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Grace Spitzer-Wong: Professional photographer and journalist Posts

Fitness to Work test Ruled as Discriminating Against those with Mental Health Conditions

Posted in Depression, Journalism, Mental Health, Personal Narratives, and Welfare Benefits

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Charlotte Walker has Bipolar Disorder. She was declared unfit to work by her psychiatrist, GP and occupational health. After a Work Capability Assessment for Employment Support Allowance, she was found fit for work.

The Fitness for work ESA assessment has been confirmed as discriminatory to those with mental health illnesses.

Today, the Work Capability Assessment was upheld at the Court of Appeal as discriminatory to those with mental health problems. Mental health claimants on Employment Support Allowance benefit, a sickness benefit for those out of work, are expected to provide evidence of their condition which can be complicated by the nature of their illness. The ruling stands from May this year that the fitness for work test may hinder these claimants as they could have problems asking for and finding evidence, providing it or understanding the assessment process itself.

Due to mental health difficulties which hamper the process from filling out the form for the benefit, through to problems with people being unable to describe their condition because of shame, stigma or lack of insight, the assessor may not get a full picture of the disability or their ability to work and claims could be rejected on this limited view according to the court ruling.  The process of completing the questionnaire and undergoing the interviews were mentioned as causing those with mental health problems disproportionate stress when compared with claimants suffering from other disabilities.

Across the UK, mental health sufferers and campaigners are celebrating this success. Those who have gone through the Work Capability Assessment under Employment Support Allowance, testing their fitness for work have had their feelings of the unfair process confirmed in law.

Charlotte Walker, 39 was diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder twenty years ago, where moods swing from extremes of mania to severe depression. She had eight symptom free years but in July 2010, her mental health worsened because of a pressurised managerial role. Describing the mania, Charlotte said: “I was seeing pseudo hallucinations with centipedes, worms, ladders, brightly coloured beads and kaleidoscopic fragments, I wasn’t sleeping. There were snatches of music in my head and the same phrase looping over and over. I couldn’t think of ways to stop it and felt that I would probably have to kill myself.”

Charlotte went to seven back-to-work meetings before accepting her employer’s decision in April 2012 that she was unable to return, so she left her post. Within three months of her psychiatrist, GP and occupational health concluding she was too ill for work, Charlotte attended a Work Capability Assessment accompanied by her partner, after applying for Employment Support Allowance and was found fit for work, scoring no points.

The face to face Work Capability Assessment carried out by Atos, the company employed by the Department for Work and Pensions, measures physical and mental health conditions affecting a person’s ability to complete daily tasks, such as dressing themselves and cooking.  Atos log criteria on a computer during assessment and the Department for Work and Pensions makes decisions with this information. The process was designed to look at an individual’s functional ability, looking at what he or she can do rather than what he or she cannot do. The higher the points scored, the more limited the person was in capability for work. The intention was this should provide a focussed assessment looking at the unique needs of the individual. Fifteen points are needed to remain on Employment Support Allowance and people scoring fewer points are deemed fit to work and cannot claim the benefit, which is where Charlotte found herself.

She said: “During the assessment, they didn’t understand my health and kept asking me about a typical day when I don’t have a typical day. I took a lot documents but they didn’t want to see them. They wouldn’t let us take notes and accused us of being aggressive for wanting to know the full name and qualification of the person assessing me. I was crying all the time.” Charlotte felt “there was no way she could win” as her condition varied on a daily basis.

A DWP spokesperson wasn’t able to comment on individual cases but said: “Employment and Support Allowance assesses someone’s capacity for work and looks at what a person can do because we know conditions affect people in different ways.

“Since 2010 we have improved the Work Capability Assessment. As a result the percentage of people getting long term unconditional support has more than doubled in two years, everyone has the right to appeal if they disagree with the outcome.”

Charlotte appealed and after a year, a tribunal ruled in her favour. She then stopped her Employment Support Allowance as she couldn’t go through more assessments.

Jenny Townsend, 37, suffered post-natal depression after the birth of her second child. She is also diagnosed with back pain, sciatica, anxiety and endometriosis. In August 2010, she felt suicidal, lacked motivation and didn’t bathe much. During maternity leave, she was made redundant. Meanwhile, Jenny and her husband were worried that her son had brain damage. Her GP prescribed antidepressants and she started to claim Employment Support Allowance. After her Work Capability Assessment, she was deemed fit for work and she appealed with assistance from a charity.

She said: “I was shocked when I had my assessment, it was like an interrogation. They never looked at me when they asked questions and were serious and cold. They asked how I’d got there and asked if I had walked from the bus stop, that information was used against me. I was astounded at the report that I got when I appealed. It said I was able to communicate, was clean, dressed well, tidy and clear speaking.

“They didn’t address my illness as they were looking for someone who could walk and talk, therefore they could work.”

Jenny came off Employment Support Allowance despite still suffering from depression. She had a second assessment but her contributory ESA had ended so she completely cancelled the claim as she didn’t want to go through the assessment again.

Services have seen an impact on people going through assessments. Vocation Matters in Lambeth provides vocational support for people with mental health problems. They have had to turn people away because of demand. Shaun Williams, the manager, said they had to attend work capability assessments, which is outside their normal casework. Mr Williams foresees further problems when people will be affected in 2015 as benefit changes are rolled out across the country. He said: “It makes people feel bad and they question, do I really feel these things? It screws people’s belief in themselves and people are railroaded through the system.”

The original May ruling said the Department for Work and Pensions must do more to ensure evidence about a person’s illness is collected and taken into account and adjustments must be made to the process, as the current Work Capability Assessment puts some groups at a substantial disadvantage.

Jayne Linney, 51, has long-term diagnoses of fibromyalgia, Sjorgens syndrome, cervical spondyltitus, spinal cord damage, nerve related incontinence, depression and migraines. She built a thirty-year career in community work, adult education and counselling but said: “My health took it away from me.” Her claim for Employment Support Allowance began in May 2011 after severe work stress nearly led to her being sectioned. Jayne described her experiences of Atos assessing her three times for Employment Support Allowance, saying: “It’s unwelcoming, it’s an inhuman process, like a sheep or cow going to cattle market, you’re not a person. “You’re guilty and have to prove you’re ill. The assessment takes no notice of your consultants or GP. You know the person knows nothing about your condition, they could be a physio.”

An Atos spokesperson said: “We do not make decisions on individuals’ entitlement to benefit: we carry out Work Capability Assessments in line with policy and guidelines laid down by the government.

“All our doctors, nurses and physiotherapists are registered with their professional body and have at least three years post registration experience.”

Jayne fought an online campaign to record her assessment but finds repeated assessments draining. With new legislation affecting her housing benefit alongside the assessments she said: “It’s never ending. You’re never free from it, that’s the worst part. “I don’t know how or if I will cope. I’ve got a cupboard full of drugs and Oramorph. I’m aware that suicide is an option that is always around the corner. Sometimes you look at what’s going to happen, it might be the best way out.

“When you can’t participate in the world, what is the point?”

In a joint statement Mind, the National Autistic Society and Rethink Mental Illness said:

“The judges in the original ruling independently confirmed what our members and supporters have been saying for years – the system is unfair for some of the most vulnerable people in our society and is failing the very people it is meant to be supporting.

“In light of today’s ruling it would be irresponsible for the DWP to carry on using these flawed assessments as they are.”

The final judgement is expected next year unless the Department for Work and Pensions wishes to appeal the decision through the Supreme Court.

Timing, Mood and Light in the Moment

Posted in Brixton, Chiaroscuro, and Music Photography

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Last night, I was shooting at the Jamm in Brixton for Courtney Pine’s Mary Seacole fundraiser gig. My favourite shot from the night is of the violinist from the support act, The Portraits. I’m fascinated with chiaroscuro, the strong contrast between light and dark and low light overall and what can be captured if I push the technical limits of my camera. I like the challenge and the painterly effects that can come up.

I’m afraid the rest of the shots have been benchmarked for commissions and elsewhere so you’ll have to wait for those!

Hidden Spaces across the Snowscapes of London

Posted in Documentary Photography, Hidden Spaces, Identity, and Personal Work

This morning, I pulled on my docs and braved the drifting snow to photograph more private bedroom spaces. I simply cannot resist the temptation to be a voyeur and to have a peek into a person’s life. Walking through the powdery snow textured like cornflour underfoot; I came across the street of the flat I was to photograph and noticed the snow settled on the foliage and branches in a beautiful configuration. Give me sun any day but this was a visual marvel and made up for the miserably cold temperatures.

The rooms of CD and AG who share a flat were offered to me today- thank you.

What I noticed is a bedroom can be co-opted as a work space, a room where one can shut the door and concentrate. This space by the nature of communal living is often multi functional and often leaks outside of the demarcations of a place to sleep.

This blurring of lines extends out to the identities we see in theses photos. They paint a partial picture of the person, books, trinkets, kitchen goods and other paraphernalia are in the living room or elsewhere, other items live in auxillary nooks or are obscured from my immediate view behind doors and drawers. As a viewer it is up to us to negotiate the  splits and to fill in the gaps. Lives can take on an entirely peripatetic existence. We are always more than our commodities. Our bedrooms feel very pedestrian to us that wake in them each day and they do not make us as people but the colours,  moods and feel in a bedroom are fascinating for me as I come upon them for the first time.

CD’s room:

 

AG’s room:

Hidden Spaces

Posted in Hidden Spaces, Identity, and Personal Work

Continuing on the theme of liminality and the occupation of spaces between boundaries, I’ve started shooting some personal work in bedrooms.

Last summer, I got talking to a couple of creatives after a photography event at The National Portrait Gallery. The idea came up about how bedrooms are private spaces and are not often seen publicly. Thank you for that conversation as it sparked this idea and project.

I normally photograph people, as they are what interest me visually. There is this on going question I have with how I relate as a photographer to my sitters and how I connect to others as a person generally. However, this is slightly leftfield for me as I have no plan to feature people in this work. Being allowed into that private, unseen bedroom space and shooting it unaltered gives many subtle clues. It embodies the person who inhabits that space and spends a lot of time sleeping and resting there. So I am addressing that question of identity from a renewed angle.

If you’re interested in taking part and don’t mind me coming into your room to document the details then email me at info@gracewongphotography.co.uk. or tweet me at @GraceWongPhoto. Please don’t feel you need to make any special concessions to tidiness, keep it as it would be untouched is my preference. Anything in cupboards, wardrobes or doors that are not openly displayed won’t be photographed. You have my word, I have no desire to snoop as being let into your room is a great privilege already. I look forward to hearing from you all!

So here is the start of this body of work with DL’s room. Thank you for letting me in to shoot it.

Circus 70’s – My Aerial Home Christmas Show

Posted in Aerial Arts, Circus 70's, My Aerial Home, and Trapeze

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My Aerial Home put on a dazzling fundraiser for Marie Curie Cancer Care on Saturday and I had the pleasure to photograph the very talented aerial performers. The Theme of Circus 70’s was brilliantly captured in the flamboyant costumes. Ziggy, Elton and Joni made appearances and captivated the audience with their skills on trapeze, hoop, silks and silk sling. Humourous and beautiful routines with a distinctly sexy edge. Such fun to photograph!

Trapeze and the aerial arts are exploding into the public realm and for very good reason. I did a few courses with My Aerial Home a while back and really, really enjoyed my time on the trapeze. It was great for building strength physically and also mentally. I found myself trusting in myself bodily and emotionally much more fully and this really developed me as a person. If you get a chance, give it a go as you will discover an inner quietness and strength that is truly marvellous.

A selection of the shots from the night can be seen on my main page.

Delicious Lunch

Posted in Food Photography

6372657[1]Did I mention that I love food? I’m sure I have done. Well here it is again, I love food!

With the months getting colder and darker as we approach winter, it is so vital to eat well and look after oneself.

So here’s a quick snap of my lunch today. A juicy salmon fillet sat atop a mass of peppery watercress. Served with couscous spiked with pumpkin and flax seeds. All finished off with a sprinkling of pomegranate. Super tasty and great for boosting the immunity!

Wending through country lanes on two wheels

Posted in Cycling

With the weather turning grey and drizzly outside and looking decidedly autumnal, I was lucky to catch what was left of the rare autumn sun on the bike a few days ago. I woke up that morning and the sun was streaming in through the curtains. I knew it would be wise to make the most of this and headed out into the nearby country lanes on my Salsa Casseroll bike, Verde (or the gold bike as she is sometimes affectionately referred to as). I pedalled off at a pootle pace and took my camera with me in a pannier.

Early into the ride, just leaving the confines of suburbia there is a steep short sharp hill that beats me every time. Having gotten out of the habit of riding regularly and being nowhere near as fit as I used to be, I struggle with any form of hills or bumps. This time I managed enough momentum to make it halfway up the ascent before stopping, resting and carrying on huffing and puffing.

This photo due to the wideness of the lens angle doesn’t quite show the steepness of the hill but you get the jist of it, either that or I am just that unfit now!:

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There is some outstandingly beautiful countryside nearby which is a real joy to cycle in. Having done the majority of my cycling in London, apart from a few long rides out to the coastlines or just outside of the M25 corridor; it really is lovely to have smooth tarmac roads uninterrupted by traffic lights and delightfully clean air.

I really hadn’t planned that day to be out for long or to cycle far. I only took a sports bottle of plain water and no food. I always, always get hungry cycling, perhaps from the outset this wasn’t the wisest choice!

 

It was one of those rides where I just kept cycling, I went through Farleigh Wallop, Nutley, The Candovers: Brown Candover, Preston Candover, Chiltern Candover and then onto Swarraton.  I passed fields with black and white cows, sheep and another field with black cows looking at me with their inscrutable dark eyes giving away nothing. I cycled past sections dense with trees and many a thatched house and quaint structures before I started to realise that I was getting a bit hungry. I pedalled on further until I saw my saviour, little black jewels glistening in a hedgegrow. I stopped and hunted around for any blackberries that had not been eaten by birds and with a meagre bounty of blackberries sitting in my growling stomach, I carried on.

5837341[1]By this point I’d reached Old Arlesford and decided to turn round and head home as I was hungry, tired and the lactic acid was starting to build up in my muscles leading to burning quads. Long gone are the days of training at my lactic threshold and to be honest, I was hungry and getting tired by this stage. I pushed homewards, eyes greedily scanning the bushes for more berries as I pedalled along. I saw what looked like red currants glistening abundantly in the sun but as tempting as they were I wasn’t guaranteed that they were good to eat so cycled past. Eventually I glanced upon a bush groaning with blackberries and clambered up onto the knoll and had my fill until I was replete with the sweetness of wild berries. Motorists in their cars speeding by must have wondered what a lycra clad cyclist was doing ambling along the hedgegrow! I made it back in one piece powered by berries without collapsing in a heap by the side of the road (I have also been known to do this on very rare illness induced occasions). Twenty six miles roughly all in all.

A day of some of my favourite things, foraging for wild food, cycling uninterrupted in the country lanes and glorious sunshine.

Fire in Fa Yuen Street Market claims the lives of nine

Posted in Fa Yuen Street Market Fire Nov 2011, Hong Kong, and Photojournalism

Whilst I was in Hong Kong, I did some journalistic work and followed Ms Tse a native Hong Kong press photographer who worked for Metro HK.

On the evening of 30th November 2011, a fire of unknown cause damaged fifty stalls on Fa Yuen Street Market, an iconic market and bustling tourist destination. The fire spread to a block of residential housing causing the deaths of nine residents. Stock from the market was piled in the hallways and stairwells adding to the flammability of the block and impeding exit routes. This raises further governmental issues within Hong Kong. The flats in the block were subdivided illegally meaning existing small flats were partitioned off into even smaller spaces leading to dense, overcrowded accommodation. The lack of affordable housing, continuing rent increases and the unenforced legislation around overcrowded housing and dense market stall demarcations has culminated in the deaths of nine people. Sadly, a similar blaze happened the year before in the same street, though that time without fatalities. Unfortunately it seems the lessons learnt will be too late for those nine who sadly lost their lives.

Macaron Madness!

Posted in Food Photography, Macaron, and Pattiserie

Those of you that know me will know I have a penchant for all things food related. Savoury, sweet, adventurous, plain – you name it!

3452187[1]These little goodies have a special place in my foodie heart. I love macarons. I love making them and best of all, eating them! I went through a period of making four to six batches once a week to get them perfect. There were a lot of mis-fortunate almond ‘cowpats’ that tasted divine but were technically wrong.

A bit snowed under at present and soon to familiarise myself with the unpredictabilities of a new oven but once I’m settled, I hope to write a proper post about the art of making the macaron; however, would I just be re-inventing the wheel? I’ll think on it.

Whilst researching on my baking adventure, I found these sites which were particularly useful:
David Lebovitz
Brave Tart
Not So Humble Pie
Plus, Sucré- Ladurée was a fantastic recipe book from the Parisian patisserie that invented the modern macaron in its form we know and love today.

So a photo of my macarons with chocolate ganache to tempt you all, there will be more food related photography and write ups to come.

Signing off for now folks!