Working life inspires photographer Boak

A fascinating book of photos of local people at work went on sale on Tuesday.
The book, by Alex Boak, is purely a set of images – there are no words, apart from the person’s name and their job, making the photos all the more striking.

Shetland Works: Images of Working Life, by Alex Boak
Shetland Works: Images of Working Life, by Alex Boak

The project to record working life in Shetland in 2015 took over Boak’s life for a time, he said, and it grew as his subjects suggested more and more names to him.

Since moving to Shetland in 2009, he had been impressed that “everyone seemed to be busy”.

Originally, the retired graphic designer had been intent on snapping “interesting characters” in traditional scenes of fishing and sheep, but then he started “wondering what everyone else was doing”.

There were “strange vans, empty shelves in the supermarkets and an astonishing level of activity”, he said, with people leaving long-established companies to work in the oil and gas industry. His “curiosity” was sparked. He said: “I was conscious how much work was being done and traditional industries weren’t the full story. I started scratching the surface.”

What has emerged covers more or less the full range of jobs from a female Malakoff diver, featured on the front cover, a female brewer, to joiners, tug engineers, musicians, bakers, fishermen, craft workers and shop keepers, and much more.

There are inevitably omissions, but the book highlights a specific time in the life of Shetland, with industry booming and new businesses starting up.

The book reflects the statement by Robert Wishart in the introduction that “Shetland is no sleepy backwater”, and Boak said: “I don’t think I’ve lived in such a busy place, even Aberdeen.”

The old adage of a picture being worth a thousand words is probably true here. The photos of people in their diverse walks of life will serve as a reference book in years to come, and no doubt delight those perusing the book in the future as they remember well-kent faces or wonder at the clothes and hairstyles.

Each photo is designed to capture the person in their profession, and in this Boak succeeds. The master of the Fair Isle ferry, Neil Thomson, is pictured on deck in his boiler suit and hard hat, poet

James Sinclair, in a rare black and white image, gazes out to sea, the museum’s Carol Christiansen checks a Shetland hap while The Shetland Times Ltd printer David Robinson examines type with a magnifying glass.

Each photo is accompanied by an image on the facing page. A waitress has the symbol of a cruet, an author with a notebook and pen and a creel fisherman with a lobster.

But Boak is modest about his work, the royalties from which will go to mental health charity Mind Your Head. The photos are “snaps” he said, and do not compare to the work of photographer Tom Kidd who recorded “real life” in the 70s oil boom. That type of “gritty” work in the Don McCullin school was “really difficult” Boak said, classing himself as an “enthusiast” rather than a professional photographer.

However, he believes there is still a role for the “classic” high street photographer.

Boak had tremendous fun carrying out his project, and praised the public for being so welcoming.

Although not a historical record, like Kidd’s, he hopes his book: “In 35 years time it might give [people’s] grandchildren a bit of a laugh.”

Rosalind Griffiths

• Shetland Works: Images of Working Life. Published by The Shetland Times Ltd is available at £20 from the Shetland Times Bookshop and


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