Intimacy has become a word that is more and more difficult to articulate in times of immediacy and overabundance of choices and distractions. The over-exposure of orchestrated privacy on social media has made us numb to real-life interactions. Are we simply not interested in the truth anymore? Thankfully, some individuals still want to dig deeper into reality and focus on honest encounters, just like Simon Murphy, the first-prize winner of the Gomma Grant last year. Over the past years, Murphy documented one of Glasgow’s neighbourhoods Govanhill which also happened to be his residence for some time. Imagine a complex yet greatly diverse Scottish neighbourhood with a bad reputation. It sounds like a beautiful place of juxtapositions where genuineness, vulnerability, and human connection can thrive and are ready to be explored. Curious about his thought process when making this project and later publishing a monograph with Gomma, I sat down with Murphy to get to know his take on intimacy.
Prior to publishing your monograph, your photographs from Govanhill were distributed in the suburb in a newspaper format. What was the motivation behind turning your project into a photobook?
For most photographers, the dream is always the big white-walled gallery or the fancy coffee table book. My project is based in the community. The area of Glasgow where I photograph, Govanhill, has traditionally been a point of arrival for people coming to Scotland. It’s an area not without its problems but has energy and diversity flowing through the veins of the tenement buildings that line the streets. My first exhibition was in the disused swimming baths in Govanhill and I only had ten portraits. I invited all the participants and was surprised that not many came. I realised quickly that the gallery space, behind walls, can be an intimidating space for those who don’t feel part of the art world. I understood that I needed to build a bridge between the streets and the art gallery so I started exhibiting on the walls and windows of the community. This got everyday people used to the images and built a sense of pride and interest in the project.
My dream was that eventually, those same people would feel comfortable enough to visit and view the work in the white-walled gallery without the feeling of being an outsider. I had the same approach with the newspapers. Photobooks are immensely expensive for the average person so I decided to print and distribute newspapers of the work for those in the community and those depicted in the pictures. I asked myself: “How do I make paper and ink valuable?” I thought that if I made a game or challenge about getting hold of one of the newspapers it would become more prized. I printed 100 copies of each and posted clues on my Instagram page as to where to find them. The printed material only cost the viewer the effort to find it but the effort made it valuable to them. My hope was that when it came time to produce the fine art photo book, people would be invested, and excited and would value the work.
How did you choose the people for your project or do you have a personal connection with them?
My photographic process starts with a wander, a long and slow walk. The repetitive action of walking gets me into a meditation-like state where my senses are heightened. I notice things. When I see someone who I find intriguing, I approach them and ask to make their portrait. If they ask “Why?” I tell them the thing that drew me to them. Usually, 9 times out of 10 the person agrees to the portrait. I love diversity but I dislike tokenism. I don’t go out with the aim of photographing a certain nationality. That takes care of itself when you open yourself up to all. Relationships can grow after the initial meeting but almost always, the portrait is made within a few minutes of meeting the sitter.
I sense this immediate tension in your photographs. What role does this element play in your work?
There is a seriousness to the portraits and sometimes an edge. Contrary to how it might look, the interactions are enjoyable for both the sitter and myself but partly due to the slow technical nature of making the image and partly because I have just met the subject, there is a questioning and a negotiation. This dance produces an intensity that I enjoy because there is a serious issue behind the work. The gaze of the sitter urges the viewer to look into the eyes of the person, question what life is like for them and perhaps conclude that our issues as humans, our fears, and our hopes and aspirations are not so far apart. The portraits are a celebration of humanity and diversity.
How would you define intimacy?
Intimacy is a state of comfort and trust. True intimacy takes time, much more time than a 125th of a second, but with an honest approach and openness, it is surprising how quickly relationships can form. I’m still asking if true intimacy can be achieved at the point of contact, the initial meeting, but it is the goal. Does this person trust me? Will I honour the faith that has been given to me and produce something honest that at the same time, the person is proud of? Those relationships between the photographer and sitter can be strengthened over time but the moments shared at the time of the shoot, when both photographer and sitter are vulnerable, are precious and unforgettable which is a solid starting point.
Why is it important for you to provide the locals with a means of representation through your portraiture?
Govanhill has been given a bad reputation over the years, sometimes justified, sometimes not. The places where we live shape us and make us who we are. There is a quote by Mark Steinmetz that reads: “You don’t find treasure on a mowed lawn.” In Govanhill there is treasure. Sure, sometimes the environment is a little rough around the edges but the value resides in the people. Those people should be celebrated. Glasgow is a city known for the warm hearts of the people. Govanhill represents individuals from all sorts of cultures and there is something to learn, something good, something special to be gained when we as humans open ourselves up to others. I have found this to be the case in Govanhill. All the great and all the “not-so-great” collide to make us what we are.
There is a photograph in the exhibition of a greyhound with three legs. Quite literally, it’s the underdog. People from places like Govanhill are often underdogs. Opportunity is rare and difficult living circumstances often make it difficult to access or embrace opportunities in the creative arts or other aspirations. I have felt like an underdog throughout my life but it’s a status I love and embrace. I like surprising people, making them stop and look! I hope my portraits help instill a sense of beauty and pride in the subjects and give them the physically elevated status of a framed photograph on a wall or in a book. Why not? Do they not deserve it as much as any celebrity, politician, or reality TV star? These portraits are not portraits of pity, rather they are portraits of strong people who deserve to be seen and heard.
The quote at the beginning of my book, by an influential psychiatrist who lived in Govanhill as a child, J.D. Laing reads: “Right outside my bedroom window was the dome of a public library on the top of which was an angel poised on one foot, as though to take off to the moon and stars.” He must have looked at the statue across from his home and wondered about his future…How the sky was the limit. It’s appropriate that the statue is above a public library too. it has been said that “There is nothing more dangerous than a Glaswegian (person from Glasgow) with a library card.
What is your goal with this book?
The book has been printed and is now sold out. Mission accomplished. That said, it would be lovely for the book to be acknowledged as an honest document of a place at a certain time in history that in many ways is a microcosm. I would like the viewer to be able to relate to the book no matter where in the world they live or no matter their life circumstances. I would like the images to evoke a sense of pride and aspiration. I want people to be reassured that even in difficult times and circumstances life can be good when we as humans open ourselves up to one another.
After the book has been out, how do you see Govanhill evolving now? Will you keep making and distributing your images through the newspaper format?
I’m not sure at this stage how I intend to proceed. I still think the story can grow but I wonder if the newspapers have done their job. Maybe? Maybe I should make more. Govahill is always in a state of change and those developments will continue to bring fresh images to the table. Maybe that table is a coffee table and there will be another book years down the line. What matters is that the work continues to be as accessible to as wide an audience as possible. Photography enriched my life and I hope that it can do the same for others.
is an award-winning photographer and lecturer at Glasgow Kelvin College. Throughout his career, he traveled extensively to different countries, such as Rwanda, Cambodia, Bangladesh and The Democratic Republic of Congo to fuel his interest in people’s stories. However, his long-term personal project Govanhill takes him back home to the same-named district in Glasgow. Simon Murphy’s work not only showcases his technical prowess as a photographer but also reflects his commitment to storytelling and capturing the essence of diverse communities.
The first edition of Govanhill published is currently sold out. Due to popular demand, a second edition of Govanhill is being planned by Gomma Books and is set to be launched during Spring 2024. If you are interested, simply add your name to the waiting list here.