In September I was commissioned to document the lives of people involved at two community businesses in Brighton and Hove. The project arrived just as I started work on this one, and it was good timing because it reminded me of some important lessons.
When someone turns up anywhere with a camera a few things can happen. People sometimes get excited and want their picture taken, more often than not, people are shy, possibly angry at the possible intrusion. Some might think I’m a journalist looking for a juicy story, or, with my recent projects, that I’m a photographer out on a poverty safari, looking for the most extreme angles about a council estate.
So much of this can be handled with good communication, but, no matter how hard you try, that communication can be missed by someone.
One of the things I realised very early on when doing this is that I have to work really hard to quickly put people at ease and possibly even trust me. I don’t have an exact plan for this, because it’s really just about being honest and human. It probably helps that I lived in East Brighton for 20 years, although I’m sure people might get sick of hearing that story, because I don’t live there now, so I am not living in their community. I always prepare what I call an information sheet, which is all about getting informed consent from participants. It explains why the project is happening, what their involvement entails and what the outcome might be.
When I first started doing the work on community businesses I turned up at The Bevy community pub, and one of the first stories I heard was about a photographer that had taken some pictures, and without permission, put large prints of them in a very public space in the centre of Brighton. I only heard one side of this story, but if it’s true, this is the kind of thing that stops good work from happening. It meant my job was doubly hard gaining trust, it probably meant some people didn’t allow me to photograph them.
For me, doing this kind of work is about honouring the people you are working with, putting their needs first, way before mine as an ‘artist’ or ‘storyteller’.
Here’s a talk I gave about the project.