Got Through It – Traveller reflections project


I’ve spent the past couple of weeks manically trying to finish off my Open Eye Gallery Reflections project before my kids break up for the summer holidays.

Over the past year I’ve been working with women from the Romani and Irish Traveller community in Cheshire West to document their experiences of the pandemic. The project is one of three ‘reflections’ commissions funded by the local authority.

There have been some delicate moments along the way (eg when someone withdrew consent for their images) and there are some sensitivities due to the council being the funder – Travellers don’t always have the best relationship with the local authority, so I’ve had to do some reassuring about my independence along the way. However, the relationships I’ve built with participants have been strong and respectful and everyone seems happy at this stage. A few people in my project live with quite poor health, which made things difficult sometimes but it’s all come together in the end. I’ve been very lucky to have received mentoring from socially engaged photographer Anthony Luvera during this project – I was fortunate to get a CPD budget in the New Exchange development project which I was involved in earlier this year and that’s what I chose to spend it on.

My project is called Got Through It, which is a quote from one of my participants. I’ve edited a series of audio clips of some participants talking and I’ve designed a zine, which I plan to print copies to give to participants and a few extras. However it’ll probably be mainly accessible online – there will be a QR code in the exhibitions which take people to all this extra stuff on the project website which the council has built. The work will be exhibited it empty shop windows in Chester in September, and also in a group show at Open Eye Gallery at around the same time. I’m actually really proud of the work – seeing it in the book form made me realise that there’s some really good work in there. I’m very happy to have been given this opportunity to work with a community that I love so much.


Reflections project – ups and downs


The process of informed consent is really important in socially engaged practice – this gives participants the right to change their mind and withdraw consent at any point.

I haven’t had people pull out of my projects many times before – ideally, we will have built up lots of trust along the way and I will have responded to any concerns which crop up – but it does happen occasionally.

This morning I woke to the kind of message I dread from one of my Reflections participants: “Good morning Ciara, is it too late to take my name and photo please, just do the story”.

This is a disappointment to me – because I happen to love the portrait I made of this participant, who was one of only a handful so far who had been willing to show their face – but it’s not the end of the world. Their words remain very powerful and they are willing to let me use their voice, which I have recorded and turned into short audio clips. I have alternative images to use alongside their words, which are non-identifiable.

The egotistical photographer within me wanted to use the beautiful portrait, but I’m having to remind myself that this process is not about me. A consent form is in some ways a starting point – the relationship of trust which I create with participants is far more precious and something I view both as a privilege and responsibility.

I have worked with Gypsy and Traveller community members before but never in this socially engaged way – where I’m working one to one with individuals over periods of many months, and talking in-depth about their personal experiences.

My previous work (from 2009-14) was documentary – I mostly tagged along to family events and had conversations along the way. That work was independent and self-funded – and there was none of the baggage of exhibitions and archives and local authority power dynamics attached.

Perhaps people back then were also more trusting of the camera – I feel the explosion of social media in the past decade has made everyone much more wary these days, including members of these communities. After all, the mainstream representation of these groups has always been – and continues to be – extremely negative. Who could blame the majority of individuals for being wary of nosy outsiders and their cameras?

During the Reflections project so far, I have had many ups and downs. I’ve had numerous introductions to and conversations with people which have ultimately gone nowhere – but which all added to my understanding of people’s experiences of the recent past.

I’ve worked intensively with five participants so far and hope to connect with one or two more before my engagement wraps up this summer. But it’s been challenging at times to pin people down to visits – life gets in the way for people (myself included) and I’m mindful that I’m working with people who have, frankly, a lot more important things going on. There have been extended hospital stays, deaths in families and other emergencies, along with childcare responsibilities and family holidays.

I have also had concerns to allay about who will see the work and how to protect participants’ identities – this seems to sometimes be as much to do the internal gaze (what other community members may think) as the external gaze. There are sensitivities and complex dynamics around this work that I may never fully understand but I’m doing my best to represent people in a way which feels comfortable to them and true to their experiences over recent years.

Open Eye Gallery – Refections commission


A few months ago I was commissioned by Open Eye Gallery to develop a socially engaged project with members of the Gypsy and Traveller communities in the Cheshire West area, looking at their experience during the lockdowns, among other things. This is really exciting for me as these are communities I have worked with before (on my first independent project) and which I have lots of respect and affection for. I am in the very early stages of being introduced to potential participants and getting to know them better – I have a small list of contacts so far and have begun to visit them for initial cups of tea. I don’t know what the work will end up looking like but the idea is that it will be coauthored and will talk about issues faced by participants, generally and over the past few years. I’m hopeful of working with members of the Irish Traveller community and English Romany people and to include people who live on sites as well as people currently in houses. I also don’t really know how long this work is going to take. But I’m very blessed to have been given this opportunity to build on previous work.

The commission has led me to revisit some of the photos I made during the few years when I worked with Traveller families, many of which I set aside and never really showed to anyone (the downside of personal work – I am much better at the engagement and creation than the dissemination). Below are a few, and you can see others over here … watch this space to hear how this residency develops over the coming months.




Stalybridge #7

As I wrote in my last post, unfortunately I’ve had to prune a few images and interviews from my edit for the forthcoming show at the Astley Cheetham Gallery. I’ve done this on the basis mainly of the images being weaker than the others  – though other considerations come into play too like the general mix across the edit of things like age and gender and wanting to get a mix of shop and resident participants into the show. Also, I had too many shots of people on allotments. I don’t want to have wasted people’s time though so want to share them here.


Pauline Smart

“I live in Glossop, in Hadfield, now but I came to Stalybridge in 1957 from Ireland, aged 15. My father had a massive heart attack at the age of 40 and had his own business but couldn’t carry on. My aunt lived in Millbrook so I came to live with her for 12 months and then when my dad was well enough the family emigrated over here. Back then married women weren’t allowed to work in Ireland, so we had to leave. My mum found a job at the hospital as a nursing auxiliary but my father never worked again, he wasn’t fit enough.

These allotments [Mottram Road] were a lifesaver during Covid. My husband took an allotment here in 2007, he was an organic gardener but unfortunately, I didn’t take it what he told me. Since he died eight years ago, I’ve had to manage. I live alone but during Covid we were allowed to spend time on our allotments, which meant we could talk to people from a safe distance and not feel so isolated.”


Ronnie Griffiths

“I’m from Runcorn originally, I came here via Leigh and moved here when I was about nine and have been local ever since. My mum and dad bought a fish and chip shop in Stalybridge, it was on the high street. It’s gone a long time ago.

Everywhere used to be a borough – Denton, Stalybridge, Ashton, Hyde, Droylsden. All of a sudden Tameside came in and they all came under that and eventually they all got ruined, all the markets started to go down. Stalybridge indoor market used to be great, the building is still there – a wonderful building. The town hall was knocked down, the dance floor was meant to be one of the best in the North West. Marvellous building, the police station was next door. They shut that down and built another one near Tesco and that wasn’t open for long and then they closed it. Now the windows are broken and there’s graffiti everywhere.”


Gary Hulston

“I grew up in Denton, lived here for 27 years and now live in Mossley. I’ve had an allotment here for about eight years. When I was in my mid-20s I worked for Tameside Leisure Services. I moved here in part because this place is close to the countryside. I spent a lot of time bouldering and climbing with friends back then and there’s a lot of that about, it’s so close to the Peaks.

Stalybridge itself has gone through a few changes – some for the better and some for the worse. There’s no market these days but there are a few more cafés and craft beer bars now. The Station Buffet Bar is popular with people who do the ale trail and has great character. If you’re in there and hear a train coming, you need to get to the bar quick before the rush!

The people around here are down to earth. It’s only a few miles from Denton, where I grew up, but people here almost speak a different language. When I first moved here I often couldn’t tell what people were saying – there was such a distinct local dialect – but I think that’s fading now.”


Claire Bebbington (with Archie)

“I’m from Ashton but my partner works in Stalybridge so I come to Cheetham Park quite a lot to walk my dog, Archie. I also have a son who has special needs and this park is really accessible and there’s some nice nature trails. I think the buildings are nicer here than in Ashton. I prefer it, there’s more heritage and more independent shops – in Ashton it’s all pound shops and is too commercialised.”

Stalybridge #6


I was planning to return to Stalybridge today but I’ve realised I don’t need do.  After sitting down to think about the exhibition I realised I already have too many portraits to squash into the space and would have to cut a few out. It’s a shame because of the interview texts but some of the images are not as strong as I’d like anyway. So of 20 I have selected 16. I can only visualise things at this point by making mock ups, which is what I’ve done here. It may not be a final decision but this is roughly what I’m thinking. Anything interview-wise which doesn’t make the show will be shared on my blog and on social media.

Stalybridge #5

I went back to Stalybridge for the fifth day of photographing yesterday. I had two appointments set up – with dance teacher Sarah England (above) and at the Music Academy, where owner Chris wasn’t expecting me (the message hadn’t been passed on) but was thankfully very accommodating and up for a chat. I also dropped into Stalybridge institution The Tripe Shop and persuaded staff member Tina to let me photograph her – she is the only person who works there who actually likes tripe, as it turns out, which made me laugh.

I now have 20 portraits, each with a captions of up to 250 words. It’s not a bad haul but certainly not in any way representative of the diversity of the town. I would very much like to secure a few more interviews if I can – I’ve put a few messages out so it’s possible it will work out.

The Local/Lokal exhibition is at Astley Cheetham Gallery in Stalybridge from 24 Sep – 21 Dec.


Stalybridge #4

I’ve been back to Stalybridge on two more occasions since my last post and have met quite a few people and had lots of conversations about the town.

Last Thursday I cycled back along the Ashton canal (well, I did once my husband had kindly fixed a last minute puncture for me) and kicked off my day meeting Charlie, a recently appointed curate at Holy Trinity Church in the town centre.

This is clearly a super active church community which does loads of good work trying to combat isolation, poverty and lots of other issues.

From there I tried my luck at one of the local allotments. I struck lucky – it was a busy morning and people were very willing to chat. I then went on to Bridge Beers, a bar and bottle shop which someone at WeAreLocal (project commissioners) had mentioned to me. David, the owner, was up for taking part.

The following day unfolded in much the same way. I had one appointment set up in advance and other than that walked around trying my luck with people I chanced upon.

I have a mental checklist while running these projects – I want to be as representative as possible in terms of age, gender, ethnicity etc. I don’t want to be prescriptive but it’s something I am conscious of.

I walked around and around the town, trying to spot people who could be worth trying. I have found people extremely friendly on the whole in Stalybridge and most have been very receptive to my questions.

The lady in the portrait above, Seraphine, is someone I got talking to on the street on Friday afternoon. She was incredibly friendly and receptive when I tentatively suggested going home with her (she had things to do there).

I had first been attracted by the fact she seemed so sweet and was carrying her baby on her back in the African style and envisaged photographing her like that but I love the intimacy of having made the image in her lounge. That portrait is by far my favourite of the series so far.

I have lots of transcribing to do now – since I always use people’s own words with my images – and will be returning to Stalybridge this Friday and again early next week. I have a few appointments lined up already and have sent several messages  today to positively address the gaps within the work, but there’s only so much that is possible within the time constraints for the project. At least I’m trying though.

The exhibition opens on 24 September at the Astley Cheetham Gallery in Stalybridge.

Stalybridge #3

I returned to Stalybridge for the second time on Friday – this time I cycled along the canal, which took me a little more than an hour but made me so happy. I felt like I was seeing a totally different side of the city and was so envious of people whose gardens lead directly onto the canal. I only had a few hours in the town because I had to be back by 3pm to collect my sons from holiday club, so I was only there from 11am to 1.30pm. Still though I managed to get two chats in, one prearranged and one serendipitous.

First I called in to Paul’s Tools, a shop opposite the train station which had caught my eye the previous day, because it has some unusual mannequins outside the shop (one is a teenage ninja turtle – either Raphael or Michaelangelo… it’s hard to tell!) I hadn’t intended to go and speak to the people inside but got chatting to the aforementioned Paul, who has lived in Stalybridge all his life. He pointed me down the street where the pub with the shortest name in the UK (Q) is a few doors down from the pub with the longest name in the world (The Old Thirteenth Cheshire Astley Volunteer Rifleman Corps Inn). He also told me Stalybridge is a key place in trade union history. I’m not happy with my portrait of Paul though so am going to have to pop back.

From there I went to meet Steven Barton, who runs a local food pantry from a shipping container outside the town’s Labour Club. He and his group support struggling households in the town with food parcels and other essentials and he says the need is growing massively as people’s bills rocket.


I had hoped to also fit in some street portraits and interviews but as usual I overestimated what I would be able to manage and had to leave it for the day. I had planned to return on Saturday with my kids and visit the Astley Cheetham Gallery, where this work will be shown but the rail strikes put paid to that.

I can only come to this work as an outside looking in, which is limiting at any point but especially so when time is short. I am not seeking to represent Stalybridge or to give an opinion on the place – that would neither be fair nor possible. I’m hoping to just gather a selection of different experience and present it for what it is, without making any big claims of how representative it is. I’m not really happy with anything I’ve shot so far – it all feels a bit rushed and I’m not yet sure of my angle – but I’m hearing interesting stories and views.

Over the coming fortnight my hope is to meet some people who run businesses or cultural enterprises in the area, as well as some more lifelong residents and a few new arrivals. I’m contacting some possible participants in advance but will also set aside some time to simply walk around the area and see who I meet. My next short visit to Stalybridge will be Wednesday but on Thursday and Friday I should manage a bit more time.


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 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.