Deadlines and panics

My default position in life and work, I’ve realised, is “I can’t do that” – plus, quite often, some associated panic. I’m not sure where my terminal lack of confidence comes from, no doubt it’s partly nature but I suspect it’s also some parts nurture – some very negative experiences with managers in my early jobs plus some terror associated with being self-employed, which I find hard. I don’t remember being so anxious as a child. On balance I know deep down I’ll get things done competently and on time but I’ve never felt properly confident at the start or even partway through projects, even when I’ve had positive feedback along the way. Perhaps though this is for the best – there are few things more off-putting to me than arrogance, and I’d always prefer to be thought of as humble than above my station. The resulting work should speak for itself.

Even after several years of spending time inside Roma families and collaborating with them – something I often doubted I’d pull off at the start when it took me a long time to win anyone’s trust, I feel unsure about what I’m doing a lot of the time. My work with Ramona felt largely like a fluke for a long time – I was incredibly lucky to find someone as trusting and open, and natural with the camera. Managing to win Arts Council funding and a Homelands commission from Side Gallery early last year felt similarly flukey, and both were followed by months of despair and doubt as I wondered how to translate this opportunity into a concrete body of work. While photographers often talk about self doubt I rarely hear people admitting to the levels of anxiety and sometimes minor depression I often feel about my work, both in trying to negotiate access, feeling good about what I’m doing and the integrity of my motivations and the quality of what comes out.

The Homelands commission was intended to be a short project of just a few months’ duration but once I finally found a family to work with it took me a long time to really find my place – this is more I suspect to do with my own sensitivities than theirs. I’d probably keep going forever if I could because I love their company, yet I’d doubtless never feel like I’d really captured what I wanted to or what I felt. A deadline has now been imposed though – the work is going to be exhibited in Newcastle in October. I don’t feel ready of course, I don’t feel I’ve even scratched the surface, but I guess I’d always feel like this. A deadline is needed to force me to confront those work prints and develop a coherent edit, not definitive because that’s impossible, but coherent and honest at least. If the family will allow me to I will continue to visit them beyond this time and long into the future as I think this is where the work could really become interesting.

My Roma Christmas(es)

2012 has passed in a flash, and despite some ups and downs and many self-doubts and whinges along the way my Roma project has grown in ways I only could have hoped a year ago. Elvira and Me, which began as a student project, was turned into a book run by The Big Issue in the North Trust, which has recently started posting copies out to MPs, think tanks and the like, to try to overturn some stereotypes about Roma in this country. Really, I couldn’t ask for more than that – making work of this kind is pointless when viewed only within the photography ghetto. Since being awarded Arts Council funding and a Side Gallery commission just under a year ago, the project has also expanded – I thought maybe I’d end up with two other families/individuals as well as Ramona, but currently have six stories in the pipeline, all quite different. Over these coming months I’m going to have to get myself together, decide where this is all going and create some kind of narrative for these – the way I work, I’d otherwise have the potential to endlessly photograph the same people for the rest of my life…which is fine by me really. I can’t imagine working on a different subject these days, and these people have all become my friends. I’m terrible at journalistic distance.

So it felt natural to try and capture Christmas for a couple of my families….I was invited to Ramona’s home on Christmas morning as a friend, for the second year, and this time it felt much more comfortable as I have got to know the rest of her family much better. I was a little nervous of inviting myself to Middlesbrough to the Czech family I’m visiting for my Homelands commission, but when I realised they mark their Christmas on the evening of the 24th I knew I had to give it a try. I hate imposing myself on people but knew I had to just ask…they said yes but I had sort of thought they would. It was beautiful and I’m very grateful to them for their generosity of spirit, yet again.

The two Christmases were quite different to one another. The Czechs ate a sit-down meal in which every dish contained meat (not great if you’re a vegetarian…) and gave out presents afterwards. On the table throughout was a small plate with two halves of apple and a few slices of bread. After the grandfather said something at the start of the meal (grace maybe), they all took and ate a small piece of the bread. When I asked about it they said it was there to give thanks and symbolise the bread they hope they’ll get enough of over the coming year.

My Romanian Roma Christmas was a more raucous affair – I arrived at the home at about 10.30am, when Ramona was putting the finishing touches to her table, on which were traditional dishes she’d spent the previous day cooking. Her uncle then turned up and invited us to his home a few miles away, where they too had a laden buffet table. We all had to carry a drink in with us – we apparently couldn’t go in empty handed so she gave me a beer to hold. Everyone then dug in to the feast, eating from the dishes on the table. There were toasts, I was made to drink cherry brandy (sadly I was designated driver later that day though), and there was dancing. A lot of dancing. After a while we all piled back to Ramona’s, including her aunt and uncle, and the fun was repeated there. I was quite sorry to have to leave and lovely though it was, my sedate British Christmas a few hours later felt a little dull in comparison.

Here’s to 2013.

I shot a little bit of video of some of the dancing – I think learning to record video that is in focus definitely needs to be quite high on my 2013 to-do list…

Separation anxiety

A major theme in my collaborative book Elvira and Me was the pain felt by Ramona at living thousands of miles from her small daughter, who remained with her parents in Romania when she migrated to England in 2009. This is a complicated dynamic that I can’t pretend to understand: the obvious (to me) fact that a daughter should be with her mother wherever possible was not so simple for Ramona, whose mother had become extremely attached to her eldest grandchild. In the event, after much persuasion, the daughter moved to the UK in June this year and has thrived – settling down, starting school, making friends and learning some English. Sadly, however, she’ll be leaving again less than a month from now, to spend the winter back with her grandparents and extended family in Romania. I am saddened by this – it seems a great shame to me to pull a bright and bubbly five-year-old out of school midway through the year and to tear her away from her mother – inevitably breaking her heart. I’ve voiced my opinion but who am I to put my own values on another family and another culture. Such are the challenges which face many migrants across the world, not just Roma people. The family dynamics seem quite different here though and importance is placed on very different things. I am anticipating many tears when Ramona returns from Romania alone.


Above: Lida and Marek


I’m just coming out of one of those weird periods that feel busy but are hard to explain when other people ask what you’ve been doing. I have very little to show for it but I have been plugging away. There’s my new Roma website for a start, plus a series of short multimedia pieces I’ve created using images, video and audio produced by Roma children in Leeds during some workshops I ran with my friend Gemma Thorpe – these have yet to be signed off. Then, after the disappointment and set-backs of various aspects of my Roma project falling apart I had some serious wobbles about where I was going with it all, but I’m feeling much more positive now. I have some new leads to follow up, a new camera to experiment with, and summer is finally here (well, kind of). The challenge is actually going to be balancing the competing demands of several people’s stories and managing my time properly. Middlesbrough and my Homelands Commission really need to be my primary focus but there is plenty to keep me going around Manchester as well. I’m looking forward to actually enjoying photography again because I was starting to fear I’d forgotten how to.

New Roma project website

I spent a couple of days last week turning my Roma project wordpress blog into something which resembles a proper website and shows the work off properly, with customisable galleries and various kinds of background information. The Elvira gallery features a re-edit of the images I shot after it emerged during a recent photo workshop (Brenda Kenneally at the Hinterlands) that lots of people strongly disagreed with my original choices for the book. I stand by the book edit though as I was not only selecting on the strength of the photos – for me the final narrative and the way the words and images work together was the most important consideration.

Aaaanyway, it’s too late now. That gallery also contains some multimedia and at the end a little audio to show viewers/listeners what Ramona’s dialect of Romani sounds like. I will be adding more galleries and other bits of content as I go along so please subscribe via RSS if you are interested in the project. A section of the site which I particularly like is the scrapbook, which allows me to share odds and sods of material – phone photos for example, or bits which may not be project or even blog-quality, but which I find either interesting or relevant.

Please take a look at the site and keep an eye out over the coming months as the work develops and expands.