A portrait of Levenshulme – market residency

Today was good fun – I ran a pop up photo studio at Levenshulme Market as part of a funded Jubilee project – and shot 39 portraits of local people.

Together with my friend and fellow photographer Laura Deane, I’m an artist in residence at the market over the coming weeks. We’ve successfully sought funding from Arts Council England towards our Portrait of Levenshulme project, which will culminate with an exhibition over the Jubilee weekend in early June.

Today and for two more Saturdays in May, we are supporting people to take photographic self portraits and to use drawing and collage to explore portraiture and to share their thoughts with what makes our neighbourhood special.

Today we were even interviewed on BBC Radio Manchester about the project. It was extremely windy today and there were moments when I thought my light stand might blow away but it was good fun.

If you’re in the area on May 7 or 28 please come along, and join us for our community exhibition on the 4th.

Levenshulme Market – Jubilee residency

Exciting news incoming …. Starting this weekend, @lauradeanephotography and I will be the very first first artists-in-residence at Levenshulme Market.
Over three weekends we will be working to create a portrait of Levenshulme, culminating with a community exhibition on 4 June.
Come down and make a self portrait in our pop-up photo studio, or be supported to make a self portrait using drawing or collage. Tell us what you think makes Levenshulme special. Let us share your work with other folk in an exhibtion and commemorative zine.
This project is being funded by Arts Council England’s special Jubilee funding, allocated in our area by Forever Manchester. 💥

Wigan King Street project – photo walk along a complicated street

I enjoyed my second photo walk along King Street in Wigan today, with Jeff, Mike and Dave, for one strand of my Heritage Action Zone commission with the Old Courts and the rest of the Wigan cultural consortium. This should have been my third walk but I ended up having to cancel walk #2 due to my catching Covid. I’ve tried really hard to promote these – via Facebook groups, contacting the local newspaper (to no avail), general social media, flyering, contacting local organisations like the college, Universities of the Third Age and photographic societies, but it’s been an uphill struggle.  I have one more walk next Sat 9th April (drop me a line to get involved) plus a workshop at the Old Courts in mid-May for people who have participated. This week I’ll also start running some sessions with service users from local homeless charity the Brick, for the the other part of this project – exploring their relationship with this rather complicated street.

 

Making of Us film

A short film made during the Making of Us development programme, which I was part of at the Turnpike Gallery in Leigh. Artist Jamie-Lee Wainman and I led eight socially engaged workshops with neurodiverse young people at Ashcroft School in Cheadle, as part of this 2022 programme.

Film supplied by
INSTAGRAM: The Turnpike CIC (@theturnpikeleigh)
TWITTER: The Turnpike CIC (@the_turnpike)
FACEBOOK: The Turnpike CIC (www.facebook.com/TurnpikeLeigh)

Street Level Photoworks exhibition

I’m chuffed to be part of the This Separated Isle exhibition at Street Level Photoworks in Glasgow at the moment.

The show features all the portraits from the beautiful book edited by Paul Sng – mine is of Owen Haisley, whose story I covered for Big Issue North.

Owen – who was born and lived for four years in Jamaica – lost his right to remain in the UK after serving a short prison sentence. He had spent over 40 years in the UK, never leaving the country. The result is that he now lives in limbo – unable to work and enjoy the same freedoms that most British citizens enjoy. It’s an outrage.

Thank you to Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert for the installation photo. You can order the book here.

 

Making of Us reflections – sessions #7

It was our penultimate session at Ashcroft School for the Making of Us this week. The workshop had its high points but didn’t entirely go as planned. Only two of our five young people were present – one appears to have dropped out altogether, another was meant to be there but has other things going on which are putting her in the wrong headspace, and the fifth person had gone home ill. Not the greatest of starts, compounded by their lack of enthusiasm for some of what we were proposing… it can often feel like pushing a boulder up a rock during these sessions, but it didn’t really get to us this time. We get it now.

We started with a game – Pictionary cards – where you use cards to mime out a word and other people guess. The two participants were very reluctant to get involved but with a bit of pushing from their teachers, they eventually got into it and even helped act out one or two words. Turning it into a competition involving a timer seemed to help with this – this was an inspired bit of knowledge from Jamie, my partner facilitator, who herself has ADHD so understands some of the young people’s issues. She says introducing competition to things helps to get her attention fixed on a task. Good tip.

The creative exercise this week involved Tengrams – making images using pre-cut coloured shapes, in this case different kinds of triangles. The aim was to build on last week’s cyanotype session, which saw us make a backdrop of the sea. We wanted to make images of fish and other sea creatures – the triangle idea came from school, which has recently covered triangles in maths. This exercise, it has to be said, didn’t really light anyone’s fire. The two young people were much more restless than the previous week – they both had to go for a little walk during the session (this is written into lots of people’s education plans at the school but it was significant that it wasn’t necessary during the cyanotype workshop, as they were so engaged in what they were doing). Both participant fed back afterwards that they found this activity boring – and one, who has sensory needs, really didn’t like using the glue due to it being sticky.

The final activity was a little game (chin chin, involving thumbs), which went a bit better. The person who came last won this time around, which was good. Overall it was a bit of a mixed bag as a session – there were moments where they engaged and others where they didn’t. Next week we’re back to cyanotype, since they enjoyed it so much last time. I’m glad to be reaching the end of these sessions and to move onto something new but I’ve gained so much more than I expected to during this process. I knew I’d benefit from the experience planning and delivering workshops but I’ve also learned I love collaborating with other artists, I’ve learned how to set boundaries with partners and speak up when required and I’ve learned to be less controlling and more responsive to what groups are into. I’m very grateful to have had this opportunity at this stage in my work.

 

Making of Us reflections – session #5

A lot has happened in two weeks on the Making of Us project we are running at the Together Trust.

This is a challenging environment and there have been times when we as artists have felt quite out of our depth and unsure of how best to offer the young people in our group an experience that is interesting and engaging. In our last session, a fortnight ago, we tried to use reflective exercises to discern what they wanted to do more of but the results were so varied between the group (and those present so few in number) that for me at least this only muddied the water more, and left me feeling quite deflated. Someone wanted to do more collaging for example, while others definitely didn’t.

While being participant-led is obviously something worthy to aim for, the reality can be messy when those participants have very different opinions, likes and dislikes.

We communicated to the school that we would benefit from more support and they have risen to the challenge – yesterday’s session felt much better all round. We have started sending them visual guides to what our next session will entail and communication in both directions has been strengthened. We had a face-to-face debrief after our session yesterday, which was really valuable – this is the first time we’ve done that (we’ve previously asked for feedback by email) but it was definitely much better. Now to plan our next few sessions – we have three left, Covid-permitting.

Our session yesterday involved lots of games – the name game (famous person name on your forehead) and a game where you guess how many thumbs people will hold up. The creative activity was led by Jamie, we wrote down feelings and worries from our heads on post-it notes and then scribbled them up and tore or shredded the paper. Then wrote things on blue paper towels and, once outside, wet these and threw them at a coloured target Jamie had made. We attracted a lot of attention from other students at the school – which we had been warned about by staff – and not all our three participants fully engaged. One got very into it but the two girls had one try, missed the target and wouldn’t do it again.

I keep trying to remind myself not to take these things personally when an activity or session doesn’t hit the mark with everyone involved – I am learning to lower my expectations and see it as a win if all of the young people present engage with something during our time there. They have different needs and energy levels and can be up and down at different points during our sessions, but all got involved in the game-playing part of the session. And – as our Making of Us mentor pointed out to us – having an element of choice over whether to be involved in a particular activity is an important part of this process. They can be an audience member and still be participating, but in a different way – as long as they aren’t disrupting it. It doesn’t come easily to me to think like this as I am inclined to be output-focussed but I am trying to keep this in mind.

There’s a lot to learn and think about during this practical side of the programme. About working with a partner setting and developing positive relationships; working with challenging participants; working with an artistic collaborator; about being process-driven not output-focussed; about trying new things ourselves as practitioners (stepping out of our own comfort zones just as we are asking the participants to do); about having boundaries and recognising and expressing our needs; about my own temperament and what kinds of projects and participants would and wouldn’t suit me, going forward.

 

 

 

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.