I had the pleasure of speaking at Daniel Regans Social Works Arts and Health get together a few months ago. I shared some stories about some of the projects that have been keeping me busy over the past few years, but my main focus was on this project. Luckily, Katharine Lazenby was on hand to document the day, so I thought I’d share some of what she wrote. I think she sums it up very well.
“For the fourth speaker of the morning, photographer and ethnographer Curtis James, building up relationships has been fundamental to his ongoing project with a community in East Brighton, and by far the part of the project that has taken the longest. He has set out to document a community but to do so by training up individuals from that community to be the researchers and ethnographers of their own lives. For his project, Curtis has returned to the council estate he grew up on, with an awareness of the negative perception of the community from those living outside of it, fuelled by stigmatising assumptions whipped up by the local press.
He is interested in how passing on certain skills to members of the community to enable them to document and communicate the reality of their lives, can be a way of transferring power and agency to these individuals. By doing so Curtis is setting a process in motion whereby his participants will become the artists, ethnographers and authors of the work, makers not subjects; this is not just social engagement, this is social activism.
The overarching question Curtis is hoping to answer with this project is whether this type of work can create any kind of wider societal change. Can the work of community researchers effect local council policies or the way services are delivered? Can the researchers trained to notice, document and communicate the reality of everyday life play an instrumental role in ensuring that the gap between what a community gets and what it actually needs is bridged?
One of the outputs of Curtis’s project in East Brighton will be a manual, a guide for how anyone can conduct a project such as this and learn how to re-see the aspects of everyday life we have stopped noticing. Once complete he wants to share the manual with as many people as possible so that others can initiate similar projects across the country. It is a further reflection of Curtis’s egalitarian approach to making socially engaged work and his lack of artistic ego, that he is not possessive about his ideas or the methods he has developed. Broadening the reach of the project is Curtis’s aim and he will do so by passing on his skills and disseminating knowledge to others, whilst empowering people to recognise the value of their own life experiences, unique perspectives and expertise.
Curtis James’ enthusiasm for the idea that it doesn’t always have to be him doing the work, or as he puts it, ‘designing myself out of a job’, was inspiring and in any other gathering of creative types his selflessness and sincere commitment to skill-sharing would probably have stood out as unique and frankly radical. But this willingness to pass on the knowledge and tools needed to make things happen was in evidence throughout this symposium. Curtis James is adamant he will not be involved in any community projects if the participants he is working with aren’t being paid. In his ongoing project in East Brighton, the residents he is working with are paid for the community research they do, they will have full ownership of the work and will ultimately decide how that work will be delivered and disseminated.”