When we think of off-the-grid communities, we often forget about the places which are “off-the-grid” simply because of their natural placements in the world, like the tiny island of Tanera Mòr in the breathtaking Inner Hebrides of Scotland. Tanera Mòr is a self-sufficient island which was inhabited until a few years ago — it was just recently purchased and a process is currently in the works to inhabit the island once more.
Tanera is the documentary project by photographer Kevin Percival, who is hugely influenced by his formative years spent in rural Derbyshire. Currently based in London, Percival moved to the island a few years ago following some huge not-all-positive life changes. Out of the move, he began to document and essentially immortalise the rural community: the people and the landscapes, the traditions and modern changes, our romantic notions of the Sublime landscape and the very real difficulties and challenges of living self-sufficiently.
Tanera is featured today on of the land & us: read our interview with Percival below!
Percival is currently crowdfunding to produce his project as a book — don’t miss out, there’s only 3 days left to get involved! Find the Kickstarter here.
First things first, tell us a bit about yourself.
I grew up in rural Derbyshire and I think that this is probably the single biggest influence on my photography.
Growing up there obviously has some fantastic benefits. The landscapes are incredible, and looking back now, it was amazing to be able to go out as a kid and pretty much go wherever I wanted, exploring the lanes, dales and more.
But there were also a lot of problems; if you wanted to get anywhere further than walking distance — forget it! Until you could drive, your options were limited to about 3 buses a day. It was isolated.
So I’ve always felt quite passionate about rural issues, both the environmental and the socio-political. My approach is to try and appreciate the Romanticism of the countryside or ‘wilderness’, but to also try and talk about those other issues. To me it’s all intertwined and you can’t get away from it, so I love to see work which look at places in thorough or multi-layered ways.
I now work as a commercial photographer in London, which doesn’t leave a lot of time to explore this kind of work! However, it has added another dimension to the work I make. I’ve always been a bit of a career chameleon and I’m interested in basically everything, so the work I’ve been making since moving here has been very different: in tone, scope, subject matter — everything.
I think that the rural influence will always be there — it’s an inescapable part of who I am — but I’m not interested in just being ‘the black and white rural issues guy’.
What’s your story?
I started taking pictures when I was pretty young but didn’t get my first “proper” camera until I was about 16 — a film SLR. I started out doing painting and dabbling in sculpture, and photographs were a way of getting reference material. Gradually it became more for me.
My earliest art loves were Romantic painters like Casper David Friedrich and Turner, or the impressionists like Monet, Manet and Cezanne. It was only after I had “properly” got into photography though that I think I truly started to appreciate painting… maybe it was all the art theory at university.
What was the motivation behind your project Tanera?
My partner and I moved to this amazing island just off the West coast of Scotland. A number of different things came together at the same time, which fed into this work. I started out just taking pictures, not really knowing what the project was about and why I was doing it — I was just taking photographs of everyday landscapes.
Slowly I began to see patterns in what I was choosing to shoot. Having never been much of a portrait photographer, I suddenly realised I was most interested in a layering effect of human traces, on and also within the landscapes. I was photographing landscapes that were all about people, so it made sense to show some of the people.
Before the move, I had spent years living in Stoke-on-Trent and was just coming out of a 2 year period where I’d taken no pictures whatsoever. Life was still pretty messy. I had graduated from my degree a year after the financial crash, and had been working in warehouses for those two years, trying to scrape together enough hours each week.
I started doing some freelancing on the side, and I was finally contracted as a photographer in studio… three months later, I was made redundant and the studio closed.
I was incredibly gutted. From that perspective, moving to rural Scotland felt like returning to my roots and getting away from all that. It completely restarted my personal practice. I was already developing a bit of an obsession with small islands (I have another collaborative project about the Isle of Man, which may eventually see the light of day…!) but the situation in Tanera was so unique and specific.
It felt important to me to document something of this place: everyone who visited, lived on or had been in some way involved with Tanera, brought something with them and contributed to the fabric of the place. It seemed to have an incredible draw for people.
It is off-the-grid and much of the Highland and island history is oral history; there was already a lot of change happening and so it felt essential to try and record it all. The way the island exists is very modern, with attempts at generating sustainable power and tree-planting programmes, yet it somehow has this timelessness too.
What was your experience like living there?
We went there to work on the island, as deputy managers of the various businesses associated with it — catering for residential courses, running a cafe and post office, running a sailing school, general maintenance and looking after the place.
Living there was incredible. The island is tiny (about a mile by a mile and a half) and not far from the mainland, so you get a kind of intimate, self-contained world, but within sight of majestic Scottish mountains.
Walking, kayaking and sailing were pretty much readily available, any day. Having said that, it was very isolated. In bad weather, it didn’t really matter that through the sheeting rain we could still see the mainland; there was no way to get there, so we might as well have been 100 miles away.
The lack of other people, who weren’t customers, was quite difficult too. I am lucky in that I can be happy with my own company, but for many it can get depressing and lonely. My girlfriend struggled until she started writing a novel.
You often don’t feel like your time is your own, because all transport and activity is dictated by the weather and tides. This can be both freeing and frustrating. You find that life gets much simpler and basic, as the island is effectively off-grid.
You have to consider your immediate necessities: food, water treatment system, electricity generators, fuel for the fires… and so I found myself not really worrying about usual things that I would worry about in London, like money and if I would get enough work. At the same time, jobs would often have to be delayed and trips to the mainland were limited. We got very good at stocking up with enough food for a month!
Why did you choose to shoot in black and white film?
Shooting black and white just felt right for this project. I started out shooting a lot of colour, but it quickly became clear that black and white was more appropriate. I wanted to reference the romantic notions that we have of the Scottish Wilderness, and I also wanted to acknowledge the amazing documentary photography on the Highlands and islands that has come before, from the likes of Chris Killip, Paul Strand, Chick Chalmers and Tom Kidd.
Additionally, black and white shows the landscape in a unique way. By stripping out the colour you can really focus on the shapes and textures. Since I was looking at traces in the landscape, often these show up better without the colour information. So things like lazy beds and peat cutting all became much more evident in black and white.
I find that shooting with film also slows me right down and forces me to really consider what I am looking at, and I like that it makes me do this. Also you can effectively hear the pound coins falling away every time you press the shutter…
What are you up to next?
I am currently crowdfunding on Kickstarter to produce and self-publish a book of the project, which I’m aiming to release in January. I’ve had a show of Tanera at Rhue Gallery near Ullapool, in the Highlands, over the last two months. This is moving to two other venues to be part of Flow Photofest and St Andrews Photo Festival during September.
I’m also working full-time at the moment, and I have about four other project ideas, and three collaborations, that are floating around at various stages of completion/inception…
What is currently inspiring you?
I always struggle with this question as there is just so much. I’m lucky to be surrounded by so many excellent photographer friends and colleagues who are all producing stunning work.
Photo Scratch is an amazing peer-review event which takes place in London every few months, and I find myself constantly inspired by the creativity and conversation there.
Most of the photography I really love is work that is best in a series — for example I am currently loving work by Diana Matar, Alvaro Laiz, and Mandy Barker.
At the moment, I’m also reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck. His understanding of America is so rich and nuanced and I feel that it’s surprisingly relevant, given the political situation at the moment and the constant marginalisation of the rural working class in particular. He also deals with a lot of rural issues, albeit of a slightly different kind to those we have in the UK.