One of the major strands of Covid-19 Reflections was to engage with underrepresented communities. The resulting work by photographers Ciara Leeming, Tadhg Devlin and Sam Ivin is now making its way into the public realm, and cropping up in accessible spaces to ensure the voices they captured are heard
Members of the public viewed photography and testimonies from members of the Gypsy and Traveller community, rural inhabitants, and carers at Grosvenor Shopping Centre in Chester earlier this month.
The work has been produced in partnership with the Open Eye Gallery but displaying it in this setting means it may reach a broader audience than in a gallery setting.
Irene, Lizzie and May were three Gypsy and Traveller women whose experiences were highlighted in the exhibition.
“My daughter recently took me to the bingo for the first time in three years, to get me out of the house, because the fear is still there with Covid,” Irene was quoted saying. “She’s trying to work on that fear, well I am myself, but with the two of us we might be a bit stronger with beating the fear.”
“I worked with contributors on a one-to-one basis – mainly within their homes, and in one case running creative sessions in a school,” Leeming explained of her year spent with women in the Gypsy and Traveller community for her project. “Over multiple visits and copious cups of tea, we discussed their lives and recent experiences.”
One common theme that emerged from this time was how acutely the dire shortage of culturally appropriate accommodation impacts on communities with a heritage of nomadism. Around three-quarters of the community now live in housing – often due to a lack of other options.
Shoppers in Chester read how this affected Lizzie, who was diagnosed with terminal metastatic breast cancer in 2022.
“I do think I’d be more comfortable living on a [Traveller] site,” she said. “I wouldn’t be so lonely. I wouldn’t like to say I’ve died in a house, I’ll be honest with you.”
May’s experience was similar, having moved into a house after breaking a hip during lockdown.
“When I lived on a site, all the women would gather,” she explained. “The hardest thing now is that I have no place to go and no neighbours to visit.”
These stories of honesty and bravery can be read in full in Leeming’s zine, Got Through It, which is available for digital download. A QR code on shop hoardings linked passersby to it, giving a unique insight into this often maligned culture and hopefully encouraging empathy and understanding.
Pages from Got Through It, Ciara Leeming's zine highlighting the experiences of Gypsy and Traveller women and girls during the pandemic. Download it here.
Shoppers also learned how those living in rural communities coped during lockdown. Alongside Devlin’s atmospheric photographs of him and his land, Frodsham farmer Graham Warburton’s quotes highlighted how, although much changed during the pandemic, the seasons stayed the same. Warburton shut the farm gates but carried on as normal in the Spring of 2020.
“We just kept busy, which was good because a lot of people were just sat in the house. It doesn’t do you any good that, does it?”
Viewers could then scan a QR code, linking them to Warburton’s full story.
Jonathan Fell, CEO of Ice Cream Farm in Tattenhall said he felt extremely lucky to be in the countryside during the pandemic.
“We did have that space and you were constantly thinking about people who didn’t have a garden. How would they handle it?”
Sam Ivin's lively and colourful portraits of carers were also on display. Ivin worked with adult and young unpaid carers, meeting them through supporting charities Carers Trust and Cheshire Young Carers and delivering a series of photography workshops. The images were each decorated with key quotes from the participants, reflecting their experience over this time.
“It feels like we’re almost forgotten,” carers Julia and Laurie were quoted. “We’re like a secret army of people and there’s millions of us. And we’re doing this very valuable work because we want to, often because we have no choice and because it matters.”
Sue, who cares for her mother, reflected on her deterioration since the start of the pandemic.
“For one of my grandchildren, my mum knit this octopus with spiral tentacles. I can’t believe she did that three and a half years ago. She can’t do anything now.”
On 29th September another incarnation of the Lost Voices exhibition will move to the Open Eye Gallery on Liverpool Waterfront where it will stay until Christmas. But, in the spirit of ensuring the work is accessible and viewed by members of the public who wouldn’t necessarily enter the gallery itself, the images and quotes will be displayed on exterior walls and the cafe area.
And on 23rd October Leeming, Devlin and Ivin will join other artists and participants in the Covid-19 Reflections programme at a sharing event at Theatre Porto in Ellesmere Port. The day will offer an opportunity to draw the different strands of the project together under one roof and reflect on it together.
Left to right: photographers capturing Lost Voices, Ciara Leeming, Tadhg Devlin, Sam Ivin
See the Lost Voices exhibition at the Open Eye Gallery 29th September-23rd December. Images from Grosvenor Shopping Centre by Rob Battersby.