Exhibition review: Beyond Street View at Bank Street Arts
January 24, 2016
I recently visited independent art space Bank Street Arts in the heart of Sheffield to view an exhibition of photography with a difference.
The project, named Beyond Street View, was actually the second phase of an earlier project entitled Street View, initiated by Open College of the Arts, who support higher education for all. Street View gave clients of the Archer Project – a Sheffield charity which supports the homeless and vulnerable of the city – the opportunity to use photography as a medium to reflect their everyday lives and the challenges they face on a daily basis.
This involved the clients of Archer piling into the charity’s transit van every Monday throughout the summer of 2015, armed with a disposable camera, touring Sheffield and visualising ideas which had come up during that day’s session. Clients then took away the cameras to photograph their week until the next session.
Some of the results of this initial project were displayed in Sheffield’s Winter Gardens as part of the Off the Shelf Festival during October 2015, with more to be displayed at Edge Hill University in February.
As only a small selection of the original photographs were used in the original display from over 1000 taken, it was decided to run a second phase of the project, asking Archer’s clients to revisit the archive and create a sequence and new selection which would produce an alternative interpretation of the images.
This is where local photographer Mark Harvey came in. Mark leads weekly photography sessions with the clients at Archer, and has recently joined Bank Street in a residency aimed at questioning the way the media uses images of marginalised communities.
Mark has a strong background in photographing social justice issues, including drug abuse, poverty and criminal justice, and says the residency will enable him to develop his own photography work. He says that since completing his BA (Hons) Photography from Derby in the 1980’s, he has mainly concentrated on working as a ‘freelance snapper’ claiming, ‘this is the first time I have thought about producing art!’
Mark hopes that his work at Bank Street will also enable him to continue to develop his work with Archer, starting with the Beyond Street View exhibition. He claims, ‘As a photographer, I aim to be invisible’, saying he is more used to recording events in front of the camera, and delivering them to clients, rather than influencing them, creating a visual narrative. During his residency, he says he aims to, ‘…explore the relationship between the photographer, subject and image,’ especially when working with people considered by society to be marginalised, giving them a voice. ‘It’s not that they don’t have one,’ he says, ‘it’s that we don’t, or don’t want to, listen to what they have to say.’
What struck me about the exhibition were the many representations of elements of nature: overgrown grass, a felled tree trunk, juxtaposed beside images of graffiti and the harsher reality of living on the streets. It felt to me as though the natural elements represented the Sheffield I would recognise, and the other images showed the harshness of the streets as viewed through the eyes of the vulnerable and homeless.
Two images which particularly struck me, and stayed in my mind long after I left were a photograph displaying a white pillow thrown among the overgrown grass verge, and another of an old mattress covered in graffiti, in the middle of an outdoor yard.
I caught up with Mark, and was interested to find out how his work with the clients had affected him, and how the exhibition was put together.
Mark: “Beyond Street View was a joint venture; the clients chose a selection of images and Andrew Conroy and myself curated the final selection. When you are making a statement, either literally or visually, it has to have a message otherwise there would be a random selection of images that might not work as an exhibition.
“To be frank it has been mind blowing. When I started as a volunteer (with Archer) I thought it would be a case of just talking about photography. Some people who find themselves in situations where they require help are very reserved about opening up to people they meet because of trust. They have found themselves exploited by family, friends or institutions that were there to support them. I have been privileged to be taken in to their confidence. But we are talking about life threatening situations – people talking about killing themselves because they see no future. Some have opened up to me and allowed me to have some insight in to their lives.
“There is an amazing amount of talent at Archer but once you have become stigmatised with having been homeless, having a mental health issue, been in prison, it’s very hard to be able to get back to what some of us call ‘normality’. When I’ve been out with the group, we attract the attention of security and have watched people cross the street to avoid us. What do we do when we see someone begging or selling the Big Issue? Often, make a slight deviation around them. I would say if you have time, have a chat, ask them if they would like a hot drink or sandwich, and once you start talking to people it will change your perception.
“One of the Archer clients I worked with told me, “It’s changed my life. I now spend my money on photography and not booze”. This same person said that their daughter preferred them drunk, as they could be more easily manipulated. Another client said, “Thank you, it’s great to be recognised’. Some of them have never been in an art gallery, let alone exhibited in two, so these are really new experiences for them.”
It was great to get a bit of insight into the background behind the exhibition, and if Mark’s passion is anything to go by, it should be an interesting residency.
The Beyond Street View exhibition can still be viewed at Bank Street until the 30th January. You can view an archive of Mark’s social issue photography at http://www.socialissuesphotography.co.uk/ and his freelance photography is at http://markharvey.photoshelter.com/.