I am a terrible businesswoman. A lot of the work I do, I do for myself quite honestly – to satisfy my own curiosity and shine light on particular issues that I care about. I am less good at finding audiences in any meaningful or commercial way and that is normally a bit of an afterthought.
And so it happened with the body of work which almost no one has seen, Here and There.
My friend Ramona, aka Elvira and a collaborator in my Roma project, came up with the idea. By this time, 2018, she was working for a migrant support charity and came up with the idea of situating stories of Roma people within the wider narrative of migration and the issues faced by these communities in the UK.
Why didn’t I use my skills to tell some of these stories, she suggested? Maybe we could then present them to her employers and get them seen. I think she envisoned me collecting around eight stories and images, but me being me I took it a bit further. It felt important to try to make it all representative – of gender, sexuality, age and of different push factors. There are asylum seekers and refugees, Roma people and others who moved to the UK as children or adults. By the time I’d finished I had collected 26 stories – although one later withdrew consent.
Once I had them, I wasn’t sure what to do with them. Ramona and I had a meeting with woman from a human rights charity, who loved the work and promised to show it to others in the field, but then nothing happened and first a general election and then Covid took over.
I sent the work to the People’s History Museum in Manchester after learning by chance that they were programming a year’s worth of events around the theme of migration. I didn’t get an exhibition but they later came back to me to ask to use four of these stories within a broader show. They are currently up on the wall but the museum has been closed much of the past year, so we haven’t see it. Hopefully soon.
In the end I’ve just decided to throw it onto the internet in case anyone wants to read the stories. They don’t tell us much in the grand scheme of things – they just humanise a subject so often talked about in terms of numbers. Behind every number is a person with a story. That’s really all there is to say.
The Ebook can be viewed free of charge here.
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:
Following on from yesterday’s post about the four images and texts of mine which will be on show at People’s History Museum, I thought I’d start sharing the rest of that project, Here and There.
Here’s Lidia, who I think was one of the first people I photographed and interviewed for this series:
“When I was younger I made a lot of mistakes. I did not listen to my parents and spent my evenings out on the streets with my friends.
“My parents – who are Pentecostal Christians – didn’t let me go to discos but I would still go. They don’t drink or smoke but I did. I was supposed to see the difference between my parents and the people on the street but I was following the wrong example.
“If God had allowed me to carry on like that, maybe I would not be here now. Now it’s finished. God has given me a blessing – a child. I believe we have to say thank you to Him every day. If I make a mistake I feel a pain in my heart.
“My brother is in Africa at the moment, working to take the word of God as far as possible. Someone came to our church one Sunday to talk about the work Roma people like us are doing over there. They are building houses for people and giving tribal communities clothes to wear.
“My brother was very touched by their stories and asked if he could go too. My entire family helped him out – we helped him with the cost of his flights and we collected 20kg of clothing for him to take to the people there.
“They teach them how to eat with a spoon, how to get dressed and how to sing Romanian songs.”
It feels like a lifetime ago, but in 2018 and 2019 I spent some time on a self-initiated series of interviews and anonymous portraits which so far haven’t seen the light of day. The work was initiated by my friend Ramona – with whom I made a book in 2011.
Elvira and Me was my MA major project and told of the tensions which existed for Ramona – a Romani woman who moved to the UK from Romania – in her quest to pursue a career while also fulfilling her traditional wife/mother/daughter roles.
Ramona was by then working as a community organiser for a migrant support charity and thought it would be interesting to situate the stories of Romani people alongside those of other people who had migrated to the UK. Her suggestion was to do a handful of these vignettes – photos running alongside first person stories.
But me being me, I took the idea quite a bit further and ended up gathering 25 stories, featuring the words of migrants from across the world. Well, actually I collected 26 but one participant later withdrew his consent. The stories include people who moved here as children, individuals who came here seeking sanctuary and stories from people who moved later in life. The reason the portraits are all shot from behind is because there are asylum seekers among the stories – and they are not comfortable being identified. It made sense to photograph everyone in the same way.
One thing I have realised about myself over the past decade or more of doing so-called ‘personal projects’ on subjects I feel are important (and often doing them in ways that turn out to be basically unpublishable) is that I love making connections, talking to people and gathering stories. What I am very weak at is disseminating what I’ve made.
These stories have pretty much sat on my computer since 2019. I made a little dummy book but did little with it. But one of the few things I did was submit it to Manchester’s People’s History Museum, when I heard they were planning to programme their 2020 content around the theme of migration. The work was not selected as an exhibition in and of itself, but the curator later got back to me and asked to use four of the stories as part of some broader programming.
This was all very exciting. We had a meeting about it and then Covid arrived and it all went incredibly quiet. Until recently – after a hiatus of about seven or eight months the museum started putting together its #Welcome? exhibition. Sadly it’s not open at the moment, as Manchester is in Tier 3 and galleries and museums are shut. But once they can, I’ll be going to see the work, which is on until October 2021.
I think now is probably the time to start sharing some of these stories, so watch this space.
I’ve streamlined the process of buying a copy of Levy Lockdown Portraits. You can now order one from here.
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 email@example.com 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.
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!
What a bizarre few weeks. We’re now 30 days into official lockdown in the UK, and it feels to me like some of the paralysis of the initial days of Covid-19 has started to loosen. I’m still working as a journalist – working at snail’s pace on a number of features for Big Issue North which for the large part have nothing to do with the pandemic – and am starting to get the sense that many people are getting into a groove with this strange new normal. People I contact are responding fairly promptly for the first time in weeks. My own work pace is glacial but things are slowly getting done.
One of the ways I’ve been responding to this weirdness is to pick up my camera. Ironically I’ve found the past month an easier time than normal to be creative – despite having a three year old and a five year old in tow most of the time. I’ve been photographing the lockdown on a daily basis from their perspective. Something that has always felt uncomfortably self-indulgent to me – sharing photos of my kids and our own daily life – suddenly feels more legitimate, perhaps due to some odd journalistic psychology thing because it’s now framed within ‘a story’. Make of that what you will. These daily vignettes – which I’ve dubbed “Big Brother House” can be seen on my Instagram page.
The other way I’m documenting the lockdown is through window portraits of people living in my neighbourhood of Levenshulme. Lots of photographers are doing similar work at the moment but I love the way the glass provides a beautifully surreal visual metaphor for our current social distancing requirements. The participants have to come close to the window to make use of the light. I’m often closer to them than the permitted two metres but they’re behind glass so it’s fine. I’m making most of these during my daily outing with my kids so I have to be quick – more than three minutes and they’re bored. Some of them are on my Instagram and the full album can be seen on Facebook for the time being. This will be updated as I add more…
Last year I was lucky enough to get involved in a local arts project, in which we re-ran a collaborative project from about 20 years ago. A school near where I live, Alma Park, is a specialist centre for deaf children – with pupils travelling from across Manchester to get support with their communication needs. They spend some time in mainstream classes as well and all children in the school learn some sign language. Years ago the school was involved in a community arts project in which photographs of children’s hands signing out the name of our neighbourhood – Levenshulme – were displayed at the local train station. These were up when I moved here in 2004, but the posters were eventually taken down after suffering water damage.
In 2019 the Friends of Levenshulme Station group decided to re-run the project and invited me to take part. We decided to involve only hearing-impaired children this time and in the summer term I spent a morning shooting 11 pupils’ hands. It then took a long time to get the funding from Northern Rail and other partners which we needed to print the images onto aluminium and there have been other delays while we’ve waited for permission to get onto the platforms and install the images. But now they’re there, along with a text celebrating the existence of Alma Park School’s deaf community, which mainly local people don’t know about.
Winston Brown was refused re-entry to the UK in 2006, when he tried to board a plane at the end of a trip to Jamaica. It took his family 13 years to get him back into the country. He is one of thousands of people affected by what has become known as the Windrush Scandal – well before the creation of the so-called Hostile Environment.
Click on the image to read the story on the Big Issue North website.