Guests & Volunteers: discussion forum

July 12, 2011

The discussion forum team from left to right: Kalleen Knowles (who chaired the event); Jennie Smith (volunteer manager from Crisis); James Hayes (senior Crisis volunteer); Mark Burton and on the far right, price photographer Katherine Green.

When planning the Guests & Volunteers exhibition I really wanted it to be about more than putting photographs on the wall. I wanted to engage different groups of people and utilise different media to spread the word about the exhibition. I also wanted the highlight of the exhibition to be a talk and discussion forum about the challenges of photographing people in vulnerable situations.

What the gallery looked like for the speakers!

It’s always a bit nerve-wracking, page holding an event. Will anyone show up?

Well, hospital a few people arrived and then before we knew it, there was a full house with over fifty people crammed into the Tokarska Gallery. As the afternoon progressed more people arrived until there were people sitting at the front with standing-room-only at the back.

Jennie from Crisis began the talk explaining it’s history and the work it does. Crisis runs a year-round programme and has operations in London, Oxford and Newcastle. Each Christmas it runs temporary centres in London. In 2010 8,000 volunteers cared for 3,000 homeless people for 8 days and nights.

The next speaker, James, is a very experienced Crisis volunteer. He explained how people might end up rough sleeping – very often because several things have gone wrong in their lives at the same time. A minority are able to bounce back very quickly, but many suffer from what people working in the homeless sector describe as ‘complex trauma’. They will have mental health and/or dependency issues and will need a greater level of care and support to re-build their lives.

My part of the discussion included a slide-show of work from previous projects photographing people in vulnerable situations.

I explained the central idea behind the work – which was to portray the dignified and respectful relationships that develop at the Rough Sleepers Centre between guests and volunteers. I also wanted the work to challenge perceptions of homelessness: the subjects removed identifying name badges or wristbands, often making it unclear who is the guest and who is the volunteer.

I explained how I was a long-term Crisis volunteer and how this (and a lot of patience) helped me get permission to take photographs in an environment where cameras are normally banned. I also explained how I made the work over the course of each night and you can read more about this here.

A contribution that really brought the whole talk to life was when Mike spoke about his experience being photographed. He’d been a guest at Crisis and I was very grateful that he gave his perspective of the project.

A volunteer’s perspective came from James. (He’s wearing the red-and-white stripy top in back left-hand corner!)

Photographers often talk about their work giving a voice, or representing people who are often not heard. I do feel this about much of my work – but I wanted the participants in this project to have the opportunity to say what they thought about the images.

After the talk I took this portrait of James and his children in front of his photo. He explained how much it meant to him to be included in the project. Sometimes, as a photographer, the most important thing you can do is take the time to make someone’s photo. Something I always try and do – no matter where I made the work – is to send a copy to the person in the picture.

The next speaker was Katherine Green. (Far right of photograph.) It was fantastic to have Katherine involved. She is one of NE London’s best known artist’s and photographers. I have always admired Katherine’s work and her passion for photographing the people close to home in Walthamstow.

Katherine is one of the photographers commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) to document community groups in the five Olympic boroughs as part of ‘The Road to 2012.’

As part of the commission Katherine has photographed sports groups, but also other community groups including a homeless hostel in Walthamstow called Branches. Katherine explained how she persuaded the NPG to include Branches as part of the overall commission.

Katherine showed work from several projects, many of the images dealing with photographing people in vulnerable situations. One of the things Katherine and I have in common is a desire to make images that portray people in a dignified manner.

Kalleen asking Katherine a question: throughout the whole afternoon Kalleen did a great job prompting the speakers and keeping everything on track. Her efforts and expertise gave the discussion a very professional and structured feel.

The whole afternoon was a tremendous success. I hoped 20-30 people would turn up. In the end we had 60! Thanks so much to everyone who spoke and came along – in particular Nadiya, who held the exhibition and talk at her gallery. Thanks also to Tim Roberts who took some of the photos included on this blog.


  • fabien
    July 14, 2011

    A fantastic talk it was too!

    So good to see a packed room, and our own Councillor came to look at the problem of local homelessness, great to see art being a catalyst for social issues.

    Thanks for the exhibition Mark, see you on the Art Trail!

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  • Nadiya Pavliv-Tokarska
    July 14, 2011

    The talk made exhibition “Guest & Volunteers” complete. The fact that you can see people whose photographs were displayed and have a chance to talk to them about their experiences were such a treat. Very special day for Tokarska Gallery it was, indeed. Thank Mark, Bronwyn and your friends, who travelled from as far as USA.