Essay 1 by Ruth Lister,Member of the House of Lords, Emeritus Professor,
Loughborough University and author of Poverty (Polity Press)
There have been many stories about people living in poverty in the media recently but by and large they have been negative stories that demonise and represent 'the poor' as 'other'. The effect can be to distance the viewer or reader and no doubt make them less sympathetic to the policies needed to tackle poverty. Indeed, as the free churches argued in a letter to the Prime Minister last year, the myths about poverty perpetuated by the media and politicians 'are convenient because they allow the poor to be blamed for their poverty and the rest of society to avoid taking any responsibility'. Even supportive stories about people living in poverty can sometimes represent a form of sympathetic othering by representing them as somehow different and as passive victims, lacking agency. Insofar as their voices are heard, the story has been framed by someone else.
This is why this project is so important. It has allowed people with experience of poverty to tell their own stories in the way that they want to tell them. In doing so people who have not experienced poverty can better understand that, just like them, people in poverty exercise agency in their everyday lives but they do so within much greater constraints. They exercise agency in the struggle to get by but also in the ways they support family members, friends, neighbours and other members of their local communities and in their attempts to create better lives and conditions. In doing so they are contributing to society in important ways, even if they don't happen to be in paid work.
Fifteen years ago I had the privilege to sit on the Commission on Poverty, Participation and Power, half of whose members had experience of poverty. That experience helped to deepen my own understanding of poverty and had a huge influence on the book I went on to write about the concept of poverty. I learned just how important it is that people in poverty are treated with respect and are listened to. Such recognition has been identified as a basic human need. The Roles We Play project recognises, listens to and values people living in poverty and I hope the report will reach a wide audience.
Essay 2 by Eva Sajovic,Artist Photographer
Before evolving into a participatory film project and now this book, The Roles We Play began life as a photo exhibition in the summer of 2009.
It grew out of an idea for a journal project to be undertaken with the community of individuals and families at ATD Fourth World. The original concept was to portray each person in two settings, at ATD Fourth World and in a location of their choice, and to accompany these images with a written self- portrait to give people the opportunity to define and present themselves on their own terms.
Our aim, the same then as it is today, was to counter stereo- types about people living in poverty and social exclusion by presenting honest, personal accounts of daily life and per- sonal aspiration.
Those involved in the project then invested their time and energy in touring the exhibition around the UK and across Europe. The extended time frame between the start of the project and the publication of this book has allowed time for myself and the participants to get to know each other and build relationships of trust, allowing for more intimate and revealing representations to come through in the photographs. It has also allowed for an ongoing and evolving consideration of a person’s sense of self so that individuals could be re-photographed if they felt the original photographs no longer represented them. This has allowed the participants to fully embrace the aim of the project and to rightfully claim ownership of it.
Ongoing discussions with the participants were instrumental in the development of the concept as well as the content. As an artist working predominantly in participatory practice, I often contemplate the roles being played in such a collaboration; my own role and those of the other participants actively engaged in the creative process. I am interested in the interdependence and interconnectedness of such a process, the value we all bring and also the nature of the work and how it confers different positions on us all. I want to thank all those involved in this project for opening their lives to me and re-affirm that this book is a testament to the creativity and energy of those our society so often overlooks and leaves behind.
Essay 3 by Dann Kenningham, National Coordination for ATD Fourth World
Origin: From the Latin praejudicium, from prae 'in advance' + judicium 'judgement’ - to judge beforehand or prejudgment.
Definition: An unfair preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience.
“It is very easy to damage someone with a look that says stay away. What effect does that have on people? On the inside…it makes you feel worthless, less than human. The worst thing is that very often the person giving the look does not even know they are giving it.” Project participant
The inspiration for “The Roles We Play” came from a desire to shed light on what ordinary people do to combat poverty and social exclusion in their everyday lives.
By focusing on these efforts and achievements the project offers an alternative perspective; providing the viewer space to reflect on this very human, yet corrosive, societal issue. Through these powerful images and expressive writing, one can take a step back from the sweeping judgments and media narrative that is becoming all too commonplace. The project aims to tackle the prejudice so often shouldered by the most vulnerable members of our society. Only through reciprocal efforts based on empathy, not pity or charity, can we endeavour to develop our human capacity for change.
All those featured in this book have worked extremely hard to tell their stories and have made the brave decision to put themselves in the public spotlight.
Each participant has been involved in all aspects of the project, both in front of and behind the camera. Everyone who took part was encouraged to recognise and elaborate on the positive contributions that they make on a daily basis within their families and communities.
We hope you agree that the following pages stand as a challenge to the prevailing negative stereotypes of people who experience poverty in the UK.
By focusing on the positive actions of individuals and communities we can move away from blaming people for their situation and instead involve them and their expertise in finding solutions. It is our hope that all of the material produced as part of this project can now be used as a resource for inclusive and constructive debate about overcoming poverty in this country.