Snappy Valley is a process-led community photography group that was formed in October 2019 in Todmorden, a West Yorkshire town in the North of England. The aim of the group was to engage the local community in a photography project with a view to develop participants’ individual creative practice as well as create a socially engaged and collaborative body of work. Lāsma Poiša, Photographer and Founder of Snappy Valley, previously wrote a Redeye blog post all about setting up the group back in the beginning of 2020, which you can read here. Lāsma now reflects on the past year of Snappy Valley, writing about how the group has progressed and changed during the pandemic.
Written by Lāsma Poiša
At the beginning of 2020 I wrote a short blog post for Redeye about setting up a community photography group, Snappy Valley. It was written during the early days of the project in a pre-pandemic environment and with an academic mindset whilst I was studying for my MA. Two years since setting up the project, Snappy Valley is a well-established community group that continues to successfully engage in a creative photography practice. Snappy Valley not only survived lockdown, but the group thrived, built meaningful relationships, and created a significant body of work forming a document that reflects a particular time and place.
I had contemplated setting up a photography group for a few years, but never found the confidence to do it. In 2019 I moved to Todmorden, a West Yorkshire town in the North of England, which coincided with my MA studies in Socially Engaged Photography at the University of Salford. I saw this as an opportunity; on one hand to develop a socially engaged practice to support my studies, but also to become part of the community by sharing my skills, experience, and expertise in photography. The aim of the group was to engage the local community in a photography project with a view to develop participants’ individual creative practice, as well as create a socially engaged and collaborative body of work. I teach photography as part of my job, therefore using an educational framework seemed like the obvious engagement method. Rather than taking pictures simply as a technical skill, I wanted to use photography as a tool for people to learn about broader issues and ideas, make connections and form relationships.
I placed adverts on Facebook groups dedicated to Todmorden Communities with an invitation to join a local photography group, where participation was open to anyone with any interest in photography. Within the first six months the project had engaged eight core participants, men and women aged 28-56 with little or no formal education in Photography. The group decided to name the project Snappy Valley, which both reflects the geographical location of Todmorden and is a playful reference to BBC TV series Happy Valley set in this area.
The initial Snappy Valley meetings took place monthly in the local pub. Each meeting explored a particular subject such as self-portraiture, family, community, strangers etc. Each subject formed a photographic assignment for the following meeting where the images were shared with others and opened for peer critique. Discussing the work allowed the group to learn more about one another as the photographs revealed personal stories of participants' lives and experiences.
I could have never imagined what this group would become when I first set it up. I had some ideas of how I wanted it to go, but learned quickly to let go of any preconceptions and let the process lead the way. This meant being attentive and responding appropriately to participants' interests, needs and their level of engagement.
No one could have foreseen a global shut down in March 2020. It could have been the end for Snappy Valley, yet the group grew significantly in these extraordinary circumstances. We had to change the way we were working and from here on all engagement had to be done online. The importance of the group had also gained a different meaning, as online meetings offered some sense of normality for participants during a time of disorientating collective uncertainty.
Throughout lockdown Snappy Valley met every Tuesday, using the online platform Zoom to facilitate the meetings. The first few weekly meetings served predominantly for wellbeing purposes, to come together in an online space and provide support for one another whilst adjusting to the new circumstances. During the following year, the group worked on capturing their personal lockdown experiences through photography, creating a wealth of images that reflected participants’ daily lockdown routines. The photographs became a starting point for conversations that allowed us to process and accept the unusual circumstances we found ourselves in.
One of my early ideas when planning for Snappy Valley was to invite local photographers to deliver talks for the group, but lockdown had made it impossible. However, now that all meetings were taking place online, I decided to approach both national and international practitioners to join our meetings and share their practice with the group. At the end of June 2020, we started hosting guest speakers, including Rosie Day from Oregon, US; Mario Popham, Megan Powell and Roxana Allison based in Manchester; Pål Henrik Ekern from Preus Museum in Norway; Layla Sailor in Hong Kong and Darren O’Brien in Sheffield.
The talks gave an in-depth insight into individual projects, covering a range of photographic disciplines including fine art photography, documentary, photojournalism, fashion and socially engaged practice. Having a direct conversation with the artists allowed participants to ask questions and learn about various working strategies, gaining a deeper understanding of the realities of working as a photographer professionally. The guest speakers also set mini projects for the group who responded to their practice by exploring these ideas locally. As a result, Snappy Valley created strong and considered images that reflected their own individuality, but also represented Todmorden and its residents. All visiting photographers dedicated their time voluntarily.
Since the easing of lockdown Snappy Valley have undertaken a new creative project, Group Therapy, which is their first collaborative expression. Typically, photography is an individual pursuit; a photographer, and their point of view. The challenge with group collaboration in photography is to overcome this singular perspective; how do we have a truly democratic image-making process? Through playful experimentation the group developed a way of working where every participant is a photographer, a model, a director and so on. Employing a performance-based approach encouraged the group to explore their creative process intuitively; they staged fictional scenarios, creating images filled with mystery and uncertainty. The name Group Therapy symbolizes the importance of the formed relationships within Snappy Valley and the therapeutic significance the group provided during the pandemic.
Community-building is one of the most important aspects of a socially engaged practice. We continue to lose communities during this age of individualism, we are encouraged to aspire to an idea that is contributing to the mental health crisis and the things we buy are not actually fulfilling. Finding common ground can seem harder than ever, the politics are divisive and social media is creating an anti-social society. The word “community” is commodified by corporations and used as a soundbite by property developers that displace and destroy communities. The landscape can appear bleak, and people are forgetting how good it feels to come together and to connect, and how wholesome it is to share.
I have learned a lot from my experience with Snappy Valley. Starting a new group and building a community around an arts practice is not an easy task; it requires commitment and dedication, and it takes a long time for people to build trust and form true relationships. The success of many community projects depends on voluntary citizen activism or funding, which can limit the level of commitment from people that have the skills to engage and grow communities. It can also be an incredibly enriching and rewarding experience. It brings me joy to see how close and comfortable we are when Snappy Valley are laughing together. I am filled with a real sense of achievement when I reflect on how we started off as strangers, what we have been through together, and the positive impact this experience has had on us all.
See more from Snappy Valley here:
Snappy members talk about process and collaboration: https://vimeo.com/607347683
Snappy Valley are currently being exhibited as part of the Collective Matters exhibition at Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool. The work is on show until the 29th November 2021. See more here: https://openeye.org.uk/whatson/collective-matters/