Making of Us – session 4

This week was the 4th CPD session at the Turnpike and focused on the roles of artists and producers, relationship building and project planning. We also got a chance to share some of our own work with one another. The session was fairly gentle but as per usual there was a lot of food for thought.

I’ve always been quite sketchy on what a creative producer actually does – in fact I think I only heard the term for the first time earlier this year, so it was useful to hear from people who have worked in that role, including a few fellow participants on the Making of Us programme. When artists get to a certain status or work on projects that are larger in scale, there is a producer who can help with funding applications, research, practical things like scheduling and sorting snacks and managing budgets. In some ways this sounds good – many of these things are frankly a bit of a grind. But at the same time I quite like being the person in control so that could be strange. The engagement and research phases are things I am particularly wedded to – I like to represent myself. The takeaway from this part of the session was the importance of good clear communication throughout any project – it was interesting to hear examples of when relationships went wrong, which often seemed to be because of poor communication or crossed wires and people not really being collaborative or doing their own thing.

The other rather obvious (but still, for me, a lightbulb moment) piece of advice which I took away was the vital importance of reading contracts and artistic agreements really well and challenging them if unhappy with any clauses. I have to admit I’ve not really read these documents very well until now, I’ve looked at the section on photo rights and that’s about it. This is a bad habit which I need to stop. I’ll be making sure I read them properly from now 0n – again I heard examples of where the wording wasn’t good for either party but because the contracts were cut and paste documents they were still in there. Yet again it all comes down to communication. A key lesson to take forward.

As part of the Making of Us we have been paired up with another participant artist and allocated an institutional partner where we will be delivering a series of workshops with young people, over the coming months. That’s going to be the focus now going forward. It’s all pretty exciting.

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:

The Making of Us, session 2

Yesterday was the second session of the Making of Us, a professional development programme I’m currently part of at the Turnpike in Leigh, along with eight other artists from different backgrounds. The day involved making bread and taking part in a walk along the canal with artist Niki Colclough, which was rather lovely.

We’ve been thinking about collaboration, our experiences of it and the different forms it can take – with partner organisations, other artists and of course project participants. It’s been interesting talking to people who have come from different disciplines – the group includes a poet, a ceramicist, someone who uses 3D printing and several who have a very interdisciplinary practice.

My own experience of collaboration is a bit mixed. As a freelancer for 15 years now I’ve become a lone wolf on a professional level – I tend to work on self-generated and self-funded photo and multimedia projects in which I do everything: the research, finding of participants, engagement, photography, interviews, audio, multimedia production, book/zine design and dissemination. I am good at a few of these things, adequate at others and really poor at some (dissemination and marketing in particular!) I don’t think the lone wolf model is one to aspire to – but it suits a control freak like me, especially one with such limited funding for work.

I have limited experience at collaborating with institutions (outside of commissioning editors from magazines etc). This is starting to change a little this year, thanks to a few micro commissions – and will hopefully continue to do so. I have never collaborated with another artist so that is all wonderfully new for me.

However, I do feel I have something to contribute when it comes to experience collaborating with project participants. Not in a formalised workshop setting but in a more organic sense. When I worked with Roma families in 2011-2014, I was quite conscious about making the work as collaborative as I could as a way to make the power dynamic less glaring (although it still existed of course… after all, there’s no getting away from the fact I’m a white middle-class media professional holding a massive camera). I worked with families for extended periods of time (years); asked participants to take photos of their daily lives; invited them to write or speak about images and family album photos and used photo elicitation as a method to generate texts (ie interviewing with images – more on this here, along with some examples).

They also got to see and approve photos before they were used in books and exhibitions. All the accompanying words were theirs. It wasn’t a perfect project, obviously. But I am confident they felt included and I know they didn’t feel exploited because we are all still in touch. I consider this a socially engaged body of work but this way of working is a spectrum and I was definitely still in the driving seat – the artistic vision and final photos were all mine. I once asked Ramona to come up with an alternative edit of my photos, which was quite different to mine, as you would expect (You can see this over here)

It was a fun experiment but I wasn’t ready to cede that kind of power – I was (and still am) in thrall to the idea of making aesthetically pleasing photos and to a degree to the ego-centric stereotype of the documentary photographer – but in a different setting and a different kind of project I would challenge myself to let go of this.

In preparation for yesterday’s session we were asked to read the article Power Up and to make notes. These are the points which leapt out at me in the reading and session itself:

  • We should be responsive to the needs and wants of communities with which we are working – it’s about agency and empowerment
  • Reflection on work is crucial
  • Cultural capital can reinforce inequalities – how do we make sure we value the cultural capital of participants
  • We need to consider our positionality, privilege and subjectivity and how these play into decision making.
  • Beware of gatekeeping – we need to enable co-design of projects. Not just give people access to existing programmes. They need to be genuinely and equally invited.
  • Consider where power lies – is this just about boxticking? Who sets the parameters and guidelines and makes the final decisions?
  • Look out for cultural colonialism (ie asymmetrical exchange)
  • Listen and reflect what you learn
  • “Collaboration is often characterised by a degree of paternalism”
  • Collaborator or participant?
  • There’s a stereotype of socially engaged artists ‘doing good’ or ‘helping people’ – this can be paternalistic.

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.

 

 

 

Open Eye microcomission – litter. Update #1.

Recently I was lucky enough to be awarded a micro commission by Open Eye Gallery, which allows me to use a socially engaged approach to look at the issue of litter. I’m treating the commission like a bursary – so using this opportunity to test out some ideas and see what works.

My proposal was to engage with the growing army of volunteer litter pickers which I’ve noticed have sprung up during the pandemic. My belief is that as people have spent more time in their local environments, they have been spurred on to do their bit to make it better. Perhaps littering itself has also increased over the past year – it’s hard to know as my own neighbourhood has always been filthy.

My project is going to work on several levels. I have been posting an open call into various litter picking groups across Greater Manchester over recent weeks, inviting people to send me photos, anecdotes and opinions. So far, 23 people have sent me either photos or words or both. I have around 350 photographs, and it’s fair to say people have been finding some strange and at times surprising items on their travels. Here are a few of them:

The second element of this commission is going to involve me making some portraits and collages… I am still thinking about how to actually do the collage part and am going to have to spend the next few weeks experimenting I think. I’ve been playing around with making cyanotypes of some of the litter I’ve been picking up – for no reason other than that I’d never made cyanotypes before.  The cyanotypes themselves have been a bit rubbish (poor workmanship!) – but I have to say I quite like the look of the digital negatives I’ve been making in order to produce them, I find them quite striking.

The items I’m personally most drawn to photographing at the moment seem to be PPE (everywhere) and those stupid little nitrous oxide canisters which are also everywhere. How to integrate those into collage, I’m not yet sure. Watch this space.  I’m going to try to blog this process as a way of keeping track of this project as it progresses.

I’m highly aware this is a subject other photographers have covered. The best is Chloe Juno, who has been at it for about seven years now and has now amassed thousands of images. I also came across this Gregg Segal series today, where he photographed families with a week’s worth of their refuse.