The demise of my relationship at the beginning of this year necessitated a move from a small two bedroom flat in Stoke Newington (with garden!) to a small one bedroom flat in Dalston (no garden. Weird neighbour; possible drug dealer). One of the several benefits of living alone, and the silver lining in the cloud of this disruptive but unavoidable change to my living arrangements, was that I could do what the hell I wanted with my new surroundings. I could paint the walls black; sleep on the sofabed and turn the bedroom into a man cave; buy a massive, 4K ultra HD flatscreen television; or install a tiny jaccuzzi where the bath should be. Obviously, I didn't do any of these things because I'm not mental. But the one thing I absolutely had to do was put up a frickin' great magnetic noticeboard on which to display work prints from my ongoing long-term project. And as someone who should not be allowed within fifty feet of any form of power tool, I am laughably proud of the fact that I made a good job of it without incident, and the thing is still up.
It's incredibly important to be able to see what you have when it comes to long-term projects. More to the point, it's important to be able to see what you need, but don't yet have. And the notice board full of work prints, as far as I can tell, is still the gold standard way of doing that. But what I have found is that several months after it went up, the board remains largely unchanged. I still stare at it from time to time but I don't really see the images any more. They have blended into the background of my living room like overfamiliar wallpaper, a kind of ever-present visual white noise goading me to action. "Find where the gaps are and go shoot them, you idiot!". But I ignore them. Find excuses. Busy myself with other things.
The truth is that I'm still not sure what I need. I sometimes think I know. Then I become unsure. Then I get paralyed by doubt. And I've realised I'm not that good at just wandering about looking or waiting for images, though for this project I've done a lot of that. I find it frustrating not having a definite goal in mind. I'm better with something specific to shoot, at which time I often find the unanticipated opportunities present themselves. But with this I don't know where to go next. What am I trying to say? What's the best way to say it? Is it just a load of shite? Are any of the pictures as individual images any good? And if not, does that matter if the project as a whole is coherent? How do I make it good? And, oh yeah, what do I need but don't yet have?
And then there's the other nagging question. The elephant in the living room. The thing that I think all documentary photographers should have at the forefront of their mind but very often don't. What's in it for the people I am photographing? If the project is about the haves and have nots, how can I portray those have nots without being exploitative? I think we're so often obsessed with the struggles that completing these projects present, in combination with the struggles of daily life, that we forget our responsibility to our subjects. Photography can make us selfish and egotistical. It can so easily descend into nothing but onanism! Susan Meiselas, who has often taken a very collaborative approach to her projects, talked about this recently in relation her Photography Expanded initiative. "We asked questions: Do you know who you are making photographs for? How will the photographs serve the communities they portray? Photographers often start with a very passionate engagement with their subjects, but an audience can easily get focused on the narrator, at the expense of the narrative. For a photographer to be effective, they must face both of these questions."
So that's something I'm also trying to be mindful of. In short, I have ground to a halt with this project. This is fairly common, apparently. Perhaps even inevitable. As my old mate Ian Teh, a man well qualified to advise me with three photobooks to his name, put it: "you've hit the wall. Now you have to focus on figuring out how to get over it rather than banging your head against it." Wise words. Not to be taken literally of course, because that bloody thing would've come crashing to the ground.