Main image: Seedhill Road, leading into the heart of Seedhill, with the Mile End Mill in the background. Photo by Tareq Selim.
Nicola Stead headed into Seedhill, Paisley without ever having been there before. As an outsider, how did she earn the trust of the locals to stand in front of her lens?
Just on the edge of Paisley’s town centre and on the banks of the River Cart, lies the neighbourhood of Seedhill. The most imposing features at first are the big red brick buildings, casting their shadows on the quiet streets below. They formerly housed Paisley’s long-gone threading industry, since then converted to flats and office spaces.
There is much nostalgia in Paisley about the days when the mills were still churning out smoke from their sky-high chimneys. There is almost a sense that the present doesn’t exit. There’s nothing to talk about today. Conversations can only reminisce about the past.
“A portrait is a little portal into somebody’s life and their story,” Nicola says. “And for me, a great portrait should make you want to know more about that person and should … capture some essence of them.”
Nicola spent a year-long arts residency in Seedhill which just came to an end in November. It was part of the ongoing EVOLVE project in Seedhill spearheaded by RIG Arts, a charity which engages with communities through art and film.
EVOLVE was one of the recipients of a Scottish government-funded programme established to help communities across the country recover from the Covid-19 pandemic through creative activities.
Nicola’s A Portrait of Seedhill, is an up-and-close series of the people of Seedhill in their element. The photos are striking in their honesty, but warm in their humanity.
But Seedhill was not a community that traditionally engaged with the arts. Its legacy was working class and industrial. It’s not so straightforward for a photographer from elsewhere to just come in and start shooting.
“I didn’t know anyone in Seedhill. I didn’t know of Seedhill. So, that was the first time I’d ever been there,” says Nicola, who at first had to do a lot of legwork before anyone was willing to stand in front of her lens. And it wasn’t an easy start.
“It takes time to do because people are … naturally cautious … they don’t really know what you’re doing, so they don’t really want to get involved.”
The fact that Seedhill did not have a community centre or other kind of communal space to meet people presented another challenge. “I think community members would naturally be … suspicious of people coming in and offering these things.”
Her residency was initially for six months but was extended to a year, which gave Nicola the perfect amount of time to build a relationship with the community. She got to know the locals through hosting her own photography workshops and photo walks and being involved with RIG Arts’ other activities.
As she became a more familiar face in the neighbourhood, more people were willing to pose for her. To help put people at ease, Nicola would let her subjects take the lead and control all the elements of the photoshoot, deciding where and when to shoot and how they want to be presented.
The first few photos in a session are for getting the initial embarrassment out the way, Nicola says, which paves the way for the subject to relax and have a photograph they’re happy with. Nicola would leave it entirely up to her subjects how they wanted to look, whether to smile or not or stand or sit. The most important element was for the photo to be a genuine representation of the person.
“It’s … trying to give people some kind of agency over it. And it’s a collaboration. It’s not like me taking their photograph. It’s more like we’re making this photograph together.”
Nicola gave everyone who took part in the project a print of their portrait. Many of them never had a professional photograph of them taken before. To have that and a physical copy to hang up at home was extra special.
As more and more people were getting photographed, fear of missing out encouraged even more to volunteer posing for Nicola.
It had a massively positive impact on the local community, especially when the series was showcased in an exhibition. At the end of her residency, the portraits were shown at a special outdoor projection event in Seedhill. Nicola says there was a deep sense of pride when the community got to see themselves reflected back to them, their neighbours and the wider public.
Many would ask why the government would fund artistic activities instead of more material needs. Rebecca Livesy-Wright, the project coordinator for EVOLVE, believes creativity is just as important to social development.
“Creativity helps people express themselves and when people are hard up or when people are having a tough, actually expressing yourself is really important.
“The impact on the arts and mental health and wellbeing is really strong but also it’s about skill sharing and upskilling and giving people those tools that build their confidence and build their self-esteem.
“But also, beyond that, if you deliver a creative activity, it gives people a chance and a purpose to come together and be part of the community.”
Since its invention, photography has played a crucial part in recording and telling people’s stories. While a photo immediately becomes a historic record, it captures a present moment, and for a while, it tells the story of what’s happening now.
“Representation is really powerful and … forging a sense of agency within communities, I think photography is really good at doing that,” Nicola says. “I think it does create a visual record of time now. I think, in Seedhill especially … there’s a lot of focus on the mills and the past and all the people that worked in the mill, as if there was this important past but the present isn’t really that important now. “It was nice to … put down a marker and say ‘this is Seedhill now. These are the people that live here and they’re important too and this is their life stories.’”