Carolyn Hassan

Carolyn Hassan is the founder and Director of Knowle West Media Centre. She began working  in Knowle West twenty years ago as photographer in residence with a local community organisation,  looking at the relationship between arts and wellbeing, and the role that  media arts can play in communities. In 2009 the University of the West of England awarded her an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Arts in recognition of her outstanding contribution to community cohesion, social justice and support for schools and colleges in the local community.

It is probably not well known that Knowle West Media Centre started life in 1996 as a short -term photography project funded by Bristol Area Specialist Health Promotions. The photographer (me) was employed by the community to use photography to explore the relationship between arts and health. It was one of three residencies, the other were with ACTA working in Lawrence Weston and Viz Arts working in Montpelier.


The evaluation report, “I Talk Now” written by Ruth Hecht paved the way for subsequent arts and health activity to be taken more seriously and raised awareness of the value of supporting creativity and access to the arts for everyone.


The originating aims of the project, which were to explore the relationship between access to arts and the impact on well-being, enable people to express their views, and support people to make a positive difference, remain a cornerstone of KWMC’s philosophy today. The importance of (self)-representation, identity and ownership also quickly emerged as enduring themes.


The first week I arrived in Knowle West the Evening Post ran an article referring to Knowle West as the ‘Beirut of Bristol’ complete with photos of burnt out cars and grim concrete.  This was typical of the predominant representation of Knowle West at the time, invariably accompanied by “official” statistics using the Government’s Multiple Deprivation Indicators, which were and remain in lots of ways, startling.

People were very aware of the disadvantage in their community because many lives were affected by drug and alcohol misuse, poor health, fear of crime, unemployment, poverty, lack of access to good education and consequent lack of aspiration and confidence. Some of these issues persist today. However, then and now, they are only a part of a story.  Less told are the stories about strong family links and networks, great people and a sense of community that I had never experienced before, and some very beautiful wild places like the Northern Slopes.  The community had- and still has- an incredible resilience and a ‘can do’ approach to getting on with life and solving problems. There are always more interesting people and stories behind any ‘official’ data.


Photography’s appeal to me has always been that it can be both data and story – neither truth nor complete fiction but a medium that requires the photographer to understand context, audience, appropriation, broadcast platform, ownership and intent – often without being able to control absolutely, any of these, except perhaps intention.


Photography remains the most brilliant medium for working with people because people like taking photos-sometimes being in them, and more universally having a photo of their friends and family.


The joke when I started my first residency was that I was known as the photographer who couldn’t print holiday snaps because I couldn’t do colour. The darkroom I set up, with the help of residents, might have not have been equipped to do “proper photos”, but it did provide a space within which to teach photography skills, get to know the people of Knowle West and co-design many projects together.


As the technology (digital photography and the internet) became more widely accessible – the opportunities for collaboration and experimentation grew. We took photographs of the local environment, built online maps, and campaigned for change long before the likes of Google Maps and Fix My Street existed.  These things helped change the terms and means of communication with others- including the city council who at the time tended to think that the best way to engage young people was to invite them to attend a board (bored?) meeting.


Photography and technology are in the process of being fundamentally remade again- by, for example, digital fabrication technology, as explored in a number of the works in the 20/20 Visions collection. And the camera itself is being re-formatted, as described so vividly by Pete Ashton in his essay “My New Camera is a Laser.”


What remains a constant through all these iterations of the technology is the fundamental issue of how we are represented and are able to represent ourselves as a way of understanding ourselves our identity, power relations and our socially constructed world.


As a photographer, and what turned out to be a 20 year residency, I have been constantly challenged by the question what is the ‘right’ photographic practice for Knowle West Media Centre?  What can we do with photography? How does it change me/you/community/place?  Where and what is its power? How can it provide opportunities for young people, how can it support positive cultural, social and economic change?


I know that most, if not all, photographers are good at raising questions and showing us the world through a different lens to the one we are familiar with. And perhaps this is the answer: there isn’t a practice but many, just as there is no one solution to addressing the challenges communities like Knowle West face, nor one story that defines all that is here.


The 20/20 Visions collection includes a wide range of practices and approaches. I am incredibly proud to see how many photographers we have worked with over the years – and just a small selection are shown here, how diverse their work is and how photography continues to inform our development as a media arts organization.


We are committed to continuing to work with photography, including supporting the next generation of photographers. We want to explore how working with technology can help continue the push for diverse voices, greater inclusion of communities in representing themselves, and above all, making change happen through enjoying and participating in the arts.