Alan, at home // ©Jonathan Turner
The Story behind the Portrait
This is a portrait of Alan, at home in South Bank, Middlesbrough.
During the long hot summer of 2018, I was commissioned to do a community engagement residency in South Bank, a small town just outside Middlesbrough. South Bank, like so many other post-industrial towns in the North of England, is a town that feels left behind. Steel mills and shipbuilding have been replaced with high unemployment, high rates of crime and low life expectancy. Two big supermarkets have sucked the life out of the town centre, and all but one of the towns once many pubs have been boarded up. I was commissioned by community arts organisation Transitions17 to engage with the community (an area of low arts provision) through a programme of creative exchange. Over the years I’ve done plenty of similar projects and have developed a range of ways of doing creative stuff in communities, from pop-up street-based portrait sessions, to workshops and photography clubs, so am generally in my element doing this kind of work. I like people, and for me, photography is a great way to get to talk to people I might ordinarily not get to meet.
I met Alan while running a photography workshop in a rehab centre. At first, I found it difficult to understand much of what he said to me; the combination of a heavy accent, and his slurred speech caused by years of substance abuse, made him difficult to understand. He was really enthusiastic about the workshop though and was keen to do more. Before long, Alan was accompanying me on lots of my shoots, helping me set up street-based portrait sessions, or walking around housing estates introducing me to people as we went, and occasionally acting as my guardian in a couple of potentially sticky situations! Alan seemed to know everyone, and through him I was able to meet lots of different people in the community.
Alan told me he had been using drugs since the age of fourteen and had spent most of his adult life addicted to heroin. At the time I met him he had been clean for about five years. He made a series of photographs around South Bank, all of which related to various incidents that had taken place during his long years of addiction. When, at the end of the residency, I exhibited the work I’d produced in a local gallery, I made sure that the images Alan had made were included. He had his own mini-exhibition within the show, and was incredibly proud to have his work on show.
I asked Alan if I could make a portrait of him, and he asked if we could take the picture at his home. When I arrived at his flat he opened the door, clearly dressed in his best red tracksuit and matching trainers. As he led me into his living room the red outfit appeared to be chosen to match his furniture. As I set up my camera, he showed me all the sporting memorabilia he’d purchased off eBay. Before his descent into addiction, he’d been a promising football player, and this was something he’d never lost interest in. I took pictures as we chatted, and could sense that this was something special for Alan. Dressed for the occasion, surrounded by his prized possessions, house proud in his immaculately tidy home, after all the years of chaos in his life he had finally found some peace, and seemed keen for me to tell this story with my camera.
I meet and photograph people all the time, and often their photograph becomes so familiar to me that they feel like an old friend, even though I’ve only met them once, perhaps fleetingly. But when the residency came to an end Alan and I stayed in touch. We continue to have conversations on the phone periodically, just to say hi. And I gave him a camera too, so he could continue to take his own pictures. I look forward to returning to South Bank at some point in the future and doing some more photography with Alan.
Dressed for the occasion, surrounded by his prized possessions, house proud in his immaculately tidy home, after all the years of chaos in his life he had finally found some peace, and seemed keen for me to tell this story with my camera.
Jonathan Turner is a social documentary photographer, based in Leeds but working all over the north of England. His work focuses on themes of community (social, recreational, professional) and identity, comprising a mixture of commissioned and funded projects, using a variety of technologies from digital to collodion wet plates and large format analogue photography. Jonathan is interested in exploring and celebrating the ordinary and the everyday, through documenting the rich variety of individuals who make up the world we inhabit.
Dividing his time between commissioned work, funded projects, and teaching photography, Jonathan has exhibited work nationally, and was featured in the BJP’s Portrait of Britain 2018 book.
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