Spanish photographer Borja Prada has spent the last year taking snaps of Muirhouse for a new exhibition, saying the notorious area reminds him of Madrid
THE boarded-up windows, the empty shells of buildings which were once homes, the overgrown grass. These are the images of Muirhouse most people are accustomed to seeing, and closing their eyes against.
Yet when Spanish photographer Borja Prada first clapped eyes on the north Edinburgh estate through a steamy bus window, he knew he would rather be taking photos there than on the Royal Mile.
After all, it reminded him of home – in Madrid. Just like Edinburgh, the Spanish capital city has deprived housing estates scattered around its historical and wealthy centre, and just like here there have been huge improvements made to places blighted by poverty.
So when Borja, who first came to the city four-and-a-half years ago to improve his English before starting a photography qualification at Telford College, caught a glimpse of Muirhouse, he no longer had to search for inspiration. Now he’s launched an exhibition of his work from the place once made notorious by its most famous son, Irvine Welsh.
“I have a degree in journalism from Spain but I was always interested in photography,” he explains. “I decided to study here in Edinburgh at Telford College so I would be on the bus every day going through Muirhouse.
“When I was living in Madrid there were big changes in the neighbourhood like here with the 21st Century Homes,” he says, referring to Edinburgh City Council’s redevelopment plans for the area. “I got the feeling the community was disappearing in Spain. I felt it was the same here, so I wanted to try and capture it before it vanished.”
While he admits he was first treated with some suspicion by residents, a year on he says that not only has he made many friends in the scheme, he’s even come to regard some of his subjects as family.
The 29-year-old says that it was last October when he first ventured on to the streets of Muirhouse, armed with his camera and a smile, asking people he met if he could take their photograph.
“Some people said straight away they didn’t want their picture taken. I think they didn’t trust what I was doing. But after I met some people and took their pictures, I would print them and bring them back with me, and when I saw the people I would give them the pictures and that helped. At the beginning people did not fully trust me. I had to work hard building relationships.”
Over the year he has taken more than 200 photos. Of these, he has used around 65 in a book he printed as part of a college project and 30 are currently on display in the exhibition at the North Edinburgh Arts Centre.
One of the first photos he took was of David Nisbet showing off his tattoo with the word “Mum” next to a love heart on his neck. “I met him on the street. He was explaining he was very attached to his mum and dad,” says Borja.
For him, this sense of family and community is a common feature of life in Muirhouse. “Now there’s not many people living here but they are very, very attached to each other. It’s a very strong community. Although it’s known as a dodgy or dangerous area, if you walk here in the streets and get to know the people, it’s like a big family.
“I’ve never had any problems. As long as you don’t bother people, they don’t bother you.”
From these encounters he has made some good friends and has even been invited into houses to take photos. Jim Boyle, who is photographed in his living room with a portrait of his dog, was one of the first people Borja met. “I call him my Uncle Jim,” he laughs. “He’s just great. I consider him family because he’s always giving me sandwiches, candies. He is always very worried about me.”
As with all the photographs in the exhibition, there is a story behind the image. “That dog is one he used to have,” he says. “He got that picture from another guy in the area who gave it to him as a present.
“When I was with him I asked him about one of the things he liked the most. He said it was the picture of the dog. I took the photograph and gave him a copy. He’s now got the picture of the dog and the picture of him with the dog. He’s got them side by side in the room.”
Mr Boyle, 48, who had his Jack Russell for 15 years, says: “Caesar was like Greyfriars Bobby. He only saw me. He would not go out with anyone else. He would not go up to anyone in the street. It’s great to have the photo.
“Borja and I meet about once a week. We blether about his work and family. I know about his mum, dad, brothers, his bird and all that.”
One of Borja’s favourite photos is of 12-year-old Devin Sargent, taken in the family kitchen after a day at school. “She looks a little bit sad in the picture,” he says. “She was just feeling a little bit sick. She was having a bad day but I managed to convince her to get the picture taken. I think it’s a beautiful picture.”
He also took photos of her brothers, Alfie and James. Alfie, seven, is pictured holding up his basketball which is printed with the words “The Sargent Boys”, while 11-year-old James’ portrait is taken in the kitchen with the sun shining through on to his face and the wall.
Another photo shows a shelf holding the typical clutter found in a family bathroom. “It tells a story,” says Borja. “It’s a family picture.”
The photographer, who also works as a chef at the Pancho Villas Mexican restaurant on the Royal Mile, is now planning to spend another eight months in the area photographing more people for a second exhibition.
He says: “Although some of the stories are not very nice, these people have come through. They still cling to the values of family, friendship and community.”
BUILDING FOR FUTURE
Muirhouse, meaning house on the moor, was named after a mansion built on Marine Drive around 1670.
It was mostly demolished when the present house was built by the wealthy merchant Captain William Davidson in 1832.
The first council houses were built there in the 1950s after most of the estate was sold.
The 23-storey Martello Court, in Pennywell Gardens, was built in 1967 and is one of the tallest buildings in Edinburgh.
By the 1980s, the estate had developed a reputation for drugs, violence and crime.
Since the 1980s, housing association and private homes have been built in the area.
The new Craigroyston Community High School was opened in 2010 to replace the former school which was built in the 1960s.
Edinburgh City Council is currently redeveloping the area as part of its 21st Century Council Homes programme.
• Borja Prada’s Welcome to Muirhouse exhibition is being held at the North Edinburgh Arts Centre until the end of November. Opening hours are Tuesday to Friday 9.30am to 8pm and Saturdays 9.30am to 2pm.