New term, fresh start and the Making of Us

School returned last week, which means I’ve had more breathing space over recent days than I’ve had in months. For me too, it feels like a new beginning. This year, amid the chaos of Covid, home-school and grief, I’ve realised a few things. I’ve felt my identity shifting somewhat and have come to terms with the fact that my professional aspirations have changed.

I’ve been a journalist since 2004. Throughout that time it’s been a huge part of my identity, with an unhealthy level of my self-esteem and self-worth wrapped up within it. I think it’s that kind of job to be honest. That’s something I realised for the first time when I took maternity leave – that I wasn’t sure who I was once that part of me was stripped away.

I’ve had two parallel parts of my career since about 2008, when I started taking photos quite seriously and working on personal projects about the kinds of issues I already covered as a writer – regeneration, migration and so on. The more creative part was something mainly for me to be honest, I never really tried to get any of it published in the traditional sense and was quite happy making the work and putting it out there independently. The bit I enjoy most has always been the research: finding people, earning their trust, asking questions and making photos.

I think I expected to always carry on in the same way – writing for the likes of Big Issue North and working on independent projects, albeit hopefully with some grants to help me financially. But I think the pandemic and everything else which has happened in the past 18 months have had an impact on me. I realised I needed to do something different – that I was bored. I’m not bored with the subject matter or the people I meet – I still love all that. I think I’m just ready for a change – I’ve been working in the same way for the same clients since I went freelance in 2006, which is quite a long time. Even thinking about working up and pitching a story gives me an exhaustion headache at this point. It’s a physical feeling.

Even writing this feels a little dangerous… what if I change my mind?! Well, I’m not saying I’ll never take freelance journalism commissions again, I’m just taking a break for the time being. But arguably, I’m not going to be doing anything hugely different than before, just coming at it from a new perspective and with a new, more community-focused approach.

Earlier this year I was part of Crossing Sectors, a professional development programme for artists run by Open Eye Gallery which aimed to help us work in a more socially engaged way. This was like a breath of fresh air for me – if I hadn’t admitted to myself that I was sick of being a freelance journalist at the start, I was by the end. This programme informed the way I put together Levy Lockdown Project – a community effort to document the pandemic and the way it has shaped our lives – and I then went on to receive a micro-commission from Open Eye, which allowed me to use participatory methods to examine the issue of litter. I put in what I considered quite a mad proposal – which would see me make collages using litter – and didn’t expect to be selected. Not long after I was also offered a tailor-made residency as part of a big Historic England project I’d applied for, despite being almost certain I was unqualified. I would never have imagined to have this kind of run of luck at the start of the year, when I was feeling quite demotivated and fed up. Even a recent unsuccessful Arts Council Develop Your Creative Practice application has failed to bring me down.

One of the most exciting things I’m part of at the moment is called the Making of Us, which is another artist development programme, running from the Turnpike in Leigh. For me this feels as if it will build on what I learned with Open Eye. Over the coming months I will be part of a multidisciplinary group of artists who will work together on becoming better socially engaged practitioners and then be paired with organisations to develop a programme which we will deliver to groups of service users. The idea is that what we do is responsive and as socially engaged as possible – rather than us coming in with eight pre-prepared workshops at the start of the programme, we will reflect on their interests and needs and try to work with them to deliver something which works for us all. Workshops are definitely something I am a bit nervous about so this kind of handholding is exactly what I need, and it’s all very exciting. I haven’t felt this enthused for ages – which confirms for me that I have definitely been in a rut and in need of a change.

Here and There Ebook

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.

 

Here and There: Lidia

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.”

 

People’s History Museum – #Welcome? exhibition

 

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.

 

 

 

Levy Lockdown Projects – the book

It’s been an intense few months. My Kickstarter was successful and I managed to raise almost £4,500 from 171 backers to turn Levy Lockdown Portraits into a book. On the day the crowdfunder closed, however, I had a family bereavement. Since then I’ve arranged a funeral and had a child sent home from school to self-isolate.

But we got through it and despite all these external challenges, I’ve managed to single-handedly design the book and even came up with a nice concept for the cover. This week – after recovering from the initial shock of what 400 books looks like – I’ve posted and hand delivered copies to almost all the project backers. Feedback so far has been really great. Now for phase two: sell the remaining books.

If anyone would like to buy a copy of the book, they are available for £15 plus £2.95 UK postage. If you live in an M19 postcode I’m happy to deliver free of charge. Contact me on info@ciaraleeming.co.uk if you’d like one.

Additionally, from 22nd-31st October, 60 of the 260 portraits in the book will be exhibited in my community as part of Levy Fringe Arts Festival. Sadly, due to the current situation with “stupid Coronavirus” (as my kids call it), this will be a ticketed event – bookings can be made over here.

 

Levy Lockdown Portraits book crowdfunder

I spent six weeks of the lockdown documenting my community through the medium of window portraits.

Today I’m launching a crowdfunding campaign in the hope of turning this work into a book, Levy Lockdown Portraits.

Over the course of 38 days – ending when lockdown restrictions began to be lifted on 31 May – I shot more than 250 portraits of households in Levenshulme, Manchester, creating a surreal, poignant and historically significant body of work.

I think this work deserves a more permanent home than an online gallery and would like to put together a self-published containing the entire series across more than 200 pages. I’ll be designing and editing it myself to keep costs as low as possible but need help to fund the printing.

I’m asking people who enjoyed the work or were part of the series to consider supporting the project by purchasing a copy in advance. You can even get your name printed in the book as a backer. Please visit my Kickstarter page to learn more and don’t forget to share in your networks. I think Levy Lockdown Portraits will be a fab souvenir of this odd time once this pandemic is behind us.

Kickstarter is an ‘all or nothing’ platform so if I don’t raise the print costs, the book won’t be made and your pledge will be returned.

Thanks for your support!

 

Locked down

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…

Stay well.

 

Tech firms’ missing pension payments

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This is certainly the most involved story I’ve worked on to date… involved in a different way to my documentary photography projects, anyway. It took around five solid weeks of work, loads of interviews and cross checking of information, persuading people they could trust me and keeping them on board through the process. And working hand in hand with a media lawyer after receiving threats to sue me personally for libel and a pre-publication warning letter from a solicitor demanding that we drop the story. Oh and staff being threatened with legal action by the company if they spoke to me.

 

Locked out for 13 years

Winston Brown was refused re-entry to the UK in 2006, when he tried to board a plane at the end of a trip to Jamaica. It took his family 13 years to get him back into the country. He is one of thousands of people affected by what has become known as the Windrush Scandal – well before the creation of the so-called Hostile Environment.

Click on the image to read the story on the Big Issue North website.

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