Orkney is perfect inspiration for photographer

Orkney's seas and coastline have played an important part in the work of a talented photographer over recent years. Joanne Coates first arrived in the islands more than four years ago and has been sharing some of her experiences...

The Inner Holms in Stromness harbour - image by Joanne Coates

The story started in May 2012. I was working on a photography series about the fishing industry and it brought me to the north isles of Orkney.

I was in my first year of University at the time, studying Photography and living in London. The journey north from the city was long. When I finally arrived I thought I would introduce myself to Orkney with a ramble from Stromness to Skara Brae.

I was staying at the Hamnavoe hostel and I didn't heed the warning that it might be a ‘peedie bit too windy and stormy for a walk’. Now, in Orkney terms, that means ‘it’s going to be a huge storm, you might be better off staying inside or going to the museum instead’.

Setting off along the coast, up over the Black Craig, wandering through the heather path, one can easily lose track of time. The landscape is so different from Caithness and anything in England.

The cliffs of Yesnaby on Orkney's west coast - image by Joanne Coates

On my trek, first the rain started, then the wind. By the time I got to Yesnaby I was soaked through and had explored the landscape perhaps a little too long. I approached a car, stopped with its passengers enjoying a view that was the very definition of the word ‘sublime’, to ask how far it was to Skara Brae and back.

What happened next sums up the Orcadian way of life. It’s an egalitarian society with customs in community - people often think of the islands as remote and isolated, but actually this could not be further from the truth.

The stranger in the car rolled down his window. The man and his wife, whose kindness I can remember but names I sadly cannot, immediately offered me a lift and took me to Skara Brae, then on to see the seals in Birsay before inviting me into their home. They offered me tea and their fire, and then took me the long way back past the historic standing stones at the Ring of Brodgar to Stromness.

Looking towards the Hoy Hills from Stromness - image by Joanne Coates

Flash forward to January 2016. By then I had graduated and was working full time as a photographer. But something pulled me back to the north isles of Orkney. Often referred as the ‘Magnetic North’, I can see why people are drawn to this place. Orkney offers up the archaic and the contemporary simultaneously – it’s a fusion of the ancient past with a very modern outlook.

After making work about the fishing industry in Orkney, I started focusing on a new body of work called ‘We Live by the Water’, looking at the land, its connection to place and using the sea as a metaphor.

An Orkney fisherman in the wheelhouse - image by Joanne Coates

‘We Live by the Water’ is a collection of work that allows room for the unexpected. It speaks about a deep-rooted anxiety with society, where worlds meet islands at an edge and land where cracks can be seen from afar. The sea is the last frontier against power. The series is drawn out of a fascination of power relations. It is a poetic and emotional response to the eerie elements that make up modern societies. It concentrates on the hinterland, using the island as a metaphor for the place in-between what is visible and what is known.

Having worked in Orkney now for around ten months, I am continuing to focus on the series throughout November and December. The work has just been shown at an interim exhibition at the Contemporary and Historical Archaeology Conference and is on display at Orkney College in November.

Each experience I have in Orkney is vastly different. Each island I visit is unique and offers something new. Different months offer different views, transporting me to new worlds each time I visit. The islands still surprise me each time I am here. From the unexpected beauty of sea foam, churned out by the Atlantic Ocean and gathering on the western coast; to a colony of grey seals with pups in South Ronaldsay.

At sea off the Black Craig in Orkney - image by Joanne Coates

I’ll leave this post with wise words from George Mackay Brown. ‘The imagination is not an escape, but a return to the richness of our true selves; a return to reality’.

Through the stories and fables that weave together the history of Orkney, a new thinking can be found by returning to the imagination, and in turn to the self.

See more of Joanne’s work via her website.

You can also follow Joanne on Instagram and on Twitter.

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