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Tuesday, 2 December 2008

New Londoners

Also helping the world become a better place are Photovoice and Dost, organisations which work with the disenfranchised/refugees in Britain and recently produced the book, New Londoners.

New Londoners contains the photographs and writing of 15 young people who recently arrived unaccompanied in the UK. They produced the work with the guidance of professional photographers including Adam Broomberg, Oliver Chanarin, Sarah Moon, Suki Dandha, Jenny Matthews and Jillian Edelstein amongst others. Three of the mentors, Jo Metson Scott, Marysa Dowling and Crispin Hughes, very kindly gave me some of their thoughts on mentoring for the project for a story in the upcoming children's issue of the BJP.

I have a soft spot for the project for lots of reasons, but especially for the openness and directness involved in the photo-making project. It is easy to be indirect and oblique in photograph, to dismiss the direct approach as unsophisticated or too obvious, but there is an element of preaching to the very small circle of the converted in that approach. The pictures in New Londoners are very direct and are a response to the circumstances the young photographers find themselves in. The work is also very open and verges from simple snapshots to commentaries on the social, environmental, domestic and imaginary spaces the people find themselves in. Everything is allowed in other words and that is a good thing in a world where people are constantly trying to pigeonholes modes of representation and limit what is said and the way it is said. The work shows how migrants to Britain experience their new hometown of London, but in so doing it should also make us realise how we see other countries, people and places.

See the slideshow here.

Jo Metson Scott on her work with Chalak Abdulrahman for the New Londoners project.

I met Chalak through another course I was teaching. We got on well together so when the New Londoners project came up, I became his mentor. It was interesting because I'd known Chalak in a group and seeing him face to face was difficult. He was shy, depressed and hurting a lot. We started slowly by having cups of tea, going to exhibitions and gradually we developed a rapport. Then he started taking pictures. He didn't know if he was going to stay, he had had terrible things happen to him in Iraq, but was still missing things terribly. He was conflicted so we tried to reflect that in his picture making. He loves looking visually at things and using lights and reflections to show his emotions, so his pictures are a series of diptychs, where the happy will be juxtaposed with the sad. He said to me that he has a key worker, a social worker and a teacher and that they are all very nice, but that it was great to see someone who was outside that official structure. We could form a more natural bond and at the same time he was learning a lot of skills. He was shooting on 35mm film, he worked incredibly hard and learnt incredibly quickly. He wants a career in electronics so there is a loose connection to what we were doing. We still meet up and now I'm teaching him photoshop and we go to galleries together, which has its own reward. He was really vulnerable when he got here but he's developed and blossomed and has his own vision and ideas, which is something that is fantastic to see.

Marysa Dowling on her work with Shamin Nakalembe and New Londoners.

PhotoVoice approached me to become one of the mentors having seen other participatory projects I've worked on in the last few years. Because of the ways in which i have worked with young people in the past, producing portraits, posters and performative works, they thought i might have an interesting way of approaching this project when working one to one with a young person in this context. When PhotoVoice got in touch I was excited about the opportunity to work closely with a young person who had a very different point of view and story to tell from the young people i often work with, most of whom have grow up I London, or whichever city I might be working in. I felt it would be more rewarding and inspiring to help someone develop a body of photographic work in this way. Also, working an the various participatory or education projects that I get involved with can sometime become frustrating if, due to the nature of the project, you don't have enough time to give more to someone who could really benefit from it. The New Londoners project became an important opportunity for the young people to show how things affect them and their view of this city they have ended up in alone, somewhere that's not naturally their home or familiar to them, and is most likely completely different from anything or anywhere they have been before. The project enabled the participants to use photography to look and consider in detail the things that fascinated them, that they hadn't seen or had an understanding of before and maybe things that concerned them too. Using photography is a way to explore the world around you and make some sense of it, whether that's photographing what you see, creating a representation of it or making up a fictional version of it, which is in a sense what Shamin ended up doing. I worked with a young women called Shamin from Uganda. She talked about the difficulties of living in a permanent state of Limbo and trying to fit in but she has such amazing determination and confidence that she keeps her mind fixed on what she wants to achieve for her future and just goes for that. We went to Epping Forest during one of our early meetings, mainly to take some test photographs with a camera she wanted to try out, whilst talking thorough her ideas and interests. She was excited when we arrived as she hadn't been anywhere that reminded her of home until this point, or seen many green spaces, she found it inspiring to just wander in the forest with the camera and take photographs of whatever she saw that looked both familiar and new. Shamin talked a lot about how people can live so closely but so totally differently in London. The food, clothes and how and why people wear such different things, thier habits and seeing differences between cultures and religion all fascinated her, which all comes through in her work. We met several times before Shamin came up with a clearer idea of what she wanted to produce. PhotoVoice put Shamin and myself together as they felt she was ready to try something more experimental in relation to expressing her ideas photographically. She'd worked with PhotoVoice on a few other projects before we met and showed a talent for thinking openly about ways to present and express her ideas. We didn't take that many photographs together to begin with. We'd meet and talk about London, her life now and the things that she noticed and which fascinated her about London, both good and bad. Then I would make suggestions about ways to work and on a couple of occasions we looked at other photographers work. I gave her a list of things, more ideas really, to photograph as starting points then we'd look over the images ad discuss how we might use them as inspiration. Shamin would show me photographs of people she knew, traditional dress at events like weddings and took a lot of photographs of herself that either she had made or she had asked others to take of her. The self portraits became the hook for taking her ideas forward, they were the things she was most interested and excited by photographically, so I suggested ways we could combine that with her fascination about how differently people live side by side. Her role playing the characters seemed like the most logical way for her to do this, so we came up with a series of characters and senarios, then worked out what they would wear and be doing as well as where these things would take place. The photography didn't end up taking as long as the preperation adn research work she did. We spent more time refining her ideas and preparing the costumes. Then we combined the portraits and backgrounds using basic photoshop techniques, adding the text last I'm not sure how differently she sees London now, I'd like to ask her that actually, but i can see her confidence has grown and her excitement for art and photograph as well as for engaging with the city she lives in. She wants to learn how to use photoshop properly and is keen to keep taking photographs.

Crispin Hughes on his work with Mussei Haile for the New Londoners project.

Having spent many years taking photos and talking to people in different countries around Africa I was interested to see what photos someone newly arrived from Africa would make of this country.

I asked Photovoice if it was possible to assign me a mentee from a country I’d visited so we started out with some common ground.

My mentee Mussie Haile may not realise it but he is riding a cultural and historical wave which I hoped to get an insight into through the project.

It upsets the usual reportage model.

Speaking personally, my primary aim was not to do good to someone – I’m rather suspicious of that as a motive much of the time and it rarely produces good work. Instead, I had a genuine interest in what Mussie would show myself and other natives about our world. I hope that any participant would gain more self-esteem and confidence from the project if they felt that we need their help and that we want to find out things from them not to tell them things.

I hope that Mussie gained:
A sense that what he had to say and had experienced mattered, some photographic skills, visual literacy skills from going to exhibitions and discussing his photos and mine too, editing and captioning skills. Mussie had a natural understanding that a caption can add to a photograph and give it multiple meanings rather than just describe it.

Also, simple skills and confidence around transport in London and having meetings with an adult on an equal footing rather than with someone in charge of him or assessing him in some way were good for him.

Mussie is from rural Eritrea and was 17 at the time of the New Londoners project, he had been in London for 6 months at the time. His limited English meant that looking at photos was a good way of discussing ideas which otherwise would have been too abstract.

We met about eight times, always in public places according to PV’s guidelines. Mussie decided he liked meeting outside Downing St after I had praised our liberal democracy. On our third meeting there was no sign of him. After about 20 minutes he managed to persuade the armed police who had taken him across Whitehall that he wasn’t going to set off a bomb with his phone and I got a text from him. My impeccable white middle class credentials got him off the hook but in the end it was more of a lesson to me than to Mussie.

During our meetings I taught him about the camera and we practiced taking photos. We discussed his ideas and plans. We also looked at exhibitions and edited his photos on my laptop.

The most significant decision was that he would take the ‘real’ photos at home when I wasn’t there. I think in Mussie’s case this was absolutely the right decision. It is very easy to be deliberately or inadvertently prescriptive with a young person. The mentor will always have an agenda and ambitions for the images and the mentee which may be from the best of motives but which may stymie the mentee’s unique perspective. I wanted to see what Mussie would come up with on his own. He is a thoughtful, humorous but reserved young man and I wanted to receive some missives from his inner world.

I think he delivered this beautifully. His photos and captions (which he was very clear about writing on his own) are full of poetic ironies. He has a Martian perspective which throws the strangeness of our own world into relief for us. For example, he took a series of rather lovely photos of ordinary domestic lamp fittings and captioned them:

‘I haven’t seen this before. A bulb with protection. When I was in my country, there was no electricity in the countryside where I lived. Even in Asmara I never saw a bulb with protection like this.’

To see our own world as an alien culture is what he and other young refugees have to offer us through New Londoners. If we can see our society at one remove then we will have a greater insight into our own and other cultures.

Photography is very good at describing the particular but easily descends into corporate banality when it sets out to make grand or abstract statements. Mussie’s small domestic still lives are very, very particular but are highly effective at showing the chasm of experience and expectation between rural Eritrea and London. For example his picture of the tide mark on the bath in his shared house is captioned:

‘In Eritrea we got water from the lake 3-5 km away by donkey. My family had three donkeys. Collecting water was definitely a woman’s job. For washing clothes we would take them to the lake, use Omo and then dry them on the stones.’

I’ve spent a lot of time with people from Angola through to Sudan who have to spend a third of their daily income on a piece of wood to burn to boil dirty water to make it drinkable. This leaves me feeling a sense of bafflement at the fury of the English over the cost of petrol and other issues. Coming from me this sounds pious and self-righteous but Mussie’s wonder at our running water conveys the same sentiments with an upbeat wit and elegance.

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