when making the work. I began researching remote places in the UK and my attention was drawn again and again to Orkney and to North Ronaldsay in particular. Being the furthest most northernly island in the UK, it was its isolation which first fascinated me, that and the fact that it is home to both to the tallest land based lighthouse in the UK and had unique seaweed eating sheep. I bought a tent and booked my flight.
In 2008 I set off. Arriving on the island alone, I didn’t know what to expect. the first thing that struck me was that island life is utterly dependent on the weather. By the time I’d pitched my tent that first night in North Ronaldsay in September it was cold, windy and dark and I was wondering what on earth I was doing…
I’d romanticised the idea perhaps, an island adventure, far away. My photographic process took quite a few days to begin, and it was almost 2 weeks before I made any pictures, I was interested in the stories and so I walked, and I met people and I talked to them, eventually borrowing an old bike to get around.
The conversations were what came first, with the photographs coming relatively late in the process. I was interested in understanding the everyday life of the island, of understanding how things worked there, I wanted to explore the past, present and future of the island and its community. The locals were used to ornithologists visiting, but not so used to people like me, someone who wanted to know about them and the land. It took time for a mutual understanding and confidence to start to become established.”
GVR: “Island life is all about the weather. You are at the mercy of it. I felt very aware of my size in relation to the elements, the vulnerability of everything. I felt that I couldn’t make portraits without shooting the elements. The people are so much part of the landscape, it meant that I didn’t want to photograph the people without photographing the land.”
GVR “One interesting aspect of community life on North Ronaldsay is that people adopt the names of their houses, as a way to refer to each other. Jenny’s house was O’Scottigar, and that was how she became known. We spent a lot of time talking, We talked about the war, she remembers walking to school with her gas mask in her hand and how heavy it was. She was born on the island and didn’t leave its shores until she was in her very late teens.”
GVR “The seaweed eating sheep are unique to North Ronaldsay, they are kept out to shore by a 12 mile long dry stone dyke that surrounds the island. There are about 3000 of them and they’re quite beautiful and wild, nearly everyone has some sheep of their own. Twice a year, there is an event that I have yet to see, it’s called Punding and its one of the oldest forms of communal farming still practised today. The whole community help round up the sheep into pens known as ‘punds’, once a year to separate the pregnant ewes from the flock to keep them on the land for lambing and at another time of year to sheer their coats and give them their injections.”
GVR “Heather was the youngest female on the island when I photographed her in 2010. She is the daughter of the island doctor and the owner of the islands Bird Observatory. Heather commutes to mainland Orkney to go to school.”
The population of North Ronaldsay when I first arrived in 2008 was 63, just 2 years later in 2010 when I re-visited the project the population had dropped to 50. In a small community like this, this was a big change and the school was left temporarily without any children to teach despite being kept open. The orkney island council built two new houses on the island in response to the situation and launched a promotion to select two new families to move to the island, which was a great boost to the community and resulted in putting children back into the school.”
“I exhibited the ‘As You Are’ exhibition in this house in 2010. At that time it was un-lived in and had been empty for 40 years, but since then the islands school teacher has moved in and there is now new life in the building, it’s been brought back into habitation again. There’s been so much change. It’s also an important place for me as the exhibition was shown here. By seeing the exhibition, I’d hoped the islanders could really understand the project. It’s one thing to see the work online or as small images but to see yourself in a 30″x30″ print is a very different thing.”
Gavin O'Twingness). The youngest islander when this was taken, pictured here in a bird catching cage in order to ring and monitor birds. He has just put out some North Ronadlsay Mutton Bones down to attract the birds. 2010.
GVR: “Whenever I met people they would always ask where I wanted to take their portrait and if they should get dressed up or how they should be posed. So in a way the project named itself as I always explained I want to photograph you the way you are, just as you are.
I loved working in Scotland, it really became a huge part of my life and one that was important to me. It has meant that I have gone on to do other projects in other areas of Scotland and I am also planning future ones too. I now for example cannot watch a weather forecast without looking at Orkney. Just as the environment is so wild and changeable, so can my feelings and emotions be when I am there. Sometimes I loved it, and sometimes I just couldn’t place.
17th September 2010
Pictures on an island
by Phil Coomes
A photographer whose work I recently discovered is that of Giulietta Verdon-Roe whose latest project attracted my attention as it reminded me of The Hebrideans by Gus Wylie, one of my tutors at University. Giulietta has been documenting the inhabitants of North Ronaldsay, the northernmost island of Orkney, Scotland and is currently there holding an exhibition of the work entitled As You Are.
What's fascinating about this is the fact that though the exhibition has been seen elsewhere, this time the only audience is the same small community that is depicted in the photographs.
Giulietta's project took root following a childhood fascination with the Shetland and Orkney Islands and a desire to photograph within her own country. The idea of working on an island also brings with it certain constraints, primarily one of space, but this can be a real advantage as it provides a boundary to the project and stops it spiralling out of control.
"I originally began to research the Shetland Islands and then when I was about to set my dates to go, I was told about the furthest northern island of Orkney, North Ronaldsay, with its population of just over 60 and 13-mile dry-stone dyke, this was something that seemed impossibly romantic to me."
Although Giulietta had made contact with a couple of people on the island before setting off it was only on arrival that she began to realise the task she had set herself.
"Having flown in on the small eight-seater plane I was picked up by the lady who runs the bird observatory and shown the field where I could camp. I pitched my tent as the light was dropping, the wind getting up and the rain starting, I wondered what on earth I was doing.
"But I managed to borrow a bike with a basket for my camera gear and strapped my tripod to the back and began to cycle around and begin to understand the layout of North Ronaldsay.
"It took ten days of explaining myself before I took my first portrait. I was only booked to be there for two weeks, so although I knew this was meant to be the first trip of many, I began to worry that in reality I wasn't going to come back with anything of any substance at all.
"Halfway through the weather was so bad that everything soaking wet, the trip was not going to plan. However, with persistence and countless cups of tea in a great deal of homes I began to shoot more portraits and hear the islanders' stories."
That was in 2008, and it wasn't until earlier this year that she returned again to the island when she was able to re-visit those she had photographed and deliver prints from her first trip, which opened more doors.
This time around though, the weather meant that the tent was soon replaced by a chance to stay in a converted attic space of one of the houses on the island, Giulietta was now part of the island.
Five months on and Giulietta is back again, this time to display the pictures in an exhibition held at the Old Manse. When I asked Giulietta how the opening night had gone, she said:
"The opening itself was a great success, almost the whole island came, it lasted from 2pm until 11pm with food and drink aplenty, some individuals even began to form a little group to play cards. It was lovely to see so many of the islanders in one place.
"I think realistically there has been a mixed reaction, some only came to the opening because it was in a house which has been shut for almost 30 years and this was the first time it had been opened, so the exhibition itself was secondary. I think others are appreciative of the efforts to bring it up here and to be able to see what was taken and feel it's an appropriate representation of the islanders and its land. The comments in the guest book were very positive, but in all it's really difficult to know what is really felt.
"Currently two new families have moved into the two newly built council houses and there are now four children in the school again. The communities' outlook is currently positive and time will tell what will happen next, but they still need younger families to move to the island."
For Giulietta it's time to think about her next project, but for now she has more pressing matters to deal with as the house housing the exhibition is damp and the fibre prints are breaking away from the mounts and warping.
Londonist - Review by Jonnie Fielding
Art Preview: As You Are @ Rich Mix
'as you are' is a fascinating and poignant exhibition by London based photographer Giulietta Verdon-Roe that has just opened in the Mezzanine Gallery at Rich Mix .
It’s an ongoing project that Verdon-Roe began in 2008 when she went to Orkney’s northern most island, the tiny North Ronaldsay, which due to an aging population, is effectively at risk of becoming a dying island.
Returning this year, she discovered that the population of 63 had dwindled to 50 and the 4 children on the island no longer have a school, as it was forced to close. However, two new council funded houses have been built in the hope that the arrival of some young families can revive a community that is heading towards extinction.
The exhibition is particularly interesting as it documents a community that is undergoing huge change and struggling to adapt and survive, whilst also sustaining itself in a way that hasn’t changed for generations.
As with any documentary photography of this nature, the images that Verdon-Roe has captured are all the more astonishing considering she had to be accepted into an incredibly tight-knit community, before being allowed access to their lives.
‘as you are’ is completely free and open until the 15th August.
By Jonnie Fielding
as you are runs till 15th Aug at Rich Mix Mezzanine Gallery, 35-47 Bethnal Green Road, E1 6LA
July 18th, 2010
The Big Issue
I Am An Island
The now 50 inhabitants of one Orkney island are the subjects of Giulietta Verdon-Roe's fascinating project documenting this isolated community's way of life
An ongoing project to document the way of life on North Ronaldsay, the northernmost island of Orkney, Scotland, as you are was started by photographer Giulietta Verdon-Roe in 2008, when there were four children attending the island's school and the population stood at 63, just two years later that figure stands at 50. Surrounded by waters so stormy and treacherous that they have become a notorious ship graveyard, the island's main industries of crofting and sheep farming aren't enough to stop the islanders from making the crossing permanently to the mainland. Verdon-Roe's black and white images form a fascinating portrait of a way of life that has remained unaltered for many generations.
as you are, An exhibition by Giulietta Verdon-Roe, Rich Mix, 35-47 Bethnal Green Road, London E1 (www.richmix.org.uk) Until August 15. Admission free
July 19-25 2010