Portraits of Oxford’s homeless women to recognise their achievements
Portrait photographer Fran Monks is on a mission to celebrate the under-celebrated. Her work consistently comprises outstanding portraits of people doing great work, often unknown, unrecognised or behind the scenes. For Photo Oxford this autumn, the city’s major photography festival, she is turning her camera to women who are vulnerably housed and the volunteers who support them. Strength and Resilience at drop-in centre The Gatehouse Project, will address the uncertainty and challenges homeless women are facing in their lives today. Karen David checked in with Monks as she was planning the shoot.
Monks’ idea for Strength and Resilience is to recognise the achievements of women connected to The Gatehouse. “Part of the purpose of this exhibition is to show that we are all human beings, and it is a chance of circumstances that separates one of us from others,” she explained, adding, “My idea is to include people who are vulnerably housed and those who are volunteering, and portray them all in the same, very respectful way, so it makes people think.
“To me, this is a really positive way to talk about how people are overcoming challenges.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought on extreme upheaval and constant change for homeless people, and Monks is keen that the images are bang up to date and reflect conditions in their lives right now. She is shooting them with just enough time to get them printed for Photo Oxford in October: “I’d like to show how these women are having to use strength and resilience to cope with a very changeable situation,” she says.
During the lockdown homeless people in Oxford were housed temporarily by the city council, but their future is uncertain. There are plans to move people into purpose built units, which is a positive outcome but, as she points out, might not be what everyone wants.
Because of social distancing, the portraits will be made outside, but Monks plans to use a backdrop and lighting to give the feel of old master paintings. Her images will be printed onto aluminium sheets and displayed where they will be shot, in St Giles Churchyard next to The Gatehouse. The setting itself is atmospheric, and the metallic treatment will give them a depth which can be lost when images are mounted behind glass or laminated for weatherproofing.
Her series currently on display in Keble College dining hall includes magnificent portraits of nominated alumni, students and staff. The Keble portraits were also shot in a painterly style, predominantly in locations around the college. Fran anticipates a similarity between these and the Gatehouse pictures: “The Keble portraits are of really inspiring people and I wanted them to stand up well next to the existing painted portraits.” Monks’ pictures are hung on wires from the ceiling of Keble’s dining hall, sometimes with striking interplay with the oil paintings of grandees such as Cardinal Newman, making the point that these are the people which make the college what it is today. “And,” she adds, “when you have a location like Keble it’s a real gift.”
Over at the Ashmolean Museum, Monks’ portraits A Nice Cup of Tea are address issues around trans-Atlantic slavery. As part of an historical exhibit on ceramics, people from Oxford’s Afro-Caribbean community were brought into the museum to respond and create a contemporary art installation. Monks portraits are displayed alongside, and the show’s topicality has led to it being extended to the autumn, and as Monks adds “It is so poignant with all of the wider discussions going on around black lives matter.”
Monks trained as a photographer at the Corcoran School of Art and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC and Central St Martin’s School of Art, London. She has also lived in China and Japan, and her works have appeared in global media such as the Guardian, the Washington Post, New York Times, and the BBC.
As an artist she is pleased for her work to be exhibited outdoors as part of Photo Oxford. In fact she got involved with the festival after her portraits of Oxford immigrants, The Gratitude Project which was installed on the front plaza of Saïd Business School, led to the organisers getting in touch. “I really believe in art being out on the street and not hidden away. A lot of people saw the Gratitude pics, and being outside makes the work more accessible.”
As someone who stands up for the under-represented, she thinks Photo Oxford’s theme ‘women and photography’ is a good one. “Although the landscape is changing, I think many of the visual stories that we see are still made by men. Photography is traditionally a very male profession.
“It's really important for female photographers to show the world from their own personal perspective. For years, most of the iconic images of women that we saw were also made by men. I believe that the relationship between the photographer and the subject is often reflected in portraits, and so in that way, I think that many images of women that we see are inherently male.
“One way to overcome that is for us female photographers to keep working hard on making work and getting our work seen.”
Strength and Resilience is a series of portraits by Fran Monks of the women at The Gatehouse Project, a drop in cafe and community centre for the homeless and vulnerably housed in Oxford. This registered charity is led by women and has many long-term female volunteers and guests.
During the Covid-19 pandemic The Gatehouse continued to work for their community by providing food by delivery and take away. They also gave one-to-one support to those in need. During lockdown many street homeless were housed and tenant protection was provided to the vulnerably housed. However, there remains much uncertainty about the future.
Now, more than ever, we want to recognise the strength, resilience and achievements, no matter how big or small, of the women of The Gatehouse community. We want to make dignified, painterly portraits, and exhibit them outside in the St Giles churchyard, as a way to demonstrate how valued and varied their contributions are, especially during these difficult times. By putting staff, volunteers and guests, side by side, we hope to challenge stereotypes, reduce the stigma attached to homelessness and emphasise the value of all to the community.
Strength and Resilience is an outdoor exhibition at St Giles’ churchyard, St Giles, between Banbury Road and Woodstock Road