Kim says she hopes her portraits — which feature families with some “visual differences” between their members — will encourage viewers to revisit their engrained ideas of what it looks like to be Scottish.
Emily von Hoffmann: “Girls and Their Mothers” is one part of the larger Exottish project. What does “Girls and Their Mothers” entail? Who are these women?
Kim Simpson: “Girls and Their Mothers” is a collection of portraits of mixed race girls, of all ages, with their mothers — 48 portraits featuring 16 different families in a mix of individual and group portraits.
Instead of questioning their ancestry or scrutinizing their appearance, I chose to photograph girls and women of mixed heritage and their mothers with an intent to question social perception. These images display their relationships, linking these girls and their mothers together while at the same time respecting their disparity.
I photograph each person individually, and then take a shot of mother and daughter together. When they were reunited in front of the camera, the barriers come down and the nerves melt away, leaving authentic interaction.
The images have been converted to black and white to symbolically remove any color differences, with the addition of a warm tone further connect and emphasize the loving family bond.
EvH: The project examines exoticism and visual stereotypes that mixed heritage individuals are routinely subjected to in Scotland. You appear Caucasian, and your daughter is of mixed heritage. Can you share with us a little bit about how your personal experiences shaped this project?
KS: Scotland as a country has such strong national iconology, that the idea of what a Scottish person may or may not look like can be pre-programmed.
My daughter is now 12, and through the years there have been so many questions and comments from people in between the usual niceties that strangers express towards a parent and their child. Things like “oh she is cute, but they are all cute aren’t they?” along with people assuming my daughter was adopted, asking her if she was lost when she was stood right beside me, people pointing and following us round supermarkets, and touching her hair. I could go on. By themselves, these acts are usually not intentional or meant to cause upset, but over the course of my daughter’s childhood so far, I have questioned what impact this might have had on the formation of her self identity and a sense of belonging.
This project was born out of equal parts of frustration and love. For all that society at times seems to want to divide us because we don’t match visually, we are a regular family behind closed doors with no color divide in our relationship. The project is essentially about getting that across.
EvH: What is one specific moment in which you realized that this issue deserves greater attention and discussion?
KS: Before my daughter started high school, she had a hellish last year in primary school, where I think hormones had gone wild in a bunch of 10/11 year olds, and unfortunately that often erupted in racist insults directed towards my daughter. The class teacher was just awful and no support at all. She showed such a lack of even a willingness to try to understand or give support, and even told me that she felt that my daughter had brought some of this abuse on herself! The fact that this attitude was allowed without punishment really demonstrated to me the need for discussion on the subject. I began photographing this series, and others through the larger umbrella project called Exottish, which explores the concept of the other in our society.
When planning the exhibition of these images, it was important for me to include venues which were easily accessible such as libraries as well as two art galleries, to ensure I accessed and engaged people on a community level, and to ensure I reach as wide an age range as possible.
EvH: Is it your impression that this particular treatment of mixed heritage individuals is especially bad in Scotland? Have you been traveling with your daughter and felt that climate change, either for better or worse?
KS: I would imagine that this issue is prevalent in many predominantly white towns and cities across the world. Scotland is a very friendly and welcoming country. Our nearest city is Glasgow, which is known as the friendly city and has just been voted one of the top 20 destinations to visit by National Geographic. Its actually a great place to live, but obviously not everyone is as well travelled or educated as the next person, which I think really is the root issue of the comments which I have mentioned. It’s lack of a diverse life experience.
We travel as often as we can, and have found that we are quite invisible in more diverse cities such as London. I had a small taste of being ‘the other’ when we visited family in Nigeria in 2007 — It’s probably the closest I’ll come to understanding exactly what it is like for my daughter to be the face that stands out in a crowd.
EvH: What sort of national dialogue, or vocabulary even, around race and appearance exists in Scotland? Is it discussed in school, for instance? I’m interested in thinking about this in comparison to the current Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S., and the greater mainstream attention to identity issues of multiracial individuals.
KS: Black Lives Matter is extremely relevant in Scotland, especially at the moment. We have had an awful tragedy that saw the senseless end of Sheku Bayoh’s life at the hands of police officers as he was suffocated during an arrest in Fife, Scotland. Justice has not been served in this instance and it echoes all the hallmarks of what has been going on across the water with concerns of interactions between police officers and members of the black community.
The difference between our nations is that we in Scotland are at the beginnings of having our own literature, our own studies, or our own novels which have been written on the mixed race experience. Time passes and things improve though so I am sure that discussion and exposure will change that.
I’m collaborating on a project currently with a creative writer which I’m really excited about.
EvH: This project comprises portraits of 16 families with some “visual differences” among their members. How did you go about finding these families? What was it like to meet them?
KS: I have a great network of friends from all walks of life who helped spread the word for me, and also the live TV appeal for people to get involved was great exposure for the project. It was great to spend time with the families to find out their reaction to the project, and also to hear of their own experiences which differed greatly although we were all from differing pockets surrounding the same city.
It was really interesting for me, and very inspiring for my daughter to speak with mixed race women who had grown up in Scotland, having had similar experiences and grown up to be strong successful women. Its just been great to explore this with others who perhaps have the same questions or concerns as I do.
EvH: Why did you ultimately decide to focus on mother and daughters, rather than include other family members as well?
KS: This was a personal exploration and a reflection of my own circumstances. I am a single mother with one daughter and so I wanted to celebrate the bond between mother and daughter, as that is what I know. The old saying goes that all girls become their mothers, so it was interesting to concentrate on this relationship to see if public perception is the same when racial identities are different.
Time will tell on the reaction to the exhibitions. The truth is, I’ve learned that there are so many aspects of the mixed race experience to consider, I’ll explore further through my Exottish project.
EvH: Can you share one or two of your favorite images from the collection, and the situation surrounding them?
KS: The images are all very special to me, as the prints are a record of the time spent with each family. Some were strangers and some were friends of friends but I consider them all now as my friends. They all had their own stories and experiences which could be emotional to hear.
I have to include this shot of Bene and Kilali. It just illustrates the inspiration behind the entire body of work perfectly. Such a strong connection between the two transcends any perceived racial identity barriers, as I found with all of the families who took part.
Meeting Ruth and Mia was a great experience — Ruth had many compelling experiences to share from her own childhood that resonated with the experiences that my own daughter has had. I adore their together image, which although posed, is relaxed and shows such a wonderful bond.
I shot individual portraits followed by a together shot afterwards. The individual portraits are a little more stoic than the together images as I have separated them in an unfamiliar environment, and then in the knowledge that the together image is the last shot, both mother and child visibly relaxed in front of the camera to give natural expressions which are a mix of candid, posed or un-posed shots, depending on their own personalities.
EvH: Do you have plans to continue exploring these themes in future work?
KS: Yes, I found this really rewarding and worthwhile and the more I can educate myself and others all the better. I have had a lot of interest from council and government bodies who are interested in finding a way to incorporate my work in to their racial equality training which is just so great. For now I’m focusing my attention on Girls and their Mothers and the upcoming exhibitions which begin in February 2016 and will be the first time the whole collection is viewed together. I’m really excited to show the images to everyone who has taken part. They have all seen their own together images, but not everyone else’s.
East Kilbride Arts Centre | 4th-28th Feb 2016 (preview evening 3rd Feb)
Trongate 103 | 3rd-27th March 2016
Hillhead Library Exhibition Space | 9th April — 22nd May 2016
East Kilbride Library Exhibition Space | 28th May — 30th June 2016