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A chit chat with… Ellie Stephenson

19 July 2023

Can you tell us how you came to be involved with Carpenters Estate and a little background information on the project?

The Carpenters Estate which sits alongside the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park has been subject to regeneration plans for more 20 years; during this time the community had changed a lot and it was facing further changes with a regeneration ballot in 2021. 

I got involved with the Carpenters Estate Archive Project before the ballot, through Source Partnership, who worked with the residents of the Carpenters as the Independent Advisor on the proposals for regenerating the Estate. Source had successfully applied for funding to create a Community Archive for the Estate, before it went through change, to capture the history and memories of the people that have called the Estate home over the years. I was the lucky one who got to create the project with the funding that was granted. 

The archive had an aim of creating a lasting space for anyone who had lived, or still lives on the Estate, to contribute memories and community stories. The archive project included:

  • Reminiscence workshops; where residents could come and share their memories and personal photographs with neighbours to spark conversations.
  • Photographic portraits of residents; which they creatively contributed towards the outcome.
  • Short films; with residents talking about their personal connections to the Estate. 
  • A booklet; which housed all stories and images.
  • Walking tours; which anyone could join and follow a map where you would scan QR codes around the estate and hear personal stories from the residents themselves of life on The Carpenters. 
  • Community Exhibitions: there were 2 exhibitions held at The Building Crafts College and The Dovetail community centre, for the community to come and see and hear their neighbours’ history of life on Carpenters.

Once the project was completed, all the photographs, films and stories were uploaded onto a purpose-built website, which can be a lasting archive for the community to reflect on and continue to contribute towards as the Estate goes through change.

Had you worked on any similar projects to this in the past?

I had previously worked on other documentary film and photographic projects which were about small communities and the connections that were formed within them. Some of these included a film about a Greyhound Racing Stadium in one of the Pitt villages in County Durham, a Scalextric Club based in Wood Green, a community boxing gym in Country Durham and a film about an expat community in Saudi Arabia.

Alongside working on these projects, I also worked as an Art Director at a Creative Agency, which focused on human storytelling in all their output. Working on a mix of personal and commercial projects definitely helped me with this project and how to approach it from the outset.

Did you come up against any resistance when photographing residents? If so, how did you put people at ease?

At the beginning it was a slow start to get people interested in being a part of the project, particularly as the Estate had been through a lot over the past 20 years. With the regeneration ballot coming up it was a very tense and uncertain time for the residents, with the outcome inevitably going to affect their lives in one way or another. There was definitely some resistance in wanting to talk about history and memories when you have such a big event about to happen that may reshape your future.

It was a slow start to get people to trust me with their precious memories and also their time at the beginning. I made sure I was present on the Estate and a face that people would see more often. But I also had a great start with some of the contacts Source Partnership had already made with them being the Independent Advisors on the Estate.

I think before you start a project it’s so important to be seen and be present in order to first build a relationship, so I really tried get to know the residents without a camera being around or a voice recorder. 

I tried to put people at ease by giving them control of how they shared their stories or how they got their photo taken. They didn’t need to be in vision if they didn’t want to, their photograph could be in any shape or form that they wanted.

I did find though that residents would pass me onto their friends and neighbours after they had shared their stories and their photograph had been taken, so that really helped the process. 

Would you change your approach in any way?

I think I would have spent more time in and around the Estate in the run up to filming and photographing people. I think people would have felt more comfortable with me if they had seen and spoken to me more.

Covid was also an issue when I started the project, arrangements to meet people had to be outside which was weather dependent and also not as comfortable for people. 

If I were to do the project now, it would broaden the arrangements we could make and potentially be able meet people inside or at their homes if they felt comfortable with that.

Do you have tips for any other photographers interested in community photography?

I would say to take your time at the beginning of the project, go and meet people without your camera first and get to know them. 

I would also say collaboration for community photography is important. I think what really helped with this project was making sure it was a collaborative project and the residents had creative and editorial input into the final works. Making sure the outcome is something they are happy with.

What was your personal highlight from this project?

The personal highlight for me was definitely all the amazing people I got to meet. Getting to hear their memories of life on the Carpenters Estate was a total privilege. Working on the Carpenters Community Archive, never felt like a job to me.  I would always look forward to going there and it was great meeting new people and hearing their life stories.

I also really enjoyed the exhibitions at the end of the project. I loved seeing all the people who had participated in the project in the same room and also their neighbours who came along to connect with each other and the project. It felt like a very special moment, seeing their memories and images sparking conversations in the room.