A Neighborhood Documentary Revisited

by David Walker

©Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen
David with daughters Kadie and Robyn and Ty-dog, 2008. From Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen's "Byker Revisited."

Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen's classic documentary images from the 1970s of Byker, a working-class neighborhood of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, in northeast England, comprise a fascinating historical record of a bygone industrial era in England. Konttinen spent seven years photographing her neighbors, capturing the gritty, hard-scrabble beauty of Byker and the dignity of its residents. The images convey a distinctive sense of time, place, and social order in every detail.

Thirty-five years after the neighborhood was razed, forcing Konttinen and her neighbors to disperse, she returned to photograph Byker--which had been re-built--once again. Everything had changed: the housing, the people, Konttinen's circumstances, and the unwritten rules under which she had to work. She spent five years re-acquainting herself, and shooting portraits of all the residents of a particular housing estate--called Byker Wall--who were willing to let her in. Konttinen's work is now being re-examined, and her first solo show in the U.S. is now on exhibit in New York.

The similarities and contrasts of the two projects underscore a number of documentary photography principles: the importance of relationship-building with subjects, for instance, and of giving oneself over to curiosity and intuition, absent a clear sense of where they might lead. Both projects also draw attention to some significant ways the practice of documentary photography has changed.

in 1969, Konttinen settled in Byker from Finland, by way of film school in London. She was part of a group of filmmakers called Amber Collective that had decided to locate itself in Newcastle, with a goal of producing independent films. "We felt strongly that the voices of working class and marginalized communities were not often heard," the photographer says, explaining that some members of the collective had working-class roots. "So our work was very much about giving people a voice."

They were attracted to Newcastle-upon-Tyne for its atmosphere: "A grand Victorian city, blackened [at the time] by industrial smog. It was a visually exciting place to be….we were not being romantic or nostalgic, but we did and do respond to the culture of the region. Plus it's a very welcoming area."

Konttinen ended up in Byker looking for a place to live. She was immediately drawn to its sense of community. There was an abundance of street life, and lively conversation in every shop, she says. She had trained as a filmmaker because she hadn't been able to imagine a way she'd make a living as a photographer. But there she was in Byker, with a compulsion to start photographing.

When people asked her what she was up to, she says she didn't have a very clear notion herself. "I would just say it's a place I live, and I like it a lot." Initially, she had no project in mind, and adds, "It wasn't my notion to record for posterity."  

The Amber collective sustained itself early on with small grants, and members took part-time jobs or started small side businesses, but Konttinen had little money, and she had to borrow a camera--a 35mm Pentax--at the start from another Amber member. She also had little money for film, so she shot sparingly, and used a lot of expired film--which caused her to lose a lot of images, she says.

But she found a receptive community around her. As a young, single, foreign woman, she was seen as unthreatening. And she piqued the curiosity--along with the humor, and generosity--of her neighbors. "I was gently teased, but also welcomed with real warmth," she says. "One sense that I always had was that you could never be lonely there."

Konttinen wandered the neighborhood taking photographs of everyone, young and old, going about their daily lives. She walked into shops, and chatted with the proprietors and customers. Sometimes she ended up making portraits, using a borrowed Hasselblad or a Pentax 6x7 she was eventually able to buy. She made one portrait, for instance, in a barbershop one morning, following a visit the previous day, during which the barber told her the light through the windows was better in the morning.

Other images were "decisive moment" street photographs, including three images shot on the same day: a girl bouncing along the street on a large rubber ball, another girl playing an abandoned piano in a derelict building, and a deaf mute man, apparently conducting an orchestra in the street. Konttinen had just photographed the girl on the ball when she heard the piano through an open window. When she went to investigate that, she saw the deaf mute out a second story window.

She displayed her images in the front window of her studio, which was formerly a hair salon. It was right near a bus stop, so neighbors passed frequently, and were able to see what she was up to. She also invited residents in to sit for photographs, which she then printed and gave to them for free.

Her work attracted the attention of the local newspaper. They did a story, which the local TV station picked up, "and it went national," Konttinen says. She ended up winning an award, and a two-year photography fellowship, "and then it became a more serious project, after I did small exhibitions in Byker and bigger ones in [Newcastle]." Eventually there were enough photographs for a book. (A selection of "Then [the Amber Collective] made a film based on the project and it just sort of grew over the years." (The film, titled Byker, can be viewed online.)

Eventually she had to close her studio because the building was going to be torn down. "I decided to photograph every household in my street. I wasn't that happy doing studio portraits anyway because I didn't like the totally black background. I always feel that in portraiture, every inch of the frame is part of the story whether you like it or not, so I might as well tell a bigger story by doing it in people's homes."

About half the residents agreed to let her photograph them when she knocked on their doors. Half of those people were at home when she showed up with her camera at the appointed time. "It was never as much of a priority for them as it was for me," she explains. For lighting, she often replaced the bare ceiling bulb with a brighter bulb; in some of the images, she bounced a flash off the ceiling.

All the while, Konttinen was losing her neighbors: Their houses were razed to make way for new housing, which local government officials intended to improve the social and economic conditions of the neighborhood.

In 1976, Konttinen was forced out when her own house was demolished. She continued to photograph Byker for the next five years, until 1981. "A whole era [was] coming to an end, the industries were coming to an end, and then [there was] all this fervor to rebuild the working class areas, [including] Byker," she says.

Konttinen eventually exhibited the Byker project at the Side Gallery, which the Amber Collective opened in 1977 to exhibit documentary photography. She also exhibited the work in Mexico, Scandinavia, and China. (A selection of the original Byker images can be viewed online at the Amber Collective Web site.)

During the 1980s and 90s, she completed other documentary photography projects about the legacy of British coal mining, beach culture in the UK, a dancing school, and her Finnish roots. She also worked on numerous film productions with the Amber collective. In the late 90s, when the re-development of Byker was finally completed, community leaders contacted Konttinen about exhibiting her Byker photographs in the new community center.

She loaned the images "on a semi-permanent basis," she says. Five years later, she went back to find out what had become of the prints and found they were still on the community center wall. "They told me they had been using the pictures as a bridge to introduce newcomers to the community," she says. The staff of the community center suggested she come around again with her camera because Byker was at an interesting juncture: It had become a temporary reception center for asylum seekers from Africa, the Middle East, and beyond.

Konttinen decided to pursue it. "I think I wanted to understand myself how the world has moved on. I felt aggrieved that the original community has dispersed," she says. "I had to forget the old community. In terms of photography, I wasn't interested in finding where they went, and what happened to them. But I was interested in how a modern housing estate works, and how the relationships work within it, and how people make it their own." Among the community activists she had met, "I recognized the same feeling I had for the old community," she says. "Once I realized that, it made it possible for me to go back. I'm not interested in running a place down. Once I decide to photograph a place, I want to be totally open."

She couldn't approach it the same way she had the first time--by just wandering around the streets--in part because she no longer lived there, but mostly because the conditions had changed so much. "One particularly noticeable difference is that it's not acceptable to photograph children without the parent's permission," she says. "A big child abuse scandal that happened in the late 80s changed everything, and for good."

Most residents, in particular the asylum seekers, stayed indoors and kept to themselves. The culture of the place was no longer in the streets and shops, so Konttinen couldn't easily find subject just by wandering around. So she started joining groups--a tai chi group, for instance, and a support group for asylum seekers, for which she became a volunteer. Over a couple of years, she started making connections that led her to subjects.

"To make the work interesting, for me, it's about building relationships, where people also get to know me," she says. "I would visit them several time before I got to the point of taking a photograph."

The second project was entirely portraiture, which was a challenge to do in small, mass produced apartments that reflected little about the lives of the people who lived there. "There's a limit to one's imagination," Konttinen says.  "When you go into a person's home, what you end up with easily is just a row of people sitting on the settee staring at you blankly, not knowing what you are doing, or what you want from them. I really dislike that kind of portraiture of the blank face, staring at the camera."

So she took a collaborative approach, which reflects a broader change in documentary photography since her first Byker project: A number of photographers are questioning the traditional photographer/subject hierarchy, and giving their subjects more control over how they are portrayed. For her part, Konttinen asked her subjects in Byker to imagine what they would have in a photograph of themselves if they had just one picture to describe themselves to the rest of the world.

 "I didn't want it to be just my vision, imposed upon them," she explains. "I did think, if you give people the opportunity to put their own stamp on their image, then at least they are making a statement rather than you just labeling them as being part of the furniture…that notion of giving the people the chance to have dignity felt important to me."

Konttinen says her approach was inspired by Renaissance paintings, "and the notion of people presenting their wealth in their images, and every part of the painting is a symbol for something that is part of their lives, and everything is carefully worked out." She didn't quite go to those lengths, though. After asking subjects to bring what represented them, Konttinen set up her camera, and then photographed what came of the presentation and interaction. She lit with a single flash and reflectors. Though she shoots almost exclusively in black and white, she shot in color, because the colorful clothing and objects subjects brought to the shoots were an integral part of their stories.

For instance, one subject was a student from Burundi who delayed her session with Konttinen for two months, to allows her mother time to make her a traditional Burundi dress just for the photograph, and send it from Africa. In the photograph, the subject is dancing. "She was showing me a dance from Burundi," Konttinen explains. A video the subject had playing in the background was meant to show her interest in black women's issues.

Another image--and a favorite of Konttinen's from the series--came about after she photographed a dignified, elderly Lebanese woman standing among her collection of ceramics. That subject introduced Konttinen to her grandson, named David, who was living nearby with his family. They were in the process of moving, and boxes made their apartment nearly impassible. The only available place for a portrait was the sofa. Konttinen says, "I didn't quite know what to do with them." Then she noticed the dog--"quite a fierce creature"--in the kitchen.

"I said, 'Do you think we could have the dog in the picture?'"

David brought the dog in and started blowing soap bubbles, which the dog snapped away at quite happily as Konttinen photographed the scene. "I didn't stage manage it. I had set up my camera and lights, and just witnessed what was unfolding in front of the camera," she says.

Konttinen spent five years photographing Byker the second time, from 2003 to 2008. The neighborhood is mixed socially, economically and racially, but asylum seekers are prominent in the recent Byker photographs. "I identified with the foreigners in the new Byker. I felt for them, and understand what it's like to leave their [home] countries." Konttinen says.

She also photographed professional people, "who understood the project and were very willing to introduce me to their friends," she says. "There was also a group that lived such chaotic lives--especially the long-term unemployed, with fierce dogs, where I couldn't even approach the front door. That segment is less represented, ultimately."

Konttinen says both projects from Byker "could have gone on forever." But she decided it was time to show her work from the second project. She applied for some grants to produce not only a book (called Byker Revisited) and an exhibition, but also a film (titled Today I'm with You). With grants in hand and a deadline to deliver, "I had to [finish]," she says. (Selections from the Byker Revisited project can be viewed online.)

The book and the film were both released in 2009. They renewed interest in her work in the UK, and sparked interest for the first time in the U.S. The L. Parker Stephenson Gallery in New York is now exhibiting work from Konttinen's first Byker project (through  May 11), and she recently presented the work at ICP's Photographers Lecture Series. It is the first time Konttinen has had a solo show in the U.S.

Konttinen, who is now in her mid 60s, says she's been back in her darkroom making silver gelatin prints of her original Byker work. She is planning to re-visit and catalogue her archive of 70,000 images from the past 44 years, with an eye toward producing a retrospective book that includes images from all of her photography projects. (UNESCO has recognized her images--and Amber's films--for their importance to UK history, and inscribed them in the UK Memory of the World Register.) And she's planning a new project, which will be a collaboration with a Mexican photographer and two academics, if she gets funding for the project.


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