© Ciara Leeming. Elvira, Manchester.
When I wrote the essay that went with my final MA project, the book Elvira and Me, I wondered aloud about the wisdom in blurring professional and personal boundaries in the way I had with Ramona – becoming confidante, emotional support and friend, as well as photographer and supposedly cool outside observer. I knew this probably went against many of the rules of journalism/documentary but it felt like the only way I could work in this long term way while feeling truly comfortable and getting the kind of results I want. I’m actually quite a shy person deep down, and there are aspects of documentary practice which still leave me very uncomfortable.
While some photographers seem able to achieve a level of intimacy with their subjects/participants/whatevers without too much difficulty, this takes a lot of time and effort for me. If I’m uncomfortable I know I’m probably projecting that onto the people I’m with and making them less at ease, and it takes me a good while to feel good in my own skin while intruding in other people’s lives.
Now, seven months after that book project was completed and handed in, I suddenly have few doubts about this aspect of my approach. I have learned a huge amount about Roma culture and much more through becoming good friends with Ramona and I’m sure this will improve my work, even if it takes a little longer to see the story through the fog of familiarity and friendship.
I can walk into her home without knocking (although I still insist on quickly tapping before immediately opening the door) and although I’m still a bit shy about shooting pictures when there are other relatives there, or arguments or passionate debates going on, I know I now find myself in a privileged position – one I’m very wary of abusing.
I’ve wondered too in the past about whether I’ve made a mistake with other Roma people who I’ve wanted to photograph, by perhaps confusing them as to our relationship and my position within it – especially as I’ve often chilled and chatted with them without getting my camera out.
But again now I’m starting to feel that some of the groundwork I’ve put in over the past year may soon start to bear fruit. Partly I think this is because I know I have to get my finger out and make the most of the contacts I’ve spent so long cultivating. My new approach is to turn up with my camera out – dumb and obvious maybe but I’m trying to make it clear that my role is always photographer and my thing photography, no matter how well we get on as friends.