A few months ago, Luke Smith noticed a poster on the noticeboard in his hostel for a 15-week photography workshop. It stood out among the admin notices because it was the only poster that advertised a creative activity.
“I saw it and I knew straight away it was something I wanted to do!” he says. “I’m a creative person and good at creative things, I’m not really good at anything else. I knew I’d be good at this, so I didn’t need much convincing.”
At 26, this was the first time Smith had had the chance to participate in any kind of creative education. “When I was younger I used to love taking pictures of people and editing them,” he says. “I used to make home music videos and upload them to YouTube.” As long as he can remember he’s loved anything that brings together visuals, music and fashion. Most children with interests like Smith’s would end up selecting creative subjects at school and potentially go on to a higher education in the arts.
But Smith’s circumstances aren’t ordinary. At the moment – and as has happened a few times when he was younger – Luke has found himself homeless and reliant on hostels for accommodation. Survival and getting by has been priority – his creative side hasn’t really had a chance to flourish. “This was my opportunity and I had to take it. You don’t get these very often.”
This workshop Smith signed up for was organised by a charity called Accumulate. The charity was founded four years ago by Marice Cumber and has been improving the lives of young homeless people in London ever since. A designer herself, Cumber understands the need for artistic expression and quite naturally gravitated towards the creative arts when it came to choosing the subjects for Accumulate’s workshops. When the charity was set up she simply reached out to her personal network, looking for artists to volunteer their time.
“Honestly, it could have been any art or craft, like mosaic or basket weaving,” Cumber explains. “But when I reached out to the community, I met a photographer called Othello De’souza-Hartley who also happened to be a tutor at Ravensbourne University.”
De’souza-Hartley conducted a one-day workshop in portraiture in a makeshift classroom set up in the canteen of the North London YMCA. The workshop was advertised to the residents and was well attended, but it was while observing the session that Cumber realised she was on to something.
“The person holding the camera gets the chance to be in control, and being in control is particularly important for students from these unstable backgrounds” – Marice Cumber
“What I saw was quite magical”, she recalls. “The person holding the camera gets the chance to be in control, and being in control is particularly important for students from these unstable backgrounds. There is something empowering about controlling the composition and lighting, and having expensive kit around your neck.”
With photography, creation and reward can happen in an instant, as the students are able to see their results and receive feedback in realtime. But the process doesn’t end with taking the pictures, because students then begin to share images with the model and their friends and this allows for a more sustained interaction between everyone involved.
Accumulate went on to expand their photography workshops, partnering with eight different hostels in London and conducting longer courses over several weeks. On the workshop Smith signed up for new tutors came in each week and students were taken on field trips. They went to the Rauschenberg exhibition at the Tate, for example, and to Somerset House for a fashion photography session.
The different locations keep things interesting and inspiring, but are also places these students wouldn’t ordinarily visit; an added incentive for them to sign up and keep attending.
Over the last few years, Ravensbourne University has become more closely involved with Accumulate’s photography workshops and now partners with the charity on projects. This year university students were also invited to participate in the workshops along with their counterparts from the hostels.
This allowed the homeless participants to make friends with people outside of social housing or their usual circles. Smith particularly enjoyed this aspect of the course, he says. “I don’t really have friends in the hostel. It’s not like I have anything against the people living in my hostel, I just like to keep to myself because I don’t have much in common with anyone. But it’s different with people on the course including other students from Ravensbourne; we all like the same things.”
The network is an important aspect of the programme, explains tutor De-souza-Hartley. “I’m a professional photographer and I know people in the industry, like people who run art galleries,” he explains. “Apart from teaching them technique, I introduce them to the industry in general”.
Each of the teachers has a network and throughout the course the students are taught how to build professional work relationships, how to seek work and the soft skills that go along with building a creative career.
The workshop is by no means easy – it runs for longer than a term at university. “On the first day on this course we had over 50 students show up, which was actually a bit scary because we weren’t sure we could accommodate them all,” says Cumber. “But by week three we were down to about 23 and this became our core group; they were super-engaged and really wanted to be there.”
The commitment to the course is a challenge but has become more of an attraction for students than a deterrent. Kat Jagne, a student on the same course as Smith, says it was the length and seriousness of the programme that attracted her to it.
Jagne has relied on social housing for the last three years; either living in council homes or hostels, or crashing on friends’ couches while waiting her turn to be housed. Not being able to afford an art education isn’t her only challenge; she craves consistency in her life.
“Since I never know where I will be staying, it’s a bit hard to stay motivated about doing things,” she says. “A lot of us on the programme don’t really have a weekly schedule. It’s been nice over the last few months to have somewhere to be each week, something to look forward to.”
Cumber knows the value of having something to work towards and ensures that all of Accumulate’s photography workshops end in an exhibition. The course Smith and Jagne attended ended a few weeks ago and their work, along with that of all their course-mates is now on show at the Guardian Building in London.
All the work is available to buy either at the venue or online, giving the photographers a chance to make money from their artwork.
And this year the students had even more to work towards; three scholarships to Ravensbourne’s Diploma in Design and Digital Media programme, where students can study not just photography but other creative disciplines.
The year-long programme is specifically designed for students who may not have had an early art education, such as an Art GCSE, and brings them up to a level where they can apply for a full degree course.
The hope is not just to hand-out something for free, but to integrate them into the formal education system. “Once they are on a programme and among other students, things like requesting funding, aspiring to a higher education, or applying for loans will feel more normal,” says Cumber. “Everyone around them will be doing it and this will make the whole process less daunting.”
“A lot of us on the programme don’t really have a weekly schedule. It’s been nice over the last few months to have somewhere to be each week, something to look forward to” – Kat Jagne
When Smith applied for the scholarship, having attended the workshop with other Ravensbourne students gave him a sense of comfort. “My friends at Ravensbourne really want me to get the scholarship”, he says. “If I do actually get it I will already have friends in the university.”
While they didn’t know it at the time we spoke to them, both Smith and Jagne were awarded scholarships at the opening of Made by Us and will start their courses in September 2017.
What Accumulate does is so much more than philanthropy, because the model they have created doesn’t simply hand out help: The charity has successfully created a community of hostels, universities, teachers, artists and students all of whom come together to form a mutually beneficial network. The network – bound by goodwill and common interests – ensures those in need are given a leg up.
Accumulate says goodbye to one set of students, but their work is far from done. “You know what I’d really like?” says Cumber. “A permanent home for Accumulate. We operate out of hostels, but what I’d really like is a permanent premises where we can run a wide range of workshops and give these students a workspace or studio to call their own.
“When I was growing up we had youth clubs; I’d like this to be like a youth club. I’d also like to get the industry more involved and create more education and employment opportunities for these students.” If you think you might be able to help, why not visit the Accumulate website below.
Made by Us is on at The Guardian building, no. 1 Kings Place, York Way, London until June 3. Photographs from the show can be bought here.