The Western Isles work of award-winning Munich-based photographer Laetitia Vancon - entitled At The End Of The Day – is forming part of the first International Woman Photography Award exhibitions this month in Japan's capital city, Tokyo.
Laetitia, pictured above in the Foyer Project in Stornoway - is one of 60 women photographers from across the world shortlisted for an award. More then 600 photographers entered their work, from 82 countries.
In 2017, Laetitia’s documentary photo series depicting life in the Outer Hebrides popped up in publications around the globe, appearing in The New York Times, National Geographic, and Buzzfeed. It made her name known worldwide and she has been commissioned by the New York Times several times since then.
Yet Laetitia had never heard of the Hebrides until she came across Lewis writer Kevin MacNeil’s novel, The Stornoway Way. While she was reading it, a friend showed her a tourism brochure for the islands, one depicting stunning scenery but with no mention of the community, and certainly no hint of the scenarios played out in the pages of MacNeil’s novel.
The more Laetitia read about the islands, the more she wanted to know: “I needed to check by myself what was going on.”
Her first visit came in January 2016, when she stayed on Lewis for a month-and-a-half – her first ever visit to Scotland – followed by another period in the summer where she visited Uist and Barra, too. “I wanted to have the different mood,” Laetitia told EVENTS newspaper last year. “The winter is less calm of course, the weather is pretty rough. But I really love it, I really prefer the winter time. I really like the land at this moment.”
Laetitia made local connections first through social media and the sharing economy (she stayed with the only two Couch Surfing hosts on the island), and later through the more traditional method of the island grapevine. “I meet a few people… and from these people I just meet other people, and it makes a snowball. Some people heard about it and contacted me, so I went with the flow. I end up I have too many people!” she laughs.
Because the entire expedition had to be done on a shoestring budget, Laetitia is really grateful to a whole range of people throughout the Islands, who provided accommodation, transport and support to enable her to pursue her project vision.
The photographer, whose previous documentary projects took her to Albania and Turkey came to the islands with questions, not preconceived ideas. “How is it to grow up in the smallest community? Is it supportive, or not? And how does this remote place still shape your identities? It was more a question mark. I didn’t come with answers, and I don’t really want to give an answer, because I’m nobody to give an answer.”
“All my projects are linked to something really personal. On this one it’s about the questioning of how do you define your identity? And how do you view your identity?” For Laetitia, who grew up in a French Air Force family, home never had a distinct meaning. “We were moving all the time. The places never really had a huge impact because I was changing places all the time.”
As a result, in the Outer Hebrides she “was fascinated by how the young people were completely happy being where they were. I found them rooted.” It was this idea of identity and place, and the choices facing young people in the islands as they reach 18 – do they stay, or do they go? – that Laetitia found interesting, and became the crux of her project.
Laetitia’s subjects are often positioned in empty moorland under moody skies, remarkable images that depict brothers striding through the moors in kilts; friends approaching a dilapidated sheiling; a young girl staring at the lens as if in defiance. But when viewed in the context of the project, and the overall philosophy behind her work, they feel different – a very personal work of art that asks young people in the islands what they think about their identity, their culture, and their home.
The reaction from the community towards her project was a largely positive one. Laetitia left with close friends. “I fell in love with the people there… I don’t know if I was lucky, but the people I met there were really welcoming, trustful, and open-minded. They were really curious of what I wanted to do, and how I wanted to do it.”
Putting the camera in the hands of young people themselves was something Laetitia did during her third stay in the Hebrides, when she partnered with Western Isles Foyer to run a photography workshop for their service users. She wanted to focus on the young people who, for whatever reasons, do not have the opportunity to leave the island. Six young people took part in the workshop in March 2017, with their final work displayed in a mini exhibition.
Similar themes that ran through her previous project, My Home, My Prison, where she documented the lives of an Albanian family confined to their home for 20 years because of a blood feud. Here, Laetitia was again thinking of identity. “How do you shape your identity when you are locked inside your house? When you cannot have any school friends, education, anyway, because you cannot go to school? When the only person you know is your family – how you don’t get mad in life?”
Thanks to the press surrounding the story – Laetitia was awarded the 2015 Blumm Pomilio Prize at the Italian Embassy in Brussels, among other accolades – the family were able to get asylum rights in Belgium, and Laetitia is still in contact with them.
At The End of The Day provided a change of pace for the photographer after Albania. “I wanted something where I have a more natural position, because the people are choosing their life, and they have the choice of what they do; it’s in their hands, not mine,” says Laetitia of the nature of working on At The End of the Day. “I’m just observing, and it’s a completely different relationship.”
Regardless of the outcome, Laetitia knows she will return to the Outer Hebrides. “I will go back anyway to see the people, because now I have friends there.”