I’m one of five photographers who are forming a kind of warm-up act of short talks on Wed 2 October at White Cloth Gallery in Leeds, where Tom Stoddart‘s exhibition opens that very same day. Tom will also be talking – looks like a fun evening. More information is available here.
It’s funny really but I met and had had a few chats with Tom Stoddart four summers ago, when I was really new to photography and had no idea who he was, in fact I’d never heard his name…I then kept confusing him in my mind with the playwright Tom Stoppard. It was the first day of Appleby Horse Fair in Cumbria and I was determined to find my way into a Gypsy family for the event, but had not yet got anywhere. He said he was shooting photos for an exhibition of British culture he was preparing for the London Olympics year. It was cold for June, was quite early in the morning and was grey and drizzling. I had just grown bored of taking rather clichĂ©d photos of men washing and grooming horses in the river in the centre of the village, when a quietly spoken man in a black fleece – with three cameras around his neck (one of which I later learned was a Rolliflex) – started talking to me. There was something different about him to the army of geeky and intense prosumer photographers with massive lenses and huge back packs who were elbowing each other in the shallows. I recall I wasn’t really in the mood for chatting with other photographers â€“ I woudn’t even have taken the liberty of calling myself a photographer back then and felt I’d be found out as a fraud at any moment â€“Â but he was really sweet and encouraging and it turned out he knew John Easterby, the lecturer from London College of Communication who was shortly due to interview me for my MA course. I recall him being really humble about his own achievements, so it was quite a surprise when I looked him up online. If you don’t know his work you should definitely look here. Appleby ended up going quite well for me and was definitely instrumental in giving me the confidence to work more with photography and to focus first on the English Romani community and later the European Roma…a nice little circle for me. Wonder if Tom would recall this meeting, I guess probably not.
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Feeling all warm and fuzzy after meeting 11-hour-old Yahya, the son of Lida from my Roma Project, and her Kurdish husband Hemen. Beautiful boy.
Today isÂ Rakshabandhan, a Hindu festival which celebrates the relationship between brothers and sisters. Five years ago I was in India and happened to spend this day visiting a centre run by the charity Project Concern for young boys who had been living around the city’s railways and wanted to leave that life and go back to school. As I was the only female in the room I was asked to be their honourary sister for the day and had to tie rakhis, a sacred string, around the wrists of these beautiful little lads, before giving them each a milk sweet. It was quite a beautiful experience.
It warms the cockles of my jaded, half-dead journalist’s heart every time I visit Ramona and see how much her six-year-old daughter loves to learn and how much work they do together at home. They have come a very long way since we finished our collaborative book about her life almost two years ago http://issuu.com/ciaraleeming/docs/elvira_and_meÂ
My default position in life and work, I’ve realised, is “I can’t do that” â€“ plus, quite often, some associated panic. I’m not sure where my terminal lack of confidence comes from, no doubt it’s partly nature but I suspect it’s also some parts nurture â€“ some very negative experiences with managers in my early jobs plus some terror associated with being self-employed, which I find hard. I don’t remember being so anxious as a child. On balance I know deep down I’ll get things done competently and on time but I’ve never felt properly confident at the start or even partway through projects, even when I’ve had positive feedback along the way. Perhaps though this is for the best â€“ there are few things more off-putting to me than arrogance, and I’d always prefer to be thought of as humble than above my station. The resulting work should speak for itself.
Even after several years of spending time inside Roma families and collaborating with them â€“ something I often doubted I’d pull off at the start when it took me a long time to win anyone’s trust, I feel unsure about what I’m doing a lot of the time. My work with Ramona felt largely like a fluke for a long time â€“ I was incredibly lucky to find someone as trusting and open, and natural with the camera. Managing to win Arts Council funding and a Homelands commission from Side Gallery early last year felt similarly flukey, and both were followed by months of despair and doubt as I wondered how to translate this opportunity into a concrete body of work. While photographers often talk about self doubt I rarely hear people admitting to the levels of anxiety and sometimes minor depression I often feel about my work, both in trying to negotiate access, feeling good about what I’m doing and the integrity of my motivations and the quality of what comes out.
The Homelands commission was intended to be a short project of just a few months’ duration but once I finally found a family to work with it took me a long time to really find my place â€“ this is more I suspect to do with my own sensitivities than theirs. I’d probably keep going forever if I could because I love their company, yet I’d doubtless never feel like I’d really captured what I wanted to or what I felt. A deadline has now been imposed though â€“ the work is going to be exhibited in Newcastle in October. I don’t feel ready of course, I don’t feel I’ve even scratched the surface, but I guess I’d always feel like this. A deadline is needed to force me to confront those work prints and develop a coherent edit, not definitive because that’s impossible, but coherent and honest at least. If the family will allow me to I will continue to visit them beyond this time and long into the future as I think this is where the work could really become interesting.
I’ve posted a new Roma Project story (on Anna from Hungary) and blogpost about the collaborative process over here and here. Please check it out â€“ she’s amazing.