PftNE – Thoughts on a Project well done!

by John Cogan

It is now the custom that, at the end of any endeavour, you reflect and evaluate. It matters little whether that is a General Election or a photographic project. So, now the dust has settled a little, I shall attempt to put into words the impossible.

From the start, (back in late 2013) to now, the project became somewhat all-consuming. Like many projects, it started small with me approaching a few of the local “movers and shakers”. They were kind enough to agree and the demands placed upon them were minimal, yet the Director of the Sage put me on to Sir Thomas Allen, and from there life became interesting.

These initial forays were also solo efforts and this is where I came to the first momentous decision concerning the logistics of the project. Solo sessions were limiting. They were producing the kinds of results I didn’t want. Those early shoots were stiff and most of the images looked posed. This was partly my fault because I was new to portraiture and felt tongue-tied with the dual task of chat and snap… When it came to the big leap forward and the session with Sir Thomas Allen I needed a fellow photographer. This is when I asked Tony Griffiths to join me. Knowing Tony’s style and his approach I believed he would be the ideal companion. And so it proved. We were able to shoot very effective portraits at Durham University and of the Bishop of Newcastle, amongst others. At Durham, we completed three sessions in a day (Professor Christopher Higgins, the Durham University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Martyn Evans, Master of Trevelyan College and Sir Thomas Allen the Chancellor) and they proved to be the saviour of the project. Here were images of people involved in thought-processes and interactions that took them beyond the photo-session. The very fact that someone was talking with them and listening made for a more relaxed atmosphere and that came out in the final images.

[Read on]

From then on, whenever we could, a team of at least two would attend the sessions. Photographing the MP and shadow Equality minister, Sharon Hodgson, involved Angy Ellis. Her bold approach worked well to the point that one of her photographs became Sharon’s public face.

If Sir Thomas Allen was the first photographic turning point, the second was a visit to The Alnwick Garden to photograph Her Grace, the Duchess of Northumberland. Obtaining permission to photograph people, getting them interested in the project, was difficult back then. No one expected us to get permission from Her Grace. That was when Julie Ferry came on board. There were those who thought it was ridiculous to have several photographers replicating the same images. Not so! On that damp, chilly day I took few photographs. Tony and Julie worked away on the periphery as I listened to and talked with the Duchess. The “behind the scenes” photographs of that conversation are some of my most treasured images. Not only did we all have a good time but that guaranteed our first venue. We were to open at The Alnwick Garden at the behest of the Duchess.

A little while later, Bishop Martin of Newcastle offered us the Cathedral. Venue number two! We also had important subjects and a way of working. Back then, the feeling that the project would become something significant was beginning to manifest itself.

More people came on board. The team eventually grew to be fourteen. This took an enormous weight off my shoulders and brought in people with different styles. With team members willing to drive it meant we could visit further afield. With David Trout and Julie I went to Hexham to photograph one of the “quiet people”: Bryony Gibson. Bryony is a Deputy Lieutenant and had been Northumberland’s High Sheriff.  Leaving, after the shoot, all three of us talked enthusiastically about her kindness and humanity, she was committed to the project, the first to raise money for us.

With some money coming in and photographers giving up their time and resources we were gathering strength and decided to build a website. Tony and Darren worked hard and once it was established this proved to be the next major development. Tony worked on a couple of galleries that illustrated the processes we employed and I would regularly update a “blog” that we called “The Story So Far”; a review of who we had photographed; when and where. Later, people would tell us that their first reaction to our request to photograph them was to be suspicious. One described it as: “…. fearing you would use the photographs to exploit us!” Looking at the website assuaged that fear.

With the help of a couple of generous benefactors and the money from Bryony’s anonymous donor we had enough to pay for both the printing of the panels and buying five free-standing display boards. Fortunately for us The Alnwick Garden had recently bought an impressive set of free-standing boards which meant we were all set for the first exhibition. They also offered us a venue many photographers would have killed for: The Pavilion. Spacious and full of light, it allowed us the scope to display the boards, designed by Jed Wee, to perfection. When it came to the opening, we were humbled by the number of people who accepted our invitation. The event was catered for by The Garden and opened by The Duchess. Dr John Clarke gave the vote of thanks and Julie presented the bouquet.

Looking back over the whole process, it has filled my life with events and meetings that are rich and full of kindnesses. The people who have committed to the Project, regardless of which side of the camera they are on, are wonderful. Every shoot was an adventure. Some venues were a wee bit different: the flat roof of a Northumberland Middle School for instance, or puffin-tunnelled Coquet Island.

The photographic team have taught me so much about the potential of photography and been generous in sharing their time and friendship. Everyone of them (regardless of how often they could come on a shoot) was represented in the exhibition and I proud be one of this “Band of Brothers”. I have been guided by the wise council of Tony Griffiths, Peter Walton, Dr John Clarke, that Zen Master of photography Joe Grabham, the razor-sharp mind of Jed Wee, the gentle kindness of Julie Ferry and Joanne Coates, the photographer of slender opportunities David Trout, and those lens-masters: Ian Stafford; Neil Maughan; Joanne Grey; Angy Ellis and Trai Anfield… without their dedication and support this project would not have reached its successful conclusion. Thank you one and all! And here’s to the next Portraits Project!

One final memory: it was fortunate that Dr John could be with Joanne Coates and me in the Sage on the Saturday we photographed the Paralympian Stephen Miller. They both have the same make of power chair. To see them cavort across the floor of the Sage competing to perform the best wheelie and a race to the door will remain with me forever. Dr John is justifiably proud of the fact that he won!

John Cogan ARPS