In 2019 the photographic artist Lāsma Poiša set up Snappy Valley, a photographers' group in the Yorkshire town of Todmorden, and it's proven a great way for residents to develop their creative photography style in a supportive and structured setting. Here Lāsma writes for Redeye about the experience and the results so far. Interspersed are some comments from participants, and there's a selection of the work at the foot of the page.
Snappy Valley is a community photography group based in Todmorden that seeks to engage the participants in developing a socially engaged photography project through employing educational strategies and developing individual as well as group creative practices. In contrast to social documentary where a photographer might portray a community on their behalf, a socially engaged photography practice involves working with a community collaboratively where the process of the project is as important as the visual outcome.
The project was launched in September 2019 and was mostly promoted through Facebook groups set up for Todmorden communities. It was aimed at people with an interest in photography and of any technical ability that were looking to gain a deeper understanding of the subject, improve their technical abilities as well as network with likeminded people and make friends. To date Snappy Valley has had four meetings and predominantly the group consists of people who have moved into the area recently. Snappy Valley participation is open to anyone, whether they own a camera or use a mobile phone to take photographs. The meetings take place on every second Tuesday of the month in the local pub, The Golden Lion. New participants are welcome to join at any meeting.
“I need that push and structure to take photos. I like the fact that it’s monthly, and that I can bounce ideas off everybody.”
The strategies employed within Snappy Valley are to encourage the participants to explore the world, or their experience and understanding of the world, through the medium of photography. In each session the group is presented with a slide-show deliberating the theme for the month which determines the nature of the assignment for the following meeting; starting with the subject of self-portraiture, followed by the ideas surrounding immediate and symbolic family, going on to community representation, photographing strangers and so on. The purpose of this approach is to guide the participants through the discourse of photography broadly, beyond the purely aesthetic quality of a photograph. The knowledge of the subject matter is composed gradually, turning from within – the self-portrait, to those around us – family and friends, and with each meeting considering themes further outwards from ourselves.
“Once you get to a reasonable level everyone says ‘your photos are great’ but actually there’s so much to learn from each other.”
The majority of participants have no formal photography education therefore the presentation deliberates the work of photographers usually considered within contemporary photography discourse such as Cindy Sherman, Elina Brotherus, Richard Billingham, Nan Goldin, Martin Parr, Tom Hunter, etc.. This approach provides an environment at which participants are able to engage in learning a specialist subject that otherwise would not be easily accessible to them. Looking at a collection of contemporary practitioners work and the many different approaches used by photographers to explore ideas, allows the group participants to broaden their perspective and consider how to communicate their own experiences through photography creatively.
“By being given assignments, it means I’ve got to go out and do stuff that I don’t normally do.”
Snappy Valley participants have the opportunity to show their homework at the start of each meeting where it is offered for a group critique. This method is useful as a tool for informally assessing the work as well as providing critical feedback. The sharing of the work also functions as a way of bonding, familiarising and getting to know each other as it gives an opportunity to share our stories through photography by referencing images that tend to be personal or relate to a personal subject matter.
“I’d totally lost my sense of creativity and wanting to learn about artists. To go back into this setting is really inspiring – it’s brought back that sense of curiosity about art and aesthetics.”
Typically, formal photography education is accessed either through educational institutions or through the arts organisations offering some level of engagement as part of their outreach programmes related to their current exhibitions. Providing free educational classes that consider contemporary photography offers this community an access to education that is grounded in academia which otherwise would not be easily accessible to them. By setting a curriculum that disseminates the work of contemporary photographers and considers a wider discourse of the subject matter, it encourages the development of the participants’ ability to contextualise their own practice as well as improving on their technical skills and aesthetics.
“I never went to university or college as a photographer. It’s very valuable to go over the basic skills that I took for granted.”
To date, Snappy Valley has managed to successfully engage a group of people with eight core members that have attended every meeting. The project is in its early stages, currently implementing the arts education approach as a strategy to prepare the group for working collaboratively in the future. The participation is not judged on technical ability, nor is it limited to those owning a camera; everyone can join the group as long as they have some interest in photography. Participants can use their phones to take photos or chose not to take photos at all, but rather participate in the critical debate. Furthermore, the group members are invited to contribute to the meetings by sharing a presentation of their own practice (professional, hobby or not strictly photographic) at the end of each meeting. I am hoping that with time Snappy Valley will create a body of work which artistically reflects the community we live in, and will also serve as a document of a particular time and a place.
Image credits: top of page, Nerissa Roberts. Below from top left: Hannah Murgatroyd; portrait of Lāsma Poiša; Dominic Reid.