Community, Creativity

Unframed lives

Bruno De Oliveira, a Lecturer in Psychology at Southampton Solent University, on using art and research as a community dialogue to reflect on lived experience of homelessness.

11 September 2020

Ever since the financial crisis in 2007, scholars have written about the economy, the reshaping of the welfare system, cuts to health care budgets, reduction of social care funds, the growth of mental health problems, emerging poverty, destitution and homelessness, which I have experienced. But rarely have we attempted to understand the impacts of austerity through the voices and images of the people being impacted by deep systemic change. I set out to ensure that people with lived experience of homelessness could actively participate in contesting their marginalisation. One result has been ‘Unframed Lives’, a photographic exhibition, panel event and installation for Brighton Fringe, the largest annual arts festival in England. 

It’s a creative collaboration between individuals who have experienced homelessness, artists, and researchers. It’s a chance to share journeys and histories, experiences and commonalities. The start point was research-based photo elicitation with people with lived-experienced of homelessness, organised by me alongside the MYBRIGHTON & HOVE Photo Project. As a psychological researcher, I did not want the lived experience of the participants to be limited to within academic walls.
I wanted the community to engage with it. 

Participants were accessed by placing posters and sending emails to gatekeepers via Clock Tower Sanctuary, JustLife, the Local City Council and Brighton Housing Trust, First Point, Worthing Churches Homeless Project (WCHP) and the YMCA. Five participants aged 35–62 years (four males, one female) participated in this project. Two were Black British, three White British. All of the participants had experienced homelessness since 2012. The shortest homelessness experience duration was one year, the longest three years.

In discussion with the participants about the possible title for the photo exhibition, I suggested the title ‘Unframed Homeless’. One of the participants said it shouldn’t have the word homeless in the title because it was more about their lives. Then, the title of ‘Unframed Lives’ was suggested. At one of the meetings to discuss a possible venue, one person said that most things with universities are at universities.
‘Why can’t we have this in the local community?’ Community spaces can bring a level of ground between academics and participants. 

What followed was an evening of discussion, impactful networking, and innovative co-produced problem-solving. We brought together 75 people from the local community to explore how creativity can play a role in challenging views on homelessness. The Unframed Lives Project received a certificate of achievement by the Festival of Learning, supported by the Department for Education.