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Rebecca Lupton

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:

Hanane in her kitchen, for the ‘Heart and Parcel’ cookbook, 2019 – All photographs are displayed with kind permission of the artist
©Rebecca Lupton

I spoke with Rebecca Lupton – a Photographer, Socially Engaged artist and founder of The Mothers and The Mothers: Life in Lockdown. We talked about her photography journey, her amazing projects and life during COVID. This is her story:

I did a foundation course in Art and Design at Manchester Metropolitan University and I really enjoyed the photography side of it – working in the dark rooms and being quite playful with film. I decided to carry on at Met and do a photography degree there. While I was doing the degree, I started assisting local photographers in Manchester who were doing fashion and editorial type shoots.

Then I worked in a studio, which I absolutely hated, but I learned loads from working in an environment, where there are certain restrictions that you have to work with. 

When I left the studio job, I was thinking of going back to assisting again and after sending out a few emails to photographers, one of the photographers pointed out that my work is good enough and that I should go and work on my own. He gave me the kick that I needed to become a freelance photographer. So, then I just went out on my own, and didn’t really know what to do. I had some mentoring from a photographer called Len Grant, who was working on the kind of jobs that I wanted to do – more social documentary, illustrating stories, and meeting real people, getting out and about… He helped me through those first years. I also did a bit of volunteering at Redeye at that time, I was quite heavily involved with them for about three years. 

My first job was with the Guardian, and it was my dream job, but I also learned as well that in freelance work you can’t take anything for granted. I have started to realise that it was really important to have my own projects going on at the same time to keep up momentum of work and ideas going. So then, I would say I’ve always done my own projects.

I learned quite quickly that if you create your own work that you want to be commissioned for, then those commissions will come to you eventually. I started creating projects that were the kind of work that I didn’t know how to get commissioned to do – I just went out to meet people and asked if they’d be part of my project. The first project I did was in Levenshulme in Manchester, where I photographed independent business owners in a really multicultural area. It’s a unique place in the way that every single shop is owned by somebody from a different background and given nationality, and I wanted to show the diversity of Levenshulme. It was later featured as part of the Levenshulme Festival, a small local art festival, where lots of people saw those pictures and as a result, I was then commissioned to do quite a lot of work, similar to that to that project. 

Frances and Mia, from ‘The Mothers’, 2013 – All photographs are displayed with kind permission of the artist
©Rebecca Lupton

Soon after that I started a project called The Mothers on the advice of Mishka Henner, who said to me, at one point, I think the best work comes from a place where the photographer is really involved in it. And at that point, when I was trying to think of a new project I was thinking I’m just a mom, that is all I do at the moment. So I started The Mothers when I was pregnant with my second daughter and I have been running it for nearly 10 years now with around 220 women featured on the site . 

Originally, I would go and photograph them in their house, and then either I would interview them or they would answer the same questions set for everybody – exploring the theme of motherhood and what we all think it’s meant to be and the actual reality of it.

Since COVID, I had to alter the project as I have my children at home and we weren’t allowed in people’s houses anymore. Inspired by the Open Eye Gallery ‘Crossing Sector’ programme I shifted The Mothers into a socially engaged project, in which I teach women how to take photographs in their own homes. People taking part of the project are the ones creating the work. The Mothers: Life in Lockdown project started with an open call, then we created groups where we would meet on zoom, I would set tasks and introduce them to the work of other artists. It was also an opportunity to chat about life, how creativity, motherhood and pandemic is quite difficult, how we could overcome that and then just generally encouraging and supporting each other. They were also invited to contribute to a blog, which meant to give them space to reflect on how it is being a mom in lockdown.

I wanted to do it where there were a few different ways that women could get involved and it’s keeping the project very fluid. There was the blog and the project where people join more in depth and I would be guiding them as a mentor. I also created a hashtag on Instagram #motherslifeinlockdown, so women would be able to join in the project in a more easy and free setting.

The plan with it eventually is to make a book or magazine or some sort of exhibition but it’s so hard to know where we’ll be in a few months’ time. 

The idea of the project was always about giving women a voice and making them more seen and making it into a participatory project aligned perfectly with the initial kind of motivations of starting the project. 

It’s a pilot project – I’ve never done anything like this before, so I want to see what works and what doesn’t work, and then make decisions based on my findings in the future. And I’ve actually been commissioned to do my first job based on this pilot, so now I’m currently running a project on zoom with a group of new moms in Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire, where we’re exploring motherhood and photography within the lockdown situation. 

It’s been really interesting that the Open Eye programme adapted this project that I had and was really stuck with. It helped me to develop it and showed me that there’s this whole world of working (socially engaged, participatory photography) that I wasn’t aware of. While I have always had projects that have been working with organisations and groups of people to create artwork related to those people themselves, most often it’s been me making the artwork. And it was interesting in the ‘Crossing Sectors’ programme to hear about the differentiation between socially engaged photography and participatory photography. What I’ve done previously are projects in which I would get to know people and meet them in their place of work where I interviewed and photographed them. I would count these as socially engaged practice, but I don’t think I’d have known that it had a title before. I never knew how to categorise that kind of work. I would have always said it was social documentary photography, it was probably how I would have described it. Whereas this project that I’ve recently started is almost entirely participatory and socially engaged. I’ve hardly taken any photographs; it’s all been the people that I’ve been mentoring. I’ve just been curating it and showing them different ways to present or helping them with developing ideas and their own practice.

Working with people in this way I think it allows me to be more creative. It’s so interesting to see how the way you engage with people and the way you interact and encourage them brings out the best in them, the parts of them that they didn’t even know existed. I’m helping people and observing what they do, however, ultimately, they’re in total control of the work that they do. It feels very collaborative – we’re all involved and together we are creating something new. But it’s recognising that I can use my knowledge, and my experience to get the best out of them in this situation and to get them to do amazing things, which is really rewarding.

Through the ‘Crossing Sectors’ programme I also realised that while I felt that I don’t fit in into the typical photography world, I do feel that I fit in at the socially engaged art world. I love working with people and being surrounded by people and in a kind of lone wolf photographer world that can be quite difficult to navigate. 

Asha, commission by MIF creative, 2015 – All photographs are displayed with kind permission of the artist
©Rebecca Lupton
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