Melanie MacDonald, 22, photographed on the Isle of Lewis
A quick online search of the Western Isles, also known as the Outer Hebrides, reveals no shortage of dreamy imagery. The region, west of the Scottish mainland, is branded by travel agencies as an otherworldly paradise with untamed shorelines under vast, open sky. It is one of the few places where Scottish Gaelic is still dominant.
Given this reputation, it took French photographer Laetitia Vancon by surprise when she read The Stornoway Way, an autobiographical novel by Scottish writer Kevin McNeil. The author portrayed the Western Isles as an isolated place where people struggle with alcoholism and entropy. The stark contrast between the two narratives—one seen in McNeil’s book and one presented on the pages of tourism booklets—led Vancon there herself. She first went to the islands of Lewis and Harris last January, and then to North and South Uist in July.
Vancon tried to steer away from her preconceived image of the islands and instead attempted to “get the right sense of the community.” Through couch-surfing and social media, she found young Scots ages 18 to 35 and invited them to be photographed.
For Vancon, receiving feedback from her subjects was essential. “What is important is that they feel the portraits are representative of their life on the islands,” Vancon says.
One of Vancon’s couch-surfing hosts inspired her to name the project "At the End of the Day," a translation of the Gaelic phrase "Aig deireadh an latha." The phrase is often used by the locals to reflect on the past while looking into the future.
What Vancon discovered after spending two months there was a group of youth deeply rooted in their cultural heritage, drawing strength from a sense of community. They are brought together by Gaelic music, the church, and shinty, a sport played with a ball and sticks similar to field hockey. Crofting, a form of livestock and vegetable farming by multiple farmers on a shared land, is also an important way for locals to socialize.
Nevertheless, Vancon adds, young people can find these small, tight-knit island communities both empowering and suffocating.
The lack of higher education on the Western Isles drives many young people to bigger cities such as Edinburgh and Glasgow in the Highlands. Many stay in the cities after receiving their university degrees. The coastal economies, built on environmentally sensitive industries such as fishing and offshore fossil fuel drilling, can be fragile and are largely male-dominated. Job opportunities for women, Vancon says, are mostly in teaching, nursing, and administrative roles. On islands with small populations, women may have to wait for years before their desired position opens up, Vancon says.
“The women are leaving, and women carry life,” Vancon says.
In fact, despite a rise in the overall Scottish population, many island communities have dwindled over the past decade. As of 2015, the Western Isles have 27,070 residents. Out of the 15 inhabited islands there, only the island of Lewis has a population large enough to maintain its social dynamics and control emigration.
The fate of the islands has become increasingly uncertain after Brexit . The region’s few industries rely heavily on trade within the European Union. European infrastructure subsidies, which include those for roads, ferry docks and causeways, have made the islands more accessible in the past decades. "Without the infrastructure that connects the mainland to the islands, it will become harder, even more fragile, for the young to stay,” Vancon predicts.
Yet many Hebrideans choose to remain, and there is no shortage of people who returned to the islands after briefly living the city life. “What they describe is that they felt so anonymous and so isolated in the city,” Vancon says.
With these sentiments, Vancon created a visual summary of the Western Isles that is both poetic and hauntingly beautiful.
You can see more of Laetitia Vancon's work on her website.