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.

Open Eye microcommission – litter. Update #2

I’m still not 100% sure where I’m going to end up with this litter project but community members are continuing to send me photos of their finds in dribs and drabs. I’ve now posted two open calls in a large number of Greater Manchester litter picking websites over recent weeks and received a decent response (31 people). I’ve also exercised my own form of ‘dynamic recruitment’ – where I invite particular people to get involved beyond the open call. If I see interesting photos being posted in a litter picking group I’ve been contacting the poster directly and asking them to send them to me.

There were two other main strands in my proposal to Open Eye Gallery, namely portraiture and collage. My original plan was to combine the two but I’m not certain that’s going to work at the moment. I am currently compiling a small hit list of people I hope to photograph over the coming few weeks – the project is a micro commission so I’m only aiming for around five or six portraits I think. As for the collages – well, I’ve started experimenting a little with this (school closures keep stopping play) and was initially feeling a bit wobbly about it.

I quickly realised I’d have to work with photographs of litter rather than the real thing but even they have been leaving me feeling extremely queasy. A week or two ago I went on a solo litter picking walk and ended up scanning a number of the items I had collected. I wore gloves and used antiseptic wipes but the whole thing left my stomach feeling pretty off and despite being in the house alone I felt almost embarrassed by what I was doing. There may be something to unpick there about my own rather visceral reaction!

For a few days I couldn’t even bear to open the files. I could see the little photo icons sitting on my desktop and even they made me feel weird. Then I spent a day chopping them up in photoshop and moving parts around and even that made me want to hurl. I think for me the facemarks are definitely the worst. I’ve internalised the very idea of them potentially being contaminated with germs. I don’t really know beyond that why I feel like I do.

At that point I thought maybe I was onto the wrong track – after all if I can’t bear to look at these images, how could I expect anyone else to do so? I tentatively showed a few to a neighbour, who suggested that discomfort is where the art is and thought I should ‘lean into’ these feelings – maybe contextualising them somehow with a statement. I shared a few on Instagram and got an unexpectedly positive reaction. So on I’ll go.

I’ve printed off some of these scans as photos so am going to try physically collaging with them. And I’ll try to also use this opportunity to improve my Photoshop skills by working with digital collage as this is something I’ve never done.

 

 

 

#levylockdownzine

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.

 

Messing about with glue

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.