An interview with the photographer, Jim Grover
How did this project come about?
Bishop Christopher of the Southwark Diocese has been a supporter of my work since encountering my first photo-story, back in 2016, telling the story of the life of my local vicar, the Revd Kit Gunasekera, here in Clapham, south London. It resulted in my first exhibition: Of Things Not Seen.
On a Friday morning in October 2017, Bishop Christopher joined me in Café Delight, a café on Clapham High Street and the subject of another of my photo-stories. As we enjoyed our traditional English breakfasts, surrounded by regulars who wouldn’t usually expect a visit from the Bishop, he asked whether I might be interested in a commission to create a photo-story to celebrate the 25th anniversary, in 2019, of the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Church of England.
I didn’t need much persuasion! At the time I was immersed in another project, so I didn’t start work on this particular story for another 12 months.
How did your interest in documentary photography come about?
I’ve always been interested in taking photographs but a few years ago I decided I want to focus on telling stories with my pictures and to become a documentary photographer. It’s a totally different skill from taking single images and I am still learning!
I like to immerse myself in a story over a long period of time so that I can really get under the surface of it and explore all of its characters, themes and narrative. I am very selective in the stories I choose: I want to tell stories that haven’t been told before, ‘to make seen the unseen’; I want to celebrate local people, their everyday lives, and the differences they make in their communities; and I look for ‘an angle’ for my stories, something that will make it newsworthy, for example an anniversary or something that has never been photographed before.
Here Am I met all my criteria. The story was timely, not just because of the anniversary but also because of ongoing conversations around themes such as the empowerment of women and gender diversity in the workplace.
This is my fourth exhibited photo-story. In 2017 and 2018 I spent 10 months documenting the lives of the ‘Windrush’ generation in south London; the resulting exhibition in May 2018 attracted 13,000 visitors and generated significant media interest (www.windrushportraitofageneration.com). The story was timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary, in June 2018, of the arrival of SS Windrush, which brought the first migrants from the West Indies to Britain.
Before that I documented a year in the life of our local vicar in Of Things Not Seen (www.ofthingsnotseen.com), and everyday life on my local high street, 48 Hours on Clapham High Street, (www.48hoursonclaphamhighstreet.com).
So my interests are very broad! If I had to describe myself it would be as a social documentary photographer.
How did you go about creating ‘Here Am I’?
At the outset we decided to focus on twelve women working across the Diocese, chosen to reflect a breadth of experiences, personal circumstances, backgrounds, and parishes (which range from a leafy country village to a prison).
Little did I know the enormity of the challenge that I had signed up to! After 8 months of photography I have undertaken some 80 photography sessions, ranging from full days to a few minutes!
At one level there was the logistical challenge of spending enough time with twelve women, working across south London, to get to know them, earn their trust, and to photograph their ministry and to record their stories. But there were additional challenges too. The twelve all essentially do the same job, so how would I create variety in the imagery? And I had previously spent a year documenting the ministry of my local vicar, so how was I going to bring something fresh to this story?
Recording audio stories is an important part of my documentary work. I have learnt that many people love to learn more about the subjects of my photo-stories. So in this case I sent the twelve women a set of questions in advance and then, over a couple of separate sessions, I recorded their responses. It’s a lot of extra work, especially the transcribing and editing, but I have found that it’s worth the effort. In this particular case I wanted to explore, 25 years on, what it’s like to be a woman in the Church of England. Has the ordination of women changed the Church? Do you feel equal to your male counterparts? Do you feel you have to prove yourself? Do you feel women bring anything distinctive to ministry? What lies at the core of your faith? The fascinating and frank perspectives, which make up their ‘Personal Stories’, are available to read in the exhibition gallery and will, in due course, be available on-line at the exhibition website (www.here-am-i.com).
I’ve distilled the ministry of each of the twelve women down to, mostly, six exhibition images. I find editing, typically hundreds of, images down to a final set of images, that also work together as a group, incredibly challenging and always seek curatorial advice from people I trust.
How do you work with your subjects?
I just ‘tag along’! I simply ask them to do whatever they are planning to do as though I am not there. Of course that’s easier said than done, especially at the outset, but I always find it interesting how quickly my subjects get used to me being around and, effectively, ignore me...which is exactly how I want it!
If I am amongst groups of people then I will ensure that everyone knows who I am and what I am up to (also giving individuals the option of not appearing in a photograph, or telling me afterwards they don’t want any photograph to be used with them in it). I always respect the privacy of individuals, but have found that it’s quite rare for someone to ask me not to include them in a photograph.
I try to be as unobtrusive as possible. I never use flash, however poor the natural light, and use Leica cameras which are both discrete and quiet. My preference is to tell my stories with black and white images (and Bishop Christopher requested that this story be in black and white), so I convert the colour files. This photo-story was photographed almost exclusively with the Leica Q and SL cameras; I find them terrific for this sort of work.
Where there any memorable moments?
The whole experience has been memorable. Spending time with these remarkable women has been a privilege. Witnessing them taking their ministry out into their communities, each in their own and distinctive way, has been inspiring. Hearing them talk candidly about their faith, and the challenges and joys of their ministries, has been illuminating. And the way they have allowed me into their lives with such openness and trust has been humbling.
But there were a few special moments. Spending two days in a prison with Susie, a prison chaplain, was a totally new experience for me (and very challenging as I was not allowed to photograph faces of any of the prisoners or any locks or keys, even if in the background - quite a challenge in a prison!). Being able to join, and photograph, special moments in people’s lives, a wedding, baptism, or funeral for example, is always a privilege. And spending time with Ann, who has given a remarkable 72 years of her life to ministry, was especially inspiring.
And then there are some moments I’d rather like to forget! I managed to slip a disc in my back whilst photographing this project, which put me out of action for a few weeks. And I also managed to lose an uninsured camera...quite how, I’ll never know.
How can people see the photo-story?
The launch exhibition will be staged at the Oxo Gallery on London’s south bank in the summer of 2019. It’s a great location and this will be my third exhibition in this gallery in the last 3 years. The exhibition runs from May 21st to June 2nd, 11am-6pm daily, with free admission.
There is a catalogue that contains the complete exhibition, including the information and text panels in the gallery, which can be purchased in the gallery.
And lastly there is an exhibition website with more information, sample images, and ‘Personal Stories’ (www.here-am-i.com).
Having immersed myself in two different photo-stories, and staged two major exhibitions over the last 2 years, I need a break! I always under-estimate how enormous an undertaking it is to do this sort of work, especially when there are 12 separate stories to be told, a catalogue to be produced, and an exhibition to be printed and staged.
But I know I will be creating new stories, and already have some ideas, so watch this space!