Saying the Unsayable

Saying the Unsayable

Over the next few days I want to share with you some reflections and pictures from an exhibition that will run in Centenary Square Birmingham from the 2nd through to the 4th of July 2009.

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Here is some background:

How the exhibition came about: The Images project 

In this project we have used intentionally 2 key entry points into providing opportunities for members of the public to engage in ‘saying the unsayable: opening a dialogue about living, dying and death’.


The first entry point was via community groups and networks of people. This so that opening up such a dialogue could be rooted in places and with groups of people with whom we share other significant parts of our lives.

These significant parts of our lives also include loss situations and deaths of those around us, as we will and do all die!


The second entry point was the use of art as a medium to:

  • convey and express how elements of living, dying and death surround us, guide our behaviours and choices for how we choose to live
  • highlight and take the opportunity to notice many shared but hidden or undisclosed or ignored pointers to areas of our lives. Especially those where these are often difficult to name or articulate in words or via conversations


We aimed to capture much of these everyday life and living elements through the use of photography.


So for the main part of the project we worked with 11 varied community groups over a 9 month period (see page 12 for details of the 11 groups). We set up the following contract with members in these groups who chose to be part of the project:

  • To learn photographic skills
  • To take images using the following prompts  

Take a photo of….

  • Loss and/or change
  • Living well
  • Care, friendship and support for someone in need
  • Compassion for someone
  • How you might visualise any aspect of death or dying 
  • What brings you to life – makes you feel alive
  • What deadens you – makes you feel sad

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Each group then had photographic and camera lessons from Ade Marsh our project manager and the group members were then:

  • each provided with a camera to use over a 2 – 3 week period
  • asked to think about a supporting text to illustrate the meaning for them of the images they had taken
  • informed of the exhibition where we committed to exhibit an image from each participant in some form
  • requested to participate in an evaluation process relating to their experience of taking part in the project and taking images of the subject matter

So with 11 groups taking part, 96 people signed up to take part in the project, 86 submitted photographs and this yielded 7591 photos!

This is what we found 

We were overwhelmed by the enthusiasm with which each group and its members responded to the idea of taking part in the project and the ease with which they found and took images portraying the prompts provided. Images have been the route into this territory.


Here are some of the comments from the evaluation process and questions we asked of those participating in the project:

Question 1: How did the subject of dying, death and loss as part of everyday life make you feel?


‘Uncomfortable, as they are often perceived to be taboo subjects and I hadn’t really thought about them before. At the age of 28 I still think I am immortal’

‘Mixed feelings, not so worried as I was before’

‘It made me feel reflective and widened the scope of the meaning of the project brief’


Question 3: Which was your favourite photo related to the subjects of dying, death and loss as part of everyday life and what did it mean to you?

‘the way out sign because I feel it represented death and dying by exploring choice and direction’

‘the derelict building photo – it made me feel sad to see the destruction of these buildings – made me relate to them which I wouldn’t normally do’

  ‘the puddle one because going to school on a wet and cold Monday makes me feel dead inside’


 Question 6: What did you learn about taking photos related to subjects of dying, death and loss as part of everyday life?’

‘not to take things for granted and cherish your memories’

‘made me think and look at things from a different perspective’

‘it opened up a whole new vista’

‘flowers signify a true meaning of life – the way they grow and die is amazing. I also learned about different cultures of people in my group’ 



The view from the Project Manager Ade Marsh (Ade Marsh is a professional freelance photographer specialising in working with young people and community groups – )

96 people from across Birmingham have produced this truly remarkable and unique photographic exhibition. Some had never used a camera before in their lives and yet all have been able to capture images reflecting their thoughts and feelings about living, dying and death.


So how has this been achieved? For me, it started 15 months ago when I was approached by NHS West Midlands to manage the photographic side of this project having already been working on its campaign, ‘Living Well to the End of Life’.  As a former community and youth worker, I was able to initially draw on my contacts from across Birmingham to meet and invite community and youth groups to take part in this thought-provoking project. The people I met suggested others who might like to get involved and it wasn’t long before I had found the eleven groups we were looking for – a diverse cross section of Birmingham’s population.


Each group of up to twelve people was shown how to use the professional digital compact cameras, given training in basic photographic techniques and talked through the photographic brief. To their delight, every participant was then lent a camera to use for a few weeks.


I hope you agree that the photos they have taken and the comments that accompany them, have produced an exhibition of images that is not only meaningful to each photographer, but also relevant to us all – opening a dialogue about living dying and death.


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