Exhibitions

Peer to Peer HK/UK — Lee Wing Ki: Night Walk (an excerpt)

16 November - 30 November 2020

Events

HYPERTEXT: VIRTUAL ART BOOK FAIR

28 November - 29 November 2020

Exhibitions

Peer to Peer: UK / HK

11 November 2020

Exhibitions Past Exhibitions

Watch: Liverpool Slavery Virtual Tour

27 October 2020

A Message From Open Eye Gallery: Covid-19 Update

2 November 2020

Exhibitions

VR — The New West

30 October 2020

Past Exhibitions

TO BE FRANK

30 October - 15 November 2020

Past Exhibitions

THE LIVES WE LEAD

28 October - 11 November 2020

Past Events Past Exhibitions

Love Is An Action: Black History Panel

29 October 2020

Projects

VR — The Time We Call Our Own

3 September 2020

Exhibitions Main Exhibition

Exhibition: L— A City Through Its People

5 November - 7 March 2021

Projects

Harold Offeh — When Was The Time I Could Call My Own?

15 October 2020

Projects

Mirjam Wirz — Sonidero City

8 October 2020

Projects

Open Rooms #9 Access to Art: Who is art for? (w/ Mike Pinnington and Larry Achiampong)

13 October 2020

Projects

PLATFORM ISSUE 2: THE NEW NORMAL

7 October 2020

Events

Atrium Exhibition: Illustrating Anthropology

12 November - 30 November 2020

Past Events

Laurence Westgaph: Liverpool Slavery Virtual Tour

27 October 2020

Exhibitions Open Source Exhibitions

DIGITAL WINDOW GALLERY: OPEN SOURCE #18 – KELEENNA ONYEAKA

1 October - 31 October 2020

Projects

Tobias Zielony — Maskirovka

27 August 2020

Projects

Save Some Space (The Time We Call Our Own Online #4)

20 August 2020

Projects

Andrew Miksys — Disko (The Time We Call Our Own: Online #3)

6 August 2020

Projects

Oliver Sieber: Imaginary Club (The Time We Call Our Own: Online #2)

30 July 2020

Projects

Getting Ready: Amelia Lonsdale and Her Mum (#1)

23 July 2020

Exhibitions Past Exhibitions Open Source Exhibitions

DIGITAL WINDOW GALLERY: OPEN SOURCE #17 – SAMANTHA JAGGER

3 September - 30 September 2020

Past Exhibitions

you out tonight?

10 August 2020

Projects

folio20: Hugh Baird University Centre

10 August 2020

Projects

Sarah Eyre (Untitled)

10 August 2020

Projects

Activity Packs for Older People

20 July 2020

Projects

Young People + Family Activity Packs

20 July 2020

Projects

Open Rooms #3: Photographing the Internet (w/ Mishka Henner)

7 May 2020

Projects

Open Rooms #2: Separated Together

30 April 2020

Projects

Open Rooms #7: Photography Does Not Love You (Katrina Sluis w/ Jacob Bolton)

2 July 2020

Projects

Open Rooms #8: Photography and Racialisation

9 July 2020

Projects

Open Rooms #5: Class of 2020 — Seba Kurtis in conversation with Mariama Attah

18 June 2020

Projects

Love is an Action

11 June 2020

Projects

OPEN ROOMS #4: INDEPENDENT (PUBLISHING W/ COLIN WILKINSON)

21 May 2020

Open Eye Stories

4 May 2020

Open Rooms

4 May 2020

Exhibitions

Online Programme

15 March 2020

Exhibitions

DIGITAL WINDOW GALLERY: OPEN SOURCE #16 – PAULINA KOROBKIEWICZ

1 March - 31 March 2020

Exhibitions Past Exhibitions

Exhibition: The Time We Call Our Own

3 September - 23 October 2020

Exhibitions Past Exhibitions

DIGITAL WINDOW GALLERY: OPEN SOURCE #15 – JONATHAN LYNCH

1 February - 29 February 2020

Projects

PLATFORM Issue 01

21 January 2020

LAUNCH: THE DARK FIGURE*

20 February - 20 February 2020

Past Exhibitions

DIGITAL WINDOW GALLERY: OPEN SOURCE #14 – SAHAN NUHOGLU

16 January 2020

Exhibitions

VISUAL RIGHTS

16 January - 22 March 2020

Exhibitions

THE DARK FIGURE*

20 February - 22 March 2020

Past Exhibitions

EXPOSED

3 April 2020

Exhibitions Past Exhibitions

DIGITAL WINDOW GALLERY: NOW, FOR THE FUTURE – OPEN SOURCE X SHUTTER HUB

1 November - 30 November 2019

Past Exhibitions

Brilliant City 中文

30 October - 16 November 2019

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Street Girls from Brazil - Elizabeth looking in the mirror
Street Girls from Brazil - Tatiana in chosen garden
Street Girls from Brazil-Tatiana with a camera in her hand in beautiful neighbourhood
Birth Marks project Elaine and Ana Luiza
Joseph - Winner Portrait of Britain and Going Places in partnership with All Change Arts

A Spotlight on… Leticia Valverdes

Brazil born, U.K. based photographer, Leticia Valverdes has been making socially engaged photography for over two decades. Valverdes initiated her first project whilst a student of fine art and photography in London, working with girls living on the streets of Brazil’s major cities. Leticia talked to Joanie Magill about her first project, reflecting on how socially engaged photography has changed since then and who ultimately owns the work produced out of a socially engaged project.

Joanie Magill: How did you come to photography and socially engaged photography in particular?

Leticia Valverdes: I grew up in a country of huge contrasts; an issue which has increased more than ever now. I was a very sensitive child. My mum always said that while my siblings were in the back, just doing whatever, I looked outside the window of the car. I always asked mum, ‘why is this child on the street, why is this person on the street?’ I always had this extreme awareness of ‘the other’ even within my family.

I came to London to be an au pair at nineteen and to study English. I then realised that I wanted to study a BA in art. I had done a lot of performance and theatre in Brazil in my teenage years.I always admired the work of Augusto Boal, a Brazilian theatre practitioner and activist which founded the Theatre for the Oppressed movement, an interactive and cathartic type of theatre. It invites people to actively take part, not just be mere spectators.

At art university, one of the modules was photography. I loved it – all in the time of analogue photography and film. When I look back now I realise the last two years of University were very much spent inside the darkroom. But I didn’t yet have a camera. Mick Williamson, my teacher at university lent me a Pentax K1000, a basic camera. With that I went back to Brazil. I had always felt uneasy with the inequalities and injustices so present in my country of birth and wanted to somehow represent that.

I simply started to hang around the most immediate homeless people I knew, not far from my mums and dad’s home. I soon realised I was uncomfortable photographing street people using a more traditional approach. I ended up hanging out with the girls who had to dress down to protect themselves from unwanted attention. They would dress down with caps, big t-shirts and hand me downs. They would go inside a public toilet, because if you live under a viaduct you rely on those. When they stood in front of a toilet mirror, they would take the cap off and tighten their t-shirts a bit more on their bodies, play with their hair and make faces. I realised that they were not able to explore femininity in a way that a teenager might be free to do if she is safe at home.

It inspired me to bring this dress up box that I still had in my house. I literally brought a big bag of clothes and everything started organically. I went to other areas of the city and later to other cities, always with the same clothes. We had dressing up sessions under viaducts, in shelters, on the beach and in parks. It was clear they did not want to be seen in a degrading or ugly way or place. I remember a girl called Tatiana saying ‘I don’t want to be under this viaduct, it’s too ugly, can we go somewhere beautiful?’ We transferred ourselves to a beautiful garden. I became really aware of the invisible boundaries of a city. If you are poor, you don’t feel entitled to cross certain limits or even go to a beautiful garden. The project grew very instinctively. It was never about a “before and after session” or about me “styling” them. I wanted to photograph them myself, after all I was a photography student but it was natural to give them a little film camera which allowed them to photograph themselves and me.

In retrospect, I think I was unaware that this one day would be called socially engaged photography. In hindsight, it felt ethically appropriate to have an exchange where they also photographed me and each other. Nowadays there seems to be a lot of documentation of how socially engaged a project is, but I was not documenting any of this because it was just organically happening. I was not aware then of the importance of documenting this process and even keeping the photos they had done of each other. They were so keen to have images of themselves looking great I gave most of it back to them and copies of my images of them.They felt invisible and unvalued. Unfortunately I don’t have so much documentation of those moments, the “making of” the work, but I know that those interactions paved the way for everything else that I’ve done since.

How did you build the trust with the girls? What was the nature of the collaboration and over what kind of timescale?

Building trust requires time, empathy and real presence. In this first project it was unplanned and instinctive. I was going back, bringing prints, chatting, listening and listening some more. I was discovering with them the beauty that was hidden underneath their hardened skin.

Twenty years on I would say I have well tested methods and I know so much more about safeguarding, consent and agency. However I still like to keep room for the unexpected as that, in my opinion, is what makes collaborations real and meaningful. Sometimes I work in partnership with organisations that have their own guidance to safeguarding, approaches and briefs. I love those partnerships and I have been, for many years, an associate artist with All Change Arts who have been bringing artists and communities together for the past 30 years.

I still bring a lot of instinct and a lot of passion for other humans into everything I do, even if there are stricter parameters. In a way it really is about listening and about having profound empathy for the human condition. I don’t think this work can be done if you don’t have that to start with. From there you listen and give agency beyond your own artistic ambitions.

That’s not to say I am not ambitious in relation to outputs and often talk to collaborators about it. We go to galleries, we see art exhibitions. I aim for us to create engaging work together. I hope those interactions result in “meaningful” works of art. Of course looking for the ideal aesthetic quality does not come before the wellbeing of participants and the actual nurturing that the interactions bring. I am not going to sacrifice our interactions just to have “perfect” photographs, even though I am interested in great results and outputs.

In terms of time scale, I had time, you know, I was quite young myself. I was in my early twenties and I had time to listen. There was a lot of explaining of why I was there, there was consent and approval. A lot of the time (they said), ‘I don’t want to be seen under this viaduct looking really dirty’ and they should have the agency to choose to be shown in the way that they wanted. Nowadays a lot of the collaboative work I do is done over many sessions, like workshops. This is specially the case with work done with AC Arts, when some of the projects are developed with the same group over more than one year. Photography is only one element of those interactions and we often work in partnership with another artist, for example a poet.

Before you started this project with the girls, what was their understanding of photography? Did they have any expectations?

It was such a different time. I wouldn’t say people on the streets in Brazil nowadays necessarily would have a phone but there is more awareness of imagery. Saying that, Brazil is a country that has always had very strong influence from the TV medium and its soaps. People might have nothing (and live) in a shanty town and they will have a TV and a satellite dish. The project with the Brazilian girls was done before the selfies era and the girls didn’t have access to images of themselves. They still, however, knew exactly how a girl on a billboard or a middle class Brazilian walking on the street or inside a car at a traffic light, looked like. They had clear ideas of how they wanted to look like in the photos we were taking, the characters they wanted to play on our cathartic role playing games, like weddings for example, as I was carrying my mother’s wedding dress with me. There was one girl who I will never forget, Elizabeth, in Rio. She was in a difficult state and found it hard to smile. She had lost a tooth, she must have been thirteen or fourteen, and I remember giving a photo back to her. She couldn’t believe that this was her. I remember she walked around the streets. She literally stopped at the traffic lights to show people the photos, ‘look it’s me, it’s me’. It made me realise how few of them had any proof of identity. They didn’t have parents who would have photos of themselves when they were young. They were orphans, they would have no photos or documents even. They were indigent, they didn’t have Brazilian identity cards. It felt like, for a brief moment, my empathic gaze meant they existed in a different way.

Your socially engaged projects are quite often personal projects, although you also work with charities as well, it sounds like they happen very organically. How do you find or create opportunities for socially engaged work?

When I look back at some of my past projects I realise how meaningful they have been on a personal level. They seem to be an invitation for participation and reflection of phases of participants’ and my own life. Not that I was ever a street child or a refugee myself in the UK but I did end up finding ways of feeling deeply what it must feel like being in those situations.

For example with the girls, I was dressing up myself because I had a quite strict dad who came from poverty. When he saw me looking in the mirror when I was a young girl, like I see my daughter do now, he would say stop looking in the mirror and study. I became a bit of a tomboy. I remember really feeling that me and the girls were exploring femininity together.

With the postcards project (Real Postcards 2006), in London, I was never a refugee in the UK, but I was an outsider and didn’t have a visa for a time because I was a Brazilian. I knew how it felt not to have money and the language. Even though asylum seekers need primarily documents, support, food and shelter, they also crave for a sense of normality. We all share simple universal dreams. Through a series of workshops, I invited various groups to choose somewhere in London that they didn’t feel entitled to see and we created postcards of them in those chosen places. Places where they are not usually seen. Going on an outing somewhere nice and forgetting, for a few hours, of their status. Crossing the invisible boundaries of a big city that I had felt the homeless girls on the streets of Brazil also had not felt entitled to cross.

When motherhood came, I felt I needed to look at motherhood, but I thought I needed to do it in collaboration with mothers, involving mothers as collaborators to explore the marks brought to us by maternity (Birth Marks). So I feel photography is a way of inviting collaboration, an invitation to play, to become aware of where you are as a human but also for me, through a project, to make meaning of my own life phases and existential questions.

Do you think socially engaged photography has noticeably changed since you started your practice?

I do, because of course, there are now universities exploring the subject and all these people coming out of their courses with the parameters of what socially engaged photography is, an evolved discourse and the desire to work in this way, which I welcome. It’s amazing because from whatever side it comes, we are questioning the fact that we cannot just go out into the world photographing other people without a second thought. We really need to think and feel things through. I am myself learning to better articulate about it. There is the slight risk of everything looking the same and a lot of the work becoming just the documenting of the project. This is okay of course,.but I am really interested in creating outcomes with participants that would sit beautifully out of its niche, in a conventional gallery or as a performance or a book, occupying spaces that it might not in the past.

What makes a good photo? Who is the work for? Are there multiple audiences?

A good photo for me is one that makes me feel and not only think. It provokes an emotional reaction and makes me want to know more. I call socially engaged photography my practice as an artist but I am very aware the resulting work is not always for public consumption.

For example, I recently I worked with a group of vulnerable women in partnership with two charities. Through various sessions participants, myself and a poet, did work that we were really proud of and I would love to show on my website or portfolio, but it was decided that, for safeguarding reasons, we couldn’t show the results in a more public way. We had done photo sessions in a studio, there was make up and dressing up involved, the women and created poetry about each of the fictional characters they had created. They came up with alter egos to process their issues in cathartic ways because their reality is so hard (very much going back to Augusto Boal).

The fact that I could not show the resulting work on my own website at first made me sad because it feels that this is my practice and the women themselves were so proud of the photos which they shared on their own Instagram and Facebook. But it turned out that there was good learning there for me. Who is the work for? The work on this occasion was for us only, and while it happened, it was incredible and impactful. They were very empowered by showing the work in a private pop up exhibition while performing their poems. It reminded me that, in socially engaged arts, you are a facilitator and enabler for wonderful things to happen. And that presenting work to the world does not always take the same format. Sometimes it is just about the process of creating the work.

So each body of work ends up where it has to end up, in the sense that it has its function and its role as it’s meant to. Sometimes it’s not for public consumption and that is ok. When this is part of an artist’s practice it can be hard but ultimately it comes back to consulting and consent. Each project has a different outcome and we have to respect where it goes organically because it’s all based on consent, which can be withdrawn at any stage by anyone involved. I’m always re-learning that. It’s humbling and a reminder that the work is just not “mine”.

 

Images

Street Girls from Brazil – Elizabeth looking in the mirror

Street Girls from Brazil – Tatiana in her chosen garden

Street Girls from Brazil-Tatiana with a camera in her hand in beautiful neighbourhood

Birth Marks project Elaine and Ana Luiza

Joseph – Winner Portrait of Britain and Going Places in partnership with All Change Arts

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