Dougie Wallace: “Every picture is a fiction”

We spoke to the inimitable Glasweegee - currently appearing in galleries, bookshops, and on the BBC

When I speak to Dougie Wallace, it’s by a rooftop pool at the luxury member’s club Shoreditch House. There are people sunbathing, drinking midday cocktails. A fitting setting in which to discuss his most recent photoessay Harrodsburg, an up-close blasting of super rich shoppers in Knightsbridge.

I don't have anything against these people

Yet the project, which took around two years to complete, is not some leftist manifesto or social commentary. It just documents a particular phenomenon: the rise of an ultra-affluent elite of Gulf millionaires in the West End. To capture each subject – whether they’re entering Harrods or cruising in a Bentley – Wallace walks right up to their face with his flash gun, snaps a picture, then moves on to the next.

Winner of the inaugural Magnum Photography award 2016, Harrodsburg has drawn a lot of press attention – good and bad – and is now culminating in an exhibition, book and BBC 4 documentary this March.

The documentary, which forms part of the BBC’s What Do Artists Do All Day series, includes some comments from Wallace’s biggest fan, the much-loved British photographer Martin Parr: “He’s just got a brash attitude that cuts through all the shit,” says Parr in the film. “It’s a very intimidating thing to do [shooting up-close]. A lot of these people won’t like being photographed. He couldn’t give a shit[...] It’s street life, it’s brash and loud and therefore absolutely appropriate for the times we live in.”

Wallace was born in Glasgow and joined the army straight after school. Following that, he sold camper vans, got into backpacking and, in the early 2000s, travelled to Nepal and bought his first camera. He’s been snapping ever since.

If I was a psychopath, I'd just shoot anybody that came near me

He moved to Shoreditch shortly after and started photographing what he saw on the street – debauched nightlife and a few East End eccentrics. This surfaced as Shoreditch Wildlife some 12 years later, along with Stags Hens & Bunnies, an endearing snapshot of working class fun in Blackpool. Wallace then travelled to India to capture Bombay cab drivers for Road Wallah (2015), while working on Harrodsburg.

To learn more about one of the most talked about photographers of the moment, we spoke to Wallace up-close.

Do you get an impulse to shoot pictures?

No, I have a project mentality. When I was in Blackpool, all I shot was stags and hens. When I'm up in Harrods, I'm doing the rich people. If I was a psychopath, I'd just shoot anybody that came near me. That's not me. For this project, Harrodsburg, it might seem like I was that way because you have to get up close, real quick. If I start framing them and putting up a viewfinder, you wouldn't get the picture.

But it has to be a project. Now it's dogs because I'm kind of pissed off with everything. Nah, I'm just saying that – I ain't eccentric. Elliott Erwitt said he'd like shooting dogs because they were universal and don't ask for prints back. I say the same, except they don't chase me down the street and ask me to delete it.

Why street photography?

I don't really class myself as a street photographer now. It's social documentation. You don't think of Martin Parr as a street photographer.

Outside of that context then, why do you want to go out on the street and photograph people?

It's just what I started doing. I'm always looking at things, interested in people. It's a fascination. You learn some tricks, and keep doing them.

Are you critical of the people you photograph?

No. I loved the Blackpool one. Harrodsburg at the end got a bit depressing. Sometimes I'd just go, fuck they deserve it, and go a wee bit harder than usual.

It was for pleasure?

Yeah but it was getting a bit difficult in the end. I went to Saudi Arabia as well, this time last year, when it all went a bit crazy. The princess [Reem Al-Faisal] invited me to exhibit in Saudi. They all went mental in Doha News, Twitter. There was this hashtag [#دوغي_والاس] where people were saying things like 'kill him'. She flew me out there and we exhibited them in big gold frames. It was a laugh.

How did she hear about it?

They all heard about it. It was big news. 

Are your projects always jumping between the wealthy and the poor?

No, but I guess Blackpool was about working class culture. What would you call Shoreditch Wildlife?

When I read the name, I thought it would be about gentrification but it was more about the local characters and the partying.

That's because it was shot over 12 years. There's people in the Embassy Bar doing pills. If you parachuted someone in to take those pictures, they wouldn't be able to get them. You had to be living here.

Why do you like shooting up close?

I just developed the technique but it's not always close. You just get into doing it that way. But when you get close, you get into the picture. You're not just taking the picture.

Do people miss you when you're that close?

Yeah, it's like boxing – weaving into someone’s blind spot. But the last thing you want is for them to kick off. Sometimes, I went to Harrods for two days and nothing would happen. Or, something happens on the first picture.

How do you feel when people get angry?

It's just an occupational hazard. If you went down Oxford Street giving people £20 notes, someone would get pissed. You get your picture taken all the time now anyway. Even your Samsung telly is recording you. 

I don't have anything against these people. I'm not even saying everyone in there is the 1 per cent. Every picture is a fiction. But you put them all together and you get a snapshot. I'm careful to try and not say anything about any individual in my projects – like in the captions – because you don't know anything about them.

It's like with Blackpool. I can't say those girls are this or that, or the working class are anything, because you don't know those people. You need to watch what you say.

People always want to add a story or an idea.

Yeah, they want to put their own story onto it. But, as a photographer, I just do whatever I want, I'm free. Without making a comment, even more so.