Each year, the tutors at Blackburn College nominate and vote for a student who has excelled in their practice. The worthy winner is awarded the accolade ‘Art and Design Student of the Year’.
This year’s recipient is Lee Smillie, who moved to Blackburn from Easterhouse in Glasgow and joined the Photography Department. While on Foundation, Smillie published a book written in Scottish vernacular, and produced work that explored the violence he encountered in the housing schemes of Easterhouse.
Smillie was nominated for his series of photographs that capture the dark underworld of illegal cockfighting, a subject he documents in images that lie somewhere between journalism and art. Smillie talks about the project:
“The phone would ring [alerting him to upcoming cockfight] and I would leave immediately with whatever camera I had to hand. On some days it was a lightweight digital, on others I’d have time to grab a medium format camera and shoot a black and white portrait off. I’d meet [the protagonists] on the corner, have a bag pulled over my head and be put in the back of a van. It took a year to build trust before I could photograph anything. Cockfighting is an illegal activity, of course, and although I never developed friendships with the lads I photographed, my perception of them changed as I saw the genuine love and gentle aspects of the time they spent feeding and training the birds. This was all prior to the fight, of course, and I decided not to do the obvious and photograph that. Instead, I photographed the weigh-ins, the routines and the lads handling the birds. There is a lot of stuff out there, under the radar – secret worlds with different values and ways of living. I’m not judging anyone; I’m just capturing some of it, when I’m allowed in.”
The images featured were taken over the course of a year and made in collaboration with illegal cockfight organisers. Smillie’s work was selected because of its originality and his commitment to following the project to its full conclusion.