Growing up in the rural expanse of the Yorkshire Moors left Joanne Coates with a longing for city life. She wanted to forget the familiar faces, to break out from being hemmed in.
As soon as she was old enough, she left for London to study photography and get lost in the metropolis.
The reality of urban living came as a bitter shock. The city was a lonely and rootless place. She missed being able to escape into the landscape. Her “funny accent” and country roots left her feeling unable to fit in at art school.
The place she had spent so much time dreaming of leaving became the subject of her work; more than that, the idea of home became “a refuge”.
Joanne now recognises “a connection to place, a sense of being within the landscape” as a common thread running through her practice. Her camera is a tool with which to visualise the stories she is drawn to.
In recent years, her focus has been trained on Orkney in the far north of Scotland. Here, she reflects on her project We Live By Tha’ Water, where the Isles act as a metaphor for the spaces between what is visible and what is known.
The unsettled foundations of her approach let a sense of playfulness unfurl, with ruptures and interruptions allowing aspects of mystery to guide a darkly ambiguous narrative.
“Oceanus breathes ever with a West wind that sings softly from the sea, and gives fresh life to all men.”
The Odyssey, Homer
The line could easily be about Orkney’s West Coast. In Yesnaby the Atlantic Ocean meets the West Orcadian cliffs, with nothing but sea for miles and miles.
When I tell people down south that I’ve been making work in Orkney, the first question they tend to ask is “Where?”
I point out the two masses of land at the top of Scotland, explaining that one is Shetland and the other is Orkney. The islands are unique places with Norse origins, where legend is still very much a part of everyday life.
I first visited Orkney during my fresher's year of University. I was working on a project about the fishing industry which turned into a long-form documentary entitled North Sea Swells. It was about a dying culture and a different way of life.
Several commissions brought me back. The Isles are often referred to as the magnetic north – it’s a pull I can vouch for.
I began working on We Live By Tha’ Water in January 2016, spending the first half of the year living in Orkney before work in Hull brought me back to Yorkshire.
People asked where I’d been and what the series was about. I told them different stories. It’s a poetic approach, an appreciation of island life. It’s about the beautiful moments amongst the bleak ones.
It’s about exploring my own mind in the midst of breakdown, looking at mental erosion and a deep-rooted anxiety with contemporary society.
Sometimes I said it was about remoteness and escapism. I explained that it was about an egalitarian way of living, a document on a way of life known to few. It was about being drawn to unique landscapes, to the edges, to hinterlands both mental and physical.
I now see that it’s about all these things - having the ability to appreciate both the bleak and the beautiful.
Stories reveal the mysteries in our world; the things that have not and perhaps never will be discovered.
When making these works, I took the decision to look both inward and outward.
As the Orcadian writer George McKay Brown wrote: “The imagination is not an escape, but a return to the richness of our true selves, a return to reality.”
Joanne Coates was raised in a rural area in Northern England. Her interest lies more with a visual prose, an appreciation of rurality, and using connection to place as a practice in itself. She identifies with the marginalised, and the edges. She graduated from the BA (Hons) Photography at London College of Communication in 2015.