Irish photographer Jason Higgins readjusts our concept of landscape photography in his series “Black Lung”. Higgins takes us on a tour, of sorts, to the mining town of Castlecomer. But this isn’t a documentary in the classic sense – head shots and scenes of the town wouldn’t fit in here. Rather, Higgins underlines the lasting marks of mining by tailor fitting our vantage point in his images of the mined land and the miners themselves. Created during Higgins’ studies in the MFA – Photography program at the University of Ulster, this photo series attempts to explore the seen and unseen via abstraction, texture, and traces.
Your series “Black Lung” explores coal mining in Ireland. What initially drew you to this subject?
I am primarily interested in developing bodies of work that look at the nature of Ireland and its people. What drew me to ‘Black Lung’ initially was that it was a part of Ireland’s history that is seldom remembered. The collective consciousness, in this hemisphere, tends to relate coal mining to the iconic images of the English and Welsh miners. I also felt that it could provide me with an opportunity to examine rural Ireland outside of the markets and the farmyards and to get a glimpse of a hidden culture that is seldom seen or discussed.
One mining town is featured in this series Castlecomer. Does this place have particular meaning you wished to explore?
I first became aware of coalmining in Ireland through the campaign for compensation by former miners of the Deerpark colliery in Castlecomer. Their campaign was seeking compensation for the damage done to their lungs by the inhalation of coal dust. The period that they would have worked preceded modern Health & Safety regulations that have helped to remove the threat of pneumoconiosis, commonly known as ‘Black Lung’.
The question you hear a lot on the MFA – Photography in Belfast is “What are you trying to say?” What became clear as the project progressed was that what I was saying related to the relationship between man and his environment and how it forms and transforms him. In ‘Black Lung’ that formation and transformation was represented by the damage done to the lungs. Each of these men had different backgrounds, interests and life experiences. To some it was a job; to others it was a way of life that they miss to this day. The one thing that unites them all is their time in the mines. As it was put to me “your worst enemy above ground is your best friend below” I felt that adding in images from other mines would break up this relationship. Because while they all share the fraternity of the mines each mine exists within its own experiences.
The theme of “marks” unites the two landscapes you focus on here: the land and the human body. What difficulties did you encounter while photographing?
I was very fortunate with access. At the beginning I met Seamus Walsh, himself a former miner from a family of miners. He was one of the driving forces behind the campaign. He is also dedicated to keeping the history alive in Castlecomer through their Interactive Discovery Centre. He introduced me to the miners. He introduced me to the farmer who now owns the land that the remains of the Deerpark colliery are on. He even helped get me a location in Castlecomer where I could set up a portable studio to photograph the miners. Without him the logistics of the project would have been much more difficult, if not impossible.
The difficulties I encountered were based around conceptualizing the damage done to the lungs.
On that topic, the close-up viewpoint plays an important role in this series, especially where the body is concerned. Did your photographic perspective evolve throughout the project, or did you envision early on the aesthetic you where aiming for?
It was a long process to arrive at the final aesthetic in ‘Black Lung’. It started out as a colour project in square format but the pictures I was taking were simply terrible. The approach at that stage was a tried and tested method. When I look back on the contact sheets from that period I see myself searching, somewhat desperately, to find an approach.
A few truths became apparent early on. The project was about the men. It was about the damage done to their lungs. It was a portrait project. At that stage I’d met, interviewed, and taken pictures of several of the remaining miners. As I had no idea how to photograph them I made the decision to stop. This had a practical side as well. If I had continued photographing them while trying to find the aesthetic they would have quickly lost interest in helping me. When I actually photographed them I realized I would only have one, maybe two chances to get it right. It was also apparent at this point that it was unnecessary to actually use them to develop the aesthetic. Rather I could develop this independently and then apply it to them.
What followed was a long and drawn out process. I went through a number of ideas on ways to infuse the experience of working in the mines and the damage done to the lungs within the images. These proved to be fruitless, but it was a process I needed to go through.
I took numerous portrait shots full length, quarter length, head and shoulders. I tried every kind of way taking a portrait I could think off. I had a theory that if I could get the subject to talk about something that had a substantial impact on their lives then at a certain point I would see them and be able to photograph them. This again proved to be fruitless, but a process I needed to go through.
What came across in all of these images was that they did not reflect anything. I’d always had an idea of putting the portraits with the shots of the landscape and it was when I started putting the two sets of images together that I began to see the skin, as its own form of landscape. It was a landscape that represented all of their life experiences. But to really show the skin as a landscape I needed to abstract it. To do this I needed to get closer. I did one more portrait session using the Maymia 647 with a macro lens. This allowed me to get really close and produced exquisite detail. The contours of the skin became the landscape that could conceptually represent the unseen damage and scarring done to the lungs of the miners.
Also along the lines of perspective, it’s intriguing how many of the land images have a certain one-dimensional aspect. Yet despite a kind of “flatness”, they are rich with detail and texture. What were you trying to convey with this rather unique approach to landscape photography?
Life in the Deerpark mines has been described to me as: “as near to hell on earth as you are likely to ever experience.” You would lie on your side, in a tunnel not much bigger than your body, digging out the coal, your whole world reduced to one dimension. But the coal you dig out is tens of thousands of years old, rich in history, texture and detail. It’s that relationship that I’m trying to express with those images.
Your photos have very rich blacks that create a beautiful intensity. Technically speaking, how did you make and/or modify these images?
At the beginning of the project I did a lot of experimenting with different types of film and their development. I was attempting at that stage to find a contrast that worked with the concept of the project. I found this to be problematic though as by setting the contrast at that stage I would be unable to change it as the concept developed. I ultimately found that using a neutral negative that captured a wide range of tones was best. I could then build the contrast that I wanted using Photoshop. I use Photoshop much in the same way that I would use the darkroom. Obviously though I have much more control over contrast with Photoshop. The intensity I feel comes from the range of tones available to me from the negative and the ability to then carefully build the contrast.
You’ve exhibited this series in the past. What was your approach for juxtaposing the body and the land via the installation of your photos?
When hung the small landscape images enclose the large portrait shots of the miners’ skin. This is an attempt to reference how our environment forms and dominates us. In contrast to this the large portrait shots reference our belief that we in fact dominate our environment. The tightness of the hang is a metaphor for the narrow tunnels of the mines and the symbiotic relationship that exists between humanity and its environment.
The name of the series comes from one of the marks that can’t be seen – a coal miner’s black lung. Can you tell us more about the exchange between seen and unseen in your project?
This is a great question but I am unable to give a satisfactory answer to it. It will haunt my dreams.
What is the photographic scene like in Belfast (or in Ireland for the matter) for emerging photographers like yourself? Has is it evolved in recent years?
When I did my primary degree in Belfast there really was no photographic scene to speak off. We had Source, Belfast Exposed and the Gallery of Photography but they, on their own, did not make a scene. We had courses but they were more geared to photography as a vocation rather then as an art form. It’s only recently and with the establishment of more art based photography courses at DIT, IADT, and the University of Ulster, which has the only MFA in Photography in Ireland, that a photographic scene has begun to emerge here. At that time two photo festivals also developed. They are of course the Belfast Photo Festival and Photo Ireland. All the ingredients for a scene; students, practitioners, galleries, festivals and magazines, are now here. So we are beginning to see photographic initiatives form. We have graduates organizing photo-book nights and talks. We have collectives such as the Dundalk Photo Factory and the Belfast Photo Factory. Their purpose is to provide a community for graduating photographers.
We’re at the beginning of a new year now – do you have any new projects on the horizon?
I am developing another body of work that intends to look at the dream of the Irish Republic and what it would become. It’s a difficult project and I’m in the early stages of it at the moment trying to envision the aesthetic and perspective to take. I never seem to set myself simple challenges.
Interview by LG