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…
I’m not entirely sure why but this has been the slowest moving and probably the most delicate project I’ve ever worked on as a journalist. I’ve been thinking about doing some work on the Romanian Roma who live near my home in Manchester since last summer and but only started trying to make contact with them in December. Since then it’s been a series of false starts, red herrings and frustrations for all kinds of reasons, not least enormous language and cultural barriers and issues of trust. There are problems with community cohesion in the area so there are sensitivities on all sides. I feel like I’m walking a tightrope and am braced for complaints. Read the full feature here. Part two – the Roma perspective – will run next week.
I’ve put a few pictures and five pieces of audio featuring the voices of homeless people from the Booth Centre in Manchester into a gallery on the photo section of my website.
Peter, 40, is a recovering alcoholic. He ended up on the streets several times as a result of his addiction but realised he had to do something when his kidneys started packing in. He started his journey to sobriety while living in a squat with other homeless drinkers and drug takers. “I wanted to kill someone. My body was screaming for booze but my head was saying no,” he remembers.
Peter is just one of the people I met at the Booth Centre, a drop in for homeless people in Manchester.
Please listen to his story.
my photos so far to the service users at the Booth Centre tomorrow.
Fingers crossed they’ll like them….
I can feel myself getting quite attached to some of the characters I’m meeting during my time at the Booth Centre, a drop in centre for homeless and ex-homeless people where I’ve been spending two to three days a week since Easter. I haven’t ended up using my camera every day, but the vast majority of users have made me feel incredibly welcome and are being really cool about me being a fly-on-the-wall during their sessions. There is a hard core of regulars who attend the various classes but new faces are always appearing at the drop-in sessions where people can turn up for a cup of tea and some food. Those have been the times when I’ve felt a bit out of my comfort zone – overwhelmed by the attention and occasionally gruff comments and questions of strangers – but I feel like I’m starting to break through.
I started this project after reading somewhere in the MA course literature that we would be asked to find a location where we could get sustained and repeated access. Something made me think of the Booth Centre, which I’d heard of somewhere along the line, and I fired off an email to the manager, Amanda. As always it came down to a combination of timing, luck and the right approach. They apparently get constant requests to help people with projects – from people like me as well as academics and students – and the answer is usually no. But this year is the centre’s 15th anniversary and Amanda felt this might be a good time to document some of the work they are doing. My pitch to her was that I have a long-term interest in issues around social exclusion, but am keen not to paint users of the centre as victims or any other kind of negative stereotype often attached to people who have experienced homelessness. This approach hit a nerve. She said yes and I decided to seize the moment and get started even though the assignment hadn’t been set. It may well not end up being my first assessed project as I have other irons in the fire. Time will tell.
I’ve written before here how I often wrestle with the fact that the niche I find myself in as a writer-journalist seems to me to be one of the major cliches of documentary photography. I’m trying to think how my skills can bring ‘added value’ to the story I’m trying to tell and I suppose the depth I’m trying to achieve in really getting to know some of the Booth Centre regulars as individuals in their own right is one way I’m doing this. I’ve taken a little ambient sound this week already and am planning to start doing some audio interviewing and hopefully some proper portraits over the coming week or two. People are already offering up some really fascinating information about their lives as we get to know each other better…whether that will be the case when the audio recorder is running, I don’t know.
What is actually quite liberating about doing this project is that for the first time in my career I am working on a story with no final destination in mind. I have stepped off the editorial treadmill with this and am doing it entirely in my own time and am trying to approach it in an organic and open-minded kind of way. For a print journalist used to writing six stories a day while working on regional papers, taking my foot off the pedal in this manner does not feel natural and I continue to get pangs of anxiety and to feel the lure of other stories. I may not operate with anywhere near that ridiculous turnover today but my attention span sometimes feels damaged beyond repair by those early years. I am painfully aware that patience is one of the most important attributes for a great photographer, so this kind of practice is valuable.
Having no ulterior motive, editorially speaking, is actually turning out to a blessing because I am being honest with people who attend the centre when I say I’m doing this purely for myself and also so the Booth Centre can use the images. Leaving my journalist hat at home has helped me win people’s trust, while helping me to stay centred, to coin a terrible pun. That one really deserves a smack.
Homeless people and opera singing are not two phrases that you’d automatically put together. But that was one of the sessions I attended today at the Booth Centre, a Manchester drop-in where I’m currently spending some time taking pictures. The singing group has already performed a number of times and I will be attending a show they’re putting on next month in the city’s Cathedral to mark the Booth Centre’s 15th birthday. I think I feel a multmedia piece coming on.
I spent the day at the Booth Centre today, a drop-in for homeless people in Manchester, where I’m going to be taking photos several days a week over the next month or so. It’s an amazingly positive little place, where the 100 or so users – many of whom are street drinkers, drug users or living with mental illness – engage in a variety of positive activities, from art groups to swimming and gym sessions and music classes. This afternoon was cooking. Obviously. Fishcakes, in case you care.
What I think is going to be an interesting challenge for me as an inexperienced photographer is to deal with the fact that a few users really don’t want to be photographed – for a variety of reasons – while others are fine with it. But during the activities they all completely mingle, which means I’m going to have to bear this fact in mind at all times. Even today out of the three people at the cooking session, one man didn’t want me to show his face. That put me out of my comfort zone immediately because it limited the way I could move around the space. I guess this is something that will just resolve itself over time, as I get to know individual people more. I hope that my approach may win some of the more reticent ones over – I try to be very gentle and sensitive in these situations and to draw as little attention to myself as I can. Maybe once they learn to trust me and get their heads around what I’m doing there, they’ll change their minds.