‘SIXTEEN’ – A Nationwide photography group project. UK.

‘Sixteen’ as a project is borne out of a series of pictures I made with young people during the Scottish Independence Referendum.

As a Scotsman living in England, I had no vote and so as a way of engaging with the debate I made a series of photographs of young people who would celebrate their sixteenth birthday on the day of the vote, 18th September 2014. They were the youngest people ever to vote in a UK election and I was encouraged by how engaged they were in the discussions and how seriously they took their responsibilities.

The project got me thinking about the decisions that sixteen year olds make and the opportunities available to them. It is usually the time when you are approaching final secondary school exams and deciding whether to continue in education to study for A-levels or higher qualifications or to leave school and start to make your own way in an uncertain world. At a time when my own daughter was sixteen, it felt like the first time that most people are presented with really important life decisions and I was interested in how different people from different walks of life approached those decisions. How culture, social background, location, gender, ethnicity, family etc all influence what young people think they can achieve in life and the paths they feel that they can take.

I started making more portraits of sixteen year olds in and around the north west of England and in this case asking them to write about themselves, their dreams, ambitions and fears both for their own futures and the future of the world more widely. At an age of personal transition and a time of great uncertainty in the economy, national and international affairs, environmental concerns etc., I was interested to explore the outlook of the next generation – the first social media generation – faced with a Brexit that none of them were old enough to vote for or against. In many cases theirs feels like a much more challenging future than the previous generations as technology and industry change the economy.

Shooting those first few pictures, I realised that I was interested in exploring the experiences and aspirations of sixteen year olds much more widely and so I invited a few friends and colleagues to discuss the idea of making it a group project. I am delighted to say that they all bought into the concept and over a pint of two in a north London pub everyone chipped in with great enthusiasm bringing in their own ideas and their own particular interests and proposals for different ways of working. I felt that as a group, we could really delve into the subject in some depth, exploring the experiences of young people far and wide – it was exciting, but it was going to need a lot of research, preparation, discussion etc to get it off the ground.

That’s were it all started and so before I talk a little bit about the areas I personally will working in, I just want to say a big thank you to all the photographers who have agreed to take part. It’s both a privilege and an honour to be working alongside great friends and colleagues whose work I admire.

In no particular order: Jillian Edelstein, Kalpesh Lathigra, Lottie Davies, Simon Roberts, Sophie Gerrard, Stuart Freedman, Kate Peters, Roy Mehta, Abbie Trayler-Smith, Antonio Olmos, Linda Brownlee, Christopher Nunn, Michelle Sank, Ronan McKenzie, Kate Kirkwood and Simon Wheatley.

So now I am excited that it is all coming together and really looking forward to seeing the work as it starts to take shape in 2018.

Since those initial informal meetings, it’s been a long road to get to this stage, and with the invaluable support of producer Liz Wewiora and creative director Anne Braybon, we are now seeing some real progress as each photographer starts to explore their own themes within the wider project.

Each of us is approaching the project in our own way finding different creative avenues to explore, but always in a collaborative fashion with the sixteen year olds we are choosing to work with. For my part I am concentrating on two themes, both close to my heart. I will be working in island communities around the UK, continuing in the same vein with which I started this project working on a large format film camera and asking each sitter to present their testimony in a hand written text alongside the photograph. I’m looking forward to working with schools and youth groups in some very interesting communities in the Western Isles, Orkney, Shetland, the Channel Islands and elsewhere.

The second strand of the project for me is looking at the post-industrial communities in the North of England and beyond. I’m interested to explore towns and cities that once relied on one main industry: mining, shipbuilding, textile weaving, steel and chemical manufacture etc, and learn how the experience of young people in those communities today may differ, for better or worse, from the experience of previous generations.

The project has received an initial research and development grant from Arts Council England, and we have been working with schools, youth groups, parents and others to get feedback on the project ideas and how we might involve the young people in the process. Each photographer has her or his own interests and each of us is working closely with Anne to find new ways to present the views of sixteen year olds in words and pictures. We are variously working in stills and video with spoken word audio, handwritten texts and social media messaging.

I look forward to sharing some of my own work and that of my colleagues in the coming months and building an online community exploring what it means to be sixteen in Britain today.

If you would like to know more about the project at this stage, please drop me an email or connect via Facebook etc. and I’ll add you to the emailing list for updates

A project website/blog will be launched in the coming months where you can keep up to date with work-in-progress, written contributions by all the photographers and behind-the-scenes pictures etc. but rather than show any of that now, whilst we are just starting out… here’s a pic of tow of those first images on show at The National Portrait Gallery in London until 4th Feb.

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On documentary photography and some current exhibitions

There’s certainly some good photography around in the UK just now. Especially if you can get a little bit off the beaten track.

I had the pleasure last week to go to the opening of ‘Landscapes of Murder’ by Antonio Olmos at Rich Mix in London: a poignant and powerful reminder of the problem of violence in London. The work is presented as a series of landscapes of everyday places and street scenes: ordinary, familiar and unremarkable locations that serve only to heighten the tragedy that has happened in each. Reminiscent, of course, of Joel Sternfeld’s work ‘On this site: landscapes in memoriam’, Olmos photographed the site of every one of the 210 murders that took place in London from 1st January 2011 to 31st December 2012. One telling difference between the two series is that as a news and documentary photographer Olmos visited each site very shortly after the murder took place: after the media had left, but whilst emotions were still raw. Here we have lone bunches of withering flowers, torn remnants of ‘Police: do not cross’ tape, groups of once tough looking teenagers drawn together in their grief all amidst shoppers and motorists going about their daily lives. Life goes on in these landscapes, but there is always a disturbing reminder that life has been lost here too.

It is the very ordinariness of each photograph that makes them all the more shocking: a powerful and fitting expression of the senselessness of murder on the streets of London.

Friends of Negus McClean gather near the spot where he was murdered on Sunday Night. McLean was stabbed to death by a gang of youths on Westminster Road in Edmonton, North London. McLean is the 4th teenager to be stabbed to death in London in 2011.

Friends of Negus McClean gather near the spot where he was murdered on Sunday Night. McLean was stabbed to death by a gang of youths on Westminster Road in Edmonton, North London. McLean is the 4th teenager to be stabbed to death in London in 2011.

At Rich Mix, London until 30th May: http://www.richmix.org.uk/whats-on/event/the-landscape-of-murder/

Book available here.

On a connected theme as part of the Look/15 photography festival in Liverpool is American photographer Richard Ross’s heartbreaking series ‘Juvenile in Justice’: a compassionate and powerful portrayal of a justice system that has gone very, very wrong. Ross has photographed teenagers and young people (as young as ten!) held in detention centres in 31 US states. In each photograph the face of the youngster is blurred, obscured or photographed from behind, magnifying the sense of isolation and fear they must feel. Accompanying texts in the young persons own words are desperate.

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Both extraordinary and important bodies of work – documentary photography at it’s very best.

I fear sometimes that photographers can get too obsessed with the ‘idea’ or ‘concept’ of what they are doing or otherwise overplay the process – photography about photography. There seems to be a lot of naval gazing going on these days.

If, as photographers, we want to document and communicate, then surely we want our work to reach and connect with as wide an audience as possible. If we require that the viewer has a degree in visual anthropology or is extraordinarily well informed about the latest movements in contemporary art then we may be doing our subjects a great disservice. This is not to say that documentary, art and conceptualization can’t all work together and there are some fantastic examples of new and innovative approaches to what is essentially documentary photography where the results are challenging, engaging and very rewarding. I’m thinking here of Max Pinckers’ work ‘Will They Sing like Raindrops or Leave me Thirsty’, a small selection of which is at St Georges Hall in Liverpool as part of Look/15. The work is a mesmerising mix of Bollywood theatricality and keenly observed documentary interwoven with old torn newspaper cuttings – all telling the story of the ‘Love Commandos’, a small group of men in New Delhi whose mission is ‘to help India’s lovebirds who want to marry for love’, often against the wishes of family and the tradition of arranged marriage. A fine piece of work and well worth looking out.

Another compelling work that uses differing approaches is the intensely personal series ‘When I was six’ by Phil Toledano which was shown recently at the Format Festival in Derby and is available as a book from Dewi Lewis. The title refers to the death of Toledano’s sister aged nine when the photographer himself was six. Many years later after his parents died, Toledano discovered a box of his sisters possessions that his parents had neatly packed away after her death. The work takes the form of a series of still lives of items from the box and imagined ‘landscapes’ of outer space that occupied the young boys mind in the years after her death. Beautiful!

So, there it is: a very small selection of some great work that’s out there just now. There are myriad ways of making powerful documentary work, but please, please, please, make it both accessible and compelling.

I’ll finish with some words from Michael Craig-Martin, the great cheerleader for conceptual art and the Young British Artists. In his new book ‘On being an Artist‘ he writes:

“I dislike jargon intensely and cannot stand people who think that complex ideas need to be expressed in a way that is obscure or rarefied. I believe the opposite is the case.”

Here, here.