Those who have endured difficult or life-changing experiences often distrust the establishment. Between politicians doing little more than point scoring and the media mining intimate details for grabby headlines, it’s not hard to see why. It means that creatives who are tasked with bringing their experiences out into the open often have to go above and beyond to establish a trusting relationship. Without it, they risk creating images that may miss the mark at best, or have an irreparable impact on a person’s life or reputation at worst, with repercussions long after the ‘story’ has moved on.
Feruza Afewerki, whose body of work Gold and Ashes centres on the people whose lives were forever changed by the 2017 fire at Grenfell Tower in west London, knows the importance of this well. Spanning a photography book, an exhibition and a short documentary film, the project launched last year. “I think it was so telling that even four years down the line, even with Covid happening, that’s when the project got released,” she says. Herself a bereaved family member, the photographer recalls the community being left in a “helpless situation” by the government and channelled her efforts, as “futile” as they might have felt, into helping the community heal from the inside. “How can we tell our stories and take back control of the narrative? Because the way we were being portrayed, the way our loved ones were being portrayed, lacked a lot of truth, a lot of dignity.”
The London-based photographer feels that the people who appeared in Gold and Ashes recognised her personal connection to the tragedy and that there was no ulterior motive for her work, such as hype or money (profits went to charities serving the Grenfell community). “Obviously we knew people that are very vulnerable and untrusting because a lot of reporters and different people had really abused their positions of power to take advantage of people to get a story. The obsession with getting a story rather than caring for people – just real, like basic human courtesies were out the window,” she recalls.
“I think for me, I went in with a real, conscious decision to make sure people felt there’s no pressure, and if you don’t want to do it, it’s fine. But also, at every stage, I will be checking in with you and making sure you’re comfortable with what’s being shared. Literally right up until printing, if anyone wanted to take their story out, my hands were open for that, because I just knew the weight of it.”
This flexibility was also paramount to the creation of the Hidden Lifesavers, a nationwide advertising campaign designed to encourage people more likely to experience or witness an opioid overdose to carry naloxone, a drug that can reverse the effects of an overdose and potentially save lives. Led by UK healthcare communications group Havas Lynx, the campaign features portraits of people who have lived experience with opioids and now carry naloxone themselves, photographed by Harry F Conway. Their photographs were then combined with eye-catching poster headlines drawing on real stories. Everyone who contributed their portraits and stories had the option to drop out of the campaign at any stage and for any reason.