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Volunteering with the Intergenerational Women’s Photography Project

Our recent intergenerational pilot programme, 'Reframing the Muse', connected migrant, refugee, and asylum-seeking teenage girls from the Baytree Centre in Brixton with socially isolated, older women in the Southwark area. Olga, who volunteered on the programme, gives us her take on the project, as well as a few of her highlights.

During the six-week project the older women and younger girls explored the Collection together and looked at how women are portrayed in the paintings. My role was to make the group feel welcome, to look after their well-being, and to generally assist with the project, from helping with the camera to facilitating conversations.

The group was made up of a number of older women who were very familiar with the Collection and a group of  young girls aged between 11 and 17 who were part of the Into School programme at the Baytree Centre in Brixton, a charity working with and empowering women and girls through education and skills-development programmes. On the first day, everyone was introduced and Heather, our professional photographer, showed us how to use the cameras. I remember June, who is a regular to the Gallery, talking about meeting the girls for the first time; “The girls were lovely; they were shy at first…[but] by the second time we met, the young girl I worked with really opened up.”

One of the highlights occurred in the second week. We looked at the different roles of women in the Gallery's paintings, and discussed the roles that are important to us as women and that we wanted to have in life and in our own portraits. The girls talked about their aspirations for their futures and the older women talked about the roles they’d had, and even ones they wished they’d had. The young women talked of aspirations to be doctors, designers, artists and scientists. The women were so engaged, and interesting ideas for photographs naturally came from conversations between the older and younger women. We had lots of fun using props and taking on all sorts of roles; by the end of the afternoon we ended up with some wonderful photographs.

One of my favourite sessions was when a pile of wonderful costumes arrived in the studio space, which had the amazing effect of breaking down any remaining barriers within the group - shyness dissipated, the younger girls gained confidence, donning medieval costumes and taking on different personas and performing for the camera. This was the point where everyone came together as a group with much laughter and general silliness. Out of this session came some of our best photographs.

There were poignant moments, such as when a young girl shared her story with June, who later told me how this conversation had formed a bond between them. The warmth between these women, as described by June, can be seen in their photographs with one another.

The project culminated in a final exhibition of photographs created by the women, to which their family and friends, and those involved in the project were invited. The photographs were displayed across the Gallery, placed amongst the paintings that had inspired them. When I asked June what the highlight of the project was for her, she said “every moment of it!” She talked particularly about meeting the “girls” and when asked what she might have changed about the project, her only wish was that the project could have gone on for longer.

It was moving to see the photographs together, showing these women from contrasting worlds connecting and learning from one another. The photographs captured the women as they wanted to be portrayed, which was both emotive and empowering to see. The photographs were given context by being shown with the Collection, highlighting that being a woman can provide a profound common ground that supersedes age, race, culture, language, and even time. I think this is especially poignant because of the reasons behind some of these women taking part in the project, and hopefully can be a message to draw strength from: to know that we are part of something bigger and are connected through the experience of being a woman.

 This project was kindly funded by the Women of the Year Foundation.