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Past Present and Future - a calender of photography days and activities

Today was the first of many dates in a calender of photographic activities and days out with participants of BRASS (Befriending Asylum Seekers and Refugees) who are based at the Victoria Hall in Bolton.

Ali from Afghanistan, Auobiada from Sudan and Robin from Pakistan joined me today in a short trip around Queens Park and the college campus area of Bolton. The aim was to get them familiar with the SLR digital cameras so that they can teach others how to use them in the weeks to come. As we photographed the spring daffodils Ali told me they had a simlar flower in Afghanistan. There were two colours of flower there - one was yellow and the other red. He asked me the name of the flower in English so I told him whilst he took photographs of Robin in full 'daffodil-photography action'. Robin came stomping back up the hill complaining the camera was not working properly and to my surprise Ali spoke to him in Urdu. "You speak Urdu Ali?". He told he spoke many languages, he could speak Farsi and other languages from his own country, but he'd learnt Urdu and was now learning Arabic as well as English. His English was very good, as we walked together he snapped photos and told me about his small trading of vegetables in Afghanistan, "Life is very hard there, but it is a beautiful country - it is very dangerous there now though". In the future he told me he'd like to be a shopkeeper in the UK, but right now he was still an asylum seeker. "I am not allowed to work now, so it is nice to get out and do something different - it's very boring being an asylum seeker. I go to BRASS to see friends and once a week I learn English with Sharron from the Greenhouse project - that's it." The Greenhouse Project is a Bolton charity that provides a hot meal on Wednesdays at BRASS as well as working widely across the town throughout the week on a variety of things. Ali seemed to have answered Robin's technical problem with his camera, so I asked Robin what he did before in Pakistan. He told he was an electrical engineer on the ships in Lahore, "life is very busy there". I wanted to ask him more about his life but in a jiffy he shot off across the park to photograph some teenagers sat on a bench playing a guitar. I tried to talk with Auobiada but unfortunately for me he spoke very little English and I speak no Arabic (the language of Sudan). As I chatted more with Ali I felt Auobiada could understand more English than he could perhaps express, maybe his confidence to speak more will come as we get to spend time together in the weeks to come...

The project "Past, Present and Future" has been funded by Oxfam, Bolton at Home and Bolton Council and the aim is to take the participants to a variety of cultural locations to look at historical buildings, art galleries, museums, the countryside to focus the cameras on British life and British culture. The participants are simply encouraged to photograph the things that interest them - so the nuances that we ourselves may take to be common place or ordinary might be the things that they decide to focus in on. Alongside the historical buildings or museums, the 'fish and chips', the 'full English Breakfast' or the pub culture might be something that they find 'very British' and consequently of interest to photograph. I have no idea what they might photograph - it could be the little red terrace houses, or the way people dress or the flashy cars. We all do this ourselves with cameras, usually when we go abroad on holiday - we take pictures of the streets, the houses, the churches or the beaches, but we also take pictures of the food or perhaps animals we've never seen before. It will be interesting to see what they see as the cameras come back each week from our days out together. On the days out I'll be their tour guide and of course helping them with some technical assistance with the cameras but also I'll be chatting with them about their lives in the past. Where did they live before they came to the UK ? and what did they do there ? Over the last two weeks I've been collecting names and contact details from them in the centre and asking them three simple questions: "What did you do in the past ? What do you do right now in the present ? and what do you want to do in the future ?" The answers were quite surprising - one of them had worked in satelite communications, another had worked in branding & communication for a huge telecoms company, another in the construction industry working on multi story tower blocks in many different countries, one was a mechanic, others had been farmers or they'd run their own businesses - to my delight one of them was even a photographer. These people were experienced, skilled and bringing a wealth of knowledge and culture to the UK. At BRASS many of the service users are currently aslyum seekers - meaning they are in the process of application to become resident in the UK, and many of them have now been approved and termed 'a refugee' - meaning they have been granted the same rights as a UK citizen. Many of them speak Arabic, some of them speak Farsi (or a variety of other languages), some of them speak good English, some of them speak very little English at all, but they all had one thing in common with each other - when I asked them about their dreams for their future in the UK they all wanted to better themselves, to strengthen their education and skills and to find work and provide for themselves and their families. Over the coming weeks I'll be chatting with them more and more on the days out, trying to understand a little about their past, trying to understand a bit about their present situations and hopefully trying to teach them a few transferable skills that they can take into the future. Of course they're not all going to become photographers, but they are all going to broaden their English vocabulary and cultural knowledge on the trips. Most of them go on to use computers and Google in the UK, they will do online job searches and write e-mails and send C/V's - so by uploading the photos, adding captions and text to them there will be an introduction to the world of computers (for those who have never used them before). The photography workshops are meant to provide them with a future job in photography, they are mostly intended to be fun, there aim is to give the participants a taste of where they are living within the UK. To broaden their world a little with trips out to the Science Museum and Manchester Art galleries. The trips will hopefully offer them a glimpse into the history of the UK and a better understanding of the present, but hopefully open up some ideas and possibilities for their own future in the UK too. Over the next few months I'll be posting a selection of the photographs they are taking at the Facebook page - I hope you'll enjoy following the project with us there :

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