Neil Goodwin has taken part in a number of my workshops and I was delighted to see that his latest project has come to life in the form of an exhibition. Those of you who know me will know that I’m always banging on about the value of projects – they bring a real focus and sense of purpose to your street photography. And there’s no better example of this than in Neil’s latest work (see some of his images below). I asked him about the project . . .
In a nutshell, what’s the project all about?
Capturing the people and work of Mustard Tree, a Manchester-based charity, whose mission to transform the lives, skills and confidence of people who are trapped in poverty or facing homelessness. In addition to a charity shop and food bank, the charity also provides life training and education classes.
Where did the idea / inspiration for the project come from?
The idea arose from a chance conversation with the Chair of the Mustard Tree trustees. I said I was looking for a project but ideally one that chimed with current societal issues. Sounds a bit pompous I know but apart from continually developing my technique I’m increasingly attracted to exploring how photography can make a difference. Issues to do with the way we live, such as homelessness and loneliness, I find relevant subjects to capture.
What sort of preparation / planning did you need to do?
After discussion with the Chair, I met with the CEO of Mustard Tree and her managers to outline what I would like to do. In discussion, we agreed that I would have free access to all areas, which was important if I was do the project justice. We also discussed some of the legal issues, for example the use of images and relatedly, I was registered as a ‘friend’ of Mustard Tree which allowed me to operate under their legal umbrella, and I was issued with a security badge labelling me as ‘volunteer photographer.’
There was a natural timescale for the project because Mustard Tree was preparing for the opening of their new building and their contribution to the International Arts and Homelessness Summit and Festival to be held in Manchester in November 2018.
Why did you choose to shoot in monochrome?
I’ve always preferred monochrome because of the challenge of balancing composition and black and white tones. although I do shoot in colour occasionally. I wanted the images to be impactful and thought provoking, and for the viewer to focus on the people and the potential message, rather than being distracted by colour.
I said in my opening remarks at the Mustard Tree opening that if some of my images made the viewer think about the back story to the image then I would have succeeded. I think I had some success because some people said they found a few of the images emotionally moving to the extent of feeling tearful.
What were the challenges you faced?
Photographically, it was a mix of a standard street approach with portraits of staff, volunteers and service users. So, I operated between candid shots and engaging with people to take their portrait. The overwhelming majority were happy to cooperate whilst a few declined. The personal challenges for me included integrating myself into the organisation (‘not standing out’) and starting up conversations with people, mainly service users. Importantly, this was not about a quick chat and then taking a shot but engaging with them and talking about their story before even raising the camera. In these circumstances, it’s difficult not to develop an emotional element to the project, which I have tried to capture.
Perhaps the biggest the challenge, given the nature of Mustard Tree’s work, was to ensure the images were neither depressing nor paternalistic. Many of the people I met were cheerful and working away quietly to positively change their lives; yes, there were times when it obviously became too much for some but there was also lots of laughter. Finally, there were also a few people who didn’t want to be photographed, which of course I respected. This sometimes presented compositional challenges, when working in small training rooms for example.
What equipment did you use?
My Leica M10 with a 35mm lens, which was small enough to use discreetly especially internally in natural light conditions.
How did you print and mount the exhibition prints?
I have used a company for printing my work (Loxley Colour) for some time, with an almost 24-hour turnaround. I know the quality of their work and the settings to use in Lightroom to ensure a good quality print. I framed the prints myself, again ordering on line using a company I’ve used before (icanFrame). I negotiated a discount for my order of 32 frames and mounts, so don’t be afraid to ask!
How did you promote the exhibition?
Given the exhibition was planned to be part of the official opening of their new facilities, I left it to them to promote as part of those arrangements. There were about 100 people who came to the opening, and many of them gave me positive feedback. I also promoted it via social media, where I received several appreciative comments from fellow StreetSnappers and other photographers, for which I’m grateful. I think, though, I should have paid more attention to promotion and undertook some of it directly. I am however, exploring having a few of the images published to help promote my work.
Above all else though, it’s been an enormous privilege to undertake not only my first real project but also my first exhibition; and although it’s been hard work at times it’s been hugely rewarding and something I’m enormously proud of. But I’ve also learned such a lot, about myself and about undertaking a project over many months, that I’m sure will be helpful for – hopefully – the next time!
Neil’s images can be seen on his site: neilgoodwinphotography