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Jaskirt Boora

This interview was originally commissioned by Open Eye Gallery as part of the Socially Engaged Photography Network. Open Eye Gallery invite producers and photographers working in the field to get together to discuss their current projects for the A Spotlight On… series. You can see the original interview here:

Dr Jaskaran Singh Mavi, Jaskirt Boora, Birmingham Lockdown Stories – All photographs are displayed with kind permission of the artist
©Jaskirt Boora

I spoke to socially engaged photographer Jaskirt Boora about her latest project Birmingham Lockdown Stories. Boora describes the process of working through lockdown and how people and stories fuel her work

Sara – I want to ask you about your current project, where you collect stories of lockdown from people of Birmingham and you are photographing them as well as giving workshops. How are you getting on with the project?

Jaskirt – The project I’m working on with Grain called Birmingham Lockdown Stories should be completed by mid-October. Grain had a national open call, which I think anyone around the country could apply to. But I think because they have such a big volume of people applying, they ended up commissioning several series of commissions. So, one was the national urban core, and one ended up being the seven additional Birmingham Commission, which mine was a part of. At the moment I’m in the first draft of the book that I’ve made and hopefully that should be finished by 12th of October that is the deadline. 

I’ve been focusing on different areas of Birmingham, so I’ve been trying to get a cross range of people. Diversity is really important in my work in terms of different ages, ethnicities and genders. One of the things Grain asked me to do was to try and get a person from each ward of Birmingham (out of the 10 wards). So, I’ve also been looking to get a real flavour of how people from Birmingham have been coping.

So you do interviews with them as well as photographing them?

Well, yes and no. It was more of a conversation. With each shoot I did, it was at least half a day I spent with them. We’d start off with having really long conversations about their experiences of lockdown. And just talking really. We talked and then we would work around the area of their choosing. It was more of a collaborative portrait in that we kind of walked around whatever location they have chosen and tried to pick the best light and best location that kind of summed up their lockdown experience. There was an option to do a photography workshop as well as submitting their work. Some of them took up the option to do the photography workshop and only a couple of them have contributed work though from those workshops. And then the other option was if they’re already creating work or they had some, which were part of their narrative of lockdown, they sent me those images. Some of them contributed sketches and drawings that they made during lockdown.

It was a mixed bag, so some people gave content that they have already been producing and some people made new content. The photography workshops I did were focused on composition and lighting and then creating the narrative.

Bob and Alison, Jaskirt Boora, Birmingham Lockdown Stories – All photographs are displayed with kind permission of the artist
©Jaskirt Boora

So this project will be turned into a book?

Yes, that is what I’m working on. Because of the amount of content I’ve got with the stories, the portraits and the content that they’ve contributed, it kind of made sense to put it together as a book. I’m in conversations with Grain at the moment, and we’re putting this together. I’ve sent them the first draft and we’ll see where it goes from there, whether it will be a digital kind of publication or a physical publication I’m not sure yet.

Can I ask you about your engagement with Birmingham Crisis Centre, was this before you started this project or have they intertwined?

It coincided with getting the commission with Grain. So originally, I applied for the Grain commission, and then then emailed out that they’ve got 200 applications and in my head I thought well I’m not going to get that. I decided to volunteer at the Birmingham Crisis Centre. And then when I had already started volunteering there I got the commission from green as well. I basically worked on them at the same time, so to speak, although they are separate projects.

Have you been influenced by your own experience of lockdown to start this project, or did you start your lockdown project because of the commission?

My experience with lockdown definitely influenced my application for the Grain commission and for volunteering for the Birmingham Crisis Centre. The biggest thing in my own personal practice I’ve been looking at is trying to become more socially engaged, so running workshops and thinking about the authorship of the content I produce, so it’s not just my perspective but it’s a collaboration of work. When the Grain commission came about, one of the things that they were looking for was community and togetherness, which was the thing that really struck me because during lockdown that was one of the things I experienced – a lot of good neighbourliness and community. I’ve lived where I live for the last six years but I didn’t really know many of my neighbours. I knew a couple of them, but through the VE street party we had socially distanced. I’ve got to know pretty much my whole street, and also because every day I was going for a walk with my kids just around the block I just kept bumping into the same people that also had kids or, that lived on the street opposite or whatnot. This influenced the Grain commission in that I wanted to share that feeling of that feel-good factor of good neighbourliness and community. I also wanted to spend a lot of time with people to get to know them and spread that kind of goodwill and also had that experience of a couple of neighbours on my street who hadn’t really had any contact with anyone. I thought that sense of loneliness probably exists in a lot of places. For the Birmingham lockdown stories I wanted to let people have the opportunity to talk and not feel so alone in this kind of situation. In terms of the work I did with the Birmingham Crisis Centre, that was very much born out of frustration and anger of what was going on with the death toll of COVID and then also the Black Lives Matter movement, and my frustration of not being able to do anything about these things. At the time I wasn’t really teaching because it was six weeks holidays, and I wasn’t really coming into college when I was teaching. My interaction with people was really low and I just felt like I wasn’t doing anything worthwhile.

So, I just wanted to do something positive and feel like I was doing something good in the world amongst all the doom and gloom. I reached out to the Centre just to volunteer there and see what I could do. And it was them that suggested to me to do the photography workshops that I ended up doing about 10 weeks of workshops with the women there. At the moment it’s paused because they’ve had to go into lockdown in the refuge because someone tested positive. I haven’t been able to go there for the last couple of weeks. 

Where we’re at with the workshops for the women, they’re using arts and crafts so they’re drawing, painting, stitching into the portraits that we’ve collaborated on so that needs to be done in person really. 

Did you see any changes during these 10 weeks about their relationships or expressing themselves? 

It was really interesting because when they first started off, they were quite closed, in terms of talking about their own experiences of what they’d experienced not just in lockdown but obviously they fled a really violent situation to be in a refuge. At the end of this initial six weeks, however, they were willing and open to share their stories, collaborate and make portraits of each other. So, for me that was really exciting because I wanted to empower their voices and them to feel like they could tell the stories.

They’ve had negative traumatic experiences in their life, so I’m hoping that by doing some of the workshops they’ve started to come out of their shell a lot more. And I’m hoping they can start to see the value in the work that they’re producing. Originally, they used disposable cameras and they shot their life in the refugee centre, and then we did some Japanese bookbinding and sequencing of their images that they collated. 

It’s the first time I’ve done something like this with women from the refuge and I’m still figuring out the best way to empower their voices but also get across that positive impact for them. It’s definitely a learning curve process for myself as well. 

I saw that you mainly worked with documentary and portrait photography and recently started to develop a socially engaged practice?

I used to do a lot of collaborative portraits, but I suppose the body of work I did a couple years ago that was exhibited at the Blast! Photography Festival 2019, which was a body of work on my family. And really, that was the kick-starter for me thinking more in a socially engaged practice, because I was shooting portraits of my family members but I was getting them to write their own personal histories, and then obviously collating all photographs that they chose to be part of their story and narrative. I feel like the lockdown stories and the work I have been doing with the women’s refuge have taken it further.

How did you develop your socially engaged practice?

Making the work for the photo festival helped me think more wider, in terms of how I create a narrative for researching and just seeing work exhibited at the photo festival was massive for me. The Girl Gaze exhibition especially inspired me as the work was very much narrative led and collaboratively in terms of the participants collaborating to make the images. I think I started to see more socially engaged practice and that really has really opened my eyes in how I can do this. It struck me as a different way of approaching photography to empower people.

There’s more to it and more to me taking portraits and it actually does mean personally as well. I think the more I’m maturing the more I’m thinking about what kind of practice I want to have. I want it to be something that creates positive changes. 

Elayne, Jaskirt Boora, Birmingham Lockdown Stories – All photographs are displayed with kind permission of the artist
©Jaskirt Boora

Can I ask how did you get into photography and how did you develop your style? 

I’ve done a digital mixed media degree that included communication, culture and media. I’ve never done art or photography before my second year, when we had a photography course. I just fell in love with the module. And it was really from there, I ended up picking up a camera and I loved it. I did a series of work on women’s football when I was at university, and that continued when I left. I also did a body of work on British Asian musicians which started at Uni but actually I got funding from the Arts Council after I left the university.

I suppose I was always interested in portraits and people and their stories. I’ve always really enjoyed talking to people as I like finding out about what makes people tick. I like different stories about different subject matters. For instance, the women’s football work I’ve done, I played a lot of sports and I love football and at the time, going back 12 years, women’s football was massively underrepresented. So, with that body of work I really wanted to highlight the gender inequality of women’s sport.

So how my work progress changed, I suppose it was a lot more portrait and documentary led before and now trying to further expand it so it’s more collaborative. And there’s more dimensions to the narrative that’s being told than just my perspective.

I also saw that you are using medium format for your photos, how does that shape your practice?

The reason I use it rather than digital for most of my personal work is that I just have a completely different mind frame, because of the fact that I only have 10 shots on this film roll, each shot counts, because it’s expensive, but also it slows down my process of working. With digital you can just go and keep shooting hundreds of pictures.  I always take a digital camera with me and I’ll do my test shots on there, I will always take a digital camera with me and I’ll do my test shots on there. But for the actual portraits, I just love the look and the feeling of the final image with medium format and also in terms of a process of working. It completely gives me a different mindset and slows me down as a photographer as I think more carefully about the shot, the frame and the lighting.

Has your teaching been influencing your photography practice?

I have been incorporating my teaching experience and knowledge into workshops I’ve been doing. I’ve really enjoyed adding more socially engaged practice into my teaching practice and I kind of incorporated them. But a lot of my practical work on the workshops are also an impact in my teaching practice too. I wanted to create a positive change in society that’s essentially what I’m trying to do in my photography practice and this is also what I want to try and achieve with the students I teach so that they become well rounded human beings, not just good photographers. 

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