Automatic for the people

A few photos from last weekend, on 2 wheels with the family in our new local woods. Cold and clear, some familiar ground and some brand new, low impact bikepacking with a trailer for the little'uns, and all about the destination not the getting there (for the kids, anyway). In some ways, the perfect trip. I've been away a fair bit, and at my desk far too much, so this was time well spent and well overdue.

"And into the forest I go" writes Muir, "to lose my mind and find my soul." Forests are fertile places for a childlike imagination, whatever age you are, and the Inshriach and Rothiemurcus pinewoods are a magical place to spend time and regenerate... although I'm disappointed to read human meddling is on the horizon here too. The predictability of our arrogance is now the only thing that surprises.

The photos were taken on a fixed lens compact camera set to auto. I'll keep it clean here - it's a family post after all - and spare the gratuitous bike shots for another time.

That bylaw business - a year on

It's now a year since some friends and I chose to break the new camping bylaw at Loch Lomond. Recently the Park Authority celebrated the return of camping restrictions (which run from March to September inclusive) with a press release welcoming campers back to the park. This is the same Park to which we are allowed unrestricted access between the months of October and February inclusive.

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For those late to the hairy all-hell-let-loose anarchy party, I wrote what happened here, and a few thoughts and motivations here. In retrospect, the first piece generated more light and the second, more heat. Iteration is hard to get right. 

I've recently requested the information stored about me by filing a Subject Access Request to the Park Authority, (something any member of the public can do), paid my tenner, and in the interests of full disclosure I am making that information available here.

I don't own a PDF editor, so this is the whole document as I received it. Note my car is a piece of junk and I no longer live in Glasgow, so if you want to troll me I suggest you come in/correct here... rather than on the UKhillwalking forum or in person! Also, a note that the first few pages refer to a previous communication I had with the CEO about the Glen Falloch hydro works (which is later misrepresented - the CEO approached me first.) The bylaw material starts a few pages in. At any rate, by then I was known to the authorities.

Since you can read the gory details for yourself if you're so disposed, I'll restrict myself to a few reflections and be on my way. 

What the collected information demonstrates to me is the amount of energy expended on my small act of defiance was completely disproportionate to the airtime it received. Should I be flattered? I'd rather the Park Authority get on with looking after the Park; balancing the various needs of wildlife, nature and the people who live there. It's probably more than enough to deal with. I genuinely feel a bit guilty that they spent so much time and energy on managing their look instead. 

It's also clear from the emails documented that many of the details I asked about had not been thought through by the Park before they instituted the bylaw. They were winging it. That doesn't seem a very responsible thing to do to your employees on the ground, never mind to the general public. In that sense, irritants like myself and others 'protesting' about the new restrictions might have actually helped the Park work out what they meant. In PR terms, this became "listening to feedback" later in the year. 

I'm not sure whether it was legal for them to take my vehicle details. Obviously useful if you want to track someone on site - in that sense I don't blame the Rangers, it's a really practical thing to do - but is it legal? What if I sold the car (I think I told you about my car, but go with it for a second), and the new owner drove through the Park? The point is not (just) facetious... it's about what happens to those records; to what end are they held?

Finally, the documentation has reminded me that the Park chose to evade some lines of enquiry altogether, despite due diligence on my part - seeking comment and response from both the Park Authority comms team and their media partner. Nick Kempe's piece, here, draws some of that out again... but it's also remarked upon in the closing paragraphs of my original Walk Highlands piece.

To be as clear as I can, my stunt wasn't about me. At the time, I was aware that I was a useful idiot for some and a less than useful idiot for others. Yes, it was my stunt, and was intended to be illustrative and about principle, but the bylaws affected real people, several hundreds of whom have had since their details taken and a few of whom have been prosecuted.

There was a bit of symbolism to it as well, I'll admit; I heard the brilliant interview Mike Small did with Ian Hamilton around that time - if you want to listen to a real prankster, then you can do no better - and was spurred on to do something by that amazing grain in the voice... in my own small way, in my own small niche. But there are easier ways to be a writer, especially one working in the outdoors. My card is marked with the Scottish National Parks. If you want to get ahead in the tourism industry, kids, keep your head down and stay out of politricks. 

My final point is about communications and the media more generally. In the last few months I've been approached by a number of people who on the face of it were sizing me up for collaborations. We met and had a good natter over coffee. These are, I think, genuinely well intentioned and like minded folk in the conservation sector, looking to gather teams of people together to offer communications services to organisations that might need them. But while their intentions might be fantastic, there is a hint of empire building mirrored by all this activity - on all sides of the debate about how our wild and/or rural places should be cared for - which concerns me. A healthy media needs to be independent and diverse. If we're all corralled into a few pens, then even with the best will in the world the work will find it harder to be investigative, ask questions, be rigorous. It becomes comms, and what is generated is advertising.

Advertising is fine providing journalism survives. Unfortunately, journalism takes a really long time, can be difficult to fund and can produce difficult outcomes, but change only happens because people flag up sometimes awkward realities.

You could say 'yeah, people bigger and better than you, smartarse' (and many did say that... and you and they are right!) ... but we're all of us witnesses in the outdoor community. Yes - even us little people, with our little, lonely wild camps, our sometimes crappy food and our sometimes smelly sleeping bags.

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both camping photos from outside national parks

Boots on the ground

Some recent pictures and a few thoughts (click on the pics to open)

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Since I've been out a bit more over the last few weeks, some thoughts about my photographic footprint have arisen... about what images are for, as well as how I take them. These thoughts aren't new, perhaps just newly expressed. 

I have few rules that I don't break myself at times, but in no particular order...

I try not to give away locations on social media without further context or unless it's important to something else the image is implicated in. The modern take on this seems to be to tell the viewer everything about the location and story behind the picture (imagine the horror, being accused of elitism!)... but that might also have something to do with the machinery of awards, tours, personal gratification, dopamine addiction and income generation. The Buachaille waterfall is an embarrassment to us all, and social media has become the bitter end. I'd rather not be part of photography's growing environmental and psychological footprint... or at least, minimise my own impact.

In other words, "Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints" may no longer be good enough. Ethics should be at the heart of how I make pictures, not an adjunct.

Next, access... the last photo in the next small group was reached after a waist high heather wander at 10pm several degrees below zero, before camping and dinner at midnight, to be 'at the location' at dawn (although the photo here was taken much later). Who would have the patience for that on a big photo tour? Personally I try and avoid the roadside shots and give the guidebooks a miss - there's the matter of boots on the ground, and then there's the matter of developing an art of seeing beyond X marks the spot. Besides, sometimes it's not about the pictures for heaven's sake, it's about being there.

Last, picture making can be about joy, self expression and/or have a social and environmental purpose, or it can promote envy and covetousness. This is not a tick list and I am not a miner. If photography becomes another extraction of finite resources from fragile places then we've truly lost our way. 

post-script/disclaimer (6.3.18) - the timing of this post has nothing whatsoever to do with a national competition just announced (the morning after it was written), and everything do with me getting back to taking a few more pictures after a partial layoff. Like many photographers I have mixed feelings about comps - I did enter this time around, and didn't get a badge, in case your wondering. Very well done to all who were awarded, I think there are some fantastic pictures in the mix.

I told you I was ill

 
 Shot from the hip at Brands Hatch by my stepdad in 1977, ended up as the centre DPS in the Photography of the Year book 1977. We were oh so proud. So was he.

Shot from the hip at Brands Hatch by my stepdad in 1977, ended up as the centre DPS in the Photography of the Year book 1977. We were oh so proud. So was he.

Shortly before Christmas my stepdad went into hospital, and shortly after Christmas he died. He was ill for most of our lives, one way or another, and that takes its toll. Addiction is like sand, it gets into everything.

He didn't leave instructions and so we had to guess. The funeral was a simple affair but had its moments of absurd theatre nonetheless. Functionaries bowed to a wooden box, a suburban woman stood at the front and voiced well-meaning noises in a syrupy cadence. Despite several dry runs I broke down twice while reading the tribute, another bad actor in our family B movie. Nimrod by Elgar stumbled past sounding winded. Outside, the sun shone, not bothered.

We'd organised a small gathering afterward in a local cafe my sister liked, it was a good choice. Kind people we'd never met spoke of someone that they knew and we didn't. They were his brothers and sisters in arms, his other family. For now, the anger subsided, he was theirs too. He sounded reliable. 

Back at the house, we cleared out clothes, medical effects and hoovered up the dust of an old man's life. My mum is still very strong and wanted it done quickly. We emptied drawer corners of hospital histories, exhausted batteries, bent paperclips and rubber bands. I slept in what had become his room, the room in which he died and where I am writing this now, a room which mirrored his entrapment in his body, boxed out methodically with tatty furniture from their old place, shelves stacked neatly and tightly around the bed, a shrinking cell.

I tried to remember a man before the booze, the fights and the fags, the cancers the heart attacks and the COPD. It's not black and white, not just toxic masculinity, the blade cut both ways. 

What I said at the service is reproduced below.

 Kim's game/3 generations of heirlooms/more to worry about than a missing chromosome

Kim's game/3 generations of heirlooms/more to worry about than a missing chromosome

Thank you all for coming today to say goodbye to M. I know he'd be kicking himself for missing you.

M was our stepfather, but to all intents and purposes he was our dad. He was even there when we would rather he wasn't, which if I'm honest with you, was for a while more often than not. 

I had the sense very early in my life that he was a creative person - he painted, took photographs, helped build racing cars. He was even a pretty good gardener, however much he liked to protest about it. Above all, he was interested in how things worked. A bright man, who took joy from understanding the mechanics of life. And I also had the sense, even as a boy, that he was somehow caught up in a job that didn't suit him. He was a salesman who didn't believe in the pitch. I think at times that made him dislike himself, and be difficult to be around.

He did believe in people though - that part of the job suited him. He liked people, wanted to see the best in them. He shared ideas, plants, books and he liked a 'good debate'. He was generous with his time and I know he was a mentor and friend to a huge number of people in our community, many of whom the family didn't know at all. Even though we didn't see much of that side of his life, it's really important that it's acknowledged here, today. I have a sense that he was a confidante and maybe even a role model to many people.

We had a father figure who like many fathers was sometimes present and often absent, but who tried. He volunteered on the committees of clubs we attended, we went on holidays, he helped with the homework and he struggled with the pressures of parenthood. When we were very young, he learned to sit on the side of our bunkbed and read stories. Before he died I saw that same storytelling come out with my own daughter - she keeps talking to me about the big bang theory at the moment. By that point he was a natural, and delighted in her company. As a grandfather he became expert again in building and rebuilding, this time not cars, cameras or garden sheds, but my sister's daughter's playmobil. In these moments I'd like to think he came back to himself a little.

As for me, he gave me photography, part of how I now make my living, but more importantly he helped me slow down enough to see our stupid country through the camera. A mechanism for looking at the world, both good and ill.

Later on, it seemed as if his innate curiosity for life dimmed, and it was very sad, and there was a sense he was waiting, and had no energy and no agency left. When we spoke about his health he called it acceptance, but I wondered if it was fatalism, the same wrestle with control that troubled him when we were young. M wasn't a saint. It turns out that the wisdom to know the difference between what you can change and what you can't might just be the hardest thing. 

Funerals are where stories are told, a ritual that tries to make sense of 'it all' when there's a lot about someone and their life that makes no sense at all. Funerals are for the living, not the dead. How can we make sense of this story? Only to say, whatever time you have, don't waste it.

I got the call that M had died, and then took my daughter sledging. It's what he would have wanted, but we were going anyway.

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