Reflections at the halfway point – the Making of Us

 

Yesterday was session 4 out of 8 workshops we are delivering for Ashcroft School in Cheadle, as part of our involvement in the Making of Us programme. So we’re now halfway through, an apt point to do some reflection – with the young people and between ourselves as facilitators.

This session should have taken place during the last week of the Autumn term but Covid enforced a delay. I think this had an impact on how it went and where we’re at more generally. It’s now around a month since we saw the group and this was only their third day back at school. They didn’t seem enthused.

Our session was structured around reflection – casting our minds back to what we’d done in sessions 1-3 and looking forward to possible activities for the remaining four weeks. Activities so far have been a photo walk with disposable cameras, followed by collaging using the prints from those cameras. We have also done light painting and Jamie-Lee made lithophanes/3D prints out of the group’s collages – which they saw for the first time yesterday and could take home to keep.

We looked at the prints from light painting and gave out the lithophanes to the members of the group who were present (two were not there). We then played a game Jamie had come up with to make the reflective process more fun – it involved an elastic band attached to four strings. Four people had to work together to control the band and to pick up paper cups. Under the cups were post-it notes with prompts. We hoped everyone would contribute their thoughts and help us shape the rest of the project.

Of course there’s theory and there’s practice, and things do not always work out how you hope. The game was good fun and the group seemed to enjoy it. A few thoughts came out of it but it felt like getting blood out of a stone at times. Group members are not the most forthcoming with their thoughts and at times it felt like we and the teacher were in danger of putting words in their mouths, which is not what we wanted to happen. But what to do when a young person shrugs and says ‘I dunno’ to everything? It’s a really tricky one.

The energy levels in our group fluctuate quite wildly during our 90 minute sessions. Someone can start off quite engaged and apparently into it and then five minutes later they’ve left the room, never to return. Some participants stay but fold into themselves and stop engaging. They make themselves small. This is a challenge for us as facilitators – I am not someone who is very experienced (or naturally very good) with teenagers – let alone those with additional needs. It all gave me a lot of food for thought.

How to ensure we are designing our sessions in a way which works for these participants? Reflection is great and important but I came away feeling somewhat at sea, since the activities that some people had enjoyed were those which others had not enjoyed at all. Which direction to go in next?

This is all something we are now working on and we have some ideas, some of which we want to try for ourselves while we have this chance and others we are designing especially for them.

But some other points struck me as relevant. One weakness for how it went is that we’ve had a long break, worsened by Covid forcing us to postpone our last session. That has broken the flow which we’d built up so far. One participant who had got really involved in the first three sessions and seemed to get a lot out of it – particularly the last workshop on light painting – has now decided he wants to drop it altogether, which is a shame. I wonder if that would have happened if we’d managed to do one long uninterrupted block of sessions.

This is not to say it’s all negative. We have had some genuine moments where it feels like we are connecting with the young people in our group and I can see they are enjoying aspects of what we’re doing. It’s an interesting and challenging journey to walk the path of meeting their needs in a genuine way, given the limitations of the small and unpredictable spaces we are being given to work with and all the other external dramas which can be happening around us at the school.

Next week we plan to do something more active which involves an acceptable level of mess – and to introduce the incentive of earning sweets or chocolate for engaging in our sessions. Hopefully this will make it feel less like ‘school’ and more like something fun and creative that they are happy to be part of. Fingers crossed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Goodbye 2021

2021 has been a mixed bag personally and professionally. Aside from the obvious awfulness of this pandemic, there’s been a lot of loss.

My kids lost three grandparents in quick succession over late 2020 and the first part of this year, following long periods of illness and decline – a situation made all the worse by the limitations to visiting etc. A number of friends have also left the area and in some cases moved abroad, which for me has compounded this feeling of grief and loss.

I felt very at sea professionally earlier in the year but eventually started to realise that one of the things I was feeling was profound boredom. After 16 years as a freelance journalist, basically writing the same stories for the same outlets and feeling inferior every time I looked up my NCTJ peers (why do we do this?), maybe it was time to shift focus. This felt like a failure initially but I soon came to frame it differently.

Taking part in Crossing Sectors, a professional development programme put on by Open Eye Gallery, helped with this. It led me to run a socially engaged lockdown project in my neighbourhood, then to apply for Arts Council Develop Your Creative Practice funding – which I didn’t get but the process moved me forward significantly. That application then formed the basis for several other applications for arts commissions and I started to see some results. I got to the interview round for a project in a prison – which felt like progress.

Then I won a microcommission from Open Eye to make collages using litter I’d picked up off the floor – the first time I’ve used any kind of alternative media within my work. It felt like an outlandish thing to propose but somehow it worked. From there the good luck continued. I got on another training programme with the Turnpike in Leigh, the Making of Us, which has paired me with a talented young designer and 3D printer to design and deliver a series of workshops to five teenagers in a special school. We’re part way through this at the moment and it’s been a huge learning curve – you can’t get much more out of my comfort zone than this.

Aside from this I’ve got another two socially engaged commissions which are at an early stage – a Heritage Action Zone project in Chester with Open Eye Gallery, where I’m going to partner with the Spider Project, and another similar but bigger scale project in Wigan, where I will be working with community members to consider the history of King Street. That one is something I’m quite nervous about at this stage as it’s all such an unknown at this point, and there are two other artist commissions happening co-currently along the same short street.

Running in parallel with all this is my involvement in Post Photography Collective – a group of mother photographers who share lots of experiences and frustrations. We only meet on Zoom once a month but having a network of like minds has been a lovely and positive thing.

Additionally, I spent this term working as an associate lecturer in photography at Manchester Metropolitan University, supporting a small group of students to engage with the community of Clayton. This happened completely by chance, through a chat with the course leader at an open evening at an artist studios near my house. I don’t know if my contract will be renewed or whether the other projects will allow for this next term. But it’s been a good experience overall.

I don’t know what the point of writing this is, other than to remind myself of how much has happened in a relatively short period of time. I don’t think I’ve really taken many photos of my own, other than the litter portraits which then got turned into collages. One of those will be in the Manchester Open exhibition in late January/February.

But I suppose the thing that is worth remembering is that all of these professional changes have happened just months after I felt really bleak about my direction. It took me months to change the wording on my website and social media from ‘journalist’ to ‘former journalist’ and sometimes ‘writer’. It felt like a huge admission of failure but actually I’m quite pleased and surprised with the turn of events.

 

Making of Us workshop #2

This week we ran our second workshop at the Together Trust for the Making of Us project. The first session we used disposable cameras with the participants – the only snag being that two of our five participants were absent, and their cameras needed to be filled up by other people. This was important as the resulting images were the basis for workshop number two – the downside was that because they hadn’t taken the photos themselves, there was potential for them to be less engaged. Anyway, after a bit of stress with broken machines at the camera shop (I thought for a while the pictures might not even be ready) we returned to the school with negatives and prints. We watched a couple of short Youtube videos about film photography and the darkroom, to give them a little bit of understanding of how it all works, and we did a warm up exercise that I learned on Crossing Sectors, where you draw around your fist and then respond to a series of drawing prompts within that shape, which then promote discussions as a group.

We then spent some of the session supporting the group to make collages out of their images – this was a bit of an ask it turned out, as I hadn’t thought about the fact this might be out of the group’s experience or comfort zone. Some participants got into it faster than others but all five ended up making a collage by the end of the session. This will form the basis for a 3D print, which Jamie-Lee will bring back to them in the final session. We also intend to do some light painting in the next session and I’m having to quickly scrabble about to buy suitable second-hand digital cameras (which allow users to use in semi-manual modes) as I have suddenly realised I’m not so comfortable with the idea of using my own work camera and laptop for this – I stopped paying to insure my gear a few years back. I don’t want to tempt fate in this way.

How socially engaged is this project at this point? We’re trying to build trust with the group and to get their feedback as we go along but it’s not clear how much they are getting out of it. We’re reflecting on our practice as we go along both together and individually. Thinking of moments which could have gone better, and which have gone well. We’re asking the school staff for constructive feedback as well. As for where we could go in future sessions, we have a rough plan but it’s subject to change if we feel the group could benefit from something different. I’m not as stressed out as I thought I might be about this situation – no doubt because I’m working with a partner, and have a support system in place and also don’t have the pressure of outputs at this stage. I’d like to build participant feedback into the process more but it feels like that could take more time and a lot more work. Anyway here are some of the lovely disposable images the group shot last week and a few of their fabulous collages that they made this week.

Manchester Open exhibition

I’m excited to say this image of eco heroes Nazar and Ash (from my Open Eye commission on litter picking) has been selected to be part of the Manchester Open exhibition at Home next year. Almost 2,300 people entered and around 500 of those were selected, so this is lovely.

Open Eye digital window

 

Yesterday some participants from the Crossing Sectors programme at Open Eye Gallery got together in person for the first time – a year after we first got to know each other. Unfortunately I couldn’t join them as I had a Making of Us session, but I’ve been kindly sent some photos of my litter work which is currently on display in the gallery’s digital window. Exciting.

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.

Open Eye micro commission and talk

 

 

I can finally say I’m finished with my environmental micro-commission for Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool – which has seen me take a socially engaged look at the issue of litter (and celebrate the growing army of volunteer litter pickers who are trying to make a difference).

More than 30 people sent me their photos and/or thoughts about this problem, which was amazing. And in addition to that I tagged along with three litter picks in different areas of Manchester, and photographed the volunteers – going on to turn the images into collages.

I’m really grateful to have been given this opportunity by Open Eye Gallery – basically it bought me some time to have a little play, take risks and to develop a socially engaged way of working that little bit more.

Because there are a few different strands to this project I’ve chosen to present it in a little document. You can see it in gallery over here or download the whole thing in higher resolution using this link. Thank you to all the people who contributed their thoughts and images.

There will a little online event in early September where I get to talk about the process a little bit, along with fellow photographer Marge Bradshaw, who was also given a microcommission. Learn more about this here and please come along.

 

 

 

 

Open Eye microcommission – litter update 4

Last time I posted I shared a collage from my Open Eye Gallery micro-commision on litter. From that point on I felt as though I’d found my groove with the collage element of this project. I’ve gone on to make several more of these – I now have eight in total. I ended up resorting to digital collage for these – chopping up bits of my litter scans in Photoshop and piecing these back together in a rather minimalist style with cut out portraits I’ve taken of litter pickers. Now I need to find a way to hang this part of the work together with the crowdsourced content (images and quotes) in a way which makes visual and narrative sense. For now though, here are some collages:

 

Open Eye microcommission – litter. Update 3

The experiments continue…  Last Thursday and Saturday I photographed three separate groups of litter pickers, in Salford, Moss Side and Levenshulme, a total of 17 people. That’s way more than I intended, as I hoped for maybe six people in total, but it gives me more choice.

I photographed them using my normal camera but also using a strange yellow polaroid film, which left me feeling like I was wearing old fashioned swimming goggles. I just used that to see how it came out to be honest. This evening I’ve started playing with using these in collages. I only have one so far, but I quite like it. I don’t know when I’ll feel I’m ‘there’ with the work – it all feels incredibly bitty but I guess that’s the point with an R&D bursary type project….

Levy Lockdown Project – socially engaged project website

 


Since January this week I’ve been working on a loose socially engaged project in my neighbourhood of Levenshulme, where I’ve invited local residents to send me their thoughts and images relating to the past year and how Covid-19 has impacted their lives.

This was funded via an InterMEDS commission which I’d been awarded by Peshkar in Oldham early in 2020 – pre-pandemic, my proposal had been to run a participatory project with Roma young people, but this plan naturally had to evolve as the world shut down. Gone were the opportunities to work face to face – instead, and inspired by my experience on Open Eye Gallery’s professional development course, Crossing Sectors, I turned my attention to my immediate community and tried to build on the network I’d developed through last year’s work on Levy Lockdown Portraits.

Over the Christmas holidays I handed out some creative kits to six local women – including disposable cameras, journals and some prompts. The timing ended up being quite fortiutous as we soon found ourselves in our third national lockdown – a bleak time where it felt dark and depressing and where all schools were closed for the second time.

Participants had a lot to say about what was going on – and I realised there was no reason why I couldn’t open out this to more people. So I set up a little Facebook group and put an open call on instagram and people started sharing work. In June I put together a zine featuring 36 people’s contributions but there was still more to see, so I’ve now pulled it all together into a website, Levy Lockdown Project.

This features everything I was given during this period – from full on journals, to photos and sketches. 42 people are on there and I have no work there except as a curator/facilitator. There are also a few audio interviews which I’ve conducted with three of the original creative box participants.

I’m pleased with this work – its my first true socially engaged project. I’ve learned a lot – it’s been quite a loose project with no workshops and most of the interactions have been digital, but I think it is an interesting community archive and a lovely companion piece to last year’s window portrait book and our zine.

Thanks to everyone who got involved and shared their thoughts and work. And thanks to Peshkar for the commission, and to Eurasmus and InterMEDS for the funding.