Alicia Bruce – The Sim Project and Political Photography
Alicia Bruce is an award winning photographer whose controversial project, Menie: A Community in Conflict helped to tell the residents’ side of the story and bring attention to the environmental impact of the development of the land around Menie in Aberdeenshire, when it was turned into a giant golf course by Donald Trump. Her work was acquired by National Gallery Scotland in Feb 2011. The photo 'Mike and Sheila Forbes: Mill of Menie' has just gone on display.
Alicia’s latest project, supported by the Morton International Photography Award, is called The Sim Project, a global project that looks at the robotic patients used for medical teaching and training. For this series of work, Alicia travelled from her residency at the Scottish Clinical Simulation Centre in Fourth Valley Hospital to centres in New York, North America and Canada.
Alicia is hardworking and always incredibly busy; 35 weeks pregnant, has her work featured as part of RSA’s 189th Annual Exhibition and heaps of attention for her work. Yet somehow we manage to get some time to talk and it was a real pleasure.
You’ve got a lot on at the moment, being pregnant, having a solo show at the RSA, all the media attention, its all great stuff! How are you coping with it all?
I’m really glad it’s happening now! I was a little concerned the show was going to happen in summer, which would’ve been much trickier to fit in. Sim Scenario was shot in March marking the end of this phase of the project. I’m now looking at sponsorship opportunities to continue as well as building contacts.
So where did it all begin, how did you become a photographer?
I was studying social sciences when I was a teenager and my friend had set up a darkroom and asked me if I wanted to have a go of it. Another one of my friends had just had a baby and so my friend taught me how to develop photographs and the ones I developed were of my other friend’s baby. It was magic seeing the image appear out in the developer. I knew immediately that this was what I want to do!
I worked really hard throughout getting my degree. I worked 20 to 30 hours a week at my job in Beyond Words Photographic Bookshop in Edinburgh to fund my studies. I was also doing an internship at the Stills Gallery. I knew there was no way I was going to be able do it after I graduated alongside work and so I had to find a way to fit it in. Looking back it was an incredible amount of work. I can hardly believe that I did it. But it was totally worth it. Doing the internship and the job gave me a wider perspective of what it is to be an artist and an insight into the industry. I also got the chance to work with photographers like Fay Godwin, Albert Watson, Martin Parr and John Blakemore.
The biggest learning curve, though it took a few years after graduating and a few rejection letters for the penny to drop, was all about getting your work out there, having it seen by people. There’s no use having it under your bed and hoping opportunity will knock!
Do you find that social media helps with that now, helps to get peoples work out there, has it helped you?
I didn’t actually get on Twitter until 2011! A friend told me to get on Twitter because the Menie Project was trending! I try to encourage my students to use it because it is a really useful tool. It’s great for connecting to the wider creative community. Being any kind of artist can be really isolating, because you are working on your own for a lot of the time. It’s good to speak to other people who are doing it too and at the same time! I’m using it less these days because I’m not commuting as much.
Personal identities play a big role in your work. With the Menie Project each member of the community was photographed according to the person’s identity, which really helped make them stand out, as opposed to having been lumped in together. Your photographs pulled out their personalities and gave them their dignity back. Catriona McAra’s quote on your website mentions your work in the context of your Scottish identity. Do you think this is accurate, is your work distinctly Scottish?
Thank you! Well, I think when Catriona wrote that it was certainly true at the time, as I had just been working on the Menie project and other Scottish projects. After Menie I worked on a residency commissioned by Ffotogallery in Blaenavon, South Wales. The proposal for this was based a painting by the Scottish artist William Dyce. Purely by coincidence, I had set up some shoots near the end of the residency on the hilltops at Foxhunter to find heather had come out! With the Morton Award I sought to expand my practice working with a global community rather than a geographically rooted one. The Sim Project has connected me to people all over the world with shared values working with medical simulation. I also used the award as an opportunity to develop my skills as a film maker.
With the current developments in robotics it would seem that there is a re-joining of art and science.
Yes I think so, the SimMen are amazing as objects and there is a definite sci-fi kinetic sculptural quality to them.
Using the Sim-men could be a very surreal experience, on one hand you know that it isn’t real and on the other, there needs to be some suspension of disbelief so that you can learn the right way of dealing with things. What was it like for you as an experience to be a part of that? What did you find fascinating about it?
I’m interested in the tension between the hospital theatre and the theatrical performance possibilities of the simulation scenarios. During a Sim scenario doctors are being critiqued by peers who watch the scenario in a nearby classroom so there’s a lot of pressure to perform well. In some cases it’s life or death! The scenarios have all the tension of a medical drama such as ER. The assessors would write a scenario with the Sim Men and set it up in the room accordingly. The doctors entering the room have 15minutes to make a diagnosis and try to save the sim-patient’s life. I was particularly impressed by how calm they were able to remain under pressure.
Were there times when things went wrong? Did you find the doctors had an emotional buy-in with the Sim Men?
Oh definitely! One doctor who was playing a patients partner in a scenario was holding the sim-person’s hand throughout a scenario in which a life could not be saved, he looked visibly upset. Afterwards I said to him, your acting is incredibly convincing, you looked like it was really happening to you! His response? He’d seen the same scenario happen in real life too many times and felt just as helpless.
Did you ever have to help anyone feel more comfortable in front of the camera?
During the initial stages on The Sim Project I observed several Sim scenarios involving medical staff and students. I introduced myself at the start of each session, provided model release forms and information about the project to people involved. This means I can retain their contact information and can let them know if their image is exhibited or published. People are generally generous and willing to participate. It was staff training essentially, so I just stayed at the very edge of the room and stayed quite, tiptoe-ing around with the camera. As it’s such an intense kind of training they often didn’t even notice I was there. At the end of a scenario, they would suddenly see me and say, ‘Oh yeah, you’re here!’
It helped to reinforce to them just how cool their jobs are, because I was approaching the centres from an artistic point of view. Dr Michael Moneypenny, Director of The Scottish Simulation Centre said that’s exactly why they like non-medics to see the centre. Throughout my residency the Sim Centre staff were great and loved to collaborate and participate. Andy, one of the technicians saved weeks worth of SimBlood samples for me (yes, the mannequins give SimBlood and bleed.) They also loaned me a SimHand for the project, which I've displayed on a plinth in the RSA with the photographs and film. The SimHand adds a sculptural element to the exhibition and allows the audience to engage with the mannequin whilst celebrating the artistry of anatomical objects.
What was your big take-away form the experience, what did you learn?
I learned more than I can summarise here about Simulation, medicine, birth, human factors and more. I learned how to operate a SimMan mannequin from behind the scenes too. Whilst shooting my Sim Scenario filmmaker Michael Prince was filming close-ups for me as I was operating the Sim Man's eyes. I made him fall unconscious, so I was making his eyes close more and more and making him slump a little, making him look like he was passing out!
I couldn’t believe how much was involved with the simulation process. It really was like a science fiction film set. The doctors were writing scripts and the technicians were dressing the SimMen. I also learned that the sim community is a passionate, engaged and enthusiastic one. Such a cool job!
What makes a story compelling to you, why do you choose to work on the subjects you do?
I am incredibly curious and having a camera is like having a license to go to places you wouldn’t normally go and ask questions that you wouldn’t normally ask. I think work reflects your own interests and I definitely have an interest in human rights, community, education and environmental stories. In Menie, it was the human rights of the residents – I gave them a different space to represent themselves that counteracted how they had been represented in the press, which was disgusting. Trump had called them peasants and pigs “living in a slum”. Some press had come to talk to the residents and been friendly, but when the people of Menie read the article, their words had been completely distorted so trust was a huge part of the project for me, something you cannot betray.
Its unfortunate that quite often, what is good for the papers is generally terrible for people / the country and it’s a real shame that kind of journalism exists because it’s not about representing the truth or the people. You did that with your portraits though, you represented them using the truth, which is much more powerful.
Thank you. It was wonderful to get these images into news sections as well as showing the work internationally. The portraits are all accompanied by the Menie residents’ testimonials. The portraits where made through a collaborative process with the residents choosing the source paintings, locations and what they would wear. This empowered them to completely represent themselves.
The local Aberdeen press is so Trump centric, which had to be counteracted. Bringing the work to The Scottish Parliament was also an important part of the project for me. Alex Salmond is MSP for the area yet had never been to the residents’ doorstep. I took the images to his, The Member’s Lobby of The Scottish Parliament, where he had to engage with it.
You should also watch the documentary You’ve Been Trumped by Anthony Baxter, its BBC screening was a milestone which really helped to swing people’s opinion about the people of Menie too.
You can find out more of Alicia’s work by exploring her website: http://www.aliciabruce.co.uk/home/ and you can follow her on Twitter @picturemaking
Alicia’s show, The Sim Project, is on at the RSA in Edinburgh from 25th April – 3rd June 2015. Print sales available at RSA sales desk, or by contacting; Royal Scottish Academy, The Mound, Edinburgh, EH2 2EL, Tel: 0131-225-6671