Alicia Bruce is an Edinburgh based award-winning socially engaged photographer and Photography educator. Her work has been widely published including in The Times, BBC News, The Scotsman and STV News. Alicia’s work is also part of the collections at National Galleries of Scotland and the RSA.
Passionate about social change, Alicia’s determined to portray the people in her photographs as mutual collaborators. Alicia’s photographic campaign ‘Violence Unseen’ captured Shadow Home Secretary and Labour MP Diane Abbott’s experience of relentless racist trolling and Abbott’s stoic and calm strength.
Alicia runs Portobello Photo School offering practical support and engaging students enthusiastically in her love of Photography.
Her portrait of SNP MP Mhairi Black (the youngest in Parliament) - whose rousing speeches about social justice have gone vira - was recently part of the 209 Women MP exhibition and book.
What first attracted to you to Photography and how did that journey unfold into your many projects, portraits and commissions?
The darkroom was what first got me hooked on photography - a friend taught me to print and the excitement of seeing the image appear in the developer led to a change in life direction. I went to Aberdeen College to do an HND then on to Edinburgh Napier to do a degree in Photography and Film. I worked long hours out with college and university in order to fund my studies and pay for accommodation so it was never an easy path but luckily, I now get to work predominantly in photography and photo education. It was never a straight path but on the way I’ve met some supportive people and organisations who have enabled me in sharing the campaigns I care about.
Why do you think it's important to collaborate with the subjects in your portraits?
Because if I’m telling someone’s story through a photograph they should be fully involved in their representation and feel empowered in how they choose to be represented. Collaboration also allows a dialogue about the process and what we want the photograph to say. Some collaborations are more in depth than others but the interaction between me and the sitter always has a degree of collaboration. For my ‘Menie: TRUMPED’ project I was collaborating with a Scottish community who were being misrepresented by the media and personally belittled by Donald Trump. I got to know them over a whole summer before I made portraits and everyone chose a painting to appropriate which they felt chimed with their situation. This process gave us the opportunity to give the same thought and attention to detail and symbolism in each portrait that a painting would have. I wanted to give them the same sort of attention.
Could you tell me more about your Violence Unseen project and why you think it's important to highlight the abuse suffered by women worldwide - for example MP Diane Abbott?
Violence Unseen was a commission to mark 25 years since Zero Tolerance launched an unforgettable campaign to end men’s violence against women in Scotland. It was only two years since rape in marriage had become a criminal offence. The original campaign in 1992 was photographed by Franki Raffles, she paired empowering black and white tableaux images of women and girls with shocking text and facts which drew attention to hidden violence. That campaign had a big impact on me personally when I first saw it at school so I jumped at the chance to do the commission.
With Diane Abbott MP I wanted to highlight the fact she gets up and stands in Parliament, as she has done for over 30 years in spite of the highest percentage of abuse towards any MP and the sheer volume of trolling, death threats, misogyny and racism. She has amazing inner strength and outer calm and it felt right to show her, a symbol of progress and change, in front of Westminster, an old political building being held up by scaffolding. Intersectionality was important for this campaign, as was raising awareness of the different acts of violence against women and patriarchal structures which allow it. Violence against women can be portrayed as black eyes and bruises, as arguments getting out of hand but it’s often far more complex and hidden. Practices such as FGM, forced marriage and internet trolling are all forms of violence against women.
You have led many community photography workshops throughout the years - why do you think Photography naturally lends itself to social engagement?
Because photography is one of the most accessible and democratic mediums. I also genuinely love doing workshops. Photography isn’t the only element of workshops but it brings people together and allows for other discussions to happen. Two years ago I collaborated with a group of members of Crisis who had experienced homelessness in Edinburgh. We made still life images of significant and cherished objects for billboards around Edinburgh and an exhibition in the lead up to Edinburgh Festival. The photographs were made using a twin lens reflex camera and the participants learned the whole process of analogue photography, controlling available light and making symbolic, meaningful photographs. With those workshops it was important for me that the photographers would leave with additional skills and some work for their portfolios as well as feeling empowered by the whole process.
Your entry to the 209 Women MP exhibition was a portrait of Mhairi Black and you also photographed Anneliese Dodds MEP with her baby - why do you think it's important to show women in positions in power?
We still have a very long way to go in challenging the gender inequalities in this world but I think it’s important to celebrate anyone who challenges the status quo and advocates for human rights. I also think it’s important to show women, and all individuals as themselves and not trying to fit a mould which was set up by and for another gender, people should be represented as themselves. Mhairi Black is also the youngest MP, she’s outspoken, unashamedly herself and unflinching and, for me, really breaks the traditional mould of ‘old school’ politics.
I’ve known Anneliese for a very long time and she also breaks the mould of political stereotypes with her compassion and dedication to her constituents (which both these women have). She brought Isabella to the European Parliament as she was breastfeeding on demand and was determined to fight Brexit. These roles don’t have maternity leave in place so women are forced to choose between politics and motherhood or doing both. The systems have been set up by men and they’re archaic. I have so much admiration for Anneliese, the moment of her pushing the pram past Churchill’s cut-out with her travellers back-pack straight into the parliament to fight Brexit felt very symbolic of a sea change. I also had my baby with me that week. Jo Cox was murdered less than two weeks after I took those pictures so I didn’t show the images I’d made for a very long time.
Can you tell me more about East Lothian community commissions?
I’m working on a couple of photographic commissions for East Lothian community hospital with one of the main bodies of work destined for the palliative care ward. The images are a tribute to an orchard on one of the old hospital sites. The buildings are protected but the orchard isn’t so it felt right to pay tribute to this. A different element of the work will also be installed at the entrance to the Mental Health Outpatients Department. The hope is that the work installed will help provide some respite for the patients, staff and visitors. Thoughtfully made and installed artwork in hospitals has been proven to reduce stress. This work is being made as part of a wider arts programme with several artists making work for the new building.