Photographer Donald MacLellan has taken a fascinating snapshot of Scottish society by documenting the lives of his childhood pals from Mallaig as they all turned 50
Born in 1967 and raised in the West Highlands, Donald MacLellan studied photography at Salisbury College of Art and spent several years assisting established photographers before setting up as a freelance for national newspapers and magazines. He has worked as a portrait photographer for 25 years mainly photographing actors, writers, artists and celebrities. His most recent project brought him full circle for an exhibition to mark his 50th birthday which he shared with his fellow school pupils who also turned 50 in 2017.
What gave you the idea to document the lives of your classmates at 50?
The inspiration came from re-discovering my 1980 class photograph on show at the Mallaig Heritage Centre. The concept developed based around what we told the careers officer before we left school, and the choices we’ve made since – what we’ve achieved and how we earn a living.
Did it feel like a very personal project?
It’s been a very personal project, I was initially nervous that none of my former classmates would want to be involved. But as it has transpired they generously gave me their time to allow me to photograph and interview them and for that I am deeply grateful, as it has been the most humbling and rewarding experience of my working life.
How is My Class @ 50 different from your usual projects?
These portraits, unlike my previous exhibitions, aren’t about power and influence but about opportunities and choices.
Was it a challenge to track down the girls and boys in that iconic school photo?
It took over 18 months to track down all of those that appear in the exhibition and I travelled over 3,000 miles across Britain, and Ireland to photograph the girls and boys from the original class photograph, who turned 50 in 2017.
What were the technical challenges of creating a unified collection of images?
From a creative and technical perspective, I challenged myself by using a fixed set-up. Influenced by August Sander, the early 20th century portrait and documentary photographer, I set the tripod and lighting at the same height on each shot, using a fixed lens and camera settings. Each former classmate was positioned in the centre of a landscape frame with their workplace as the backdrop. My aim was to capture a glimpse of today’s working environments and record them for future posterity.
What do you think the exhibition says about Mallaig and your childhood there?
We each have our own story to tell and this is outlined in a short interview accompanying each portrait giving an insight into our hopes, dreams and lives. The pictures and words offer a snapshot of social change, reflecting the demise of traditional industries, like fishing, and the shift towards the service sector and tourism.
Why did you decide to launch the project in Mallaig?
It seemed like the natural choice as it’s where I grew up and went to school. I have a deep connection and love of the area and it will allow many of those in the exhibition and their families the chance to visit it and explore where their former classmates are and what they are doing.
What’s next for you?
I would very much like to see the My Class @ 50 exhibition tour other galleries and venues in Scotland. I think we all can identify with the experience of being thrown together for that intense learning period due purely to an accident of birth and those relationships and shared experiences affect us for the rest of our lives even though we pursue very different paths.
So if there is anyone out there that would like to discuss having the exhibition please get in touch.
Apart from that, I’ve just finished having a retrospective of my previous exhibitions at a gallery down south and hopefully that will travel and maybe end up in Scotland. Later this year I will be starting the research into another project which will be very different, back to those power and influence people!
My Class @ 50 is at the Mallaig Heritage Centre, until 31 October. For any enquires about displaying the My Class @ 50 exhibition in the future contact the curator at the Mallaig Heritage Centre, email@example.com