Recently I was lucky enough to be awarded a micro commission by Open Eye Gallery, which allows me to use a socially engaged approach to look at the issue of litter. I’m treating the commission like a bursary – so using this opportunity to test out some ideas and see what works.
My proposal was to engage with the growing army of volunteer litter pickers which I’ve noticed have sprung up during the pandemic. My belief is that as people have spent more time in their local environments, they have been spurred on to do their bit to make it better. Perhaps littering itself has also increased over the past year – it’s hard to know as my own neighbourhood has always been filthy.
My project is going to work on several levels. I have been posting an open call into various litter picking groups across Greater Manchester over recent weeks, inviting people to send me photos, anecdotes and opinions. So far, 23 people have sent me either photos or words or both. I have around 350 photographs, and it’s fair to say people have been finding some strange and at times surprising items on their travels. Here are a few of them:
The second element of this commission is going to involve me making some portraits and collages… I am still thinking about how to actually do the collage part and am going to have to spend the next few weeks experimenting I think. I’ve been playing around with making cyanotypes of some of the litter I’ve been picking up – for no reason other than that I’d never made cyanotypes before. The cyanotypes themselves have been a bit rubbish (poor workmanship!) – but I have to say I quite like the look of the digital negatives I’ve been making in order to produce them, I find them quite striking.
The items I’m personally most drawn to photographing at the moment seem to be PPE (everywhere) and those stupid little nitrous oxide canisters which are also everywhere. How to integrate those into collage, I’m not yet sure. Watch this space. I’m going to try to blog this process as a way of keeping track of this project as it progresses.
I’m highly aware this is a subject other photographers have covered. The best is Chloe Juno, who has been at it for about seven years now and has now amassed thousands of images. I also came across this Gregg Segal series today, where he photographed families with a week’s worth of their refuse.
Levy Lockdown Project is a collaborative, hyperlocal effort to document and make sense of the strange period of global history we are living through.
As the UK entered its third national lockdown in January 2021, I invited people living in Levenshulme to share their images and thoughts about the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on them. This 64-page zine features the work of 36 contributors.
This is the first output for my Peshkar commission for a socially engaged photography project, which I was awarded in early 2020 – before the pandemic took hold. I initially gave art boxes to six local women and then opened the project up wider to anyone who wanted to join, via a Facebook group and Instagram hashtag. When I started working on the zine I put out an open call, and some contributors came forward who hadn’t been part of the project until that point.
Next step is to build a little website for the work as there is a lot more than made it into the zine. It’s been a good little learning project and I’m proud of the zine – it looks ace. Copies are available to buy from here.
When Covid-19 hit and schools closed in March 2020, it was a huge upheaval in all our lives – but particularly in the lives of young children. Over the following year – during which we had two national periods of homeschooling (plus another nine-day stint when one of our school bubbles was told to self isolate) – I watched my sons carefully and tried to capture some of the madness from their point of view.
During Covid times I’ve developed an interest in working my own images into collages. Any other art form would probably lead me to feel a lot of imposter syndrome as I have no arts background, but I find the cutting up and sticking of paper quite meditative. Much of what I make is terrible but here are a few I don’t mind.
I am a terrible businesswoman. A lot of the work I do, I do for myself quite honestly – to satisfy my own curiosity and shine light on particular issues that I care about. I am less good at finding audiences in any meaningful or commercial way and that is normally a bit of an afterthought.
And so it happened with the body of work which almost no one has seen, Here and There.
My friend Ramona, aka Elvira and a collaborator in my Roma project, came up with the idea. By this time, 2018, she was working for a migrant support charity and came up with the idea of situating stories of Roma people within the wider narrative of migration and the issues faced by these communities in the UK.
Why didn’t I use my skills to tell some of these stories, she suggested? Maybe we could then present them to her employers and get them seen. I think she envisoned me collecting around eight stories and images, but me being me I took it a bit further. It felt important to try to make it all representative – of gender, sexuality, age and of different push factors. There are asylum seekers and refugees, Roma people and others who moved to the UK as children or adults. By the time I’d finished I had collected 26 stories – although one later withdrew consent.
Once I had them, I wasn’t sure what to do with them. Ramona and I had a meeting with woman from a human rights charity, who loved the work and promised to show it to others in the field, but then nothing happened and first a general election and then Covid took over.
I sent the work to the People’s History Museum in Manchester after learning by chance that they were programming a year’s worth of events around the theme of migration. I didn’t get an exhibition but they later came back to me to ask to use four of these stories within a broader show. They are currently up on the wall but the museum has been closed much of the past year, so we haven’t see it. Hopefully soon.
In the end I’ve just decided to throw it onto the internet in case anyone wants to read the stories. They don’t tell us much in the grand scheme of things – they just humanise a subject so often talked about in terms of numbers. Behind every number is a person with a story. That’s really all there is to say.
The Ebook can be viewed free of charge here.
I’m currently working in a different way to usual. Since late January I’ve been facilitating a socially engaged approach to documenting the pandemic in my neighbourhood, Levenshulme.
Last year – before the world changed – I was awarded a commission by Peshkar, an arts organisation in Oldham, to make some participatory work with migrant-origin communities in the town. Their funding is coming from InterMEDs, a stand of the Erasmus programme. Sadly the UK will no longer be benefitting from Erasmus due to Brexit.
My original proposal had been to work face to face with Roma groups but inevitably this plan had to be abandoned. After lots of thought and a fair bit of worry about how I could fulfil the requirements of this project – which has to be delivered in September – I decided to build on the lockdown book project I developed last year.
Having had children at home from Christmas until 8 March – and aware from bitter experience that they could be told to self isolate at a moment’s notice – I’m doing all of this online. But I’m now encouraging (and occasionally cajoling) people in my area to submit their own images (photographic and otherwise) and personal thoughts about what the pandemic and lockdown has meant to them.
The hope is that I’ll end up with a huge mishmash of different material from a wide range of residents about what the past year has been like and how they’ve coped. I can then hopefully pull at strands and develop some narratives which fit the original brief. But almost more importantly, we’ll have created a fascinating and worthwhile community archive about this later stage of the pandemic – which will complement what I did before.
I actually started off with a core group of six people from the original window portrait series – I created a small box of creative materials and a series of prompts and asked them to get stuck in. Then I realised I could broaden the project out, so I created a Facebook group on a whim and started using the Instagram hashtag #levylockdownproject. I’ve been posting occasional prompts into the group and people are dipping in and out as they want.
It’s fairly organic and I’m trying to be relaxed about the lack of control – not something which comes that easily to me! That’s where we all are at the moment and what I’m able to do is limited by our circumstances.
Here are a few of the wonderful bits shared with me so far:
Following on from yesterday’s post about the four images and texts of mine which will be on show at People’s History Museum, I thought I’d start sharing the rest of that project, Here and There.
Here’s Lidia, who I think was one of the first people I photographed and interviewed for this series:
“When I was younger I made a lot of mistakes. I did not listen to my parents and spent my evenings out on the streets with my friends.
“My parents – who are Pentecostal Christians – didn’t let me go to discos but I would still go. They don’t drink or smoke but I did. I was supposed to see the difference between my parents and the people on the street but I was following the wrong example.
“If God had allowed me to carry on like that, maybe I would not be here now. Now it’s finished. God has given me a blessing – a child. I believe we have to say thank you to Him every day. If I make a mistake I feel a pain in my heart.
“My brother is in Africa at the moment, working to take the word of God as far as possible. Someone came to our church one Sunday to talk about the work Roma people like us are doing over there. They are building houses for people and giving tribal communities clothes to wear.
“My brother was very touched by their stories and asked if he could go too. My entire family helped him out – we helped him with the cost of his flights and we collected 20kg of clothing for him to take to the people there.
“They teach them how to eat with a spoon, how to get dressed and how to sing Romanian songs.”
It feels like a lifetime ago, but in 2018 and 2019 I spent some time on a self-initiated series of interviews and anonymous portraits which so far haven’t seen the light of day. The work was initiated by my friend Ramona – with whom I made a book in 2011.
Elvira and Me was my MA major project and told of the tensions which existed for Ramona – a Romani woman who moved to the UK from Romania – in her quest to pursue a career while also fulfilling her traditional wife/mother/daughter roles.
Ramona was by then working as a community organiser for a migrant support charity and thought it would be interesting to situate the stories of Romani people alongside those of other people who had migrated to the UK. Her suggestion was to do a handful of these vignettes – photos running alongside first person stories.
But me being me, I took the idea quite a bit further and ended up gathering 25 stories, featuring the words of migrants from across the world. Well, actually I collected 26 but one participant later withdrew his consent. The stories include people who moved here as children, individuals who came here seeking sanctuary and stories from people who moved later in life. The reason the portraits are all shot from behind is because there are asylum seekers among the stories – and they are not comfortable being identified. It made sense to photograph everyone in the same way.
One thing I have realised about myself over the past decade or more of doing so-called ‘personal projects’ on subjects I feel are important (and often doing them in ways that turn out to be basically unpublishable) is that I love making connections, talking to people and gathering stories. What I am very weak at is disseminating what I’ve made.
These stories have pretty much sat on my computer since 2019. I made a little dummy book but did little with it. But one of the few things I did was submit it to Manchester’s People’s History Museum, when I heard they were planning to programme their 2020 content around the theme of migration. The work was not selected as an exhibition in and of itself, but the curator later got back to me and asked to use four of the stories as part of some broader programming.
This was all very exciting. We had a meeting about it and then Covid arrived and it all went incredibly quiet. Until recently – after a hiatus of about seven or eight months the museum started putting together its #Welcome? exhibition. Sadly it’s not open at the moment, as Manchester is in Tier 3 and galleries and museums are shut. But once they can, I’ll be going to see the work, which is on until October 2021.
I think now is probably the time to start sharing some of these stories, so watch this space.
I’ve streamlined the process of buying a copy of Levy Lockdown Portraits. You can now order one from here.