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Thirty years of life etched on their faces

Chris Jackson | 14:05 UK time, Sunday, 27 November 2011

Some of the Elswick kids captured in their own self portraits in 1981

Back in 1981 these were the innocent faces of some of the 100 youngsters who took their own self portraits in the West End of Newcastle.

Among them you will find highs and lows. One ran away to live on the streets of London, another now leads the way in tackling deprivation. The black and white pictures represent life's rich tapestry, captured before the pattern was set.

It was part of a project set up by local community worker Chris Mearns who was running summer playgroups in Elswick but who also had a passion for photography.

So much so that a decade later he wondered what had become of the kids who were growing up in a deprived part of Tyneside. However his attempt to find them didn't come off.

Chris Mearns in 1981

Chris Mearns in 1981

20 years on he again thought it would be great to catch up with the gang of '81.

A local newspaper showed some interest in appealing for the original participants to come forward, but managed to lose all his prints and the story never appeared.

Luckily he still had the negatives and 30 years on he approached me to see if I could help track down the Elswick kids.

Along with some of Chris' friends who developed a website and social media sites we all worked together and a short report went out on Look North and the whole thing took off.

Chris' aim was to reshoot the self portraits and capture not just the image but their stories.

Trish Barrett

Trish - Swimming Instructor

Of the 100 hundred or so people in the pictures we now have names and or contact details for around 70.

Their stories are amazing as you'll see on our next programme (BBC One, Monday 28 November 2011, 19:30hrs GMT)

Trish was a young swimming instructor who as a single mother decided to up sticks to make a better life for her family in the Channel Islands. With just backpacks and a lot of courage they set off in the hope it would work out.

Also in the motley crew a woman who became a drug addict after running away to London at just 13 years. With no educational qualifications Gill turned it all around and now has a university degree as an occupational therapist.

Margaret - School administrator

Margaret - still at school

In complete contrast Margaret couldn't have remained more settled in the West End.

She lives in the same house as when the picture was taken of her as a little girl. Even more surprsing is that she now works at the same primary school she went to back in 1981

Amanda used her childhood growing up in a deprived area to build a career in urban regeneration. For her life has come full circle.

Tonight's show has a very emotional twist to it that will certainly give extra impact to this project. After it's aired I will add more information to this blog.


  • Comment number 1.

    The Elswick Self Portraits feature was simply one of the most moving pieces of local television I have ever seen. I found it totally life affirming and found myself in floods of tears. Communities and individuals need insightful, sensitive people like Chris Mearns to reflect how important they are. His work and work of this kind must thrive, at times like this, the values and vision that he had are needed more than ever. Inspiring!

  • Comment number 2.

    I would just like to thank Chris for the fantastic job he has done in bringing my Dad's project to life. Chris has been sensitive and a source of real positivity during a very sad time.
    I would also like to thank everyone involved in the ESP project On behalf of my whole family. The stories i heard and the people who i met at both reunions were life affirming.
    My Dad loved this City and was passionate about its communities and people.
    We will continue to try and put names/people/stories to the 1981 photos and gather as many portraits of these people as possible.
    I would like to exhibit these photographs at some point and I am exploring ways in which we can use this project to help the communities where it started.
    The search for the people involved will carry on through the facebook group and any other means possible.

    Thank you to everyone.
    Ricky Mearns

  • Comment number 3.

    I think Ricky's idea is a good one and would be more than happy to help. The Newcastle Discovery museum has a permanent exhibition of life in the West end of Newcastle with some photos of adults in the area and their lives, with running comments from them. This exhibition is a bit old now and I think the Elswick park project with kids into adults would be an excellent update and an even better exhibition. I'm sure the Museum would be happy to have such an exhibition as it is based in this area.
    I would love to help if you want to help the communities in the area with this project. A photography apprenticeship for a youngster in the area may be something. There could be lots more. The Big Lottery Fund can also help. I'm involved in regeneration projects so happy to help in any way.

    Good Luck


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