Using social documentary photography to enhance community cohesion amongst young people.

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bolton
Department Name: Health and Social Sciences


The proposed research assumes the form of a participatory community arts project which will enable young people from social and culturally diverse backgrounds to represent and share with others their everyday lives through documentary photography. It is grounded in Mass-Observation's documentation of everyday life in the nineteen-thirties and in particular its use of documentary photography and self reflection (through diary-writing) as a means of recording and interpreting working-class lives. This proposal re-visits the Mass-Observation 'Worktown' project in Bolton. This included the production by Humphrey Spender of a documentary photograph archive of people in Bolton engaged in everyday activities such as shopping and working. This unique and under-exploited element of the national Mass Observation archive is held by Bolton Museum and forms the starting point for the project's aim of investigating everyday community life today. The proposed research will focus on young people aged 14-19 of differing social and ethnic backgrounds and use social documentary photography to encourage them to develop their own representations of everyday life in their own communities. It aims to deploy photographic representation to enhance cultural awareness and community cohesion. In this context, community cohesion refers not only to the existence of strong social and cultural relationships between young people of differing ethnic backgrounds but also to relationships between young people and older people. Community cohesion remains an important social and political issue in Bolton as it does nationally. Bolton Council was one of the first local authorities to recognise the importance of building cohesion between its many diverse communities and has implemented a number of initiatives to encourage greater understanding and tolerance between communities.
The student will be based at Bolton Museum and will use the Spender Worktown collection as a base from which to enable young people to produce their own photographic record of Bolton in the twenty first century. A number of organisations which work with young people - for example schools, Bolton Connexions and Bolton Lads and Girls Club - will help to create and maintain links between young people and the project. It will seek to facilitate reflection on what 'home' means to them in Bolton today and so draw upon the aspect of MO which captures a sense of place and belonging. However it will differ from Spender's approach as rather than a reliance on a 'professional' photographer, the student will support and enable participants to create their own everyday images of twenty-first century Bolton They will then meet on a regular basis to analyse the resultant images- looking at similarities and differences within their own 'group'. In the final phase of the project the various cohorts of young people will share their images with members of the other groups. In collaboration with Bolton Museum, exhibitions of the photographs will be produced for display within neighbourhood community public venues around the town. This is consistent with other community arts-activity in Bolton and is an aspect of the work which has been welcomed by those organisations collaborating in the research.The student will, through enabling the community impacts outlined immediately above, produce, implement and evaluate a methodology appropriate for social documentary photography projects seeking to engage culturally diverse cohorts of young people in community contexts. Beneficiaries of the research will be the young participants, academic and practitioners working in community arts and Bolton Museum through the enhanced community use of a major yet currently under-used collection. A further outcome will be the enhanced profile of the Humphrey Spender Worktown Collection as a documentary photographic archive with sig

Planned Impact

The project will have intrinsic and instrumental impact.1 It will give the young participants the opportunity to learn about the history of the town in which they live. Modern Bolton is different to the town photographed for Mass Observation. The images displayed in the Museum's 'Worktown Gallery' document an archetypal northern industrial town in the nineteen thirties. Bolton is now a post-industrial town from which traditional industries have all but disappeared and whose population is no longer predominantly white but comprises several culturally diverse communities. In many ways the Spender images will represent an unknown Bolton to the young participants. By enabling young people to reflect on continuity, change and diversity and by facilitating their use of social documentary photography to represent their own everyday lives, the project aims to deepen their awareness of the ways in which cultural difference is mediated through everyday life. It will provide space for them to reflect on their everyday lives and will provide participants with skills in digital photography. Those involved will see their art-work displayed in public settings.
Instrumentally, the project will facilitate the coming together of diverse groups of young people to discuss the images of their own everyday lives and will afford insights to the lives of others. Like many northern towns Bolton demonstrates patterns of demographic divisions across ethnic lines and was recently the locale of a demonstration by the English Defence league. The proposed participatory project has the potential to address concerns about social division by developing links and networks between young people of differing ethnic and social backgrounds. It will contribute to community cohesion and will present the Museum as a culturally relevant and welcoming place to young people to whom it may currently seem alien. Its community impact will extend beyond the participants through a public exhibition of the work produced by the participants which will encourage young and adult residents of Bolton to reflect upon their own experiences of life in Bolton. The exhibition will be displayed in the Museum and community venues. In order to ensure that as many local people as possible will benefit from the research we will build upon the University's established links with the local media. We will publicise the project through newspapers and local radio. We anticipate that this will generate a wider discussion on everyday life in Bolton and on the changes and continuities in the town's heritage over the decades.
The project will enable the development and critique of a methodology that can be deployed by other practitioners seeking to use historical images to create contemporary awareness and identity. It will inform professional practice in the design and implementation of participatory arts projects across ethnic and cultural divides. Several schools in Bolton have indicated a preparation to engage with the project, notably Harper Green School, a specialist Art College.
The project will lead to an increased use of the Museum and the Spender collection. In particular, the display of the photographs produced is likely to increase visits to the Worktown Gallery in which the Spender photographs are exhibited amongst socially disadvantaged young people and their families who tend to be under-represented in their use of the Museum.
Other museums and policy makers in both the arts and in community regeneration and sustainability will benefit from the dissemination of the research. This will be achieved through various means which will include a conference presented jointly by the Museum and the University on the use of social documentary photography with young people in community arts-based interventions, reviewed publications and presentations at external conferences.

1. T. Joss, New


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