The research process
GrIP has relationships with elders who attend ESOL classes in our training room, and we created a series of workshops with them to understand their views about living in the area. But many elders in Woolwich do not go to these classes. So we also extended the research to groups of elders who did not attend these lessons.
The limits of our research process and using photography to address it
However, there was something missing. We did not feel that we were connecting deeply with the elders. We could also see that our questions and conversations were limited. We talked about some of our questions, and we left enough space so that the conversations could emerge organically. So we scratched our heads and thought about how the elders could tell their story in a way that was not limited by our questions.
We were also concerned that our questions could minimise the elder’s worldview and tunnel their conversations towards a Eurocentric perspective. For example, if we ask questions around what is going well and what needs to change in the area it could reduce their overall experiences to specifics: the bench, housing, hate crime and the like. Our logic was to extend the possibilities for the elders, through photography, so that they could also speak about their world-view and how that was negotiated in Woolwich and related to specifics such as the bench, the home, and the outdoors. We felt that this was a way in which the elders could drive the research process and generate their community knowledge and express their ways of being/world views from their eyes. For example, some of their photo’s showed that they visited parks to view flowers and animals and these experiences were ways in which connected them to their spirituality (puja and offerings) and memories of agrarian ways of being.
We bought some digital cameras and conducted photography workshops with elders in the ESOL classes and Winn Common. Many of elders have never used cameras before, and it was inspiring to watch them learn about photography, such as lighting, taking pictures, and framing a subject with additional support from photographer Rehmat Rayaat. Through the workshops we learned a few extra English words, did a few role plays, and practiced taking pictures. In effect, we merged the ESOL class with photography. We also discussed if the elders would like to show their photo’s to other people, through an exhibition. However, it was not so easy translating exhibition into Nepalese.
We organised two groups of elders and we went to a Royal Geography Society to view the Travel Photography of the Year exhibition. During the journey, we found out that for many it was the first time that they used a tube or visited an exhibition. At the exhibition we discussed what we liked about the pictures. One picture of a bees and honey production in a cave in Nepal attracted many of elders as it triggered memories. The spiritual pictures they also strongly connected with. We rested in the garden and drank tea and ate home made snacks and discussed the exhibition and just chatted generally. We went on to have conversations about if they would like to do something similar in Woolwich with their photo’s: an exhibition. And the answer was an overwhelming yes.
After the exhibition, many of the elders started to take more pictures about their lives. We viewed them on a laptop, discussed them, and asked them to choose three photos from their collection for printing. We were struck by how spirituality was a central defining feature of many of their pictures. Furthermore, there were many pictures that represented friendship, being together to reverse isolation and strengthen sisterhood, of their home, and of memories of Nepal, their spirituality, and agrarian societies. Their photo’s allowed for a textures view of their lives, in a way that had meaning for them. It also explained, in a holistic way, why many of them used the benches so much.
The photography process has been insightful, fun, creative but also challenging. Coordinating the photography process has increased the workload, costing and intensified the chaos of community participation processes. For example, recruiting a photographer, training the elders, and selecting pictures, printing them out, and mounting them on card has increased the work load and costing of the project; much more than expected. Doing this in Winn Common was even harder! Furthermore, the exhibition at the launch has not been as well attended as we wished, as reaching a wide audience takes a big effort.
We are hoping to host another exhibition in January and hope to attract more people. The exhibition also requires careful marketing to attract the right audience and to get numbers at the event, and again, this all takes time and human resources; a sparse commodity at Grip. This will remain to be a key challenge and arguably for other participatory photography projects. Processes take time.
The photo’s are currently mounted in Grip’s office space, near the training room, and many people are exposed to them as a result. So in a small way, the elders do still get to speak about their lives to a wider community, even though there is no busy public space for an exhibition. For example, 70 people attended our AGM and they all viewed the photo’s and learned more about the elder’s stories.
The photography process has shown the rich, diverse, spiritual and layered narratives of the Nepalese elders and how these are negotiated with their experiences of Woolwich and through use of public space. It helped us understand the importance of social connections within this group, how spending time outside is important because it provides connections with wider society, diverse communities, nature and vitally provides opportunities to recharge. It has shown how photography provides a platform for miniortized communities to communicate to wider society and institutions without having to speak English. The challenge is that all this takes a lot of time and hard work. A further challenge moving forward it to ensure ongoing participation with elders to activate change within society, organisations and the authorities.
By Jasber Singh; Greenwich Inclusion Project (GrIP)
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