Documenting a community

Phil Coomes
Picture editor

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A couple of photographers whose work has recently crossed my desk have both been using the medium as a way to document a community, not only in pictures but also in sound.

Victoria Birkinshaw's series entitled, Our homes are not for sale, looks at the residents of four housing estates in London; Victoria Park, Cumberland Market, Lee Green and Millbank all of which provide a home to key-workers.

The photographs chart the lives of those on the estate and include audio commentary which adds a sense of depth and character to the pictures.

The photographs were taken during a turbulent time when the landlords, Crown Estates, announced they were planning to sell the freehold. This was opposed by the residents as they feared it would lead to increased rent, the loss of affordable homes for future generations and potentially cause the break up of the community.

The residents mobilised and fought the sale. In October of last year it was announced that the Peabody Trust would take over the freehold, and indeed did so in February of this year, but the campaign had succeeded in ensuring certain conditions offering security of tenure and rates.

Madeleine Davis, the vice chair of local residents association, said: "Whatever kind of landlord the Peabody Trust turn out to be, and we hope they will be a really good landlord, that the communities are stronger and that people feel they are in control of their own communities and their own lives on the estate. And I think that is going to be a very important and lasting legacy for the future."

Victoria's project neatly captures a cross section of residents living in a the estates and also forms an important record of their fight to protect their way of life. You can see more of the campaign pictures and portraits of residents on her website.

The work is on show at The Royal Inn on The Park, Victoria Park until Friday.

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Another photographer who has been documenting communities is Ciara Leeming whose Streetfighters set has been looking at the Housing Market Renewal scheme which aims to rebuild housing markets in areas with low demand for housing.

The project began in 2006 while she was working as a text journalist for the Guardian. She said: "I had never heard of Housing Market Renewal up to this point, but nine areas of northern England were being regenerated in this controversial scheme, which aimed to fix 'failing' housing markets. Public money was used to remove residents from their homes and assemble and clear land for redevelopment, at which point private developers step in to build modern flats and town houses."

As Ciara's photography developed she made a few early pictures of the neighbourhoods, but felt it wasn't really working. In 2009 she attended a multimedia workshop with trainers Duckrabbit, and from there she found her angle.

The audio portrait is a powerful combination. It offers the subject a voice, and the single portraits means subjects can be tackled that in a conventional audio slideshow may result in too many irrelevant images. Pictures just there to fill the space, less is more.

Ciara said: "The reasons for creating audio portraits rather than multi-image photo-films were twofold. Multimedia slideshows are time consuming to produce and also require a wide variety of different images, which I'm not able to gather from each and every visit. This project is self-funded, which has limited the time I have been able to spend with my subjects or spend on post-production.

media captionJoan Diggle has lived on her street for 77 years but is now the only resident left on her terrace in Oldham

"In any case I'm not sure 30 photo-films would tell this story more effectively than these simple portrait-audio pairings - visually they really would get very boring, so there isn't really much point. I have however returned to several of these pieces and re-edited them into fuller audio slideshows as my skill set has improved. The most successful is widower and WWII veteran Elijah Debnam (external site), who I returned to and in whose home I shot some interior photos."

It's a complex issue and one Ciara admits images alone can't tackle, yet her approach via the personal story of a number of those affected allows us a way into those complexities.

Ciara said: "My views on this issue have become more nuanced as this project has gone on and I've met people on all sides of the divide, including - for written stories - the architect of the national HMR scheme, and several of those charged with its delivery. I recognise that there are positive and negative aspects of the programme and not every resident considers themselves a loser. For this reason I don't really see Streetfighters as a campaigning project: it's more about acting as a conduit for those affected by these schemes and recording their stories for posterity."

Throughout its existence photography has been used as a tool for social change or indeed simply as a way to document that change. It seems these two projects are in good company.