This post is about the recent photographic project, working with Mick Dubovsky and community photographers, and the Herbert Museum. Its aims are described here. This post is a reflection on the process of undertaking these projects from the point of view of the researcher attached to the project. There are also reflections by community photographers and the professional photographer too elsewhere on this blog.
The initial thinking behind the project was to work with the community to reflect how they saw Hillfields. Their lens is part of a suite of lenses, including academic, workers, policy makers (in commissioning imagery) and professional photographers (Hillfields has produced three international photographers).
We approached WATCH Ltd to recruit for this project. WATCH are a well known community project in Hillfields with their centre used for community projects and meetings – they also host the local community radio station, Hillz FM, which is a full time FM station for Hillfields.
Over the course of several months attempts were made to recruit using personal and professional connections and broadcasting on the radio station. A personal connection was usually where someone was already interested and wanted to bring a friend, or knew a friend who might be interested. Professional connections were across agencies working with Hillfields residents. For this WATCH produced a flyer which was distributed via WATCH, the St. Peter’s Centre and the Hope Centre. WATCH staff and project staff also spoke to these centres about promoting involvement through word of mouth to residents who used the centres. We were told by staff at WATCH that in Hillfields the word of a person of trust could be more useful than a flyer. As we were hoping to capture something of the activity of residents their engagement through these centres was part of the story – as such also we sought permission for the community photographers to photograph at the centre if those using it were happy to have their photograph taken.
Recruitment was slow. During June and July WATCH recruited two or three of their own volunteers. In August, the time when the project was supposed to happen because of the light evenings, no more residents were recruited. A final push saw a meeting in early September attended by seven residents, including four from WATCH.
At the same time the Herbert Museum was building up to the Jason Tilley exhibition. Some of Jason’s family hail from Hillfields and he took an interest. In particular he offered to help curate the images – helping tell the story as a group of people rather than showing ten images that were selected on individual not collective reasoning. In fact Jason’s involvement was greater. He helped community photographers get the best from their equipment over four or five sessions, went on a few photographic visits with them and what you see is in part due to his efforts.
The Herbert appointed Mick Dubovksy to be the photographer. Mick was the go-to guy. He took photographers out, suggested angles in the places they visited, brokered agreements for copies to be made available (the Roma boys and the barber wanted copies) and worked to the timescales of the community photographers by being there at different times during the week, the weekend, whenever they needed him. Mick has a lot to cope with – he felt the community organisations were not pulling their weight when it came to recruitment, that they were not selling the idea as might of happened in the past. However, Bob Nolan from the Herbert said that they had found it difficult to recruit to projects recently. They wondered whether it was a shift in how people conceive of community participation, that the relationship between residents and community organisations has changed.
The early September start meant a shift in how the project would work in practice: the original plan was for summer sessions, usually structured as half day or day classes. The recruitment issues meant we now had a small group who explained that because of other pressures they preferred a shorter course of two sessions per week. This meant being limited to photographing at the end of the day or under artificial light indoors if the community photographers wanted to use the digital SLR cameras provided by the Herbert. There was some discussion about using mobile phone cameras but not everybody had a smartphone.
As it was three people dropped off quickly: two sisters due to commitments elsewhere and a family bereavement. The remaining core group were all from WATCH. The tutors were flexible, with Mick meeting outside of the core agreed times (1800-2000 on Monday and Thurs) and sessions covering what the residents wanted to know rather than a pre-arranged programme. I wasn’t involved in the sessions as I had less input to give regarding Hillfields knowledge or photography and a co-production model needs me to stay away from activities unless invited.
I attended about half the sessions to get a flavour of being involved, watching the activities, taking a few photos, talking shop with participants. Mick and Bob would pop off with people to take photographs, check out the local area, talk to people. In the room I spoke with those whom were going through the photographs they had already taken, asking who the people were and where the images were taken. This raised some interesting points about permission and: in one instance, Jason went with Shai and Sharda to a community event. All three took photos but Sharda and Shai raised concerns that the community were suspicious of them, suggesting to Sharda that she wanted to make money from the photographs. Sharda was surprised given the explanation she had provided the community as to the project. She felt this reflected the times – that people were concerned about making money in an age of austerity and that people did not trust community projects – this reflected what Bob had mentioned about how difficult he had found recruiting for his Check other courses and how difficult WATCH had found recruiting for this course.
The photographs were excellent and the exhibition too. It was placed outside of the Jason Tilley exhibition and so would receive high footfall. We did not arrange a way for people to feedback – this is something I have taken from this: even a twitter handle might have elicited some responses. I have yet to speak to the participants about their responses and the responses of those they know who visited the exhibition.
The main query that we found was that a shift was being reported in how people wanted to be involved in their communities. This raised a series of questions among us about whether the difficulties were a symptom of something more:
- Hillfields has a changing community – did this affect recruitment?
- Yet the attitude from the people at the event Sharda and Shai attended was dismissive – was this linked?
- Was there a ‘research’ fatigue element in Hillfields?
- In times of austerity have attitudes towards ‘community’ changed? If so how and why?
- Did we ‘frame’ the project correctly – perhaps we should have been more focused on whom we worked with, the voluntary sector for example.