The Making of Us, session 2

Yesterday was the second session of the Making of Us, a professional development programme I’m currently part of at the Turnpike in Leigh, along with eight other artists from different backgrounds. The day involved making bread and taking part in a walk along the canal with artist Niki Colclough, which was rather lovely.

We’ve been thinking about collaboration, our experiences of it and the different forms it can take – with partner organisations, other artists and of course project participants. It’s been interesting talking to people who have come from different disciplines – the group includes a poet, a ceramicist, someone who uses 3D printing and several who have a very interdisciplinary practice.

My own experience of collaboration is a bit mixed. As a freelancer for 15 years now I’ve become a lone wolf on a professional level – I tend to work on self-generated and self-funded photo and multimedia projects in which I do everything: the research, finding of participants, engagement, photography, interviews, audio, multimedia production, book/zine design and dissemination. I am good at a few of these things, adequate at others and really poor at some (dissemination and marketing in particular!) I don’t think the lone wolf model is one to aspire to – but it suits a control freak like me, especially one with such limited funding for work.

I have limited experience at collaborating with institutions (outside of commissioning editors from magazines etc). This is starting to change a little this year, thanks to a few micro commissions – and will hopefully continue to do so. I have never collaborated with another artist so that is all wonderfully new for me.

However, I do feel I have something to contribute when it comes to experience collaborating with project participants. Not in a formalised workshop setting but in a more organic sense. When I worked with Roma families in 2011-2014, I was quite conscious about making the work as collaborative as I could as a way to make the power dynamic less glaring (although it still existed of course… after all, there’s no getting away from the fact I’m a white middle-class media professional holding a massive camera). I worked with families for extended periods of time (years); asked participants to take photos of their daily lives; invited them to write or speak about images and family album photos and used photo elicitation as a method to generate texts (ie interviewing with images – more on this here, along with some examples).

They also got to see and approve photos before they were used in books and exhibitions. All the accompanying words were theirs. It wasn’t a perfect project, obviously. But I am confident they felt included and I know they didn’t feel exploited because we are all still in touch. I consider this a socially engaged body of work but this way of working is a spectrum and I was definitely still in the driving seat – the artistic vision and final photos were all mine. I once asked Ramona to come up with an alternative edit of my photos, which was quite different to mine, as you would expect (You can see this over here)

It was a fun experiment but I wasn’t ready to cede that kind of power – I was (and still am) in thrall to the idea of making aesthetically pleasing photos and to a degree to the ego-centric stereotype of the documentary photographer – but in a different setting and a different kind of project I would challenge myself to let go of this.

In preparation for yesterday’s session we were asked to read the article Power Up and to make notes. These are the points which leapt out at me in the reading and session itself:

  • We should be responsive to the needs and wants of communities with which we are working – it’s about agency and empowerment
  • Reflection on work is crucial
  • Cultural capital can reinforce inequalities – how do we make sure we value the cultural capital of participants
  • We need to consider our positionality, privilege and subjectivity and how these play into decision making.
  • Beware of gatekeeping – we need to enable co-design of projects. Not just give people access to existing programmes. They need to be genuinely and equally invited.
  • Consider where power lies – is this just about boxticking? Who sets the parameters and guidelines and makes the final decisions?
  • Look out for cultural colonialism (ie asymmetrical exchange)
  • Listen and reflect what you learn
  • “Collaboration is often characterised by a degree of paternalism”
  • Collaborator or participant?
  • There’s a stereotype of socially engaged artists ‘doing good’ or ‘helping people’ – this can be paternalistic.

Handing over the edit – Ramona sequences her own story

How many photographers let the subjects of their photos have a go at editing, I wonder? It’s something I thought about doing during my MA – I had some ideas of how it might work but never quite got around to it. Maybe I’ll find a way to experiment with this properly a later date – it would certainly produce a more collaborative result.

This week though I had an accidental crack at it, when I helped Ramona prepare a talk she’s going to be giving to Roma teenagers at a school. I took my laptop to her house and we went through my Lightroom catalogue which contains every shot – my work, their family photos and some of their mobile phone or Facebook pictures – in the now two-and-a-half year old project.

But whereas last time I only really showed her my picks and she selected from them – this time she got free reign over every folder, including all the many dud shots. She selected the 22 or so that she wanted and then I opened them in Bridge, where she told me the sequence she wanted. At this point I thought it might be worth recording some of this, and so shot some shaky video on my phone.

Her choices were interesting to me because they weren’t what I would have chosen – many, to me, are weak visually, or at least weaker than the versions that I have used until now, and a couple of them are her own shots from her phone. But of course she’s looking at them with a different intention – constructing her edit of her life as she wants to show it in a motivational talk.


Ramona’s edit:



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…

1st birthday party…

…Salford Czech Roma style.

I’ve put some new galleries up on my Roma project website just to show I am actually doing something. The work is being shot in fits and starts and will be added to over the coming months, but it is now well underway. I have high hopes for these stories in 2013.


Roma Source participatory project

“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….




Ups, downs and elusive parties

It’s been one of those weekends. Huge excitement on my part about being invited along to a Roma community party, which left me having to postpone my own 5th wedding anniversary and skip a rare reunion with old friends from school. A 130-mile drive, only to find that my family were out for the day – having neglected to tell me their change of plans – and that the party had been cancelled. I had no choice but to turn around and start the two-and-a-half hour drive home. Frustrating, yes, but just one of those things which happen on a fairly regular basis in this project – the only difference in this case being the distances involved. The good days are great and the bad ones irritating beyond belief…I’m now resigned to these blips though and certainly don’t hold it against people. There would surely be something wrong if a documentary project happened easily or without challenges. Anyway, a week’s holiday is around the corner – my first in three years. I think it is much needed.