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High Hopes – The Inability to Sit Still and Settle

I have known the place that I live in now since I was in my late teens. At that time it was an abandoned warehouse, and I used to kick the door in and sit in it.  Everything about it seemed timeless. It was my safe place… somewhere to dream about the bright future I was sure I would have.

Fast forward almost 10 years. I have been a drug addict and then clean, and am living in a dry house. Eventually, however, I am offered a housing association flat in the center of town.That flat is the one I live in now – where years before I used to kick the door in and sit. Some of the original sites still exist, but my flat is a brand new building. People keep telling me I am lucky, that I am free because I have a place of my own – yet I have never felt so trapped in my life. The struggle of living no fixed abode is nothing compared to the depression caused by ending up in isolation in a place that I once used to sit in and dream about a future that never came to pass.

So begins an almost 10-year journey involving my constant attempts to leave. Be that through attempted flat swaps using the Homeswapper scheme, staying in other people’s houses, vacating temporarily and letting someone else take the lease…and so on. There were lots of different ways that I kept trying to run away from my reality, including times when I was convinced that if I just lived in another location then somehow it would be easier to stay in one place. This is not a criticism of social housing, nor am I ungrateful for being given a housing association flat. But I have had a struggle coming to terms with my past which has made it difficult for me to sit with myself and deal with the responsibility of taking on a tenancy, meanwhile still trying to formulate relationships. In some ways, it is easier to live a chaotic life than to sit still and look at why you lived that way at all. These portraits are of some of the people I met along my journey (some of whom are now dead) and some of the people who I thought I had lost for good, who later came back.

The narrative describes the pain of past trauma on the inability to sit still and ‘settle’ in the here and now. I want to bring people into my world by showing them my relationships to the people in it.

I started photographing people in order to almost ‘collect’ them when they came back into my life, as a way of trying not to lose them again but inevitably, this didn’t work.

After rehab, I was in a women only dry-house for three years, before being given this flat aged 27 (it’s housing association, not council – but it’s still social housing). It was only after being given it that I then tried to vacate it by staying in other people’s flats, putting someone in it and living in halls of residence, trying to swap it on Homeswapper etc. Other temporary accommodation I lived in before this was whilst I was still using (and mainly again by staying in other people’s social housing flats, hostel rooms, traveler sites briefly or occasionally sleeping outdoors).

High Hopes.

The first photo I shot was when I was still living in London, and in a sense it could have actually been the start of the project – I met Jiggen when we were both studying in London in 2004 (the year I put someone in my flat and tried to escape to London to get away from my past, which didn’t work). He was living in a council flat – I’m pretty sure it was on the Aylesbury Estate when it existed – I think someone else was subletting it to him. We were actually just doing flash exercises and then I took this portrait. There was something about being able to see Canary Wharf in the background against the foreground of the council flats that seemed and still does seem to be really significant.

After I moved back to Bristol I started meeting people who I knew from when I had been in active addiction.  I met Ruth again after coming back from London after living there for a year and bumping into her completely by accident through people it turned out we both knew. Initially it was hard to see her again as it brought back a lot of painful memories of when I was in addiction, but we persevered and ended up talking through a lot of things that had happened in those times. I count her as one of my closest friends and have now known her for over 20 years.

Remembering the past and lots of other memories made me not want to live in the flat and I attempted various flat swaps because I thought that moving was the solution. That’s when I photographed Jean:

Jean in Hoxton – I met Jean when I went to look at her flat in Hoxton with the view to doing a swap in 2005 when I was on the Homeswapper scheme, which means you can swap your flat with any other social housing tenant in the UK if they want to.We struck up a friendship and used to ring each other up at night, long after we had met. She lives on the top floor of a 12 floor block – in the end I didn’t swap to her flat because her building swayed too much in the wind.

Evelyn – I shot this around 2006/7, I remember her saying at the time that I shot it ‘Thankyou for showing me how I really am’ – because my work is not always very flattering. I always admired the view from her flat in Dove St, and a few years later asked if she would consider a flat swap. It was only a few months after that she found out she was terminally ill with an untreatable cancer. Evelyn died in January 2013.

Jeremy in his flat 2009 (although his accommodation is one of the few photos that isn’t social housing  – he had to private rent) – I first met Jeremy after he had stopped drinking. In Jeremy’s words: ‘When I was in the madness I depended on friends and family, but they could only put up with me for so long. I was in a dry house after being in treatment, and the counselor helped me get my life back together after being in a coma through alcohol abuse. When I stopped drinking I had no life skills at all, but I was lucky I got a lot of support as I had never paid a bill in my life – I had to learn it all from scratch’.

Jim in Battersea 2008 – I wanted to do a flat swap with Jim a few years ago. He lives in a high-rise in Battersea, but when he came over from London he didn’t like mine. I used to crash on his sofa when I was in London and had nowhere to stay. At the time I took the photo he had lived there for 20 years, and I remember him saying about his flat that over the years it had ‘seen some action’. Out of all the flats, I thought about moving to, I always liked his the best.

Emma 2008 – I met Emma in London in 2004, when I put someone in my flat and moved there for a year and lived in halls of residence. At that time it was easier for me to share a landing with lots of vodka drinking 18-year-old students than it was to stay in the flat on my own, even though I was a lot older than them and by that time didn’t drink. I often stayed with Emma in her council flat in Holloway after I moved back to Bristol over the next few years, when I didn’t want to stay in mine – which is where I shot this photo. She relapsed back into addiction several years ago but managed to get into a rehab at the beginning of 2013 (and came to stay with me a couple of times just before she went in). However, she walked out after six weeks and was found dead another six weeks after that. Emma was one of my closest friends. I threw the original of this photograph on top of her coffin when we buried her in April 2013. She was 36 when she died.

John drumming in his flat 2008. John is one of the first people I met when I moved here 18 years ago. At one time he lived upstairs from me when I used to stay in my ex-boyfriend Mark’s housing association flat. Before that, I lived in Mark’s male only temporary accommodation, where his support worker used to turn a blind eye to my being there. And prior to that, I used to get thrown out of (and banned for a week at a time from) the hostel that Mark was in if they caught me staying over. I shot this photo of John one day when he came round in 2008 after we had started hanging round again.

Mark in my flat 2010. We were together for three years, from when I was 19. In the end, I left him and the situation that we were living in because I thought that if I did then I would have a better chance of getting clean (which didn’t turn out to be true). I didn’t see him after that until he contacted me via Facebook a few years ago. A couple of years before that, I had given up looking for him, because I thought that he was dead. I shot this photo when he came to stay with me after his mom had just died. This was the first time that we had seen each other in almost 10 years. After that, we kept in touch, and in 2014 we got back together and have been together ever since.

Jiva in Montpelier 2012. I first met Jiva about 16 years ago, and we had a thing one time when I was trying not to use heroin for a few weeks but it didn’t work out. I didn’t see him again for years after that, then a couple of years ago I bumped into him at a free party. We got together again for a few months, but again it didn’t work out. I shot this one Sunday morning in his social housing flat in Montpelier when I had stayed the night before.

Hannah in Berlin 2013 – I shot this in our room when we stayed in a hostel whilst in Berlin. I met Hannah the year before – she was living in the UK for 18 months visiting from New Zealand. Since I came out of the benefits system (which took years) and started a job and was earning a bit of money I took the opportunity to visit some countries in Europe, as I had never done this when I was younger as I was too trapped in my addiction to be able to go anywhere. – I never got a passport until I was 26. Hannah was traveling round Europe at the time, so I met her in Berlin. I loved staying in random temporary places again such as this hostel, it felt a lot freer to me than the responsibility of my own flat.

Emma in her new house 2011- Emma doesn’t have a history of addiction (although friends she grew up with in Edinburgh do) – she is one of my more ‘normal’ friends (I gradually seem to be getting more of these in recent years, as I move from a more damaged lifestyle into a healthier one, although this process has been really slow -also they are more stable friendships than the ones with fellow addicts, due to the lack of relapse/death due to drugs that is prevalent in the world of addiction ). I took this photo because when I first knew her and her partner, their lives seemed completely alien to mine in the sense that they were doing ‘normal’ things like working, being in a long-term healthy relationship, and buying a house. And yet, everyone has their histories and problems, which is something it took me years to realize as I think addicts, in general, have a tendency to think that they are the only ones with problems and that so-called ‘normal’ people don’t have any. Of course, nowadays I know that is far from the truth. For some reason, I still feel a sense of loneliness when I look at this photo.

 


About me.

I left school at 16 after walking out of my A-levels pretty much as soon as they started. A year later I decided I wanted to do an art foundation and got accepted on it a year early because I should have been 18. When I was doing it, I realized that photography could be a way to express fine art concepts, but the tutors didn’t see it as a valid art medium so I went into the darkroom and taught myself. I got accepted on the spot at an interview for an art degree in Bristol, but by that time had enough of trying to work within the restraints of formal education and left pretty soon after it started.

I had started hanging around on traveler sites and going to free parties because at that time I felt that as a political statement this was more effective than trying to make work that would only be seen by the art world. Shortly after that I got addicted to heroin, which I had wanted to try since I was twelve years old, and only got clean just before my twenty-fourth birthday. When I was using I never took any photos and ended up trying to sell the camera for drugs. I didn’t get another camera until my community service officer helped me apply for funding for one a year or so later when my friend persuaded me to enroll in the black and white evening photography course that she was already doing. By that time I had forgotten most of the technical stuff I had worked out the first time round. In the end, my friend never finished the course, and actually died of a heroin overdose a few years later after relapsing.

Although initially I had been reluctant to get involved in anything creative again, in the end I completed the year and went on to do a HNC at the same college which was great because the tutors were really open-minded and let us do whatever we wanted. At that time I was living in a dry house and spent a lot of time developing films in the shower which I used as a makeshift darkroom. The first documentary photograph I shot that really meant something to me was a cross-processed color image of my friend’s seven-year-old daughter in silhouette standing in the car park below my social housing flat. I had seen her standing there and asked her to stay still whilst I took her photo – so it wasn’t strictly documentary, but it wasn’t staged either. A lot of people freak out when they see it and find out how young she is because they have been looking at the photo like she was a lot older. That image brought up such powerful emotions in me that it began to trigger my own memories of childhood sexual abuse.

In the same year I moved to London to work in the fashion industry, because I had been questioning whether fashion photography in magazines could be a viable medium in which to place work that was social-commentary based (as I felt it had begun to be in the 90’s with artists such as Corinne Day and Elaine Constantine) and wanted to explore this more through working in the industry. I also enrolled on a one year general professional photography course at London College of Communication, but realised when I got there that it was totally irrelevant to anything I wanted to do so hardly ever went in. However, I did attend a short reportage course whilst I was there, and that was the turning point in the style of work I produced. I learnt how to use off-camera flash, and that’s the style that I use today. I realised that photographing the people in my own life was probably the most effective form of social commentary that exists, because it tells my truth and I believe now that truth is the most powerful language that we have. I shot my first photo essay ‘Girls in Halls’ on that reportage course, and that work evoked powerful feelings in me because it made me think of what my life was like when I had been the same age as the girls I was photographing. When I moved back to Bristol I continued photographing the people around me. A lot of people I knew were coming out of addiction at that time so I began to photograph them, and addiction has been a recurring reference point in my work. After showing some of my photographs in a couple of squats and a DIY gallery, I started to explore how I could relate my subject’s experiences to mine by presenting the work within a fine art context, and that’s how I came up with the idea for this work. Today I continue to photograph the people I know, using narrative to tell mine and their stories – and in doing so explore the often complex circumstances that contribute to the events in our lives.


Hester Brodie

Documentary Photographer and Photographic Artist

Comments (3)

  • Hester…just great real time photography and documenting work with captivating faces. You holistically capture a brokeness healed, healing on the up !! That is what I think. The world is lucky you took the time and had the artist’s eye to clinch the room with a view. I hope you get the exposure you deserve.

  • Powerful, ,poignant and deeply personal. The pictures and narrative seem (to me) to be a way of explaining often ,mystifying behavours through the lens of developmental trauma.. e.g. the ability to just sit still. In a place called ‘home’ – which should feel comfortable and safe, But ‘for too many is synonymous with terror and shame – creating existential pain which transcends time and space.

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