Scotland’s independence referendum is looming. And, unusually, among those who will be deciding whether to stay with the United Kingdom or split are Scotland’s 16- and 17-year-olds.
Scottish photographer Kieran Dodds decided to seek them out.
“For the last year, I’ve been thinking about a lot of things to do with the referendum, and obviously one novel fact has been the reducing of the voting age to 16,” said Dodds, who lives in Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow. “So, I thought it would be interesting to speak to young people to see what they are thinking about, to see their different views.”
The young people he photographed are scattered across Scotland— from the remote islands and Highlands to the central belt between Glasgow and Edinburgh, where the devolved Scottish government is based.
“A lot of the independence chatter was about Westminster (the seat of the United Kingdom government in London) being removed from people. But even in Scotland, a lot of Scotland is removed from the government,” Dodds said.
The 16-year-olds he met have all signed up to the BBC’s Generation 2014 project, which brings together 50 young people from across Scotland. So perhaps they are more politically engaged than some.
Nonetheless, Dodds said, “I was surprised by how much everyone knew, and how better informed they were than a lot of the adults around me.”
It’s been an assignment with an unusually personal dimension for Dodds. Not only is it in his native country, but he’s not yet made his own mind up how to vote.
The opinions the teenagers shared have affected his own views, Dodds said.
“I’m still undecided — chronically — so speaking to them informed me of things that I hadn’t thought of or came at from a different angle,” he said.
Some of the teenagers were interested in the history of the issue, others in the politics, he said. “I was amazed by how much they engaged with it.”
Many pointed out that they could have families or get married at the age of 16, so why shouldn’t they have a say over their nation’s most pivotal moment in centuries?
The photographs, taken over a three-month period this summer, are intended to show the young people in a setting that reflects their diversity of background and views.
Some are picture-postcard Scottish, posed against the backdrop of lochs or heather-covered hillsides. Others show a more urban or domestic side of Scottish life.
Similarly, the young people themselves reflect a Scotland far more varied and complex than the stereotypical, if very different, images popularized in movies like “Braveheart” or “Trainspotting.”
“I think some people assume everyone is white with ginger (red) hair — and it’s trying to show that there is diversity in Scotland and people think it is great to come and live here,” Dodds said.
In his images, Dodds said, he was trying to give a sense of a “state of the nation” in the ordinary life and everyday things of those in Scotland.
Teachers are not supposed to sway their students’ vote, so much of the debate is taking place outside the classroom, in homes, drama groups, sports clubs and other places where teenagers come together.
Dodds saw a handful of those he spoke to change their position from “undecided” as the vote came closer and their views crystallized.
One girl he photographed, Natalie Curran, is blind. She used a striking bathtub metaphor to tell why she will be voting no to independence.
“The thing is, we all live in our own little bubbles but we are all in the same bathtub so we should all stay together— rather than trying to put a divide between us,” she said.
“Scotland is the water, bubble bath is the English and the Welsh are the soap/shampoo.”
Another teenager, Andrew Hanton, explained that he’ll be voting for independence because he feels so disconnected from London.
“It's a great disadvantage having a government hundreds of miles away governing its people,” he said.
Whatever the outcome of the referendum, Scots are agreed that life will never be quite the same again. Even if the vote goes against independence, party leaders in Westminster have promised to hand over greater powers on taxation and social welfare to Scotland’s politicians.
For Dodds, “the debate over the past year or two has been amazing because it’s told us so much about what it means to be Scottish, but also what we want this country to be.
“Even this idea of freedom that keeps coming up because of “Braveheart,” what does it mean? I sense we want a country where that diversity of opinion can be expressed, and at the moment there’s a kind of frustration because people feel they are not being heard.”
He believes the debate is healthy for the whole of the United Kingdom — and that perhaps those elsewhere would also benefit from thinking about what it means to be British.
At the same time, Dodds himself feels desperately torn.
“The more I think about it, the more the weight of the decision presses on me,” he said.
Has this pressure affected his photographs of his 16-year-old subjects, who are about to exercise their democratic rights for the first time on this crucial issue?
“Hopefully it’s made my pictures better because I understand them more,” Dodds said.
— Laura Smith-Spark, CNN