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Grace Spitzer-Wong: Professional photographer and journalist Posts

Brené Brown TED talk, let’s not try and “knock discomfort upside the head”.

Posted in Journalism

Brené Brown’s TED talks on courage, shame, connection and vulnerability are incredibly inspirational, and were one of the factors behind my previous blog post. I came across the second one very recently and felt it was important to share it with those of you who haven’t seen them.

Mental health struggles don’t need to be hidden and by putting it out there, it opens up a space to talk, share and connect.

Enjoy, it’s well worth the forty minutes of your time.


Disabling Walls Cracking Through to Daylight

Posted in Depression, Identity, Mental Health, and Writing

“If you can’t keep yourself alive and safe then I’ll have to send a psychiatrist around and bring you into hospital.”

I never thought I would hear those words and I cried and cried down the phone to the duty doctor at my GP practice feeling a rising sense of desperation.  I wanted and needed help but this wasn’t it.

The duel impulses of wanting to take my own life, as I couldn’t cope with managing my own mental ill health with thoughts running alongside of all I had achieved that hadn’t quite unfurled yet was breaking me into pieces. I wanted to live and I wanted to die and I felt the weight of both pressing on me to cast the deciding vote on my life. Life is standing uneven footed on this edge, facing down the nameless void and being overcome with unshakeable opaque blackness or tilting my weary head up to look at the blue, expansive sky with the possibilities to come. Sometimes gravity is stronger than freeing myself to fly up to the warmth of the sun.

Hospital was not an option and I made sure it didn’t happen but when a GP uses that as a threat when you’re getting help, it makes you cynical and hardens you up a bit.

I have thought long and hard about whether to write this post on my professional website.

This blog came about as I wanted to bring thought and personality into my work, as that’s part of the reason to commission me for photography and writing. However, I always considered the tone of voice I use and the personal information that I put out in a professional context. Fundamentally, I’ve always been an honest person and I truly believe that if you strip away the layers, you are left with the essence of who you are so it’s important to speak with an authentic voice about my truths and my reality.

I have suffered from severe clinical depression and anxiety for a long time so that it’s classed as a disability. Many times it has cut into my life and stopped me in my tracks, interfering with my ability to do normal daily things like cooking, reading, getting dressed or halting achievements and plans of mine. For an intensely driven high achiever with the work ethic of several small countries, frustration does not even cover it, I know when it descends, I am weighted down by the part of me I try to keep from blotting me entirely with black inkiness.

There are many eye rolling stories about the colleague that overshares to the point of discomfort and that is not my aim here. This is who I am and a part of my make up but right now I am fighting for it to not consume me and it will never run me. I spend so much time thinking and photographing around identity and the hidden and with that trust my sitters give me to see into their lives, I would like to give something back and knock down those suffocating barriers that don’t end up protecting us but create a wall of silence. This is me and I hope to conquer it and get stronger again.

Mental health conditions aren’t rare, 1 in 4 of the general population will experience a mental health problem in any year. Whenever I have talked about my condition it has led to others opening up,  stigma is something that stopped me writing on here but it should be out there. This condition influences the jobs I’m able to take, the decisions I make for myself and the ways that I am able to work. Mental health can be damaging and negative but it can be a positive story where people survive to fight another day to achieve all these big and wonderful things. I feel that by writing this, I am reminding myself not to effervesce myself into glittering blackness because it feels good at the time of productivity and I can tell myself to just keep putting one foot in-front of the other until it feels natural to walk again.

As I sit here typing, medication which I got put on and now taken off is buffering me with waves of sedation mulling my braincells into dizzying heights, spaced out and suffocating where my head swims back and forth. I want my sharp, quick witted brain back. It’s not like the past few days, with a trip to hospital and sleeping all day as medicine was knocking me out. Today, I draw the line under it and am trying to continue the battle without chemicals. I’ve been drafting this post for weeks but have just been too unwell but it either gets said or sits there silently gathering weight. I’ll take the odd sleep patterns, crying in a heap not knowing why, squaring up with suicide, unsure how to respond to people asking “how are you?”, the unshakeable grip of feeling just a bit too raw and the rest, if I can keep myself going.

In the middle of healthcare bureaucracy, I’m trying to set up professional support and relying on friends becomes difficult as I feel like a dead weight burden. Trying to put anchors down amongst all the wavering uncertainty. Who I become when I get ill is the opposite of who I am when I am well but these sides of me need to co-exist in a healthy way and not jostle for space in an all or nothing bid for war. Internally, keeping myself alive and well sometimes feels like the most impossible task when I hit the lows with no end point in sight and ping back up in anxiety driven jitters of activity where my perception starts to distort and I can’t trust what’s in-front of me.

This recent bout of illness has been a case of quite a lot happening in my personal life and juggling that with the responsibilities of a very intensive and demanding course. Since the end of January, I started an industry recognised NCTJ diploma in written journalism on a eighteen week fast track. It’s not been easy due to an enormous workload and I know it’s challenging and not me when my peers wander around looking like drained perma-zombies with glassy, blinking eyes. My ability to do well on this course may well be jettisoned by ill health and this feels like the biggest defeat of all.

Amongst all of this my management strategies have either not been possible due to lack of time or have really failed to work. After a mental health assessment, I decided to go to Green Park to enjoy the sun and try and get some normality back in my life but this proved to be one of the worst things possible. I lay on the grass and the merging of hundreds of conversations, traffic noise and general city buzz which I usually thrive off started to sound like a million telephones ringing, the people talking took on a metallic quality like sheets of metal rumbling and grating at the same time. The sky loomed over me and I felt like it was going to cave in on me as it was getting oppressively closer. It scares me to not be able to trust my own perceptions as every sense of mine has been turned up to maximum volume so everything is in overdrive. I usually buzz off lots of information and multi-tasking but I’m inundated with sounds, sights and touches that feel overwhelming now. I can’t even cycle at the moment either due to intense fatigue or the reverse and feeling wired and risky on the bike.

I’ve worked in enough big companies where they put you through psychometric tests to figure out your personality type to slot you in to the grand masterplan. An important theme that came out was that I was happiest in my work when I demonstrated courage and empathy.

What does courage mean? For me it means not giving up, not letting go, asking those questions others are afraid to ask, tackling tough issues and dealing with conflict.

What does empathy mean? One of my biggest strengths is being able to sit down with a complete stranger and get their life story in minutes and to not to be afraid to share mine, fractures and mistakes included and to be able to bring people out of themselves.

These are strengths that make me a strong journalist and photographer.

But for me right now when I shrink it down to the waves of dizziness circling my head, courage is facing up to being ill, being vulnerable and being able to stick my hand up and still be counted and not give up and I ask for your empathy and to remember it for when you see someone you love or know suffering with their demons.

Friends and the importance of being genuine

Posted in Documentary Photography, London, Personal Work, and Street Cat

“Hah! Hello stranger! Here is my journalist stalker!”

Those words greeted me as I arrived to see an old friend who I hadn’t seen since last summer.

Everyone, meet Paul.

He is a 55 year-old Canadian Big Issue seller, whose regular pitch is near Spitalfields Market and Aldgate East. I met him when I shot a batch of photos on film. Yesterday, I did some colour digital shots and they’re the ones that start this series.

I came across Paul mid May after trawling through the square mile and saw hidden in the recesses of his leather jacket was a little black face of a pudgy kitten. Previously, in April a year ago, my own cat, Cass had died suddenly of a heart attack before he’d even reached two years-old, so to see a tiny kitten reminiscent of the cat I was grieving over drew me in to find out more about this man’s story.

Paul lives in Mile End and I spent several summer days getting to know him and travelling together from his home to his pitch whilst I documented the goings-on.

Paul was born in the UK. His family moved to Toronto when he was eight years-old and he spent over thirty years there but didn’t think to get his Canadian citizenship. He got into trouble, was arrested and charged for burglary and imprisoned. Wanting to spend as much time as he could in Canada, so his two kids could visit him, he chose to serve his full three-year sentence instead of fourteen months. After this, Paul was deported to the UK, as he said he was “deemed a danger to society”. Shocked by how life can “suddenly change”, he found himself alone in London without his family, friends, children and partner.

His first experiences of street homelessness were in Hackney sleeping on the stairs of the church as they provided food for rough sleepers. This was a real change of fortunes from when he was working as a carpenter for his own business in Toronto. He dreams of being a carpenter here but struggles to find a way into it without money or formal qualifications. Paul is caught financially as he didn’t live in Canada for long enough for him to draw a pension and here in the UK, he has no contributions for the state pension. Naturally, he is worried about surviving once he reaches pensionable age.

Initially, his partner worked for a Canadian airline and she would bring his children over to visit but after 9/11, the airline suffered losses and she lost her job. Since then, their relationship has broken down and he has not seen them for eight years. Missing his children growing up is big regret for Paul.

Hopelessness, depression and the trap of circumstances he can’t control weighs on Paul’s shoulders daily. Survival is about getting up and selling the Big Issue magazine as it gives some structure to his days. Arriving at noon at the Bishopsgate distribution pitch where he buys a few magazines off Lee and starts his day of selling whatever the weather or occasion.

Pooky is the name of the black kitten with ginger markings that perched on Paul’s shoulder when he was on his pitch. I met her mum, Bumpy, so called as she would bump Paul’s head in the morning to wake him up, when I visited Paul at home. Bumpy had adopted him and made her home with Paul in his uncertain temporary accommodation and a few weeks later, surprised him by giving birth to kittens in a cupboard. Pooky was eventually adopted and I was told over text that a second litter of kittens were born.

Bumpy is due her third litter of kittens in six weeks time and Paul showed me a photo of his favourite kitten ‘Lord Butters’ a beautiful ginger tom from the last litter who have all now been re-homed. Paul described the last birth: “Bumpy starts snuggling up next to me on the bed, and then it’s like she’s fighting an invisible cat and then one pops out! I put it into the cupboard where she had her first lot and she carries it out onto the bed again!”

When I saw him yesterday, he was in high spirits and we chatted about Thatcher, the state of the country and the recent cold snap. It was good to see him and I plan to visit again when I have time. I held onto the original black and white images as I was waiting to see Paul face to face before I put anything up.

I realised early, with journalism and photography that it has to speak to my own heart and ethics. I have always been interested in people, their stories and narratives and long may this curiosity and genuine desire to connect with people continue to shape my work and ideas.

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!

The Layers of Memory locked within the streets of London

Posted in Cycling, London, and Memories

Bright and early this morning, I got up, put on the lycra and cycled across four London Boroughs to get to the newsdesk that I’m at this week.

I’ve missed cycling for pleasure since the start of my course, but today, commuting held a special wonder as the chill in the air was refreshing, reminiscent of a spring birthing.

Whizzing past numerous streets, I came across old roads that I’d lived on, made roots in, felt ecstatic traversing through and others where I was silenced and pierced with pain that I couldn’t carry on my fragile shoulders.

Never losing sight of the tarmac ahead of me with the snaking, unpredictable traffic, I found myself being coated in my memories as I passed familiar sites and sounds on the streets that had once opened their arms out to me in an affectionate embrace.

I stumbled upon cafes where I’d sat and basked in the sun, had serious conversations with many a friend and saturated my being with coffee and expressos into the small hours of the morning. Sidled up next to restaurants where a hurried lunch was grabbed and other hidey-holes where I’d unloaded myself. A network of personal meaning and depth that I cannot deny.

London has been my home now for over twelve years and certain places are steeped with layer upon layer of meaning, memory and emotions. Some with a tinge of sadness that spikes tears in me, others filled with beauty and wonder like looking up into the green leaves of a tree with the sun breaking through the verdent canvas.

I’ve loved, I’ve lost but always with intent and at times have wondered the streets of a cruel and brutal city feeling raw and newborn, trying to contain it all.

This great metropolis has adopted me and occupies a precious place within me. I know it like an intimate lover and find it impossible to get fully lost within its folds and turns. There is always a cherished sense of wonder at my appropriated home even though it can hurt and bruise me.

London you have my heart.

Another addition to The Fleet

Posted in Brompton, and Cycling

5399957[1]I am unashamedly into cycling and own a whole family of bikes. I have a wall in the hallway which is occupied by bicycles hung up in various forms. When I have more time, I shall take a photo and post it up, but for now, you’ll have to make do with this photo grabbed from my phone of my newest set of wheels.

Today, I met up with a friend and ‘adopted’ his Brompton folding bike. These beautiful feats of clever engineering need no introduction. When I started cycling again as an adult in London back in 2006, I coveted one of these bikes and eventually, years later, I now have one of my own.

Taking to the sunny roads on the Brompton, I was delighted. It felt like how a bike rides when you’re a small child. I haven’t ridden a non-road bike for a number of years now and noticed immediately how upright the positioning is on the Brompton.

One thing that I will need to get used to is the novelty of cycling in ‘normal’ clothes again as I converted to lycra a few years ago.

I look forward to the many adventures to be had!

Snatched Moments

Posted in Journalism, Nctj, Shorthand, and Writing

It’s the end of three weeks on the NCTJ course and it has been a period of intensity and growth so far. I’ve become obsessed with pens that will apparently shave off miliseconds from my teeline shorthand. I figured that anything that makes the scrawl of my usual handwriting look neater is A Very Good Thing!

But moving away from pen geekery, the course is teaching me to be an ethical, well informed writer. The focus is on letting the facts speak, concise accuracy and having an in-depth understanding of media law and how the country works. This and much more is crammed into eighteen industrious weeks.

Shorthand is fast becoming my closest friend. I love the logic behind the theory and relish the day when I get faster and eventually reach the gold standard of 100 words per minute. I’ve promised myself that after the course when I’ve got to 100wpm (with the habit and discipline of two hours of daily shorthand practice), I will resume learning traditional Chinese characters.

I’ve met some great people on the course so far and have been really interested in finding out about the varied backgrounds that everyone has come from.

In less than a month, I have learnt a vast amount. I can’t imagine how it will feel after eighteen weeks!

Gender Identity and Breaking and Dissolving Barriers

Posted in Documentary Photography, Gender Identity, Identity, Memories, Personal Work, Politics, and Portraiture

A few weeks ago I went to The First Daedalus Sharing where The Black Smock Band performed and Daedalus Theatre presented current works.

I met Alex Swift an actor who has been starting a new piece of work called Travesty. I was instantly struck by the piece as he was performing in drag and questioning gender constructs. The reason why this gripped me so much was for the last year and a half I have been shooting and thinking around a body of work on gender and identity. I met with Alex yesterday and hope to do a shoot with him and to tell his narrative for this piece. Not giving away too much right now but hope to share this in the coming months.

Fundamentally this work is about pushing past the demarcations and systems set up for us around our gender identity and as Alex put it yesterday, ‘dissolving those barriers’ to get people thinking and challenging their preconceptions. I am interested in discussions around these issues as this body of work will involve a person’s narrative, experiences and stories in text to go alongside the stills. I will be recording interviews as I hope to incorporate that element to produce a mutimedia piece. I am hoping to push at the boundaries/barriers and hope this work stimulates a lot of thought for those that see it.

I’m always looking for sitters who are interested in taking part in this project. Feel free to field some questions my way as it is constantly evolving and I know I have only partially explained it here – do get in touch!

Fine Tuning the Scribbles

Posted in Journalism, Nctj, and Writing

This coming Monday, I start a fast track NCTJ course to boost the written journalistic side of my work. The plan is to complement the photography and to become a stronger writer. It’s eighteen weeks in length and is knowledge and practice heavy. The anticipated workload is going to be intense to put it lightly, with projected 60 hour weeks!

So, I’m hoping to still be able to have time for some musings on here but you will have to forgive me if I disappear for a few weeks at a time.

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: