PhotoEast photographer Gillian Allard creates a portrait of belonging
PUBLISHED: 14:23 25 May 2018
This year PhotoEast is looking at the theme of Belonging. As the photo-festival on Ipswich Waterfront gets underway Arts editor Andrew Clarke speaks to photographer Gillian Allard about a group of female refugees who have discovered they belong in Suffolk
For photographer Gillian Allard, winning Sky Arts Photographer of the Year, has been a springboard into a world of artistic freedom. It’s allowed her to quit her teaching job and develop her photographic portfolio.
One important outcome has been an invitation from PhotoEast to work with refugees and migrants to Suffolk and create a large-scale exhibition which will be on display at the newly opened La Tour Cycle Café on the Waterfront close to the DanceHouse.
For Gillian, the PhotoEast commission, in association with Suffolk Refugee Support, has re-energised her after the Sky competition, which she described as exhausting.
“I was approached in November by PhotoEast who said that they were looking for a photographer to work with the refugee community. The theme for PhotoEast is Belonging and they wanted an exhibition which explored what Belonging meant to people who had recently arrived in Ipswich.
“So we went to visit Suffolk Refugee Support and took with me a self-portrait of me which I had printed on wood, which was a bread board which I had used as a test piece and explained that I wanted to do a series of portraits on building materials and we came up with chip board because its very urban and I have always like the textured surface.”
She said that over the period of three months, she bonded with a wide range of women who have been forced to leave their homelands and are now making new lives, with their families, in Ipswich.
“It was surprising how quickly I got to know these wonderful people. We got on really well, you could have great banter with them and they enjoyed what I would call challenging conversation. I was supposed to teach them photography but it quickly became apparent that they wanted me to take the photographs, they wanted some nice pictures of themselves, so I took photographs and we sat them down and just talked about what belonging means to them.
“I worked really hard at getting to know them and they really responded and we went along to the International Women’s Day event and it became a relationship of trust and the more I gave to them, the more open they became.”
She realised that the reason that they were so fixated on getting beautiful portraits was that they had very few personal possessions, having had to leave all their belongings in order to make a new home in Suffolk.
“They were desperate to have something beautiful, something meaningful for them. I gave them their own version of my bread board self-portrait, I printed their portrait onto a small piece of wood and they loved them. They loved the aesthetic of it.”
Gillian says that the key to any great portrait is getting to know your subject. Her ideas for what has turned out to be a series of huge portraits printed onto chip-board hoardings evolved as she got to know the individual women as people and began to discover their stories and personalities.
“There was a real turning point when we went to the International Women’s Day and I realized that they were really pleased to see me and that’s when it dawned on me that they liked me as a person rather than as someone who took their picture. We all got a lot closer after then. Again it’s all about developing trust.
“I can honestly say that all the refugees I met, they are such lovely people, with such a positive outlook on life, despite all that they have experienced or witnessed.”
She says that the process of printing the pictures has worked better than she dared hoped. “I have always loved chipboard as a material, it works well with people’s faces and their skin tones. For some it appears their image is emerging from the material, it gives the pictures a sense of texture, or substance.
“It also gives an indication of their resilience. They are happy people, who realise that they are being given a second chance at life and they are seizing the opportunity with both hands. They are not going to waste it.”
After the portrait has been printed, on the larger-than-life-sized boards, she then gets the subject to write, in their native language, about themselves, about their life or their feelings and their thoughts on Belonging.
One of her subjects Humam wrote: “Syria, my love, Damascus, from you, the Mother of Civilisations. Get back your warmth and heal my deep wounds.”
The exhibition, called Tapestry, is on display in the La Tour Cycle Café until June 24.