A photo drive

I continued my experiment in collaborative photography yesterday with Lida, with a little drive on which we retraced some of her steps since moving to the UK. She isn’t really that interested in taking photographs – whereas Ramona jumped at my suggestion that I give her a digital camera, Lida said she wasn’t bothered. However, yesterday I was the designated driver and she took the shots using my compact camera. She then wrote the captions as we went along. This is, as I wrote before, an experiment which has come about through my research into the intersection between photography and visual anthropology – and I suppose in many ways it follows on somewhat from my earlier research paper on visual representation of the Roma. Unfortunately for a journalist, I have become profoundly uncomfortable over the course of this MA with the idea that I am in any way putting words into my subjects’ mouths, or speaking for them. There’s a danger, I guess, that using this kind of approach though will weaken my overall project, perhaps making it too bitty or scrapbook like….who knows if it will survive the final edit, but it is something I’ll be dabbling with at least with both women – while continuing to shoot in my own way.

breakthroughs and paradigms

Slowly slowly I’m feeling more comfortable about my major project. Ironically, after a wobble this week when I attended a tutorial with the brilliant Peter Fraser and completely failed to articulate what I’m doing and why – his response in turn not giving me the encouraging alternative perspective I was hoping for – I am actually feeling better than I was before. As so often is the case, the disappointment of not finding the answers I was looking for in Peter’s session led me to find them independently in the end. Perhaps that is what a good university tutor actually does. After feeling slightly crestfallen and confused for one evening, I turned to the photo theory, sociology and anthropology books I’ve borrowed from a friend and spent the rest of the week ploughing through them. Happily, once I found some chapters I could actually understand, this initial research started to give me a new angle on this project, while at the same time giving me some concrete ideas. So today I started to incorporate some ethnographic techniques into this ‘fieldwork’ stage, to ensure that as far as possible it really will have some elements of genuine collaboration with my subjects…more of which later.

So this week represents a modest breakthrough for me in the way I am thinking about this project, and today I experienced a small parallel breakthrough (or a ‘paradigm shift’ as some of the aforementioned sociology books would have it) with the family of Lida, the young Czech woman I am working with, because I felt that she – and they – finally started to relax with me and my camera. That’s not to say it’s been that fruitful in photographic terms, but it certainly feels like a start. Lida and I also booked flights today for a visit together to the Czech Republic in October. And in seven days’ time I’ll be on my way to Romania with Ramona. Being me and needing something to stress about all the time, my worry has now gone from fear of not getting access to the communities or families I wanted, which I was feeling a few months ago, to worrying how the hell I’m going to shoe-horn all of this into one final project. It’s hardly something I’m going to lose sleep over though – I’m just going to go with the flow.

What a difference 6 months can make

I spent this morning watching Ramona, who I’m going to Romania with in a couple of weeks, helping Roma clients with documentation problems at the Manchester Sure Start centre where she is now working much of the time. I am still amazed that when I met her for the first time in February – just six months ago – she was doing this for a living:

This really goes to show how the right support really can make a difference to migrants who are bright and determined to grasp what’s on offer to them. Ramona never went to school and has been in the UK just two years. In that time she has become fluent in English and learned to read and write. She is certainly a special case but a few success stories like her within the Romanian Roma community here is bound to have an impact in terms of raising the younger generation’s aspirations.

In other news, I’ve been reading a borrowed copy of On Being a Photographer (David Hurn and Bill Jay) over the past week and have just got to the part about planning photo essays. Th current project is the first time I’ve been really systematic about what images I’m trying to produce so I was reassured to already be doing more or less what Hurn recommends.

A day in the ‘pool

Today turned out to be a lovely day to visit Blackpool, to show my new Roma friends the sea for the first time, and to test out my new ND8 filter before I need it in earnest in Romania in a few weeks time. The vignette it produces, from stacking on top of my UV filter, gives the resulting images a Holga-esque kind of feel which I sort of like. It could start feeling a bit gimmicky if overdone though. The train journey home felt like it was never going to end but I think a good day was had by all.

(I can’t ever go to Blackpool, by the way, without thinking of another trip I made there a few years ago, just as I was getting into photography:)

Trying to find my groove

So the gradual immersion into my Roma project continues this week, and I’m still trying to find my groove. I know from past experience that it takes me time to feel really comfortable with these kind of documentary projects, and to find a kind of mental balance which allows me to overcome my own awkwardness. As always I’m full of nagging doubts – have I bitten off too much by trying to spend time with two different women, and how will I achieve the depth I’m after in my images within such a short time. While we technically have until mid November to complete this project I am being forced to spread my shooting out almost until the bitter end – most weeks I can only shoot two to three days in total because the ladies I’m working with are busy with other things, so I need to get motivated and start the academic research now so I can complete it in parallel. Inevitably I’m putting myself under a lot of pressure: I’ve wanted to do this project for such a long time now that I desperately want it to be good. Keep the faith Ciara, keep the faith.

Over the past few days I’ve realised that I’m faced with another challenge with one of my subjects – a large proportion of her spare time and time with her wider family is spent on a computer, skyping, checking facebook or playing games. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, it’s totally normal and is part of her reality, like most of us today. But it does’t make for particularly visual moments. This is where the patience of the photographer has to come in I suppose, waiting like the hunter for those moments in between. My terrible impatience was something – along with my awkwardness at the start of these projects – which I had really hoped to cast aside during the two years of this Masters, but I suppose I shouldn’t have expected miracles. Perhaps these characteristics are too engrained in who I am.

I chose to focus this project on not one but two young Roma women in Manchester because the past year or so has made me cautious to the point of paranoid that access is going to be a problem or people are going to let me down. My experience of putting together a series of written articles on the Romanian Roma community in Manchester (here, top row) was that finding the right people to talk to can be challenging to say the least, while finding anyone willing to be photographed can be even tougher. Then, almost immediately afterwards, my Rethink project on English Gypsies – a very different community despite their common ancestral roots – was mired in access difficulties not of my own making and was only saved thanks to the support of some good friends within that community. So when I was thinking through my ideas for this current project I decided to pitch my plan to not one but two women as a way of hedging my bets. To my astonishment, both said yes. Not only that, both seem quite enthusiastic about my ideas, in their own ways.

I couldn’t believe my luck when Ramona, who I have already worked with on this written story agreed that as well as spending time with her in Manchester, I could accompany her on a visit home to Romania later this month. It will be her first time home since she moved to the UK in 2009. Well, today things got still more exciting when Lida, the other woman I’m working with, invited me to accompany her on a short visit home to the Czech Republic in October. It feels like it may be cutting it somewhat fine in terms of the project hand-in date but this is surely an opportunity too good to miss, and with a lot of hard work and planning before and a bit of luck, it should just about work out.

too many questions

I’m getting very sick of the project work I’m trying to shoot at the moment for my MA as it’s just not enjoyable. I’m constantly on the defensive, with people thinking the worst of me and my intentions and it’s grinding me down. Yesterday for a while I felt like I had a very modest breakthrough – I met a few young mums on the Travellers’ camp I’ve been visiting over recent weeks, and made a few images although the women were all relunctant to be photographed without their make up (a bit of an excuse I think). There were two young sisters who I particularly warmed to, aged 21 and 24, and I spent really quite a long time talking to them about people’s perceptions of Gypsies and their own experiences growing up and as adults. Both were very thoughtful and bright, and independently volunteered lots of interesting opinions. Later, I received a phone call from the woman who had introduced me to her neighbours. The two sisters were now very suspicions of the fact that a ‘house person’ was interested in them and their community and were worried that I might be an undercover policewoman or in some way damage their husbands businesses. The only thing we discussed about this was how the men go about finding customers…I asked because I’m genuinely curious about most things. I do ask a lot of questions, but that they are freaking out makes me feel bad because I was only being friendly and being myself. This project is starting to do my head in now. I’m used to people sometimes reacting negatively towards me because I’m a journalist and they have preconceptions about what that means. Of course I understand why the Gypsy community is closed off and have experienced it before. But this is a constant drip-drip of hostility and mistrust and misunderstanding and is incredibly corrosive for me and the way I approach what I’m doing.

Thinking and rethinking

When’s the right point to accept a project isn’t going to happen right now and move on? I imagine this is a question which befuddles documentary photographers on a regular basis – when to call time and when to give something one last shot. In the case of my proposed Rethink project – something I’m meant to be doing now for my MA and handing in in mid-April – barring any last-minute miracles I’d say that point is now. It’s hard not to feel demoralised and like a bit of a failure at having to radically change tack but when deadlines are bearing down as they are starting to, it’s really the only option and I think learning to recognise that is important. The fact this work is also  my submission for a group project showing at the Look11 photography festival in Liverpool in May is just stressing me out more. Right now it feels as though people are constantly asking to see my work, which I’m clearly not able to do. Frustrating isn’t the word.

I won’t go into the detail of what I wanted to do – as I believe it will still happen with time – but it would have involved collaboration and focused on eastern European Roma communities, that being for me a logical progression from written work I’d done in 2010. Despite my putting in lots of work over the past six months to identify and win the trust of potential subjects – in the process I’ve become genuinely very friendly with a family which I thought would be perfect – when it’s come down to it, no one’s been willing to getting involved. For all kinds of reasons completely out of my control I’ve waited 10 days to get the final yes or no, but yesterday it came. This is a shame as I felt I’d found people who defy some commonly-held stereotypes, being integrated, educated, proud of their identity and forward-thinking.  It seems that what I was asking though is perhaps a step too far for people who have after all moved to the UK to escape racism and discrimination. And there is no chance of persuading them to change their minds.

This is certainly very disappointing but I’ve done my best, and have been honest and open about my intentions and tried all the journalistic persuasion tricks in the book. Ultimately, I also have to remember that it’s not for me to judge. No matter how proud and open people are about their Roma identity when they feel safe and know who they’re talking to, maybe this is like asking someone to come out when they aren’t ready to. For me documentary photography is no big deal because I understand it, because I’m in control. Concerns raised before the final No included family privacy and the possibility that the photos could be misused or misrepresented. Ultimately though I can only reassure people so much and if the trust isn’t there there’s not much I can do, especially once the man of the house has said no. I’m not giving up completely and will be trying different approaches to get to know people from the community, while staying in touch with the family I’ve come to call friends. But for now I recognise that I need to put this on the backburner and move on.

I’m not going to stray too far from this theme though and hope instead to work in a similar collaborative way with a family or small group of English Gypsies – this could still prove problematic but I’m hopeful that previous work and contacts will help me along. This is in some senses make-or-break week, so I’m hoping for luck after a stressful and annoying 2011 so far. All I want is an end to the constant gnawing uncertainty and to shoot some photos.