What a bizarre few weeks. We’re now 30 days into official lockdown in the UK, and it feels to me like some of the paralysis of the initial days of Covid-19 has started to loosen. I’m still working as a journalist – working at snail’s pace on a number of features for Big Issue North which for the large part have nothing to do with the pandemic – and am starting to get the sense that many people are getting into a groove with this strange new normal. People I contact are responding fairly promptly for the first time in weeks. My own work pace is glacial but things are slowly getting done.
One of the ways I’ve been responding to this weirdness is to pick up my camera. Ironically I’ve found the past month an easier time than normal to be creative – despite having a three year old and a five year old in tow most of the time. I’ve been photographing the lockdown on a daily basis from their perspective. Something that has always felt uncomfortably self-indulgent to me – sharing photos of my kids and our own daily life – suddenly feels more legitimate, perhaps due to some odd journalistic psychology thing because it’s now framed within ‘a story’. Make of that what you will. These daily vignettes – which I’ve dubbed “Big Brother House” can be seen on my Instagram page.
The other way I’m documenting the lockdown is through window portraits of people living in my neighbourhood of Levenshulme. Lots of photographers are doing similar work at the moment but I love the way the glass provides a beautifully surreal visual metaphor for our current social distancing requirements. The participants have to come close to the window to make use of the light. I’m often closer to them than the permitted two metres but they’re behind glass so it’s fine. I’m making most of these during my daily outing with my kids so I have to be quick – more than three minutes and they’re bored. Some of them are on my Instagram and the full album can be seen on Facebook for the time being. This will be updated as I add more…
Last year I was lucky enough to get involved in a local arts project, in which we re-ran a collaborative project from about 20 years ago. A school near where I live, Alma Park, is a specialist centre for deaf children – with pupils travelling from across Manchester to get support with their communication needs. They spend some time in mainstream classes as well and all children in the school learn some sign language. Years ago the school was involved in a community arts project in which photographs of children’s hands signing out the name of our neighbourhood – Levenshulme – were displayed at the local train station. These were up when I moved here in 2004, but the posters were eventually taken down after suffering water damage.
In 2019 the Friends of Levenshulme Station group decided to re-run the project and invited me to take part. We decided to involve only hearing-impaired children this time and in the summer term I spent a morning shooting 11 pupils’ hands. It then took a long time to get the funding from Northern Rail and other partners which we needed to print the images onto aluminium and there have been other delays while we’ve waited for permission to get onto the platforms and install the images. But now they’re there, along with a text celebrating the existence of Alma Park School’s deaf community, which mainly local people don’t know about.
Ok, so journey number two was more about me being a flaneur really, and trying out a toy camera I picked up recently. I never got into the Holga/Lomo craze and shooting film almost completely passed me by because I’ve only got into photography in the past two or three years. But I’ve recently picked up a couple of low-fi film camreas (including an underwater one in the pound store yesterday…I’m sure that one will work well) and am also planning to start shooting a bit of medium format here and there, where money allows. I’m interested to see the effect of mixing it up a bit on my photography and also I’m hoping that shooting film once in a while will help me become more thoughtful about what I do. That’s the theory, anyhow.
Anyway, so these are just some rather random snaps from a walk yesterday from the city centre up the A6 to Levenshulme, the area of Manchester where I live. It’s a gimmicky little camera and won’t be to everyone’s taste. Not having a viewfinder at all means lots of shooting from the hip, guesswork and crooked horizons. I don’t think Homer (tutor) would approve.
One of the great things about having started this photojournalism MA is that it suddenly gives me a reason to turn some of my ideas into reality…I am too often all talk and little action.
I’ve lived in the Levenshulme area of Manchester for more than five years now and one of the most distinctive buildings here is Tony’s Barber – if nothing else than simply for the fact that it’s half falling down. Part of a terrace on the main road, a developer is trying to bully Tony out of his building for low compensation and the shops on either side have been pulled down and left to rot.
That’s kind of interesting on its own, and in 2007 I ended up writing a story on the situation for the Manchester Evening News.
That was long before I’d started taking photos, but once I got into photography I started thinking that Tony’s would make an interesting photo story – but of course didn’t do anything about it. I thought about using him for the first ‘at work’ assignment but held off because I actually thought that would be a bit of a waste. Anyway, I bit the bullet and spent a couple of hours in his shop this morning for the current ‘human relationships’ brief but I think there’s definitely more mileage – and even an audio slideshow – in there, so I am going to keep returning.
Tony is Italian and the shop has been in his family for more than 50 years -some of the customers I met today have been coming to have their hair cut by him for two or three decades. It’s an old-fashioned barber’s shop on the inside – and its walls are plastered with Manchester City, Manchester United and Italian national football team posters; Viz cartoon posters and model motorbikes.
It’s also, I discovered, a hub for the older men in my neighbourhood – particularly the Italians – who just come to hang out in his back office, drink espressos and smoke. Definitely somewhere to keep going back to…hopefully with time they’ll let me into what they were calling their ‘mafia room.’