Work produced by Novus learners from HMP Risley and HMP Thorn Cross as part of an innovative photography project with Open Eye Gallery will be showcased at an exhibition at the Liverpool gallery this month (December).
Titled, Restricted Views - Creative Outlooks, the exhibition will display the programme of work created during the project, reflecting the photographic collaboration between artists Hafsah Naib and Simon Bray, and Novus learners.
Combining the skills of socially engaged photographers with the life experiences of both learners within prison settings and their families, the programme explored how photography and creativity can be used as a tool for self-expression, to enhance family relationships, as well as learning new skills to aid rehabilitation.
Sarah Hartley, Operational Lead for Creative Arts, Enrichment and Families at Novus, said: “This was a completely new concept and what has been achieved across both projects is incredible. The project enabled us to push boundaries and create something innovative, all while navigating the ever-changing landscape presented by the pandemic.
“The learners committed themselves to the project and were actively engaged throughout. As a creative opportunity it provided a space for self-expression, a new way of exploring their approach to tasks and an opportunity to develop new skills. Creative projects such as this not only support learners’ wellbeing and mental health but can help them re-engage with education and build a positive future.”
As a creative opportunity it provided a space for self-expression, a new way of exploring their approach to tasks and an opportunity to develop new skills.
The project at HMP Thorn Cross was led by artist Simon Bray. Over a nine month period, learners explored what role photographers and photography plays in society today, and what visual stories they may want to tell. The men used photographs to spark discussion, photographing objects and spaces around them and engaging with personal family images.
Each participant went on to curate their own selection of final images to be shared within the exhibition. Collectively the images produced show their journey, not only in the development of their technical photographic skills, but also in their ability to find and shape meaning in imagery to tell poetic stories. Their work reflects issues of the past with aspirations of the future.
Simon Bray commented: "The men are the observed, they are watched in a way that constrains them, restricts both their physicality and psychology. It was fascinating to grant them the chance to be observers, the opportunity to see in new ways and to see themselves in new ways. I wanted to get to know them without any preconceptions, to allow them to present themselves to me as they saw fit and it's been a privilege to share space and ideas together. I hope it gives them a chance to see and be seen in a new light."
Two men who participated in the project at HMP Thorn Cross shared their thoughts on the project.
“I was given the opportunity to do something so different from the prison regime and try something outside of my comfort zone. The highlight was sharing the experience with my family member.”
“It was the highlight of my prison sentence. I’ve discovered art in jail and it shapes my day now. I loved the fact that the workshops were about ways of seeing rather than just technical info.”
Hafsah Naib’s collaboration with men at HMP Risley began in Spring 2020, with a pilot project. Due to the constraints of the Covid-19 pandemic, the project was adapted to offer learners the opportunity to engage through in cell packs and activities. Hafsah designed individually tailored and adapted resources which enabled the men to explore cameraless photographic techniques.
Hafsah Naib reflected: “Working with the men over 18 months through a global pandemic, national lockdowns, prison protocols and systems on a photography project where I couldn’t be in person or use cameras was a unique challenge! Given the pandemic provoked so much soul searching, it was obvious that I would go back into photography itself, it’s origin and early life, it’s tradition and canon and in the process I rediscovered my childhood fascination with it as an art and science.
“The cyanotype process gave the men and I a sense of discovery, wonder and insight so much so that by the end they actively saw themselves as artists or scientists or a combination of both, which in itself recreates one of the critical discourses around photography and its relationship with truth or objective reality.”
The works produced showcase the creativity and adaptability of everyone involved, and highlight how a different way of engagement can open up opportunities for individual narratives to flourish.
Open Eye Gallery’s Head of Social Practice, Liz Wewiora shared, “When we embarked on this collaboration with Novus, we knew we would be learning ourselves along the way about the ethics, limitations and challenges of delivering a photography project within prison settings. What has been fascinating to witness was not only the adaptations both artists and learners made to create work within this context but also in the additional limitations which covid-19 brought. In many cases the additional barriers opened up new ways for the men to express themselves, addressing their restricted views head on, with alternative and creative future outlooks”
The exhibition is open from Wednesday 1 December to Monday 13 December at Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool and showcases a selection of work from all of the participants involved.
Thanks to funders Arts Council England project grants and Paul Hamlyn Foundation Trust.