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Community Photography


I make no great claims for my photography. But I do try very hard not to be boring.
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Community Photography

17 Jan 2016 11:24AM   Views : 645 Unique : 405

Bear with me for a bit, I'll come to the point eventually...
Some years ago, a Newcastle businessman called John Moreels, last in line in the old family firm of Ward Philipson Printers, was in the process of retiring and selling up the business premises. He thought it might be a good idea to clear out the loft.
What he found there was amazing - something close on 200,000 photographic plates, lantern slides and early negatives, ranging in age from mid 19th Century to the inter-war years.
They cover familiar North East landscapes and city centre views (a lot, though not all, seem to have been used to produce postcards); but also flower and Still Life studies, images of earlier woodcuts and etchings that have long since been lost, portraits, scenes of everyday life...
Beamish Museum is working to restore and catalogue them, but as yet only a fraction have been examined. It's a massive job. But already several books have been published, and John does a series of illustrated talks that I have attended.
Now an interesting phenomenon has become apparent. People aren't interested in the landscapes or Sill Life work, or in the portraits unless the subject can be identified. What really animates an audience is the collection of images of everyday life. Processions, concerts, fairs, and particularly a wonderful series on Newcastle's Sunday morning Quayside market (which is still going strong, although it's a bit more salubrious than it used to be). These pictures have people on the edge of their seats with excitement. This is real life, real Geordies, real characters.
Cut to a small town on the Tyne Valley, where we have lived for over 25 years. When I retired from full-time work I was already photographing activities for a couple of community groups that I was involved with. I reckoned there was scope for more, a proper archive of what goes on here. We are a small community, caught between the wretched Metro Centre which sucks the life blood out of the Valley, and Hexham which is much better at PR and presents itself as the only place that matters. We are doing our best to keep our own identity and not just become a dormitory town.
In those days Northumberland County Council funded a part-time Volunteer Co-ordinator here, a lovely lady called Andrea. Her job was to publicise community activities, kick-start projects, help with grant applications, put would-be volunteers in touch with people who could use them. Not surprisingly, when the cuts came, her job was the first to go. She was a great loss.
Anyway I had a chat with Andrea and she liked the idea. So I was given an ID badge, she started putting out feelers, and I started photographing the various community events that mark the changing seasons. The Town Fair, Gardeners' Show, pantomime and so on.
There's a terrific amount goes on here. But it doesn't happen by magic, it's a lot of work. And it's generally down to just a few volunteers, who work their socks off. The town has grown rapidly, with new housing estates springing up. We have gone from around 10,000 to 13,000 in a few years. People move to a bigger town, they expect things to happen, to be laid on for them. They don't seem to see any reason why they should help out...
So events whiz by in a flurry of frantic activity, and afterwards someone might say 'That was great, did anyone think to get some photos?'. That's my job.
In recent years our Community Partnership has extended its activities in promoting the town as a good place to live and work; and the Town Council has acquired a new Town Clerk plus his assistant, who are really on board. They are all keen to use images to publicise events, and the town in general, and to keep residents informed.
Sarah, the Clerk's assistant, came up with a wonderful idea. Whenever the Council has a competition - eg In Bloom for local gardens, or competitions for shop window displays - I photograph the entries, participants all get an individual certificate with a picture of their entry, and we have a slide show with free refreshments for everyone involved. It costs peanuts but it really brings people together!
If you have a look at the Town Council website here , check out the menu in purple down the left side and follow the links for activities, you'll find a lot of galleries of just some of my pictures. (Plus a few of Bill's). The Local History Society also uploads galleries of events as they happen - it's local history in the making.
So we have an archive that's publicly accessible. We also have occasional exhibitions to look back at what's happened over the last year. We produce a calendar for the town, with the views and events that we can feel proud of. But it's more than that, it's also about giving the volunteers a souvenir, something to look at with pride.
This for me gets to the heart of what photography is about, what it does best - capturing the moment. Round about the time that the Ward Philipson collection was really getting into its stride, Sir John Herschel coined the term 'snapshot'. New technical developments had enabled photographers to move out of the studio, with its neck-braces to keep subjects motionless for exposures that seemed to last an eternity. Shutters now moved with the speed of a big-game hunter's trigger. Snap! You have your frozen moment in time.
So here's a suggestion. If you are stuck for a New Year project, photograph your own community. Its everyday life, what makes people proud to live there. Because whatever happens today is lost by tomorrow.

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JackAllTog Avatar
JackAllTog Plus
14 6.4k 58 United Kingdom
18 Jan 2016 1:38PM
What an great example of giving something back Smile Its amazing as you say when just a few make a difference for so many.
Good luck with your work, I'm also sure that in years to some there will be someone digging out a digital archive and your photos of today representing the town will play a great part in the insights of how your town grew to it new size.
mrswoolybill Avatar
mrswoolybill Plus
16 4.6k 2635 United Kingdom
19 Jan 2016 11:50AM
Thanks. But remember that I'm doing this because I actually enjoy it too... Wink

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