This series was made at a local community initiative called The Men’s Shed. There are over 400 of these throughout the UK and it’s a growing ‘movement’. The aim is to help alleviate loneliness and isolation among men, particular those in older age groups who may find themselves alone later in life.
The Sheds provide a mutually supportive environment along with craft-based activities, mainly woodwork and metalwork but any personal hobby may be pursued. The activity takes place in the day, usually twice or three times a week and offers an opportunity to socialise with others in similar situations.
Many of the participants are widowers, some are recovering from health issues or other life-changing events.
I learned of these groups by searching the online listings of charities operating in my area. I wanted to find a community which had some similarities in the life circumstances of the group members. At first I was preparing to contact the group coordinator by email to explain my own interests and introduce myself as a photographer. Having considered this approach a little more carefully I decided against the email and simply turned up on spec. I think people form instant opinions of others based on the first few minutes of meeting and emails give the recipient a lot of time to imagine unnecessary problems
Having arrived at the building I asked about what was occurring before seeking out the ‘coordinator’ I have a tendency to try to impart too much information at once, so I was careful to explain myself in small chunks. Having someone turn up asking to take pictures is unusual in most circumstances so I had my approach well-rehearsed. This gave me a bit of confidence, but in the event I deviated from the initial plan pretty much right away. I was offered tea, biscuits and was pleased to find myself the object of some polite curiosity as a very mature student.
I have some background in wood- and metalwork, so I was able to ask some pertinent questions whilst commenting favourably on the works in progress. At the same time, I didn’t want to cause much disruption so arranged to return the following week to start photographing those present.
When I arrived it was clear that everyone had been primed. They were most cooperative and I was able to circulate quietly, taking pictures as the men worked. Interesting conversations ensued; seclusion was a common theme, shortage of meaningful contact with family, particularly children was normal. I heard about the difficulties associated with a lack of purpose. The men had, for the most part, been industrious and often ambitious through their working lives and leaving gainful employment behind meant a loss of self-esteem.
The common bond of joint endeavour though, in the sense of making and producing work through collaboration and in company was unanimously welcomed.
The pictures which show the men engaged in their work were made in natural daylight. There was some fluorescent influence but it was minimal and not really detectable in the results. The portraits were made in the confines of the workshop against a simple black backdrop clamped to anything handy. Lit with one 18″ beauty dish with a scrim over it. No reflectors.
I wanted to make some portraits with a sense of dignity and pride. The tools, where visible, were being used moments before and I asked the subjects to hold on to them, partly to add some context and also to give them something to do with their hands.
The group have asked for copies of the files to use in their publicity material, which I will gladly provide.
My view of this assignment
Technically competent. I was using an older manual focus Olympus lens for the portraits against the black and it is difficult to focus at wider apertures. The magnify/marching ants function helps, but a couple of my preferred pictures I rejected because they were not as sharp as I would like. There was mixed lighting but the patch profiler allowed me to make a good stab at acceptable colour balance.
For fairly low-key pictures, these are what I aimed for. Some might consider them under-lit but I think too much light neutralises rather than reveals..
I would have liked more room to make the pictures but the workshop was pretty cramped. I think I managed to produce some photographs which are effective without being intrusive. The men appear natural even though they are clearly posed. I gave minimum direction. I remembered to face an equal number left and right – I didn’t want an ‘chevron’ effect when they are seen together.
For me, I could have spent more time there but I didn’t want to be in the way too much. I was there long enough for the men to act naturally and get used to me being around. As for the insider aspect, I was never going to become one. I could have started to attend the workshop days, made a few woodwork items, but I doubt whether such increased time with the group would have altered my work as a photographer. It may even have impeded it by the process of familiarisation. I didn’t want to ingratiate myself, to become a part of the group. I wanted to notice things with a fresh eye, not become accustomed to the place and people.