Island life Vs life as an Island -Joanne Coates

“Greenvoe, an exploration of island life versus We Live by Tha’ Water an exploration of the self as an island.”  – Current OGC Mentorship winner and recent Close Up V speaker Joanne Coates writes for us about documenting life on an island, the split narrative within her work and exploring her own mental health issues…


Greenvoe tells of Orkneys unique story in a poetic manner. About change in rural island life, and how that change is resisted in a stoic and strong community on the edge.

Greenvoe, a street signing marking the George Mackay Brown Novel of the same name ©Joanne Coates


The mystery of islands is often what draws people to them. An older way of life is declining with smaller businesses and shops closing down in Stromness, making way for a new and different future. In Mackay’s novel he predicted how the old ways, the storytelling, the agricultural elements were changing and dying ©Joanne Coates


In January 2016 I made the crossing over from Aberdeen to Orkney.

It was rough. I don’t exaggerate; I’m quite good with the sea.

The stretch of water where the Atlantic Ocean meets the North Sea, is known as tumultuous crossing. I bedded down in some uninhabited corner of the boat (Cabins cost and as every Art grad knows sacrificing comfort for equipment is not really an option but a necessity). Trying to catch some sleep and ride it out. Through the seven hours the sounds were the chug, the swell hitting the boat, and feet running off to vomit. A few days earlier I’d caught the flu, so luckily for me exhaustion was ripe. Waking up to some dystopian nightmare, with people rushing to be sick every few minutes.

Arriving in Kirkwall, the main town in Orkney, late at night. I was straight on the ‘peedie’ (Orcadian for small) bus to Stromness. This town on the Northern isles was to be my home for the next few months. My little flat was on the edge, next to the water. Every day I could hear the ferry’s horn, marking its arrival into the harbour.

I could hear the wind howling and the sound of the sea from my window. There was no wifi and no 3G. The first morning there it snowed, it didn’t lay, but I watched as it swirled and danced past my window. My first project meeting was on the Monday. It was Saturday. I did the obvious, joined the library, took out the maximum amount of books and read for what seemed like two days straight. I made one slight excursion to the Royal. The Royal is the infamous pub on the main street in Stromness. I hadn’t any food, or cups, or well anything. So I went into the front room of the pub for a cup of tea, which is probably one of the first times that’s been done or it felt that way due to looks I was getting after asking for tea. After two minutes I was striking up conversations with the lads at the bar. It’s easy on an island, and being from a smaller community it felt like home. Enjoying the talk of community, where are you from? Who do you know? Why are you here? Do you have any siblings?


Metamorphic rocks at Yesnaby, Orkney’s West Coast make for a bleakly beautiful landscape. The islands unique geology meeting fields of green make for a picturesque setting. An understated beauty marks the land. Orkney remains to this day an egalitarian society. Class is not inherent to who people are. ©Joanne Coates

‘Fishermen with Ploughs’ is an old saying about the industrial workforce. The sowing, the ploughing, the reaping and the harvest are still important events. Marked throughout the year by customs such as the Muckle Supper. ©Joanne Coates


The initial reason for going to live in Orkney was prior to a commission, I felt a special connection to this place and wanted to document it. I see so many island clichés, or romanticising island by those who are flown in, leave after two days, and can’t remember anyone’s name that they met for five minutes. Living on the island was great; it meant I had the time to do large amounts of research, to concentrate on the project without distractions, to meet with people, to follow up connections then and there, and to visit the archive. There was slight problem in that I was going through quite severe mental health problems. I developed a coping strategy and started a very personal exploration of my condition. This work takes the form of We Live By Tha’ Water. The project began here, at first I wasn’t sure what it was, such a deportation from my usual work. It interested me. I felt excited by it. I’m continuing to work on We Live By Tha’ Water. The work has taken me to the edges of the North and South of the world. I will continue to work on this series but feel it’s still in its early stages.

My main reason for living in Orkney was to document the community, and unique economic, social, and cultural aspects of the group of islands. The result of this work is the series Greenvoe.


Orkney has a unique position; historically the islands have been a largely ignored part of the U.K. Norse connections are to be found within the dialect, the stories and the very history of the land, and its remarkable archaeology. Many of the people identify firstly as Orcadian, secondly as Scottish and then lastly as British. ©Joanne Coates


The Polar Bears are a group of cold water swimmers based in Orkney. Nicki Gwynn-Jones moved to Orkney just over a year ago. She was drawn to the islands. Nicki is a cold water swimmer, she’s spent her life in the depths, swam the channel and devotes time to a swim a day. ©Joanne Coates


Story telling is a vital part of the community.

Stories make us what we are, remind us of when we’re at our worst and our best.

Stories help us understand Culture. People interact with stories more than other mediums. In this Photo story tells the tale of changing island life.

The title ‘ Greenvoe’ came from the infamous Orcadian Storyteller George Mackay Brown. I read his book of the same title the very first day I arrived on the island, and continued to come back to the book. I lived on Orkney for the first part of the year, and continued to go back and make work throughout 2016. I will continue to work on the series in June and July, I was hoping it would be sooner but had to raise the funds to go back. The story makes a political comment. Mackay Brown is a brilliant writer, a true storyteller of the ilk that seems to rarely exist.


The township of Stromness. A picturesque once fishing village, or a place where the leaders in renewable energy meet? ©Joanne Coates


In Greenvoe, a fictional island of Hellya remains unchanged for generations . . . until a new project starts to take place. Almost Orwellian in it’s nature. This ‘Operation Black Star’ threatens to change everything the islanders knew. Now for those acquainted with Orkney, its unique situation, it’s oil terminal on Flotta, all of this fiction may start to ring true. Orkney has always been at the route of change and remains so to this day. It is a U.K leader in renewables and archaeology. It boasts an important university that specializes in marine research. Many refer to Orkney as the start of the new, through sites such as Skara brae, which remain the oldest found to this day.

I can’t describe how the connection was made with GMB, but if someone was to ask about story telling I would refer them directly to his writing, it is simple, evocative, poetic, and all about the characters of a place. It is also deeply sincere. I still feel photography fails often to be all those things.

Reading Greenvoe I was struck by the main theme running throughout, the destruction of a rural community. It speaks of a changing way of life, with poetic and lyrical references, to older histories and Orcadian myths. There is a return to the rural, to the idea of the remote, as society gets increasingly hectic and confused, stories of a return to different way of life become more popular. Societies yearn for that sense of community that is rife in Orkney. Nature is part of everyday life in the islands. There are now more and more connections to the islands, through technology the post, the Internet have all got better.


Music reflects the resistance, timelessness, and storytelling nature of the isles. Kenny Peace, Rendall Pipe band, watching the MV Hamnavoe making it’s way into the safe haven of Stromness. ©Joanne Coates


When I hear islands described as remote or isolating, I find this difficult to understand, only someone who had made a fleeting visit would feel this way. With islands it’s the opposite it’s about connection, and community. I would not use the word remote, but mystery and story are what defines the people. Stoic and strong but not remote. The sea is a place of possibilities, a space for optimism for the future. These islands offered me the opportunity to meet the people who make their living from the land, from the sea, to deliver into the modern aspects of life, to look at the outsiders who come here to escape.

Greenvoe. A modern day folk tale.


For more of Jo’s work check out her website or follow her visual diary on Instagram.