One of my favorite quotes is this one from Samuel Beckett:
‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better’.
Failure for an artist is an exciting thing because it pushes you to reflect on what you’ve done, re-think it and try again using a completely different approach. Embracing failure enhances creativity in my book and I’m not ashamed to admit that my first attempt to engage the residents of Swineshead in a creative project hit a bit of a bum note!
Back in June myself and Kate Thomas, one of Transported’s Arts Engagement Workers, organised some pin-hole camera workshops in the village. The workshops were open to everyone and residents were invited to make their own (working) camera out of a matchbox which they could then take a way to create a unique image. We did all of the usual things; we made several trips to the village to talk to people about the project, we put up posters and posted flyers through people’s letterboxes.
We were rewarded with the grand total of 5 participants; a very enthusiastic trio of brothers and a couple of students from Haven High who had put themselves forward as workshop assistants. Undeterred by the lack of numbers we made cameras, ate biscuits and took photographs confident in the knowledge that the people we were working with were gaining from the experience. Around the edges of the project we were also pleased to have built up a network of local contacts who although not directly involved in the project were interested in Transported and its mission.
Transported is funded by Arts Council England’s Creative People and Places scheme and essentially it’s a huge piece of action research which aims to examine why participation in the arts is below the national average in some areas of the country with Boston and South Holland being one such area. If projects don’t work out in the way that they were intended this could therefore signify that a different approach needs to be taken. Reflecting on my Swineshead pinhole project, I saw the lack of take-up as a challenge to try something new.
A couple of years ago I did a big piece of research looking at how artists use social media to develop creative projects with people. I discovered that the success of these projects relied on finding the right space to reach out to people and giving them opportunities be creative in a way and at a time that suited them whilst supporting them to work towards a common goal. This led me to wonder if Swineshead residents might spend more time hanging out in their village Facebook group than at an actual physical place like the Church Hall. I also wondered if they would be more inclined to take part in a creative project if they didn’t have to do at a specific time or if it didn’t focus on a specialist artform.
I still needed a new project idea and inspiration came in the unexpected guise of my postman! I order a lot of Polaroid film which gives us lots of opportunities to chat about photography and we’ve built up enough trust between us to lend each other books from time to time. The first book I borrowed was ‘Unseen UK; a book of photographs by the people of the Royal Mail,’ a portrait of Britain through the eyes of Postmen and women who used instant cameras to capture images from their daily lives in 2005. I loved the idea of photographing the everyday, the ordinary even and was seduced by the often poignant images that captured moments in time that would have been lost if it hadn’t have been for the project.
Borrowing my Postman’s book sparked a train of thought that reminded me of ‘the Young British Photographers’ of the 1970s and 80s for whom ‘the ordinary’ became a central theme. I have always been a huge fan of Daniel Meadows (one of these photographers) whose early photographic work was driven by a desire to document everyday-life and people in England by embedding himself within their communities. I took the opportunity to visit an exhibition of his work at Birmingham’s new library and used it to ferment my ideas for my a Swineshead project.
After my trip it became clear in my mind that there were two ingredients that I needed to combine to create a project that would engage and hopefully excite the village. These ingredients were social media and social documentary photography. I settled on the idea of providing residents with disposable cameras which would be passed around their social networks with the initial launch of the project taking place online. A brief post outlining the project in the village’s Facebook group confirmed that this is where people seem to hang out and after 37 very positive comments there is now a team of 27 Swineshead photographers out and about capturing the everyday.