Lost Voices on film

Filmmaker Jason Lock produced a short film about the Reflections commission I worked on this year, along with parallel projects by photographers Sam Ivin and Tadhg Devlin. I worked with a small group of Traveller women to document the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on their lives, while Sam worked with unpaid carers and Tadhg with people who live in rural areas of Cheshire West. The film can be seen here and you can explore my project, Got Through It, here.

My West Bank visit blog posts

The horror unfolding in Gaza over the past two months has led me to think and speak a lot recently about my trip to the West Bank and Israel in 2008. I just sent a colleague some published stories I wrote during that time, which made me also search my blog for posts. There are quite a lot so I’m pulling it all together just in case it’s of interest to anyone.

Reflections work at Open Eye Gallery

Work I’ve produced during the past year with women from the Traveller community is now on show at Open Eye Gallery, where it will be until 23 December, and it looks brilliant. Our work is only a small part of a much larger showcase of socially engaged projects – it is in the atrium area outside the gallery along with the other two Reflections commissions by Tadhg Devlin and Sam Ivan. Inside are another three fabulous projects from different areas of Cheshire and Merseyside.

Of the people I worked with, only one was able to attend the opening night – disability and poor health prevented some of the others. But I’ve now given copies of the zine to everyone I worked with and am going to try to help those who are able to visit the show. I’ve also given copies of the zine to the various partners and individuals who helped me develop this project.

More info about the show here.

 

Reflections project – sharing

 

My Reflections commission with Gypsy and Traveller women is about to make its way out into the world – always a nerve-wracking moment for me. Are the participants going to be happy with it? Even though all who have audio have already listened to and approved it, and I read transcripts back to everyone, none have seen the finished zine which I have made and which features everything. I always have a nagging fear that someone will see the final thing and have second thoughts. Anyway, positive mental attitude!

I have printed a short run of these physical zines so will be giving copies to participants, partner organisations etc – hopefully I can do the participants next week. Fittingly, considering the pandemic-related theme of the project, I have just tested positive for Covid, so I’ll have to leave it for a week or so. Anyway, generally speaking the zine will be accessed digitally – it will be hosted on a dedicated project website which the council has built, and QR codes in the exhibitions will take people to it if they want to read more. You can also download it here.

The other online element to this project is audio clips featuring the voices of some participants. Again these will be linked to from the exhibitions using QR codes – you can listen here (scroll down to the pink section).

The first exhibition of work starts next week in Chester – and it’s a public-realm event featuring six images from me plus quotes and QR codes. I’m a fan of these types of interventions because I hope it will reach a broader audience than a gallery event. This is what I want my work to do – to hopefully show a more rounded image of Gypsy/Traveller lives and experiences. Later in the month a different set of images will be part of a group exhibition at Open Eye Gallery. More info about all of this here.

 

 

 

 

Picturing High Streets exhibition – Chester

There’s something quite nice about giving a project some breathing space before it gets shared with the world. It’s not been down to me, but work made by people who attended my workshops at Cafe 71 in Chester last year has finally been exhibited in the city centre in a public realm show (my favourite kind of exhibition I think because it gets in front of a non-art audience).

This was one of my first socially engaged commissions – last year I ran nine sessions at the mental health space as part of Historic England’s Picturing High Streets initiative. I was very lucky to be given this opportunity by project managers at Open Eye Gallery and Photoworks, as it was a real spring board to several other projects since then. The project saw me purely work as a facilitator – I made no work myself but designed the sessions, which aimed to tease out people’s feelings about Chester city centre, particularly the area of the Rows (incidentally a place I spent many Saturday afternoons as a teenager).

The group made photos and these led to discussions but in my personal view, their most interesting work was collages which combined images from the Historic England archive with photos from magazines. The work looks fabulous printed large – unfortunately the summer holidays have meant that I haven’t been able to see it myself but I’ve been sent some lovely photos by Open Eye Gallery and I know some participants have visited too.

Images by Rob Battersby.

 

Got Through It – Traveller reflections project

 

I’ve spent the past couple of weeks manically trying to finish off my Open Eye Gallery Reflections project before my kids break up for the summer holidays.

Over the past year I’ve been working with women from the Romani and Irish Traveller community in Cheshire West to document their experiences of the pandemic. The project is one of three ‘reflections’ commissions funded by the local authority.

There have been some delicate moments along the way (eg when someone withdrew consent for their images) and there are some sensitivities due to the council being the funder – Travellers don’t always have the best relationship with the local authority, so I’ve had to do some reassuring about my independence along the way. However, the relationships I’ve built with participants have been strong and respectful and everyone seems happy at this stage. A few people in my project live with quite poor health, which made things difficult sometimes but it’s all come together in the end. I’ve been very lucky to have received mentoring from socially engaged photographer Anthony Luvera during this project – I was fortunate to get a CPD budget in the New Exchange development project which I was involved in earlier this year and that’s what I chose to spend it on.

My project is called Got Through It, which is a quote from one of my participants. I’ve edited a series of audio clips of some participants talking and I’ve designed a zine, which I plan to print copies to give to participants and a few extras. However it’ll probably be mainly accessible online – there will be a QR code in the exhibitions which take people to all this extra stuff on the project website which the council has built. The work will be exhibited it empty shop windows in Chester in September, and also in a group show at Open Eye Gallery at around the same time. I’m actually really proud of the work – seeing it in the book form made me realise that there’s some really good work in there. I’m very happy to have been given this opportunity to work with a community that I love so much.

 

Darkroom and book/box making

For the past two years I’ve worked as a university photography tutor and being in a school of art has made me want to do some of what the students get up to. I’ve always been a little envious of people who did an art foundation (I stopped art at GCSE) and have never worked with film photography or spent any time in a darkroom. So I’m trying to make up for lost time.

One of the perks of working at a uni is access to the facilities so I recently started trying to use the darkroom a bit while the students are away. I don’t have much work to print so need to get out and make some more asap so I can practise more…

   

I also spent the weekend on a book and box making workshop at Hot Bed Press in Salford – run by my MMU colleague Sylvia Waltering. Over the course of two days we made an A5 notebook and portfolio box and I’m absolutely buzzing with how good they look and can’t wait to try it myself.

Reflections project – ups and downs

 

The process of informed consent is really important in socially engaged practice – this gives participants the right to change their mind and withdraw consent at any point.

I haven’t had people pull out of my projects many times before – ideally, we will have built up lots of trust along the way and I will have responded to any concerns which crop up – but it does happen occasionally.

This morning I woke to the kind of message I dread from one of my Reflections participants: “Good morning Ciara, is it too late to take my name and photo please, just do the story”.

This is a disappointment to me – because I happen to love the portrait I made of this participant, who was one of only a handful so far who had been willing to show their face – but it’s not the end of the world. Their words remain very powerful and they are willing to let me use their voice, which I have recorded and turned into short audio clips. I have alternative images to use alongside their words, which are non-identifiable.

The egotistical photographer within me wanted to use the beautiful portrait, but I’m having to remind myself that this process is not about me. A consent form is in some ways a starting point – the relationship of trust which I create with participants is far more precious and something I view both as a privilege and responsibility.

I have worked with Gypsy and Traveller community members before but never in this socially engaged way – where I’m working one to one with individuals over periods of many months, and talking in-depth about their personal experiences.

My previous work (from 2009-14) was documentary – I mostly tagged along to family events and had conversations along the way. That work was independent and self-funded – and there was none of the baggage of exhibitions and archives and local authority power dynamics attached.

Perhaps people back then were also more trusting of the camera – I feel the explosion of social media in the past decade has made everyone much more wary these days, including members of these communities. After all, the mainstream representation of these groups has always been – and continues to be – extremely negative. Who could blame the majority of individuals for being wary of nosy outsiders and their cameras?

During the Reflections project so far, I have had many ups and downs. I’ve had numerous introductions to and conversations with people which have ultimately gone nowhere – but which all added to my understanding of people’s experiences of the recent past.

I’ve worked intensively with five participants so far and hope to connect with one or two more before my engagement wraps up this summer. But it’s been challenging at times to pin people down to visits – life gets in the way for people (myself included) and I’m mindful that I’m working with people who have, frankly, a lot more important things going on. There have been extended hospital stays, deaths in families and other emergencies, along with childcare responsibilities and family holidays.

I have also had concerns to allay about who will see the work and how to protect participants’ identities – this seems to sometimes be as much to do the internal gaze (what other community members may think) as the external gaze. There are sensitivities and complex dynamics around this work that I may never fully understand but I’m doing my best to represent people in a way which feels comfortable to them and true to their experiences over recent years.

End of an era – closure of Big Issue North

 

I’m gutted to hear Big Issue North magazine is closing down – I was a freelance contributor to the mag from 2006-21 and have a lot of affection for everyone there.
Its closure is sadly the way things are going in the media industry – in some ways it’s surprising it’s lasted this long: the internet/social media, the decline of cash, then Covid and a cost of living crisis.
I’m really grateful for the opportunities the magazine gave me as a young journalist who was thrown into freelancing when I was made redundant after just 2.5 years experience, when the start-up newspaper I was working for suddenly went into administration. There were no staff opportunities in in the print media up here back then – Media City did not exist – unless I wanted to go back into small local newspapers (I didn’t). All the bigger regionals were making redundancies. I had no connections in London and in any case I was rooted up here. I found it hard to make any headway into freelancing for the nationals and in the end gave up trying.
Big Issue North was a lifeline to me – as one of my fellow newly-redundant colleagues, Kevin, was appointed editor there, the magazine suddenly opened up to me as a place where I could follow my interests. He indulged me as I developed bodies of work on urban regeneration across the North of England, social affairs issues and the newly arrived Roma communities in our towns and cities. They said yes to much of what I pitched. When I discovered photography a few years later, they were the first to publish my images. And when I was trying to figure out how to develop a photographic project with members of the Roma community, I eventually found my first collaborator, Ramona, through the magazine – which she was then selling on the streets of Rochdale.
Even though I’ve moved on from being a journalist – I last worked for Big Issue North in early 2021 – I really feel quite sad about today’s news. So many publications I worked for during my career have closed down. Things change but it’s a real shame the northern content in the Big Issue our vendors will sell from now on will be so hugely diminished, and opportunities for local journalists shrinking even more.

 

Reflections project update

I’m having a slightly frustrating few weeks. The engagement part of my Open Eye Gallery Reflections project with Traveller women is very stop start, due to poor health/general life events on their side and school holidays etc on mine. It was picking up before the Easter holidays – I had a little run of a couple of weeks where I made several portraits that I felt happy with and did audio recording etc. I hoped to be straight back in when the kids went back to tie up loose ends with the women I’ve been working with – before finding one or two more. The idea being that now I have a general structure for what I’m aiming for, these should be quicker.

I even had access to a car much of last week as my other half has been away. But it wasn’t to be – I’ve had someone cancel on me almost every day and it’s all become a bit frustrating. In my heart I know this is just part of the process and I have to go with it – the project rollercoaster, as a photography pal and I used to call it. But I do find this stop-startyness (not a word) mentally gruelling, I find myself getting quite down in the dumps about it at times and I can’t always motivate myself to get stuck into other things. I just want to keep going, get stuck into work. But of course when you’re dealing with other humans – particularly people in poor health or with other more important things going on in their lives, it doesn’t always work out the way you want.

It will happen when it happens, it’s just a matter of keeping the faith. These things were easier to deal with in the past when I wasn’t working around family commitments and had more flexibility in my own time. Now it’s harder as I only have a few days a week when I have later pick ups for my kids. Not to mention the small matter of two school strike days and three Monday bank holidays over the coming weeks (Monday is one of my project days when I normally don’t collect my children until 5.30pm. Gah).

In the meantime though, all I can do is think through other bits of the project. I have edited some audio interviews with four participants and I have four portraits done – with one in the pipeline (although she’s going on holiday next week which is another blip in the calendar!) I’ve also been playing around with collage – not sure this really sits well within the socially engaged ethos of the project so I don’t actually know whether it will end up in the final output, whatever that may be. Sometimes ideas come easily but sometimes it’s really hard work. I’m trying to find approaches which work here. I find working in this way with my own images harder than using found materials as there is more consideration for the person in the image, with whom I have a relationship and am working collaboratively. These images are just practice runs using 6×4 prints but I’m going to now play around with larger sizes and see if they work. I’m not sure why but I feel quite drawn to playing around with the portraits in this way.