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The young creatives proving the North is anything but grim

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Inspired by Edward Steichen’s infamous Family of Man series, students from the University of Salford are putting leopard print grannies, femme scallies, and body building mums front of frame

Way back in 1955, the MoMa linked up with photographer Edward Steichen to exhibit what would later be recognised as one of the most ambitious and sprawling records of human life. As lensed by 273 photographers, the 503 image collection dubbed The Family of Man spanned 63 countries, capturing life’s most universal moments: from an Inuit mother nuzzling her son’s nose in an igloo and an old Dutch couple sat with idle content on a park bench, to a fresh grave strewn with funeral flowers somewhere deep in South America.

The series is a powerful antidote to loneliness in an increasingly globalised world. A testament to how neither geography, culture, nor technology can come between the most everyday markers of human existence. Yet so many of the images are reminders of our own singularity: that our bodies, and stories, are just as fleeting as the hundreds of others on exhibition. The result is a kind of alienation, if not voyeurism, which after the global you-know-what, we have all become accustomed to. 

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So at the tail end of a year where human connection itself has become overwrought, it makes sense that fashion students from the University of Salford should return, for the second time, to Steichen’s seminal piece of work. Below, we talk to a couple of the young image makers behind the project as they explore family, disability, gender identity, and “just getting on with it” for their 2021 edition of The Family of Man

RUBEE GRAHAM

“My earliest memory of doing something creative was at a stop animation workshop when I was maybe seven. It was so enjoyable because I was in charge of what colours to use, how to design the set, how to create the characters, and how to style what they were wearing. Creating in the last year has had its pros and cons but I think it’s enabled me to unlock myself and think outside the box. You need to these days. The pandemic has proven that you don’t need the four white walls of a studio to create something amazing. My dad took this photo as a selfie of my younger brother Oska, my older sister Tillie, and me. I think the image conveys bond, support, family. If we can tackle issues like climate change, racism, sexism, the whole lot – the world will be beautiful. I’m so so excited for the future. We need to make the world kinder.”

MEKA GOULDING

“Being a teenage girl is so hard. There are constantly new things you feel you ’should’ be insecure or hate about yourself. Creativity, however, was always something that I was confident and unapologetic about. I fell in love with the person I was behind the camera. When I was 14 I used to take a train to Manchester and spend the day photographing people on the street, in coffee shops, or on the tram. I loved how I could capture people in their most authentic and natural state, observing everyday people in everyday places doing everyday things. 

With this project I tried to symbolise my little brother, Bob. When Bob was adopted into our family he came with certain struggles and characteristics which set him apart from other 15-year-old boys. With the help of a model, I wanted to convey Bob’s unique approach to music. Although he struggles to maintain lyrics and melodies, he never fails to dance every time a speaker is plugged in. 

I wanted the images to embody the phrase ’dance as if no one is watching’. So to do that, I connected the model’s phone to a speaker and shot him ’feeling’ and moving to the music on a low shutter speed. Due to studios being closed, I had to create the set using bed sheets, pegs, and hair bobbles against a wall in my flat. Although this process initially felt like an inconvenience, it ended up bringing another layer of comfortability to the shoot and the model’s presence.”

JAMES CREIGHTON

“For this series, I focused on representing masculinity. Our society is obsessed with men being ‘one of the lads’ but real masculinity has no definition. A man can wear a crop top with some joggers and identify as masculine. When I was younger, I remember seeing a girl with a tote bag walking around my hometown and thinking ‘I really want a tote bag’. But the pressures of a small town made it difficult to have the confidence to own something that wasn’t stereotypically worn by a boy. My intention is to inspire and influence people to be their true selves and to forget about these made-up social rules. Of course, I had to use a model who shared my views and Sam is such a big inspiration to me, he wears whatever he wants and it’s just so great to see. I want people to see themselves reflected in these images and to gain the inner confidence to wear whatever they want – they just have to push for it.”

MEGAN HOWARTH

“My name’s Megan Howarth and I’m originally from the Isle of Man, which is a tiny little island in the Irish Sea. I have always been creative for as long as I can remember. I got this from my dad – he was forever painting and drawing portraits of us all, I can remember sitting by his side doing the same. I always wanted to be as good as him. 

My images feature my little brother, who we adopted at just 5 months old. He’s the best thing to ever happen to our family. Jay struggles with autism and SPD (sensory processing disorder), meaning his perspective on the world is a little different to ours. All his senses are heightened. I wanted to portray this through my images and create a fashion collection based on the triggers of SPD: loud colours, patterns, etc. Getting Jay to cooperate was a challenge so I had to improvise, creating situations where I could capture him in a natural setting. 

Creating has been a struggle over the last year. Because we’ve been unable to cast models, we’ve had to improvise – using friends and family members within our bubble. But I’m hopeful for what’s to come. I know I will go forward being more confident in my artistic choices and having more faith in my work.” 

LUCY EVANS

“I used to want to be a fashion designer and I can distinctly remember buying colouring books where I’d make Cinderella’s ball gown black and think it was revolutionary. The dream lasted until I started textiles in high school and realised I was useless at sewing, so I guess that’s where image making came into the equation. This image is of my grandma, Sandra. She’s really quite a force of nature and is loved by many for her ability to brighten up a room. I really wanted to honour this in my work. The styling was a reflection of her own personal style and a nod to how she encouraged me to walk around in head-to-toe leopard print as a child. 

To me, her expression conveys a statement that she often stands by: ‘life is crap, but you’ve just got to get on with it’. It was probably the most fun I have ever had putting together a shoot. It was full of laughter and there was no stopping Sandra once she got going. She was a real sport. I’ve come to realise just how much I value collaboration and a sense of community when creating work. I’ve started my image making career during a global pandemic and have produced some work that I’m really proud of, so the prospect of being able to get out into the world and engage with other creatives is super exciting.”

MARIA MARSHALL

“I actually used to want to do languages. I only started to discover my creative side at the age of 17, when I studied art and textiles, which made me find my true passion for fashion. Bright, playful and colourful, this image is inspired by my one-year-old niece. Through the styling, I explored the concept of newness and birth. Since my niece is mixed Black Asian, I wanted to cast models who share a resemblance to her, putting an emphasis on POC representation. I found Lena who was the perfect person to represent that, portraying a sense of purity and sincerity. The image conveys innocence and a playful child-like quality, a sense of birth and true beauty. I realised that my style tends to be quite over the top so I ended up being quite literal with my imagery. I found my own style as an image maker and stylist, which has become very colourful and kitsch.”

LAUREN HOUSTON

“I really wanted to be a writer and I mainly made short horror stories when I was younger. But the first thing I remember making was a cardboard house for my Club Penguin avatar – avrillavigne376. This image was from a series I had dedicated to my relationship with my friend Grace. It’s a love letter to codependency and allowing yourself to become a ‘burden’. I’m completely indebted to her endless support so I wanted to show the weight and exposure of each other. 

The poses make it feel like there’s an exploration of each other in the way that animals do. I love this way of seeing it because it represents the bond as instinctive. Though some of the poses I had envisioned tested the limits of human anatomy so I had to change a few! I recorded us on my Sony Handycam which I pulled the stills from, there was about 2-3 hours of footage. Over the past year, it’s felt more important than ever to create my own space to be in. I’d love to establish a collective in the near future, lockdown has made me realise how important it is to have people around to keep feeding your brain!”

CHARLOTTE OWENS

“I have a very unconventional family, so for Family Of Man I wanted to try and capture this. Tattoos, piercings, plastic surgery, bodybuilding… We’re not the typical family to say the least! My mum, Kathryn, is a fairly new bodybuilder who’s competing in a bikini competition later this year. I like to think that my images show a different perspective on what a bodybuilder can be – a mother, a pharmacist, a 47-year-old woman who believes it’s never too late to follow your dreams. I wanted to keep the images as natural as possible so I took them in her home gym. Unfortunately the lighting in there is terrible! So it took a lot of improvisation and acrobatics with a ring light to get the shots. 

It’s not easy knowing your heading in the direction of an industry that’s highly saturated and everything seems to already have been done. But it’s also nice to view this as a challenge. I want to be a part of the revolution, a new age in fashion that’s kinder to the planet and more accepting. My plans moving forward are to carry on in my creative journey, taking any opportunity I possibly can along the way!”

BEA ROBINS

“I don’t think I fit into the creative stereotype growing up. I didn’t draw, paint, or make. But I always loved storytelling and it wasn’t until I was around 16 when I picked up a camera that I found my outlet. My collection of images are called Through My Sister’s Eyes. My mission was to tell a story from my sister’s perspective. I still find her a bit of mystery. She is massively curious about the world and yet enjoys solitude, something that is alien to me. At times she is happy to be disconnected from her surroundings and I wanted to try and understand that better. To capture her sense of otherness. 

When styling, I used all her own clothes and some jewelry that she’d made herself. We spent a day going through everything to find all the hidden gems. I was given permission to delve into my sister’s life so I had to make sure that she was completely comfortable with everything I was doing and that my images were as natural and raw as possible. It felt risky to work with family and under normal circumstances it wouldn’t have been my first choice. But finding a way to adapt to lockdown has been, and still is, a massive learning curve. Being able to be in the same space as someone feels vital to a good photographic image.”