staying centred

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.

questions, questions

So, I’m starting to pick myself up off the floor, where I’ve been languishing since my last MA tutorial on portraiture. Bruising would be the appropriate word for how it was for me, but I’m definitely someone who responds better to criticism than praise. In fact, I’ve found most of my tutorials pretty painful so far – I’m an over-sensitive soul – and would say that my confidence levels are barely even on the radar at the moment. I’m asking myself lots of tough questions about why I photograph the way I do, how my own ticks and personality traits affect what I come away with and why I pick the subjects I do. The last question – the subjects I veer towards photographically – is one that is playing on my mind a lot. Over seven years, I’ve developed a niche writing about social justice issues that are not easy to sell to the mainstream media – refugees, Gypsies, regeneration, prisons, homelessness and the like – and have made contacts and developed an affection for and knowledge base about these subjects. On this basis and since photography is an extension of the work I do already, it seems natural to continue. Yet it sometimes feels like these are the ultimate photographer – or certainly photojournalism student – cliches when it comes to subject matter. There is little space in which to add anything new or illuminating and that is making me question my judgement and my own values. Am I a voyeur for picking these issues? Am I always looking for the negative or for the obvious? I don’t think so but the fact that so many documentary photographers seem to want to jump on them is really making me wonder. However, I think this is all kind of the point of this first term…to pull our approach apart, think through, reconstruct, and finally hopefully come back better, more creative and more considered.

Anyway, my original portaits  really didn’t cut it for John [tutor] and I have to admit he was right. I want to get as much as I can out of this course so am going to keep repeating the practice exercises as much as time allows…starting with portraits of a few friends to build my confidence…cheating, probably, but I have to begin somewhere. “Really explore the face” was one of the messages I took away from the feedback I got, so that’s what I’ll be doing. My big problem in this department is directing people – something which does not come naturally. In fact Aniko, above, pointed out that I actually hold my breath when I’m taking photos. This is not something I was aware of but thinking about it, I guess I get so engrossed in the picture-taking that it doesn’t always occur to me to speak. I’m going to have to work hard to overcome this because most people are very self-conscious in front of the camera and a silent, brooding photographer – especially one who isn’t breathing – will only add to the intensity of the situation. Yeah, something else to think about for sure. Ho hum.