I became a freelance photographer in 1990 after an unrewarding stint in sales and marketing. I had no formal creative training, just the odd workshop here and there. I’d just turned 30 and thought I would give it a go.
The first year was tough despite taking every job I was offered. One day I’d be photographing shipping containers, the next it’d be newly-completed conservatories. But I loved it. I loved being my own boss and creating images.
At the beginning of the 1990s Manchester’s regeneration was kicking off and I wanted to say something about it. Who was behind it all? Who was making the decisions? So I set about photographing the architects, planners, council people, developers… the movers and shakers. That City Shapers exhibition, and the people I met because of it, kicked off my photographic career.
I became the photographer of new landmark buildings in Manchester and Salford. I captured the construction of the Manchester Arena, The Bridgewater Hall, The Imperial War Museum North and The Lowry. They were published as hardback books or as exhibitions that celebrated a new era of urban renewal.
These earlier projects were purely photographic for me. I collaborated on the written elements of the publications. But the storytelling instinct drove a desire to write. Yes, a photograph can say a thousand words, but sometimes you need another 50 to put it into context.
I signed up for a journalism evening class at the University of Manchester and started to write exhibition reviews for the Big Issue in the North. It was a good experience and I grew more confident to offer clients writing alongside my photography. In Full Time at Maine Road, the 2004 book that followed the demolition of Manchester City’s old ground, I included my own interviews with local residents for the first time.
My urban regeneration commissions were expanding and I was turning my attention to neighbourhood renewal, particularly in east Manchester. My photography and writing came together in a wonderful series of large format magazines – East – that told positive stories of a whole swathe of a city in flux.
But I was aware regeneration projects didn’t touch everyone. There was another story that I felt compelled to tell about the disaffected, those left behind. For many months this idea remained in my notebook without any clear focus until I started to talk to people about it. Before long I was introduced to Allan who took me on a tour of Gorton, behind hoardings and in woods: showing me all the places he had slept rough. My new project took off.
Two years later I published Billy and Rolonde: journeys with a heroin addict, a failed asylum seeker and Allan, a homeless alcoholic. I wrote in the first person, putting myself squarely in the stories. This was my journey as well as theirs. I paid for that book myself and, looking back, it was a springboard to everything that’s followed.
I used a similar approach with my first blog about a teenage mum from Manchester’s Moss Side. Her First Year followed Frances who had been on the child protection register for most of her life. She wanted better for her new baby.
With wonderful photographs of a child’s early development and candid conversations with the young mum, this blog built a huge online following. It won an award, which Frances and I collected together, and was published across nine pages in The Guardian Weekend Magazine.
Other blogs, and awards, followed. By now an extra direction had clearly emerged in my work. I was telling stories about vulnerable people – undocumented migrants, drug abusers, the homeless – and I found I could do it well. Giving voice to parts of our society at a time when they were politically denigrated was, and continues to be, important to me.
Most recently I have added sketching to the repertoire. It’s another medium through which to tell stories, all sort of stories, and I’m finding it suits my subject matter.
Since then I’ve completed lots of sketching projects for clients in regeneration, health, education and local government. You can see many of them on these pages. Each project demonstrates how effective writing and sketching can be as storytelling tools.
Over the years my clients have recognised and used my storytelling techniques in a wide range of projects. If you have something in mind feel free to call for a chat.