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.

The Making of Us, session 3

Yesterday’s third session of the Making of Us was another thought-provoking one. The highlight was a few hours spent with Simon Ruding, director of TIPP, which started life as a participatory theatre organisation but now works across the arts. Most of their participants have lived experience of the criminal justice system or engage in behaviour which puts them at risk of criminalisation. They work in prisons and with probation teams, in youth justice settings and the like. Early on, Simon commented that when he hears groups being described as being “unreachable” he becomes determined to put the work in and engage with them. This resonated with me, as I’m similarly attracted to working in this space.

Simon’s session was focused on dealing with challenging behaviours, but what he did was help us look at the issue from a different perspective. Namely trying to recognise that participant behaviour which we may struggle with is coming from a logical place when viewed from their perspective. What I came away with is the need for radical acceptance of whatever those people are experiencing and the fact that the only factor we can change within this situation is our own response to whatever they do or say. “Changing the schema” as Simon put it (ie the pattern or expected response). It’s going to come down to developing a thick skin and developing some techniques and approaches which may help in tense or challenging situations.

The CPD sessions that we’re currently taking part of are building  up to the 10 participant artists being put in pairs to plan and run a series of co-designed workshops. These will involve participants who are young adults with additional needs of various kinds, and will be run with partner organisations.

I have some anxiety around the idea of facilitating workshops but actually I realised in yesterday’s session that this is very much tied to my rather controlling nature and leaving things to chance and depending on other people – plus the fear of the unknown. I think a lot of my personal anxiety comes from my own insecurities about my right to be in this space and to even call myself an artist (this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately – I have a lot of baggage around that word because I’m untrained). But I know intellectually that this really makes very little sense – I’ve talked about my own work a lot and am very confident doing so in public. What was reassuring in a perverse way was that many of my concerns are shared by other participants – including those who already do some facilitation. Even Simon said he still has some anxieties around running sessions, despite having done it for 25 years.

I need to give this more thought so I can process some of these feelings and try to unpick them further…..

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.

Levenshulme High Street snapshot report

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Earlier this year I applied my research skills to a rare non-journalistic brief: a mapping report looking at the health of my local high street in Levenshulme, Manchester. It mixed dry quantitative research with a large number of qualitative interviews and the result was a technical report that was more than 50 pages long. The hope is that the information I gathered throws some light onto the challenges facing this struggling district centre and helps motivated local residents and businesspeople to take control of our environment. More information is available from over here and the resulting report can be downloaded from here.

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Stamping on abuses of my Roma work

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year or so thinking about how Gypsy and Roma people are represented and misrepresented through photography. I wrote a research paper which touched on this for my MA and my two following projects – Rethink and Elvira and Me – both attempted to challenge the prevailing visual stereotypes of these two connected but separate communities. So it feels somewhat ironic that I have spent the past two days chasing websites which have stolen and then misused my work. Or perhaps it was only a matter of time.

Yesterday I received a phone call from a pretty upset Ramona, who had found a photograph of herself on the internet while searching for stories in the Romanian media about Roma migrants in the UK. She was shocked to be confronted with a photo of herself selling the Big Issue within an article which had absolutely nothing to do with her – it was a story about a group of named Roma squatters who had moved into a woman’s home in London – and wanted to know if I had given it to the website. I knew the story she was talking about as I’d seen it in the Daily Mail, which used a portrait of the victim, but I was furious see the Romanian site had lifted a photo I had taken for a Guardian Society story and run it with their piece. Ramona, understandably, wanted the photo removed as soon as possible – she hated the idea she was being associated with criminal activity in this way.

I mentioned what had happened on Twitter while I was pondering how to proceed, and a contact with far more computer know-how than me replied to say he had found the very same image being misused elsewhere. This time it was on a British blog about deaf people, illustrating a court story which had been itself been lifted from the Manchester Evening News. This case was even more unbelievable to me – a clearly identifiable photograph of Ramona was being used to illustrate a story about a different named Roma woman from Manchester who was prosecuted for begging using faked documents which claimed she was deaf and dumb.

So now she is apparently not only a squatter but also a convicted fraudster…

This morning I searched for another similar photograph which I have only licensed to Equality, a charity which advocates for Roma migrants in the UK. I wasn’t exactly surprised to see this one had been commandeered by a different Romanian news site, again as an illustration photograph in a highly negative story about Roma migrants in Britain. This time my friend was being associated with benefits tourism and the idea which is gaining traction in some sections of the UK media that Romanian Big Issue vendors are all here to scam the benefits system.

I. am. not. impressed.

Thankfully in all three of these cases the people behind the websites took down the offending photographs promptly after I sent a complaint by email, two of them before Ramona even knew about them or had seen them.

For me this has been a real lesson. Of course it’s annoying when people lift your photos and use them without permission, ignoring your byline and infringing your copyright. But far more serious to me is what I see as the abuse of the very essence of my work and of Ramona’s image – I described it in my complaint emails as defamation through the use of photography, and I truly believe it is. I am going to have to be very attentive from now on about how my Roma work in particular is being used and abused.

I totally understand that many people who run blogs and websites are untrained in media ethics and perhaps a little naive when it comes to the politics of visual representation. But if they are going to publish online they have a responsibility to think these matters through before stealing and then posting images completely out of context.

Crucially for me though, this has underlined the very important issue about stereotyping minority communities such as the Roma through photography.

I am CONVINCED that had the criminals and/or alleged benefits tourists in these three news stories been ethnic Romanian (for example) as opposed to ethnic Roma, very few people would think to use photographs in such an ill-judged way. Nowhere I have worked would we ever have used an identifiable photograph of some random person to illustrate a story about criminality committed by someone else simply because they happen to share an ethnicity….it would be big trouble if we did. So why is it ok to do so just because someone is Roma?

Is it ignorance? Casual racism, perhaps? – the idea that all Roma people are interchangeable and/or a bit suspect? The misconception that Roma Big Issue vendors couldn’t possibly chance upon their own photograph online in the way Ramona did, and so therefore these things don’t matter? I’m not sure but it maddens me and it made Ramona furious too. I’m very fortunate that she is open minded and has colleagues who can help me explain the nature of the internet and how images can get copied and pasted in this way. Happenings like this have the potential to undermine months of hard work on a project like mine.

I really hope the people on these websites have learned something through this. Everyone makes mistakes but photographs are powerful. I will not allow my work to be abused in this way.

Residents respond to my Roma work

A couple of weeks ago I received an email from the Hemmons Road Residents Association in Longsight, the area of Manchester where a large number of Romanian Roma have settled over the past few years. They feel their situation has not been well reflected in the work I’ve been doing on the issue, so I offered to post their letter on my website, and to carry it alongside the original story (I have also added it into the PDFs – here and here – of my original Big Issue in the North stories).  I have a lot of sympathy for the community in this area – it’s a very difficult situation and the vast majority of locals are being incredibly tolerant given the circumstances. There are always many perspectives to issues like this and theirs is no less valid. I do hope to find a way to represent their views properly – I am thinking how to do this in a positive and productive way – but I do nevertheless stand by the work I’ve been doing so far on this subject.

Press gang

Today I passed the half-way point in a seven-week teaching project I’m involved in, in which I’m helping a group of 10-year-olds put together a newspaper. It’s an interesting experience which has given me a whole new level of respect for teachers – mostly for their patience. I’m enjoying it on many levels but it’s made me appreciate my own job and relieved I didn’t go into teaching as I initially planned to, because I really don’t think I have the personality for it. I spent a year teaching English to French sixth-formers during my degree, which was challenging in different ways. Anyway, I’ll probably write about the exprience properly once it’s over but for now I’ll just share a child’s view of a tour we took last week of the Manchester Evening News office, which tickled me when I saw it today.

Big fat Gypsy hatchet job

The debate about the infernal Big Fat Gypsy Weddings series, which ended a few weeks ago, continues to rage. This show is becoming the bane of my life at the moment, because of the difficulties I’m having getting what I want for my MA and Rethink project, so when someone sent me a link to this piece from the BBC’s College of Journalism blog, which asks whether the show had been a documentary or mockumentary, I left this comment:

I’m not a Gypsy or Traveller but I am a journalist who works regularly with English Gypsies in the north of England and count a number as friends.

From an audience point of view, BFGWs was great TV – titillating, manipulative, car-crash fodder of the lowest common denominator kind. Most definitely a mockumentary trussed up as factual viewing.

And I’d have to agree with Jake Bowers about the damage it has done. It’s had a huge impact which I can personally attest to, as can any professionals who work with GRT communities (eg traveller education teams, support workers).

I’m doing a documentary photography project with a family who run a (privately owned) Gypsy site in northern England at the moment and the level of paranoia and mistrust as a direct result of that programme is enormous.

These communities have never been very open and it’s always taken time to win people round, but barely anyone else on the site will so much as give me the time of day, such is the fear of outsiders. They all just want to be invisible.

The residents of this site have suffered threats from local yobs, they are being refused entry to pubs and clubs in the town, and their kids are getting teased in school (more than before) about what was shown in the programme. Obviously, they’ve never had it exactly easy, but the perception is that things have got much tougher.

The mum of the family I’m spending time with says BFGWs has set Gypsies and Travellers back 30 years in terms of engaging with outsiders. Officials, artists etc will find it difficult to get onto any camps now, she says, and in some quarters Travellers themselves have turned on each other.

I’ve even heard from a friend who works with Irish Travellers in a town in Lancashire that the young lads are now starting to ‘grab’ girls as a form of sexual harrassment after seeing it for the first time on that programme. It hadn’t really been known of before around there.

My feeling is that Firecracker Films have done a hatchet job on a vulnerable and misunderstood community and I think they’ve done untold lasting damage in the chase for ratings. Tabloid TV of the very worst kind.