WHAT do you look like? What do I look like? What do any of us who live on this rain-splattered, hunkered-down little island look like?

Niall McDiarmid has an idea. McDiarmid is a photographer. He does editorial work, corporate work and, when he has time, he takes some photographs for himself. Since the end of 2010 that has meant taking pictures of the people he meets in the streets.

When he has an hour, or a day, to spare he’ll jump on a train or get in the car and go to a town and see who he sees. On any other day you might meet him in Bridgend or Berwick-upon-Tweed, in Dunfermline or Dingwall. He might stop to chat and maybe, just maybe, he'll take your picture.

Any day but today, that is. Because today he’s sitting in his Wandsworth home talking to me about the photographs he has been taking, photographs that have now been gathered together in a new book, Town To Town, and in an exhibition which has just opened at the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol.

Over the last seven years in his spare time McDiarmid has been building up a quirky, idiosyncratic visual catalogue of the people who live on this divided island: dreads and tartan in Dingwall, roller-skates and stripy socks in Islington, vapes and wellington boots in Dunfermline.

“When you’re a photographer on the street you want luck to go your way,” he says. “I want a combination where I can find somebody interesting that says something about the town or the area or the country and they’re in a certain situation. If I can get all those combinations to come together that’s really what I’m looking for.”

McDiarmid talks in a soft Scottish accent and is not one for sharp edges. His pictures don’t shout either. But that doesn’t mean they have nothing to say.

They have an accidental quality as well, a reflection of their origin story perhaps. The project began when McDiarmid was looking to do something for himself, something that allowed him to “just walk out the door and go and take pictures”.

He eventually arrived at the idea of street portraits. “It took me a few years to realise I’m pretty good at chatting to people in the street. It’s something I really enjoy. Combining that with taking portraits of people is something I got pleasure from and seemed to get success from.”

He started taking said portraits randomly in south London, around where he lives. “There was no method behind it, except getting out of the house, walking, meeting people.

“I guess after a couple of months I got this idea of building up this large document of work that showed something about London. And after I’d done that for a couple of months I wanted to try to photograph everyday people, so I started to go to towns around London that I could get to quite easily.

“I was very interested in going to towns that maybe don’t have a huge photographic history in Britain. I was really drawn to towns that I hadn’t seen photos of. So that’s what I did for a couple of months.”

Then, in the summer of 2011 on a visit to his wife’s family in the north-east of England, the notion expanded again. “I suddenly sprang on this idea. ‘You know what? I’m just going to go everywhere.’”

And that’s what he’s been doing ever since. “I do one person in one situation that only says a small amount. But if I can get enough of these situations together hopefully I can get a look of the country.”

To create this national montage he’s travelled from the Isle of Wight to Inverness for the project. In Scotland he’s been to Aberdeen, Dundee, Glasgow and Edinburgh but he often prefers going to Dunfermline or Kirkcaldy (though not St Andrews apparently – its streets are too well ordered for his needs, he says).

How does he go about it, though? How does he gain a stranger’s trust? “That’s a secret. I can’t tell you all that,” he laughs.

He pauses, and then offers a peek behind the curtain. “To be honest, everyone is completely different and there is no set pattern. But I do like a chat about something. The weather’s a particularly British way of meeting people.

“I don’t know if I’m good at it. Maybe it’s something to do with being Scottish generally. We’re quite good at that sort of thing, just shooting the breeze. That’s what I enjoy most and some days if the photo doesn’t happen I’m not that fussed.”

Is it strange to ask a stranger if you can take their picture? A little, he says, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “I want some kind of awkwardness. I don’t want them to be super confident.

“I do leave afterwards and think: ‘God that was a bit awkward, but I got a good photo.’”

Originally from Aberfeldy in Perthshire, McDiarmid has been on a southward drift since his teenage years, firstly to university in the north-east of England and then to London. He’d originally started off working in agricultural trade magazines, driving around the country, writing and photographing tractors for a couple of years before deciding to take photography seriously.

When it began, his Town To Town project had no big-picture agenda. As he points out, back in 2011 talk of Brexit and immigration had yet to animate/energise/pollute (delete as required) the political conversation.

But now it’s hard to avoid. How has he responded to that? “I consciously tried to go to towns and meet people from different backgrounds, different ages, different sexes. I didn’t want to force it. I didn’t have a list of people who I might want to meet, but I was always interested in meeting people from different backgrounds.”

That said, he does not want to pin down the photographs too much. His agenda, if you can even call it that, is light-touch.

He is also not interested in telling the stories of those he photographs. “I wanted it to be a visual thing,” he says. “The only things I put down are where I took the picture and the month.

“I would rather just show the pictures and let people make their own minds up about what I’m trying to say because some days I don’t know what I’m trying to say myself. I’m just trying to build this visual picture of the nation and some days I think I’m shaping it in one direction and the next I’m not sure.

“I’m often more interested in finding out what people see in the pictures themselves rather than what I see in them.”

Still, looking at these photographs it’s difficult to get away from the fact that they are a vision of Britain at a point in time when, frankly, we’re more uncertain than ever of who we are.

Well, not all of us perhaps. There are some who have very clear idea as to who does and who does not belong. When McDiarmid staged an outdoor exhibition at the Museum of London last summer, a number of his images were defaced with racist graffiti two days before the show opened.

In other words (evil, ugly words, let’s be honest), his decision to include rather than exclude is at this moment in our story being viewed as a political act.

McDiarmid sees it more as a simple statement of fact. “I don’t want to force the idea of a changing nation – which it definitely is – on these people who I’m photographing. But it’s a subtle way of saying: ‘Look, this is how we look now and there’s not much we can do about it. These people are out there in the streets. I do think people don’t realise that it is changing, and it is changing quite fast and it’s something we should celebrate. That’s how Britain is.”

What do we look like? Take a look around you.

Town To Town, by Niall McDiarmid, is published by RRB Photo Books, priced £35. An exhibition of his work continues at the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol until May 12.


“I’m very interested in colour. We’re not great at using a whole lot of colour in the UK. For me particularly in documentary photography in the UK there has been a tendency to default to black and white.

“Britain’s often seen abroad as dominated by its industrial heritage The Victorian thing. You see a lot of photography exhibitions that major on things like coal or mining and shipbuilding and troubles in the eighties and they often go to black and white.

“So, I was very keen to get as much colour in as possible. It takes a bit of refining. Some days it works better than others. You might get some bad clashes in some of them which I’m quite interested in as well.”