Monday, 23 April 2012

Up & Coming: Interview with Ciara Leeming

Centrepoint Collective: Who is photographer Ciara Leeming? Give us a brief insight into your photographic background.

Ciara Leeming: I’m a freelance journalist who picked up a camera while backpacking in 2007 and couldn’t put it down. I started working on small photo projects connected to my written stories, before doing an MA in photojournalism at London College of Communication, which ended a few months ago. Photography for me is simply another communication tool – it is inseparable from my journalism. 

You have worked on a number of projects associated with travelling communities but this one focuses on the life of one person in particular. How did you come about with the idea for the project Elvira and Me? How did the project begin?

I am interested in putting a human face on quite political issues, and I believe very strongly that there are interesting and important stories close to home if photographers would only look for them. The area of Manchester where I live has seen a sizeable influx of mainly Romanian Roma migrants over the past five years, and many of them sell the Big Issue in the North, a magazine I regularly write for. 

Roma are one of the most misunderstood and stereotyped communities in Europe, and I became somewhat obsessed with learning more about my new neighbours. When I started to think about doing a photo project I had no idea really how to go about making connections. The community is insular and few speak good English. Eventually though, after 18 months of work and a series of written stories, my print journalism led me to Ramona, my collaborator in this project. She is a former Big Issue in the North vendor who now works in local schools. The magazine asked me to write a story about her achievements, which ran in April 2011. She was fascinating, charismatic and very friendly and open. A few months later I asked if she would consider me documenting her life and she said yes immediately.   

What kind of difficulties (if any) did you face whilst shooting Elvira and Me? Tell us about the working process.

I was wracked with doubt for the early part of this process – I’d become so used to Roma people saying no and changing their mind that I almost didn’t dare believe Ramona would see the process out. I was also worried about her extended family in Manchester – I feared I would not be able to shoot freely when they were about but felt this was important. I wanted the project to be a collaboration and always intended to tell her story in her own words, but it took me a while to really work out the methodology of how I would do it – that came partway through the project, through the theory I was reading at the time. 

In the event, of course, the process got easier as the months wore on – I think when you are working with an individual in this way, it takes time for both parties to relax into it, and documentary tends to be quite an organic process anyway. I was lucky that Ramona trusted me, even when she didn’t fully understand what I was trying to do, but the responsibility of that trust weighed quite heavily on me, and continues to do so. We have become good friends through this process and I want her to feel she owns this work as much as I do.        

You travelled to Romania with Elvira to photograph her in the environment she grew up in. Did she and her family members feel at ease with this? Did you feel you where intruding into her life at all?

Her family back in Romania were very accepting from the start – the unease was mostly on my side because I wanted to be respectful of them and strike the right balance. Ramona’s young daughter lives with her parents in Romania and this was the first time she was visiting in almost two years – I wanted to be sensitive to this, to capture it but to also give them space. 

There were several quite tense family rows during my stay there, when Ramona’s family pleaded with her to move back to Romania. During the first one I was rooted to the spot, trying to stay invisible and not daring to take any photos, but afterwards I kicked myself – I was there to document her trip and had permission to photograph, and this was a key part of the story. No one minded when I picked up the camera the next time they started arguing. That was an important lesson for me – I realised it’s often my own mind which holds me back. 

Have you had any reactions - positive or negative - from the Roma community or the community in general?

The reaction to the work has been really positive. I printed some hard copies using Blurb and gave Ramona a few – I made sure she was the first person to see it, and in fact she had already seen the dummy. Thankfully she really liked it, and so did her family, even though some parts were quite painful. I’m not sure whether anyone in the wider Roma community in this area is aware of it, but it’s been seen and shared by lots of academics and people who work with Roma, both in Manchester and the UK and also abroad.

Bizarrely the project has also been highlighted in the Romanian media, which picked up on the fact that Ramona was recently invited to a lunch attended by the Queen. A TV report which I saw online shows her sister flicking through our book, and showing prints I have sent to the family.   

I noticed on your website that all your images are heavily watermarked. Why is this?

Yes, sadly I’ve had to take these steps after finding that my Roma and Travellers work was frequently being lifted and presented out of context on other people’s blogs and news sites. Roma are frequently subjected to negative stereotyping and photography plays an important part in this: this is exactly what my work tries to challenge. Yet I’ve recently found a clearly-identifiable photograph that I took of Ramona selling the Big Issue being used to illustrate sensationalist stories of Roma criminality on a number of websites. These stories had nothing to do with her, yet those editors thought it was fine to steal a generic Roma woman photo off Google images and present it completely out of context. It was Ramona herself who found the first of these, on a Romanian news site, which upset her quite a lot. 

I managed to get the photos removed and will now look out for other uses. Unfortunately that particular photo originates from a story of mine on The Guardian website, but the episode led me to watermark the images on my own site and take steps to prevent sites like Pinterest from stealing my content. This is not about money, it’s about protecting the integrity of my work and not allowing it to be separated from its context.  

You recently self-published Elvira and Me. What are your views on self-publishing?

I see it is a useful exercise for a photographer who wants to produce a fully formed project, but beyond that I’m not so convinced. I made a book because Elvira and Me was an MA project and we had to hand in a finished product. I picked up some useful design skills along the way, and it was great to be able to give something tangible to Ramona at the end. I also have something physical to show potential funders and subjects, which may help me to explain myself and win trust. But my book is 132 pages long and even with the most basic options a Blurb copy cost £29 plus postage. Needless to say I didn’t sell many copies, and I couldn’t possibly make any money from it. 

A couple of people have bought the Elvira ebook via Blurb but that only works if you have an iPad. I personally found that uploading the project pdfs onto a web viewer such as Issuu worked really well as a distribution method. Having a well-designed book with a clear narrative was an important part of that I think.

Some of your projects are a combination of photography (either still or moving image) and audio. Do you think this is the route photography is taking?

I think it’s one of the routes it’s taking. I’m still quite new to photography but my impression is that while the economics of the industry have collapsed, the creative options have increased massively. I want to use my technical and narrative skills to help people tell their own stories in an engaging way, and pairing good quality documentary audio with still images can be a powerful way of doing that. A market for this is certainly developing and some photographers are making a living out of producing multimedia. But I don’t think it will ever replace the book or the magazine – its function is different and in many ways complementary.  

What photographers have influenced your work?

I appreciate many photographers but the three who I admire most are all Americans for some reason: Ed Kashi, Joseph Rodriguez and Brenda Ann Kenneally. I attended one of Kashi’s workshops in 2009 and he was really positive and inspiring, his work opened my eyes to the storytelling potential of multimedia and to the importance of committing to long-term projects. It’s that same integrity and dogged commitment to their subjects which attracts me to Rodriguez and Kenneally too. 

What’s next? Any exhibitions lined up? Any new projects?

No shows planned for the time being but I am continuing with my Roma project. I was recently awarded a commission from Side Gallery in Newcastle to carry out some work in the North East, and the Arts Council has also funded me to expand the project further. I continue to see Ramona and am making contacts in other parts of the country.  

To view more of Ciara Leeming's work please visit her website. 

All videos © Ciara Leeming