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Behind the Lens: an interview with Simon Murphy

Publication: Greater Govanhill

Simon Murphy photographer

Having travelled the world for his work, photographer and lecturer Simon Murphy has always felt drawn to the place where he grew up: Govanhill. Therein lies the inspiration for his new book, a document of the area he has been shooting for more than 20 years. The book, aptly titled GOVANHILL, is the area’s story told through black-and-white portraits of its residents.

Simon first began his foray into photography after leaving his job as a postman, when the then 19-year-old opted for a photography course at college. He has since traversed continents, been featured in the British Journal of Photography, worked for broadsheets like The Herald and shot figures such as Noel Gallagher and John Hurt.

But it is his gritty street portraits of Govanhill and beyond that he is best known for. According to Simon, the Govanhill project has been in the works for over 20 years. “During my time at the Herald, I’d travelled the world a lot. I’d been to all sorts of places, like Congo, Rwanda, Bangladesh, Colombia. I loved the thrill of travelling. It was a real change in my life because before that I hadn’t really been outside Scotland much, or Glasgow for that matter.

“So, when I left the Herald about 14 years ago and I went into teaching, I loved the job but there was this hunger to be creative. I needed a project that was very close by, and it dawned on me that this project that I’d started about 20 years beforehand, which wasn’t a project at the time, is what I should continue. So, it’s really been for the past 7 years that I’ve thrown myself into it and it’s become the project Govanhill, although I’ve been shooting it for about 20 years.”

As a current resident in Govanhill and having lived here for significant periods of time growing up, Simon’s personal connections to the area serve as central motivation for his desire to accurately represent the neighbourhood and its people.

Simon remarks that “It’s a place that I love because it’s mad. I like that. It excites me, the madness.”

Wanting to make art and creativity more accessible, he has collaborated on outdoor exhibitions with many local businesses and organisations, gifted subjects with copies of his shots, and made much of his work available for free to the public through his social media. The book has already generated significant buzz, with 200 pre-orders having sold out within a matter of hours. “I don’t really want it to sell out I want to see it in a bookshops” Simon jokes. He also hopes that a second edition will be in the works in the near future.

One particular challenge Simon faced was selecting a cover photograph that could succinctly represent both the contents of his book, and Govanhill itself; “I always refer to it as a portrait of the place and no individual that I’ve photographed could sum up the place Govanhill because it’s so diverse, it’s so interesting and so that’s a real challenge.

He eventually landed on a photograph of a local street performer, Seamus, dressed as a rat. “Not one individual could represent Govanhill in that sense, but this picture isn’t really a portrait of a person,” he explains. “It’s a character and the character is quirky, unique, a little bit odd in a way, and all those qualities are qualities I also see in the place Govanhill. It’s why I love Govanhill; because it’s eccentric.”

He concludes that the book is “dedicated to the people of Govanhill. As a photographer, I speak about how you’ve got to have this vision, but you cannot create these photographs alone and especially the nature of these photographs where someone’s looking at me or looking at you, the viewer, with direct eye contact, there’s a collaboration there. We’ve both got to be comfortable, we’ve both got a say in it.

“These pictures wouldn’t have been possible without the trust of the people of Govanhill, without the support and without the way they just got what I was doing. “I hope that the people of Govanhill, diverse as they are, enjoy it and are proud of it.”

Simon Murphy’s exhibition in support of the book will run from 21 October to 27 January 2024. Pre-orders and general release of GOVANHILL are now sold out. For updates on future releases follow Simon and Gomma Store on Instagram.