Blog Post

"I've learnt to believe in myself"


Writer Sarah Butler on the People, Places, Portraits commission and telling the stories of the people taking part in Creative People and Places

Rachel with the young people she works with in the Black Country. Photo: Stephen King

"I've learnt to believe in myself" Jody Raggo, Lincolnshire

The Creative People and Places (CPP) programme spans 21 large-scale arts-led projects stretching from Northumberland to Kent, Blackpool to Boston. Each project aims to enable local people to take the lead in choosing, creating and taking part in brilliant art experiences in the places where they live.

I was commissioned, along with photographer, Stephen King, to create a series of portraits and stories – one from each CPP project – which would demonstrate the impact of the programme on individuals across the country. 

For me, my work was a matter of listening to recorded interviews with each participant, then transcribing and curating those stories into accessible and engaging narratives.

For Stephen, things were considerably more involved. In just four weeks, he travelled the length and breadth of England, often doubling back on himself again and again. A total journey length of around 3-4,000 thousand miles – his car became a mobile larder, food and empty packaging strewn across the seats and foot well. He describes it as "a leap of faith: that people would be willing and available", and they were – time after time, people said yes. "I am always astounded by how willing people are," Stephen said, to take time out of their lives to meet with him, to share their stories. It seems that this willingness was a testament to the experiences these people had had with CPP: "they were so happy and proud of what they’d been involved in, they were happy to help."

Each participant was photographed in a place that had a relevance and poignancy to their story. Louise Harrison, local policing commander for St Helens, and involved with CPP project Heart of Glass, was photographed in a run-down car park overlooking the Pilkington factory – an iconic landmark for St Helens and for Louise’s work with local communities blighted by the area’s industrial decline. Charley Genever chose to be photographed on the site of a tennis court in a park she used to hang out in as a teenager. The park had been sold off for a not-yet-realised redevelopment and the tennis court was turned into a car park, white lines drawn on top of the old tennis court markings. "I wanted to show those lines," Stephen said, "But that meant getting up high and there was nowhere high. I ended up behind the rugby club, stacking beer barrels into a kind of staircase, climbing up and balancing on these two barrels to take the photo."

These images and stories are each beautiful and meaningful in their own right. Together, they demonstrate the diversity of CPP: both in terms of geography, and the range of ways in which people are engaging with the arts. "I was worried it would get repetitive," Stephen said, "But it actually became a challenge to work out how to bring it all together." There are people who had never considered the arts relevant to them, who have discovered new experiences and opportunities and are hungry for more. There are emerging artists who have been nurtured, challenged and supported to develop their practices. There are workers in a breadth of organisations who have found new ways to engage with their clients and other organisations through the arts.

Again and again, these people talk about growing in confidence; about the joy of feeling they are part of something bigger than themselves; about welcoming the opportunity to learn, to collaborate, to grow. This is a programme which is tapping into people’s passion for the places they live in, bringing people together to make those areas better, more vibrant and exciting places to be.

As two artists with socially-engaged practices, and previous experience of CPP (Stephen with his long term documentation of Heart of Glass’s work in St Helens; me through the More Than 100 Stories commission), neither Stephen nor I were in need of much convincing about the dramatic changes art can make to individuals and communities. Yet we were both consistently inspired by these encounters and the stories that emerged through the process of making each portrait. These are only some of potentially tens of thousands of stories developing right now across the CPP programme. We hope you are as delighted to read them as we are to share them with you.

About the artists

Sarah Butler explores the relationship between writing and place through prose, poetry and participatory projects. Recent writing residencies include writer-in-residence on the Central line; at Great Ormond Street Hospital; and Stories From The Road – a project exploring personal stories of Oxford Road, Manchester. She has two novels published by Picador: Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love and Before The Fire.

Stephen King is a social documentary and portrait photographer. The projects he undertakes often focus upon our relationships to physical and social space along with notions of ownership and belonging. Stephen is also lecturer on the Photography course at St Helens College for The University of Chester.His work has been exhibited widely, most recently at FACT and the Museum of Liverpool.

Main image: Rachel from the Black Country. Photo: Stephen King