Pandemic reflections – Levy Lockdown Portraits #2

A year into the pandemic, I invited a number of people who I’d photographed for Levy Lockdown Portraits to reflect on their experiences of the past 12 months. Here is what they wrote:

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.

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.

#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.

 

Big Brother House

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.

Levy Lockdown – the participatory project

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:

 

 

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!