A few home truths

Matthew Valentine looks at a collection of photographs taken by Barnardo’s service users and is moved by the raw humanity of the lives they show.

Picturing Myself, a book and exhibition recording the lives of young people who use services provided by charity Barnardo’s, manages to be both depressing and uplifting at the same time.

Depressing because it consists of a no-holds-barred view of difficult lives by those actually living them, rather than a well-paid photographer who will go home at the end of the day; and uplifting because it shows that life goes on and can improve. There is genuine warmth in some of the pictures and optimism about the future.

Part of the purpose of the Picturing Myself project is an attempt to break down the stereotypes surrounding those who find themselves in need of help from organisations such as Barnardo’s. One element of the project was to give disposable cameras out to people across the country.

“It is all but unheard of for them to have the power of self-representation,” writes project manager Gill Fletcher in an introductory essay. “They are defined by their situations, pinned down by words such as ‘victim’ or ‘disabled’ or ‘tearaway’ or ‘gymslip mum’.”

Many of the photographers on show have almost certainly been subjected to one or more of those shorthand descriptions, but their perceptions of life and the images they create to represent themselves are certainly not uniform.

Lonely 17-year-old Amina portrays herself as a stick of wood standing in a corner. “But there is light beside the stick,” she explains in her caption. For Terry (also aged 17), life is about a night out with two girls, a bottle of Taboo and a packet of Benson and Hedges (he has problems?). Those who have children invariably place them at the centre of their self-image. The Seventies wallpaper of rented flats and Spice Girls posters are the most noticeable constants in the book.

The timing of the book and exhibition is given an extra degree of irony in the light of the Government’s reported proposals for the reform of the welfare state. Far from being better understood, these groups are in danger of getting bigger.

Picturing Myself, the book is priced 12, and is available from Barnardo’s Child Care Publications, Barnardo’s Trading Estate, Paycocke Road, Basildon, Essex SS14 3DR.

Picturing Myself touring exhibition can be seen at Cardiff Ffotogallery, 10 January-7 February; Whiteleys in London’s Queensway, 10-23 February; Ormeau Baths Gallery, Belfast, 3-14 March; Cabletel Gallery in Huddersfield 27 March-10 April and Rotherham Central Library and Arts Centre 24 April-16 May

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