Photographer Niall McDiarmid spent seven years documenting the people of Britain

In 2011, photographer Niall McDiarmid started a project depicting the diversity of contemporary Britain: the street urchins, the underclasses and the buoyant dreamers all shine through in his exacting portraits. Starting off snapping people he found visually interesting while living in his South London neighborhood, McDiarmid eventually hit the road, expanding the series to include little-visited towns all over the U.K.

Titled “Town to Town,” the series includes spontaneous solo and group portraits of eclectic characters captured in their natural environments. After visiting over 200 towns and taking over 2000 images over a period of seven years, McDiarmid chose around 70 for his newly released Town to Town book. These photographs, along with additional images specific to Bristol, England, will be exhibited later this month at the Martin Parr Foundation.


CEDAR PASORI: How did you first get into photography?

NIALL MCDIARMID: I grew up in a very rural place in Scotland. My grandfather was a successful town planner who did writing for local newspapers on the side. In my late teens, I started sending the papers both photography and writing, but I tended to go more towards the pictures. Then I got a job in trade press and went back to photography college in the early ’90s in London. Since 1994, I’ve been working freelance. I did 15 to 20 years of commercial and editorial work, a lot of book covers for publishers. Seven years ago, I started getting more into doing my own projects. That’s when I started doing this portrait series across the country.

PASORI: How did “Town to Town” expand from where you started it in South London, where you were living?

MCDIARMID: When I started the project in 2011, I was just thinking about documenting my local community. I didn’t really want it to be a fashion thing. After a few weeks, I started drifting to commuter towns around London, sometimes getting on trains or stopping on the way back to London from commercial jobs. About six months in, I was taking pictures in the northeast of England, which is about three or four hours north of London. I realized that I just wanted to capture the whole country, building up this big portrait of Britain at this time.

PASORI: Were you shooting this series in a way that separates it from your commercial work?

MCDIARMID: Being a commercial photographer since around 2006, I always shot digitally. But in 2011, I don’t know why, I just picked up an old film camera. It had been lying on my desk for around five years. I shot the “Town to Town” series mostly on film.

PASORI: What drew you to your subjects?

MCDIARMID: As the series grew, and as Britain got more into the headlines because of Brexit, I was trying to build up a huge body of work that represented Britain as I saw it. I was focusing on people who come from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and genders, and who are both older and younger.

PASORI: Were there any rules for how you photographed them? Was it always in the place you first saw them or somewhere else?

MCDIARMID: Generally, I like to photograph subjects as close to where I met them as I can. The perfect shot is of someone who’s an interesting character and is maybe wearing something that has a bit of color. It’s all fairly instantaneous, and I don’t want it to be a long or complicated process. I don’t want them to pose too much or even look too natural. Sometimes looking a bit awkward helps, and in the photo, it ends up looking like a real, instantaneous meeting.

PASORI: Since you’ve taken so many photos over the years, how do you edit down the vision of what Britain looks like from so many thousands of images?

MCDIARMID: Some days I go back through the images and think, “Why didn’t I use that one?” I think there has to be a natural flow if you’re doing a book or an exhibition with so many different people. It’s very difficult to edit, and in some ways I can hand that part over to other people a little bit.

The exhibition has a lot of images, about 70. It also features a series that’s local to Bristol, where the Martin Parr Foundation is.

PASORI: What were some things you learned about the various places you visited that you weren’t aware of before?

MCDIARMID: In Britain, seaside towns tend to get photographed a lot, or places where events are held in major cities. I was quite interested in going to suburban towns that weren’t known to be well-documented. I was very lucky to go to a lot of these places, often just by taking an off-peak train ride to somewhere I’d never been before. A lot of people would ask, “Why would you go to that place on a normal Tuesday afternoon?” I was interested in meeting people who weren’t necessarily dressed for an occasion but just going about their normal, everyday lives.

Britain has become a more diverse society. People have come to live here from many different parts of the world. And I enjoy meeting all of these people.