photography

Lucky by Maria Spadafora

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Every morning when I get out of bed with no sudden breathing issues, I am thankful. I count my blessings every single day. I am lucky.

I’ve been in remission with sarcoidosis for 5 years now, yet remain hyper-aware that I could become very ill again at any moment. This is part paranoia, part dread, but also me checking my privilege because I am well enough to get on with life. I will never be the gym-going, regular runner I once was, and still have lingering issues (I can’t do anything too aerobic, struggle with stairs, and have occasional bad days) but I can function well. I’ve been told sarcoidosis can leave scar tissue, in my case in several places on my lungs and lymph nodes, so it makes sense that it still affects me.

For Emma Rose, my baby sister, her ‘hidden disability' is bilateral hip-dysplasia. She was diagnosed at the age of 30 after this then-unidentified deformity in her hips and pelvis had caused such internal damage and unbearable pain (including symptoms such as her legs ‘buckling’ after sitting for long periods) that she sought help. There is a long story attached to this, that I won’t go into, but it was another 4 years before her first surgery – a periacetabular osteotomy, or PAO for short. This involves bone cuts around the hip joint, freeing it from the pelvis which allows it to be rotated into a new position (people often mistake it for a hip replacement, but that is a very different surgery). Recovery is long and slow – around 6 months needing a wheelchair and crutches, followed by several more months with a combination of crutches and walking stick until she can manage longer distances unaided. It’ll amount to a good three years of pain and mobility issues before it’s all over. And there are so many issues her first surgery flagged up that it would take at least one other blog to address them, but let’s just say the NHS is clearly struggling and not all employers have decent provision for sick pay.

The day after Emma's first PAO in 2016

The day after Emma's first PAO in 2016

Following Emma’s first surgery in 2016, we undertook a documentary photo project, capturing her progression over several weeks.  A few months after her second surgery, which took place in May this year, we collaborated on a portrait project.  I am no expert on representation of disability in the media, advertising, fashion, etc, but I think it’s fair to say we don’t see much, and I would love to see more positive imagery.  So we spent a couple of days shooting photos showing her to be the vibrant, colourful, glam young woman she is, whether in a wheelchair, on crutches or unaided.

Walking (sometimes wheeling!) around London, Emma received so many positive comments from passing women - telling her she looked beautiful, they liked her dress, her make-up. Women bigging each other up means a lot. There were negatives, too. I grew particularly impatient with people almost walking into her, too absorbed by their mobile phones to notice the people around them, oblivious to how much pain and damage they could inadvertently inflict on someone in Emma’s position, should they bump into them.

So these pictures are my baby sister being who she is - glam, funny, independent, vibrant, normal, lucky.  Whether on wheels, on crutches, or unaided, she is all of these things. And I’m so lucky to have her in my life.

Another one of those new year 'reflective' blogs. Soz... by Maria Spadafora

Spark at Light Night Leeds

Spark at Light Night Leeds

So 2017 ended with me turning 48 and trimming my first moustache hair, which inevitably leads to an ‘I did that!’ reflective blog post…

In March the really wonderful Heart, in Headingley, hosted my exhibition ‘Creation’. My photographs of performers and other artists had previously been exhibited at Arts@Trinity in Leeds, so it was an honour to have another opportunity to share this work. I received such lovely comments!

“You capture a feeling with your camera. You capture my imagination with your eyes.
There’s vibrancy in your photos.”
Miriam

I was also privileged to be offered an artist residency with Wakefield Cathedral, and over a period of two months visited the Cathedral’s many spaces, spending time with the people who use them. From volunteers counting donations in the Dean’s Vestry, to toddlers enjoying music in the Education Room, I observed and photographed many of the different activities that take place in this stunning building. I enjoy reacting and documenting things as they happen, whether it’s how the evening light falls on the ancient steps to the bell tower, or the enthusiasm of the weekly tour. It’s a beautiful building, full of history and stories, but it’s the people who keep it alive and vibrant, so I was chuffed to be offered this opportunity and to exhibit the final photos there in July. The exhibition also featured in Wakefield’s ArtWalk.

The biggie for me in 2017 though was The Real Princesses of Yorkshire. I’d been sitting on the idea for this project for a couple of years, and finally plucked up the courage to apply for funding and - to my genuine shock - got it! Thanks to Leeds Inspired and the Arts Council’s Grants for the Arts, I was able to work with 32 people and various locations to create a series of portraits that poke gentle fun at the limitations of fairytale princesses whist celebrating people in all their diversity.  One person commented that it was the best thing they attended that year, adding “It was uniquely subversive whist being completely joyous and welcoming.” I've project managed all sorts of arts and community events over the years, so I know that getting 694 people through the door of an exhibition is a massive achievement, and I am really chuffed with how this project panned out. And I'm hugely grateful for the support I received, including great help and performances at the launch party. Some of these pictures will be making another appearance at Heart next year, alongside some shenanigans for International Women’s Day, so stay tuned!

My recurring theme for 2017 appears to be the splits?! And seeing my Carnival photos on banners dotted about Chapeltown and Harehills was a bit flipping cool. Plus, forgive me, but hilarious drag goddess Katya Zamolodchikova shared my photo on Instagram getting over 71,000 likes - so I’m claiming this as an achievement (it’s a sign of these shallow times!) 

But my photography, a passion I’m still exploring and developing, is a work in progress and does not pay the bills, though it has sat nicely alongside my day job creating and managing opportunities for young people and communities to access the arts. So here’s a self indulgent wish-list for 2018:

1. A new job – I’ve been working with communities and young people for about 20 years. I’ve seen access to arts and education get worse, not better. I don’t think I’ll ever stop fighting for this.

2. Hatch my other eggs – I have more projects, I must make them happen

3. Keep snapping and learning - works on various levels ;)

Finally, I want to say a massive thank you and send love to everyone who’s helped, advised, supported, participated or employed me this year. Photography can be very lonely work, so the collaborations and support I’ve had this year have been enormously valuable.

Ta, ducks, you’ve been real! x

Documenting a Sikh Wedding by Maria Spadafora

In August I had my first taste of wedding photography. It also happened to be my first Sikh wedding (Anand Karaj).

I first met the bride and groom, Seetal and Kaviraj, though my work with South Asian Arts UK. Both are talented artists, and Seetal also runs Two Brown Girls with her friend Aaminah.  They know my pictures and how I work as I've photographed various Indian dance and music events, so I was enormously flattered when they asked me to document their wedding. They wanted to capture everything naturally, keeping poses to the minimum, so I was up for the challenge. I approached it in the same way I would any event, capturing characters, details, moments, and movement as stealthily as possible. I felt it was important to be respectful and as un-invasive as possible, particularly during the ceremony. There's nothing more annoying than a photographer getting right in your face!

Seetal and Kavi briefed me on the different celebrations and ceremonies I’d be documenting from Seetal’s side over the three days. Another photographer covered Kavi’s end in Leicester, and we were both there for the main event. It was full-on hard work, but enormous fun. I was too hesitant at times, which meant I definitely missed some photo opportunities, but on the whole I felt I'd captured the important things - family, moments, colour, detail, emotion, tradition, and, of course, Seetal's stunning wedding outfit.

Maiyan / Rangoli / Mehndi

The Maiyan is a cleansing ceremony, performed a few days before the wedding to prepare the bride and groom for marriage. Family members contribute to a Rangoli (a colourful design, in this instance created with powder paint, but it can be done with rice) before later smearing the bride with a wonderfully yellow blend of turmeric, channa and mustard oil. We were blessed with a sunny day for this ceremony, so I like to pretend these were taken in India (we were in Leeds). Seetal also had mehndi applied to her hands and feet by talented artist Dilrani Kaur Lall  with help from Sukhmani Rayat. Whilst they laboured over this, all the women in the family partook in a Punjabi tradition known as Gidha Boliyan - dancing and singing folk songs, some of which get a bit cheeky. Later, family and friends gathered for a Sangeet evening - a party beginning with folk songs and ending with some lively Bhangra. Punjabis really know how to party!

Chura Ceremony

On day two I attended and photographed a ceremony which involved the maternal Uncles dipping chura (bangles) in milk then placing them, in a specific order, on Seetal's wrists. The bride is then dressed in a red chin (scarf). A lot of family pile into an average sized living room! Presents are shared, speeches made, tears are shed, and fun is had. Oh, and it probably goes without saying that there is food. There is always food. A lot of food.

Milni / Anand Karaj / Doli

On the 'big day' the Bride finds a space to finish preparing herself as the Groom's family arrive at the Gurdwara. The Bride's female friends and relatives jostle at the back door, indulging a jokey ritual with the Groom's relatives about whether or not to let them in. Then a more formal ceremony takes place, the Milni, where the person in charge of the scriptures introduces key family members to one another. 

The marriage ceremony itself is called Anand Karaj, where Kavi arrives first to sit before the Guru Granth Sahib. Live Kirtan music is played, led by the rather awesome Kirpal Singh Panesar. After Seetal enters with her family and sits beside Kavi, Seetal's Mum, Keran gives her daughter's scarf to her new son-in-law, known as the Palle Di Rassam - a clearly symbolic and emotional moment.  The formal part of the ceremony ends with the Laavan, the circulation of the Holy Book before sweets are given out to everyone. Guests patiently gather to give blessings to the couple and have their picture taken in turn - the point at which I get serious cramp from endlessly snapping!

After yet more food, both families later return to the Bride's family home, only this isn't straightforward, as there has to be more slapstick tussling at the front door and money exchanged before the Groom is allowed to enter! Finally, after even more food, the day ends with the Doli - rice is thrown and Seetal leaves home with her new husband and family. Like any good wedding, it gets a bit teary.

I can't thank the families enough for this wonderful experience, and wish them the absolute best! To see more images from this work, hop over to my Flickr.

Gear: I used my trusty Canon EOS 60D, mostly with a 55-250mm lens, and newly acquired 70D, with a 18-55mm lens. Occasionally I used a wide 10-18mm lens. For better or worse, I always use natural/available light.