How photographic research facilitated social cohesion within the community of this block of flats in south-east London

The Oxenham House Neighbourhood Project was an attempt to create the social processes that instil a sense of community among neighbours through participatory photographic research. Having witnessed the lack of neighbourly contact in the block, I decided to investigate whether photographic research could be utilised to create active community.

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Through an action-research approach, possible through my frequent presence in the communal spaces, I was able to initiate contact, become a familiar face and, through conversations, gather neighbours’ experiences and views of life in Oxenham House.  The idea to engage my neighbours in a participatory project was a response to their wishes to know who lives in the block, have more neighbourly contact, beautify the communal spaces, and contact the council together for better maintenance. Such active community requires familiarity, trust and a sense of common purpose, and so the aim of the research was to introduce neighbours to each other through texts and photographs, and organise repeated encounters so as to build up a shared dialogue.

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I started with small-scale, humorous interventions to beautify the landing, which helped in starting conversations, forming relationships, and building up familiarity. When I had gained enough trust I began the collaborative research process of photographing neighbours in their homes and writing down aspects of people’s lives and their experience of living in Oxenham House. The research involved the neighbours in that they had control over how to be photographed and which image(s) would be used. They could also edit the summaries about their lives and experiences as they wished; that way they had voice in the representation of themselves. The research results were then shared in an exhibition / gathering of the neighbours in my flat, where some of my neighbours met for the first time.

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The bringing together of research results and sharing them with the neighbours was crucial as people only then began to fully realise what I was trying to do. The gathering, and first encounter for some of them, was the first step in building community and in creating a shared experience. Another gathering was the community gardening day which I organised in response to the repeated wish to have plants in our courtyard.  This day of engaging in collective action and beautifying the space outside, and subsequent joint work to maintain the garden, has also been important for a sense of common purpose and community spirit.

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The effervescence of community days usually wears off quickly and active community requires repeated participation, but the project has planted the seeds for a shared dialogue, resulting in familiarity, trust and a sense of community. It has been a catalyst for more neighbourly contact, repeated collective action, and generally a more positive perception of life in Oxenham House. It remains to be seen whether this can be maintained.

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