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October 2015

View from the Millenium Bridge.

It was at least a year ago when I was asked if I’d join a small group of photographers in London. It was wonderful to be able to talk photography with Del, Jonathan, Mo, Dee and Lizzie and before long, we had a name; Mixed Bag.  Strange name but we like it and it reflects our mixture of photographic genres.  The idea was that apart from talking photography and socialising we would work towards an exhibition of our work.  How scary!  

I didn’t really understand how my (predominantly nature and wildlife) photography would fit in with everybody else’s urban photography and I struggled to come up with ideas that would fit in with the agreed theme of ’Stuff'.  But, I do like taking photographs of London at night and this seemed to me to be my way forward and I had a particular series of images where long exposures had captured ‘ghosts’ walking through and these intrigued me and made me think about the people who London really doesn’t really seem to want to see… the homeless, the rough sleepers and the refugees.  I wanted to contrast images of London’s glittering wealth with the figures in the shadows.
 
Eventually the day came when we visited Davenport’s Gallery underneath Charing Cross Station to look at the exhibition space.  The underground corridors were filled with rough sleepers in numbers that far exceeded my understanding.  I knew the situation was bad but I had no idea that it was this bad.  Rough sleepers were gathered in groups of 4 to 12 right outside the Gallery.  It was a huge shock!  
 
I am not a street photographer and I’m entirely uncomfortable with the idea of taking photographs of people without their permission. Worse than this, is the idea that I take photographs of people at their most vulnerable!  Looking at one of the rough sleepers outside the Magic Gallery, I eventually decided to ask for permission to take his photograph.  I explained what I wanted to do and asked to take a picture.  This conversation was a game-changer for me.  He was utterly charming and helpful, suggesting that I could return any day to find him there, especially if it was raining.  This positive response helped me break through a personal barrier.  I chose to use my iPhone and to capture pictures of the rough sleepers in a wider context and being passed by or ignored by passers by.
 
I worked on a title, strapline and some words to go with my exhibition.

'London Stuff: Bright lights and Shadows’.

Inspired by the accidental ghost-like figures in her cityscapes, Penny’s images contrast the glitter and wealth of London with the shadowy figures of the homeless at night.
 
I’m better known for my nature and wildlife photography, but living in London, I find it very hard to resist the glitter and sparkle of this city at night.  I find myself drawn to the big iconic views: the opulence of Canary Wharf; the grandeur of the Embankment; the spectacular panorama from the Millennium Bridge and the view of Westminster framed by the arches.  
 
With a big camera, a tripod and mission to capture photographs of London in all its glittering splendour, I frequently jostle for space with people who walk in front of my open lens and leave their shadows on frame after frame. The tourists with their selfie-sticks, the trendy hipsters, the night workers, the families, the youngsters on a night out and other photographers...all of us looking for a place to capture the bright lights of London.   
 
Reviewing these images on the computer however, I found myself looking more carefully at the accidental shadowy figures that I had captured during the long exposures. Some pass fleetingly, as transient shapes, while others linger, occupying dead spaces in the hive of activity. Here, the photograph itself becomes a metaphor, capturing what the eye often fails to record. A void that exists between the poorest in our city and their contemporaries, each passing the other but choosing not to see. 
 

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Walking around London, I am conscious of more and more shadowy shapes in corners. It’s not my imagination.  These are people.  Human beings.  Just like me.  Men, women and young people living or sleeping on the streets. The numbers are rising year on year.  The Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN) records each individual contacted by homeless outreach teams or other services. The most recent census (2014) gave a figure of 7,581 people who had slept rough that year in London alone. This was a rise of 16% from the previous year, and more than double the 2009/2010 figure. 
 
It’s said that we’re all just a few steps away from disaster…
 
Research on pathways into homelessness in the UK found that the reasons most often cited by men were relationship breakdown, substance misuse, and leaving an institution (prison, care, hospital etc.). For homeless women however, the most common causes were physical or mental health problems or escaping a violent relationship. The number of female rough sleepers in London is difficult to calculate, owing to their tendency to keep a low profile. They are also more likely to have had negative experiences of approaching local authorities due to problems with mental health, drug or alcohol dependencies.  Homeless women are more likely to be physically attacked, verbally abused or sexually assaulted than males. 
 
If a society’s success is measured on how it treats it’s weakest members, then each of us needs to assess our relationship with those in the shadows.  For this Stuff I began to point my lens into darker places and to record the plight of a few rough sleepers as other people walked past them, without seeing them or perhaps, choosing not to look.  What anyone takes from this gallery is up to the viewer, but know that each picture tells a thousand stories, and each onlooker has a choice to make about the part they play in the narrative.  
 
 
Putting up the exhibition was another game-changer for me.  I’d previously been utterly freaked out by the idea of framing and mounting prints but here, surrounded by cardboard for mounting board and with a staple gun in my hand, I astonished myself with a sense of pride and achievement.  I’d felt incredibly self-conscious and had hesitated to invite friends to come to see my work but now, I was really proud and wanted to share the experience.  

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The exhibition was open for 6 days and during those days and evenings, we got to know our ‘neighbours’ in the underground corridors.  I truly began to feel like a goldfish in a bowl. It’s not often that I find myself being observed by others less fortunate than myself but here in the glass fronted gallery I ate my lunch and drank my take-away coffee, deeply conscious that I was an advantaged woman taking part in what felt like a huge vanity project.  I was on an emotional roller coaster, and the ups and downs were rythmically matched to the movements of our neighbours who came in when it was raining and who were moved on by the police, only to return an hour or so later.  
 

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We got to know the hip-hop dancers who visited every night and practiced in the corridor.  The Wine Bar didn't like them being there because the music disturbed their customers but by and large they weren't moved on.  The rough sleepers were frequently moved on and I found sympathy with the retailers trying to make a living when the path to their shop fronts was strewn with London's forgotten people, their litter, their dogs, their legal-high habits and the police presence that they attract.  But I had the utmost compassion for these neighbours of ours and their plight.  They had nothing to do.  Nowhere to go.  No hope.  
 
As the days went by, we got to know some of our neighbours.  I sat outside and talked with one young man for hours.  I won't tell his personal story here.  I don't have his permission.  Suffice it to say that he was blind and 21 years old.  We actually knew some of the same people.  I knew his school.  We bought him pens and paper and I commissioned him to draw me a picture since he said that he was a good artist.  He worked on the picture all day with his face about 6" from the paper.  I put his picture on the wall of the gallery and will frame it for my studio.  This is his picture for me.  The words that he carefully penned around the edge are in permanent marker in my head and heart.  Strangely, it was my conversations with him and with some of his street friends that made me think that my photography project was worthwhile.  If even one person who saw my pictures changes their attitude or opens their heart, then perhaps it was worth doing? After all,  'It is said that we are all only one step away from disaster'.  
 

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Thank you to my friends and family who came to visit the exhibition and to Mixed Bag.  It was an extraordinary experience!  I won't forget it.