My Reflections commission with Gypsy and Traveller women is about to make its way out into the world – always a nerve-wracking moment for me. Are the participants going to be happy with it? Even though all who have audio have already listened to and approved it, and I read transcripts back to everyone, none have seen the finished zine which I have made and which features everything. I always have a nagging fear that someone will see the final thing and have second thoughts. Anyway, positive mental attitude!
I have printed a short run of these physical zines so will be giving copies to participants, partner organisations etc – hopefully I can do the participants next week. Fittingly, considering the pandemic-related theme of the project, I have just tested positive for Covid, so I’ll have to leave it for a week or so. Anyway, generally speaking the zine will be accessed digitally – it will be hosted on a dedicated project website which the council has built, and QR codes in the exhibitions will take people to it if they want to read more. You can also download it here.
The other online element to this project is audio clips featuring the voices of some participants. Again these will be linked to from the exhibitions using QR codes – you can listen here(scroll down to the pink section).
The first exhibition of work starts next week in Chester – and it’s a public-realm event featuring six images from me plus quotes and QR codes. I’m a fan of these types of interventions because I hope it will reach a broader audience than a gallery event. This is what I want my work to do – to hopefully show a more rounded image of Gypsy/Traveller lives and experiences. Later in the month a different set of images will be part of a group exhibition at Open Eye Gallery. More info about all of this here.
I’m having a slightly frustrating few weeks. The engagement part of my Open Eye Gallery Reflections project with Traveller women is very stop start, due to poor health/general life events on their side and school holidays etc on mine. It was picking up before the Easter holidays – I had a little run of a couple of weeks where I made several portraits that I felt happy with and did audio recording etc. I hoped to be straight back in when the kids went back to tie up loose ends with the women I’ve been working with – before finding one or two more. The idea being that now I have a general structure for what I’m aiming for, these should be quicker.
I even had access to a car much of last week as my other half has been away. But it wasn’t to be – I’ve had someone cancel on me almost every day and it’s all become a bit frustrating. In my heart I know this is just part of the process and I have to go with it – the project rollercoaster, as a photography pal and I used to call it. But I do find this stop-startyness (not a word) mentally gruelling, I find myself getting quite down in the dumps about it at times and I can’t always motivate myself to get stuck into other things. I just want to keep going, get stuck into work. But of course when you’re dealing with other humans – particularly people in poor health or with other more important things going on in their lives, it doesn’t always work out the way you want.
It will happen when it happens, it’s just a matter of keeping the faith. These things were easier to deal with in the past when I wasn’t working around family commitments and had more flexibility in my own time. Now it’s harder as I only have a few days a week when I have later pick ups for my kids. Not to mention the small matter of two school strike days and three Monday bank holidays over the coming weeks (Monday is one of my project days when I normally don’t collect my children until 5.30pm. Gah).
In the meantime though, all I can do is think through other bits of the project. I have edited some audio interviews with four participants and I have four portraits done – with one in the pipeline (although she’s going on holiday next week which is another blip in the calendar!) I’ve also been playing around with collage – not sure this really sits well within the socially engaged ethos of the project so I don’t actually know whether it will end up in the final output, whatever that may be. Sometimes ideas come easily but sometimes it’s really hard work. I’m trying to find approaches which work here. I find working in this way with my own images harder than using found materials as there is more consideration for the person in the image, with whom I have a relationship and am working collaboratively. These images are just practice runs using 6×4 prints but I’m going to now play around with larger sizes and see if they work. I’m not sure why but I feel quite drawn to playing around with the portraits in this way.
We’re a fortnight into the new year and I’m a bit all over the place – involved in various new projects and not really knowing if I’m coming or going (as is often the case, I think this is the curse of the freelancer). I have two main projects going on currently, which are taking up most of my headspace (well, one much more than the other).
This week we started some workshops at Bridge College, which works with young people aged 18-25 with learning and/or physical disabilities, as part of A New Exchange, an artist development project I’m fortunate to be part of at the moment. My artist partner Hattie and I are running seven sessions with a group of eight young people – this is a new demographic for both of us but the staff at Bridge College are super supportive and open to our ideas. This week was a ‘getting to know’ you session with various drawing exercises and some polaroid photography and next week we are concentrating entirely on photography, but we plan to bring other elements into the sessions after that as Hattie works largely in sculpture. I really want to learn about other art practices and how to integrate that into my own projects. Our group is quite mixed in terms of needs – some members a very able to verbalise what they like or don’t like, while other participants struggle more with communication or have other kinds of needs. We want to make the sessions as collaborative and responsive as possible so need to develop ways to gauge what they want to do as the project unfolds – we need to find approaches which meet everyone’s needs and don’t allow some voices to dominate.
I’m also plugging away with my Open Eye Gallery Reflections commission, for which I’m working with members of the Traveller community in Cheshire West. This is the project which is taking up a lot of head space because I care so much about getting the ethics and approach right and how to juggle the various stories which may emerge. One of these is promising to be quite challenging if it ends up happening as the person has very strong opinions about a lot of subjects which are diametrically opposed to my own. This is going to be an interesting challenge – how to weave in that person’s viewpoint and narrative in a way which works for the wider project and makes him feel heard and respected. This residency has to go at its own pace – people are not always available or easy to pin down, and I just have to keep putting in the time. I am finding with these commissions that there are often artificial and unrealistic timelines put onto them by commissioners but am starting to develop the confidence to ignore these as far as possible and work at my own pace, and at the pace which the project demands.
So far I have a small list of people who I have met or spoken to – some are physically vulnerable due to age or illness, so I have decided to focus on them for now when they are able and not try to spin too many plates at once (although I don’t want other people to forget who I am so need to keep calling in to them now and then). I have also started doing some one-to-one sessions with a young girl at a primary school in Ellesmere Port, it’s not something I would have sought out but it presented itself as an opportunity so I went for it. Today was my second session with her – I’m just doing loads of different photography activities with her and seeing what comes out of it. Today I gave her a film camera to take home. For me this is all about throwing metaphorical mud at a wall and seeng what sticks. I’m not sure what her bit will say about Covid times but I suppose we’re still living through this so I’m sure something will emerge. And children’s voices are so important and often go unheard.
A few months ago I was commissioned by Open Eye Gallery to develop a socially engaged project with members of the Gypsy and Traveller communities in the Cheshire West area, looking at their experience during the lockdowns, among other things. This is really exciting for me as these are communities I have worked with before (on my first independent project) and which I have lots of respect and affection for. I am in the very early stages of being introduced to potential participants and getting to know them better – I have a small list of contacts so far and have begun to visit them for initial cups of tea. I don’t know what the work will end up looking like but the idea is that it will be coauthored and will talk about issues faced by participants, generally and over the past few years. I’m hopeful of working with members of the Irish Traveller community and English Romany people and to include people who live on sites as well as people currently in houses. I also don’t really know how long this work is going to take. But I’m very blessed to have been given this opportunity to build on previous work.
The commission has led me to revisit some of the photos I made during the few years when I worked with Traveller families, many of which I set aside and never really showed to anyone (the downside of personal work – I am much better at the engagement and creation than the dissemination). Below are a few, and you can see others over here … watch this space to hear how this residency develops over the coming months.
It was one of those throwaway kind of comments which comes back at you like a boomerang. In June 2012 I was invited to a event in Manchester where the life stories of some local Irish Travellers had been turned into a small spoken-word piece of theatre. The tales had been collected by Sister Carmel, a Manchester nun who works with Gypsy and Traveller communities, and I told her I thought they deserved to be collected in one place after the play – a book or an ebook. I thought nothing more of it but a few months later Carmel came back to me and since then we’ve been working on turning her stories into a book. She collected a few more to get a better balance between men and women and a broader range of ages, and I then edited them, designed a book, contributed photos, came up with ideas and research, asked organisations for advice, applied for some funding, got turned down, wrote a more successful proposal, arranged printing, designed a flyer, printed the flyer, drew up an email mailing list and a list for promo copies and posted these all out. At times we both lost faith that we’d ever get this thing finished but thankfully it’s now out there. The ultimate aim is simply to challenge some stereotypes. Carmel was keen to get copies into prisons and police stations so we targeted various figures within Greater Manchester Police (including the diversity team, who were very grateful and promised to share) and 40 copies have been ordered already – two days after launch – to go into prisons. Other copies were sent to figures within councils who may come into contact with Gypsies and Travellers. And the response from within the community too has been great so far. Hard copies cost £2.50 each plus postage and it is also available online for free using the link below. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to order one.
I’ve been meaning to combine some of my Appleby Horse Fair images from the past two years with some audio I collected this June, but the past six months have been so hectic that I’ve only just got around to it.
I’ve written on here before of my fascination with the other side of Appleby – the social side where young single travelling men and women hope to find that special person.
When I went for the first time, I was transfixed by the young women. It was freezing cold and drizzled for most of the four days and I spent the whole time decked out in several tops, gloves, a waterproof and a rather unattractive pair of green wellies. Yet the young Gypsy and Traveller girls floated around the fields and village like neon, fake-tanned birds of paradise – decked out in some of the skimpiest clothes you’ll see outside a nightclub. It was utterly unexpected.
As I learned more about their culture, this display became even more of a conundrum. These remain some of the UK’s most traditional communities in terms of moral values and a girl’s honour is all. Couples usually marry young and often start families by the time they are 17 or 18. Sex before marriage is frowned upon, divorce is rare and family is everything.
Appleby, I learned, is not only about horses – there are actually two distinct parallel events taking place. Just as the animals are washed and groomed in the hope they will catch a buyer’s eye, the 300-year-old fair has become a time when many single girls primp and preen in the hope they will snare their Prince Charming.
I don’t think I’ll ever make my living as a wedding photographer but I enjoyed shooting a traveller wedding in Cheshire today. It was an invite-only affair and so the couple was spared the free-for-all chaos that these dos sometimes have a reputation for. Once I wrestled back control from the video man and stopped him from barging into all my shots I actually started having fun. The fact that the bride has only just turned 19 though makes me feel ancient.