Relationships aren’t made from behind a lens. Social documentary photojournalist Ella Carman looks beyond images to create photos that go deeper. That could explain why her images connect with people, drawing them into the stories of those she works with and leaving a lasting impact.
Ella is commissioned by A Level Playing Field, a project, documenting the lives of those who live on a Druids Heath estate.
“The response from the actual community has been good,” says Ella. “It was a little edgy at first. I think they feel like they’ve had so many people come in and try to do things like this and change things a little, and it’s never worked.
“But people have warmed to me because I do really make an effort – I’m there all the time. I go into lots of different areas and I listen to people. I think that’s the big thing – listening; taking time. I don’t just pull my camera out, do what I need to do and bugger off – I’ll stick around.
When we chatted, Ella was not long back from an OAP luncheon and bingo to show support for local hero Pat.
“She runs the community centre on literally nothing,” says Ella. “I sit around, talk to people and hear them and listen to the elderly people about their side of things, listen to the mums. The hardest people to reach are young men, but actually, even they have come forward recently.”
One of Ella’s images from Druids Heath was part of an exhibition that marked the re-opening of the well-regarded Birmingham Ikon Gallery. Ella’s was one of the only pieces of photography and it sold almost straight away to a really nice couple, she says.
“It was a great space, and it was a nice place to take the parents and show them that I’d achieved something,” says Ella. The image also started some conversations. “There were a few moments of that ego-stroking, but at the same time, I felt there’s a platform for people who are actually interested in what’s going on here.”
“This is entitled Heath House and was entered into the Ikon Birmingham exhibition and sold on the first day.
“It features local school girl Niyla who’s mother Shanice has mixed feelings about living in Druids Heath having moved from Ladywood’s Lee Bank estate but has settled now that her mother has also moved onto Druids Heath.“
– Ella Carman
Ella got the little girl in the picture to the exhibition as well as giving her some of the money from the sale.
“I feel like a lot of people are saying in the area that people kind of parachute in, make money out of doing projects in the area and the people that live there don’t get anything out of it so I wanted to kind of turn that idea on its head a bit,” says Ella. “That’s what I feel, a picture has actually shone a light on the people.”
It’s been quite a whirlwind for Ella, from coming out of a hostel after having a breakdown, the achievement has been massive.
“The momentum is good,” she says.
She attributes that to putting herself out there, and having good mentors, like Jayne Murray – the community artist and project manager at Druids Heath.
It was 10 years ago that Ella started her BA in photography, but she had been taking pictures long before that. Growing up in a creative household – her dad was an art teacher – she found drawing and sketching was a bit laborious.
“Kaltun, from Druids Heath Do You Want to Stay project. A Sudanese single mother living in a high rise who has experienced difficulties with other tenants but is grateful for the flat and for the help she eventually found on the estate.
“Her story is online https://prospectors.org.uk/project/do-you-want-to-stay/ “
– Ella Carman
“To be a photographer, you’ve got to take pictures and you’ve got to shoot what’s in front of you,” says Ella. She was doing homelessness and addiction work around the city and the Hagley Road area, where she was living.
“I was travelling around on public transport after I’d lost my driving licence, so I was seeing things from a different perspective.” And it was the vista of fields and farms with tower blocks and pylons looming over them of Druids Heath that attracted her. “It’s so contrasting and quite magnificent.” There are fantastic sunsets as well, she says.
Fed up with running around the streets of Birmingham, Ella went to a tower block champions meeting. The meeting wasn’t on, but there was an exhibition, where she got talking to Jayne Murray, who got in touch a few weeks later about being a shadow photographer.
The estate has the notorious issues you’d expect in a sink estate, and that shabbiness that is so enticing to artists who are after ‘poverty porn’ and want to glorify the darker side of life.
Working with people
“I’m trying to avoid that by working with people directly – I think you need to add the story and their side of things,” says Ella Carman. Very quickly writing became part of her practice – part of painting a fuller picture of the people she photographs.
Ella has also worked with Liaison Diversion, which is a part of the NHS, and the people that come into contact with them through the criminal justice systems.
Perry Barr Custody Station, Birmingham:
“This is for my work on Liaison & Diversion Services, looking at the screening process that has been implemented to prevent vulnerable people slipping through the net after coming into contact with crime.
“The L&D staff there, headed by Jeneen, work hard to ensure they help individuals get the help they need and stop the revolving door of crime, poverty, substance misuse and homelessness that affects so many.”
– Ella Carman
“My colleague there, Matthew, works closely with individuals who are very vulnerable in some cases, and guides me as to whether there’s somebody that I should have a chat with first and I meet them have a coffee or get to know them a bit.
“I obviously use consent forms. I explain that prior to the interview, and they feel more comfortable that it’s going to where it’s going to be used, how it’s going to be used. The fact that it’s going to help other people potentially usually helps.
“I don’t push people, the story is always the most useful thing. I’m a photographer, first and foremost. But this isn’t about photography – it’s about the story. You can always take a photo of something that’s meaningful, or symbolic,” says Ella as she cites the work of Edgar Martins, who worked in HM Prison Birmingham, often using abstract images to portray the experience of the inmates.
“Ezekiel Hermon has been in the press after being left in a 12 story tower block in Druids Heath well after other residents have moved out.
“He is struggling to get appropriate accommodation to be able to have his children stay with him as the current ‘bidding system’ is leaving him with offers such as one bedroom high rise flats again and elderly residential homes.
“He is resisting the council, putting up a fight to have the right to appropriate accommodation.”
– Ella Carman
“You don’t have to stick a camera in someone’s face to represent them,” she says
“Making a career out of social documentary is quite a niche thing,” says Ella. “The kind of job that I do I think is important – it gives people a chance to be heard, a chance to be noticed, and a chance to be understood.”
Top image: “John Brown, 77. This was a personal project I made over 2019/20 after meeting the old man in a pub in Birmingham, he told me about the state of his flat and the bullying he encounters there. I made photoessay of his journey.
“I helped him get help from the council (which was very stressful and difficult), I got him access to correct health care and glasses and hearing aids, even hospital appointments to treat his arthritic knees. He needed a lot of help and his home was indeed awful and filthy.
“His tower block was being updated to comply with fire safety after the Grenfell disaster.
“I found it inappropriate that elderly people live alone in high rise buildings left in squalor due to ill health. I wanted to raise awareness of this issue.
“Despite my efforts, the social services did not do a great job taking over this case once I could do no more. I burned myself out and made myself ill.
“He wasn’t easy to help, I think he liked having me around as he was so lonely. I don’t think he engages well with the services trying with him now but there is only so much you can or should do. And this was a difficult pill to swallow but a valuable lesson.“
– Ella Carman
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