With the official submission of the Leeds bid for 2023 European Capital of Culture just weeks away, the city is teeming with events celebrating its diverse and rapidly transforming cultural landscape. It is interesting, therefore, that The Leeds Story Gallery at The Leeds City Museum, a space that prides itself on showcasing ‘the contemporary story of a talented a vibrant city’, has chosen to platform the sobering stories of a largely marginalised sector of the population – the socially isolated elderly.
In the rather understated space of the gallery’s Community Corridor are a series of provocative portrait photographs of Leeds residents over the age of fifty. Their backgrounds are infinitely diverse, with many coming to Leeds as first generation immigrants, and yet they all have one thing in common; the emotional toll of loneliness.
In 2017, the Jo Cox commission on loneliness found that nearly three quarters of older people in the UK experience loneliness, and, even more shockingly, over half of these individuals have never spoken to anyone about how they feel. This side of the city’s story is one that is uncomfortable to acknowledge, and even more so at a time when Leeds is so focused on celebrating its culturally diverse, united communities, yet the city museum has not shied away from the issue.
Having spent over a year working closely with Leeds based charity Time to Shine, photographer Peter Howarth’s work uses portraiture to effectively capture the intimate moment a subject learns to open up about the much stigmatised and ignored issue of social alienation. However, the work is in no way biographical. We get but a glimpse of their very different lifetimes spent as restaurant owners, golfers, widows, and parents. We are told the same story over and over again – that they are lonely, they are bored; they often have family close by, or try to get involved in community projects, or live in close proximity to others, but this is not enough to solve the problem. As one woman confesses; “I live lonely; not alone but very lonely”.
The monotonous and incomplete nature of these portraits would ordinarily be considered a weakness of a photographic interview (a genre usually employed to express individuality), and yet here it raises an important question: Why are all these people facing the same struggle? Why have all their very different lives reached such a similar point? Have we created a culture of isolation?
When Leeds City Council approved the recommendation to bid for European Capital of Culture 2023, they did so on the condition that the ‘bid must be for the benefit of the whole city […] ensuring that discussions, events, exhibitions and activities take place in every community’, and by making space in the cultural landscape for the voices of marginalised individuals, Leeds City Museum have demonstrated their commitment to honouring this promise.
(Image courtesy of Leeds Inspired)