Julia Bennett | Connecting Places

My project aimed to expand my PhD research and attempt to engage a community to think about how the place itself helps to make it what it is. My original idea was for a photography/story competition where people would photograph a place and tell the story of their connection to it.

As photographic competitions tend to attract a particular kind of photography enthusiast, rather than the general community, my research partner – Saskia from Z-Arts in Hulme – felt it best to avoid the competitive element. So after securing the funding we set up an event to give tips on taking good photos with the idea that people would then go out and photograph their locality and put the photos and their related stories into an exhibition. This event was, unfortunately, not well attended. The fact that we’d chosen cup final day may have had something to do with this! Learning point: check the calendar for local and national events before picking a date.

So we decided to rebrand the event, go back to the competition element and re-advertise with an extended deadline for the entries.  This produced some entries, although we weren’t exactly overwhelmed with a total of six photos and short stories or comments connecting the places to the photographer. However the quality of the photos was excellent (they can be seen here) and we went ahead with the exhibition, printing the photos in A1 size to fill the space. They looked great. Z-Arts are keeping the pictures on display in their building, although we allowed the entrants to take their own photo if they wanted to.

A key element that I’m taking away from this experience is that community engagement only works where the community wants to be engaged! For me, one difficulty was that I was not familiar with Hulme or surrounding districts. My original hope was to engage with a cultural partner in Wigan where my PhD research took place and where I am familiar with the community and have various contacts. However this was not possible and the change of location meant that I had to quickly familiarise myself with this area of Manchester and the community groups there who might take part. Another issue may have been in explaining the project.  A subject which I have been fully engaged with for several years is not necessarily easy to explain to ‘lay’ people. More discussion around the naming and description of the initial event might have highlighted this, or some initial ‘market research’ amongst colleagues, perhaps.

It has been a privilege to see the photos submitted and the enthusiasm and obvious affection these people have for Manchester, or particular places in Manchester. All of this really goes to confirm my thesis findings whereby for most of us, most of the time, places fade into the background of our lives. But when places, buildings, parks, shopping centres and so on, are brought to people’s attention their importance in telling a story of a life lived in a place becomes clear.

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