For her final piece of work on her photography BA degree at the Edinburgh College of Art, Mairéad Keating has produced ‘Be, Still.’ - a heartwarming collection of portraits taken at a local youth club. Speaking with PETRIe’s Features Associate, Charlotte Sutherland-Hawes, Keating talks more about the project and the language of photography that she uncovered in the process.
“The project at the youth club began in my third year of university; I knew that I wanted to work within the community and had the idea of contacting local youth clubs to see if I could gain access and make a body of lens-based work in a fun environment.
I began shooting in January 2014. Right from the beginning the children and staff welcomed me with open arms, which meant so much to me. I began dropping by the after school clubs as much as I could after being at university. Some days my sessions would be quite short, maybe only 40 minutes or so. I was shooting on a Hasselblad film camera, which means it was a slower process, even setting up. The kids got used to me coming and it became a regular thing.
The inclusion of each child’s name when I exhibited the work was crucial as it is about each child being an individual. And so, because including the children's names alongside the images was an important part of the work for me, I do not name the youth club. This means I am able to safeguard the children. I simply refer to it as a youth club in Edinburgh.
One of the oldest running youth clubs in Scotland, it provides a safe refuge in the form of an after-school club for young people in Edinburgh. Located in a gang-free, neutral territory, the club operates out of an area in Edinburgh that sadly, in certain parts, is home to some very disadvantaged and deprived children.
Research conducted by Heriot Watt University, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Child Poverty Action Group in 2013 found that “18% of all children in Edinburgh live in low-income households… This equates to a total of some 17,600 young people.” In general in the UK, research found children in low-income households are less likely to do well at school than their counterparts in higher-income families. Further, a lack of skills and qualifications has been identified as a key factor in limiting an individual’s prospects of escaping from poverty through work.
The youth club aims to provide recreational, social and educational opportunities for every child, which is one of the reasons why the centre manager was so happy for me to do my project there; the club aims to introduce the children to as many new things as possible.
Not all, but some of the children who attend the youth club come from very difficult family backgrounds, which can often lead to real problems in social terms. Some of the older kids may be drifting in and out of school and falling in with the wrong crowd; getting involved in gangs and finding themselves in trouble.
In an area where territorial-ism is an important issue, the club aims to encourage the children to integrate within a safe environment where they make new friends, learn new skills and look towards the future. This is especially important with the younger children and the staff hopes that they and the club can be a positive influence that encourages each child to reach their full potential.
The club hopes to empower and enable young people to thrive and prosper in their community. In particular they believe that young people can be a catalyst for reversing social and economic decline in a community. Early and ongoing engagement with young people is critical. Too often, support comes late in a young person’s life – dealing with the symptoms rather than the causes of social problems. In an inclusive approach that engages with the community’s most troubled and isolated young people, the project is open to all and does not shy away from dealing with some of the most challenging young people whose issues and behaviour often leave them excluded from school and society.
As a part of my third year, we were asked to organise a group exhibition as an assignment and my initial work from this project was exhibited. The exhibition, ‘EXPOSURE’, which was held at Gallery Seventeen on Dundas Street, was a success and I was able to bring a couple of the kids along to the opening night. It was their first glimpse of what goes on in the art world. They loved seeing other visitors admire the pictures of them and it was a real confidence boost for some of them, and lovely to see.
The end of term approached; summer came and went and, before I knew it, it was September and I was back at university, about to embark on my final year as an art student. By now, the project had become very close to my heart and I decided that I wasn't quite ready to say goodbye. In the previous year, I didn’t feel like I had made a finished body of work. I learnt a lot but at the time, it was as though the project was primarily about making portraits and not much else. I was getting bogged down in the technical aspects and didn’t consider what the work was actually about or what I was trying to say.
What was the reason behind it? That is where it fell flat, and that is what I was hoping to improve upon this time around. I felt like I owed it to the children and to myself to make pictures for the right reasons. There were really only five or six images at this point that I was very happy with. I decided that I wanted to make a proper go of this project and contacted the centre manager and asked if the project could continue, to which he agreed.
I began shooting again. I enjoyed the hustle and bustle of the youth Club the chaos of all the kids running about, laughing and playing and wanting to get involved in the project. Some days they were not interested and I would just chat a little instead, listen to how their day at school was or let them show me a drawing or painting that they were working on. Or I would bring contact sheets and prints from the previous week so they could see the pictures. It was about building a relationship, getting to know each other.
I began capturing quiet, still moments where the gaze of the child became the focus of the image. I tried to let the children have as much control over the shoot as possible and I would let them decide where they would like to have the picture taken and how they would like to present themselves to me and my camera. To the world. This was very important to me and the basis of the work. This give-and-take relationship between photographer and sitter.
The very language of photography alludes to this, where I am 'taking' their portrait from them. It needed to be the way they wished to be seen. The only thing I would ask was that they would keep a neutral expression. You get to know more of the person that way. So we would take one for me with a straight expression, and a few for the kids where they are grinning ear-to-ear or pulling a silly face. “One for me and one for you.”
I learned a lot from the project and the kids themselves, and I hope they learned a little from me too. During the course of the year, I was awarded funding by the University of Edinburgh to bring the children to the art college and run workshops. I gave each child a disposable black-and-white camera, which they were able to take home to capture some pictures of their own. I then developed the rolls of film and brought the kids to college for some workshops.
We did some large format portraits and each child also got to print their own picture from the disposable cameras in the dark room. Their faces when they would see their picture appear in the chemicals were fantastic. Lots of the kids made some really beautiful photographs, ones that even I would be proud of taking. A few weeks later we auctioned off their masterpieces to raise funds for the youth club - another event that I felt was great for their self-confidence.
The title of the work, 'Be, still.' was born out of the notion of how kids are so often told to be still, but primarily as a means of telling each child that it is okay to be. Still. To stay how they are for a while. In a world where kids are growing up so fast, it is a reminder to enjoy their childhood while they can. There isn't any rush.
Words: Charlotte Sutherland-Hawes
Photography: Mairéad Keating