For eight or so weeks I've been working every Tuesday in Brighton with fifteen year old boys to help them take photos, focusing on territory and, well, themselves. On the day of the exhibition I was asked to give a little speech. I finished it about ten minutes before anyone came in- when reading the paper I saw my hands shaking, which shocked me as that hasn't happened in years. I'll put it here as I think this whole process moved me and affected me way more than I had anticipated.
Also on stage I just said what you'll read- I didn't do shout outs, so let me do some shout outs! Jo, Jack, Mark and Bex. Thank you so so much, we should be proud of ourselves!!
None of the boys actually came (Halloween parties/half term, can't really blame them) so if any of them find this- thank you for your time.
On The Level.
The name of this exhibition is “On the level”. It’s a reference to The Level. An area in Brighton, not far from the Dome. It’s a skate park, family area, place to buy drugs, spend the night, first dates, picnics. a small area that has everything you could ever want and at the same time, the distance between the boy selling drugs and the boy perfecting his ollie is further than the train I take from London to Brighton. Daley brought up the Level at the end of one our sessions and the amount of worlds within worlds inspired everyone. Especially me, as I said "that's what we should call the exhibition! On the level!" and all the boys gave me their most enthusiastic unenthusiastic "alright".
Albi’s first idea for his picture is what planted the seeds of what On The Level is all about-an idyllic park filled with happy families, full of colour and happiness and in the distance, a boy in black and white. I ask him in one of our recordings why he wanted to be in black and white- he said it was "to show the difference between us and them."
The talk preceding this moment was centred around where these boys fit not only into Brighton the city, but the way Brighton city is seen. The answer to both of those are on the streets, and not on the streets.
If just asking and listening to people talk could solve our problems therapists wouldn’t be paid so much money.
You can’t just ask boys what they want to be in life, you can’t simply tell them you’re there to listen. You can’t tell them what is important to them isn’t important. If it’s important to them, it’s important. If a Gucci belt means more to them than going to sixth form, ask them about that gucci belt and by the end of the chat if you don’t want a Gucci belt, you’ll at least understand why a Gucci belt can hold so much value.
So in these talks we’ve chat about people that are safe and people that aren’t, clothes, who bought you what, what did you buy for yourself- what’s the best item, the best ‘thing’ you own.
It’s this talk that brought us to Adnand’s idea. The story is on the Mp3 players so I won’t go too into it- other than that it’s itself an exhibition of love, bravery, honesty, intelligence and maturity that is rare in a fifteen year old. It’s not art to be smart, but art that’s a tribute to love, to a gaping whole in the fabric that binds friends and family, between past and present that has been filled with a personal possession.
I don’t want to only single Adnand out though- each one of these boys has had a moment of inspiration they didn’t know they had.
when reviewing pictures from a previous session, we skipped through a blurred picture of the ground and as Ania was about to skip- Fin announced what street it was. Casually! To know a street that well, that you can know a piece of grey that well is astounding. It’s taken time to let these boys know that their view, and their lives, hold value, that people want to see their worlds. That you’re all here to see what they want you to see.
That is why when we couldn’t get a picture of Hamish and his dog, he decided he just wanted a picture of him and his mates. Because he loves his mates.
And as much fun as it can be for them to think, their world isn’t primarily a Guy Richie/Tarantino/Noel Clarke production. It’s having fun playing Fifa. It’s trying to let them know that the guy that gives them free chicken at Subway- is an interesting character. It’s your dad bringing a hurt dog home and falling in love with him. Winston.
There are statistics- even on the board of this exhibition- there are statistics that declare the pitfalls these boys are up against- but these are boys. These are boys that have grown two feet in the space of a year. Boys who when given cameras, want to look cool, want to climb things, want to shout out family and friends. It’s been our job to streamline the journey to them realising that these things are worthwhile to people. That’s why it’s so amazing to have them, as they are, up as art.
Boys in the middle cool being the most important thing in the world, and having fun.
There are no actual pictures of The Level. None of the boys dared to go there, to document the comings and goings. The protest was that if they went there with a camera it’d be an instant rush. Instant jump. Thud thud thud.
That may be an element, however, on the train back to London I wondered if it may have been too much of an ask to go to the place they play their biggest roles of all and flip the script.
They did see it however. They have all left this project knowing that the level is more than them. That there is a view on Brighton Brighton wants to see- and that they’re all right. They’re great. I’ve loved working with them. I really have.