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…
“It would be an understatement to say they liked them … absolutely loved them would be closer. They were clearly delighted and very VERY proud of their children. The teachers loved the way they tell a complicated story so eloquently. One never gets those vocational ‘I’ve been part of something worthwhile’ buzz moments as often as one might wish, but I definitely have one now” (JD, Roma Source)
Earlier this year I was offered a project which ticked loads of boxes in terms of the direction my work has been taking. This was to lead a series of photography workshops with Roma children attending a school in Leeds, with the final output to be multimedia which said something about the children’s new lives in Yorkshire.
I’ve wanted to do more participatory work for a while and attended a Photovoice training course in preparation for this 18 months ago, but although I’ve introduced some of its concepts into my independent work I haven’t – until now – found the right partners to support a wider project.
This project was funded by Roma Source, with support from the EMTAS team at Leeds City Council, and of course the staff and young people at Harehills Primary School. I was able to rope in my friend Gemma Thorpe – a photographer with much more teaching experience than me – to help run the workshops, and then I took all the materials we generated away and used them to make photofilms. (More about the project here)
Now we have finally had feedback on the finished product from the children and their parents, and have been given permission to share the films, which will be used as an educational tool by some of the people in Yorkshire and beyond who work with Roma. Please check them out….
A selection of my photographs from Cedar Mount, a high school near my home, has been used to illustrate a study into the experiences of migrant Roma children in UK schools, written by Equality and published by the Roma Education Fund. Cedar Mount has about 100 Romanian Roma children – roughly one in eight pupils – as well as smaller numbers of Roma children from other Eastern European countries. I wrote about the school’s successes – and the challenges it faces – for Times Educational Supplement Magazine earlier this year. One of the things Manchester’s education authority has started doing – with great foresight in my opinion – is employing classroom assistants from the Romanian Roma community, almost all young adults who speak English but have not themselves benefitted from a formal education. There are several reasons for this – it shows the community that they are valued in this city; it raises aspirations by proving to Roma children that they can have the same ambitions and expectations as the rest of us in the UK, and it builds the confidence of this group of adults, who will hopefully go on to become links between different sections of the population. Ramona, who I have been focusing on for my major project, and who appears in the image above, is one of these people and the only woman. The report is available at Equality’s website.
I spent this afternoon taking some pictures at the shanty home of a lovely family of Roma Gypsies who live on the Asian side of Istanbul and whose original house was demolished – with all their belongings inside – by the authorities under an urban renewal scheme. Ahem. Two of my main subjects dovetailing into one there.
I got a few nice frames and am returning tomorrow…I did an audio interview with them – through an local activist who I really owe bigtime – the other day but communication was predictably difficult this afternoon. Embarrassingly they also took it upon themselves to try to feed me all the time i was there – humbling and awkward when you’ve already had lunch and your hosts can so little afford it.
Professor David Campbell debunks the idea of ‘compassion fatigue’ at the Third Frame conference which I attended two weeks ago in London. For me this was the most interesting presentation in a day of great talks. If you have 15 mins spare, do check it out…very thought provoking.
I spent a couple of hours today at a weekly pensioner’s group in Manchester run by volunteers from Irish Community Care. I didn’t really know what to expect but hadn’t thought through the fact that bingo – which takes up part of the session – isn’t exactly rife with human interaction. There were of course moments of connection during the afternoon and some of the images are okay. But in terms of the brief I was trying to fulfil, I’m not convinced I really nailed it. Of the three shoots I’ve done I think the family definitely worked best for the brief.
I had a heartbreaking encounter yesterday that is still weighing heavily on my mind a day and a half later. Widower and war veteran Elijah Debnam will be 90 years old in June and has lived in his home in Derker, Oldham, for the best part of six decades. There is now a Compulsory Purchase Order on his terraced property under the town’s Housing Market Renewal regeneration scheme and he is being pressured to move out. Not one brick has been laid under the scheme so far in Derker. The one thing Eli – as his friends call him – dreads more than anything is ending up in an old people’s home. I am sure there are many other very elderly people around the region who share his sentiments, but many are afraid to speak out.
If you’re a UK photographer or a photography-lover and you haven’t yet got involved in the campaign against the Digital Economy Bill then you really should. If it goes ahead and becomes law, the Bill could potentially put an end to street photography and eliminate a photographer’s copyright – and hence their ability to make a living off their work. It’s well worth a read of the link above and a letter (or visit) to your MP. A week ago I contacted my MP Gerald Kaufman, who incidentally is a former journalist himself and used to chair the rather ferocious Culture, Media and Sport committee. I got a response from him today, promising to pass my concerns on to the secretary of state.
I’m not one on the whole for badgering my elected member but this is the second time in as many months that I have written to – and heard back from – Kaufman. He has also promised to support efforts to reform the UK libel laws, which have unfortunately turned this country into a libel tourism destination and which threaten to stifle debate on important issues of science. Please sign the libel petition and add your names to both campaigns.
“I have never been a hit-and-run type photographically, despite the appearance of many photographs being quickly snatched. With my way of seeing – it has been pretty consistent across the music work.. I do not separate life, friendships and photography because they have been one.. every weekend new faces n new places for more than 10 years – it became easy quite soon to tell the unusual from the commonplace, photographically….the longer the project and the more visits to a place, the more layers are peeled back.. it´s only over time that i´m aware of just how many layers there are, and the more rare photographs present themselves. i like rare photos.. uncommon exposures of common moments which all can relate to.. :ø)”
My very talented friend David Bowen had some of his photos featured on BURN magazine earlier this week and there’s a really interesting debate underneath – one of the more intelligent discussions I’ve seen on there for a while. I’m always interested in why people choose to photograph what they do and he writes as honestly and lucidly as he snaps – refreshing in an industry so full of egos and bullshit. David has spent the past 10+ years photographing cultural events, particularly the electronic music scene, on commission, both in the UK and abroad. These three photos are from Derry in Northern Ireland, where he and I worked together on three separate occasions when we were both still earning our crusts from the music press…he has been there many more times than that though. I can attest to the fact that there are few more welcoming places in the world…I too hold the people I’ve met there in very high esteem. Since I picked up a camera David has both encouraged me and challenged my thinking in a very positive way. I think his work – and words – deserve more recognition so if you have time, check them out.