Photographing in Manchester and Birmingham

Asylum seeking family, Leigh, Manchester, December 2022
Asylum seeking family, Leigh, Manchester, December 2022


We have been working on a National Lottery Grant funded project entitled “You can see me, but I don’t exist.” The weekend of the 25th of November, Chloe Juno and I went to Leigh outside of Manchester to work with Farai Nhakasino from Everything Human Rights, a local community organisation working with asylum seekers and refugees.

Leigh is an old industrial textile town outside of Manchester which has seen more prosperous days. In the area we went to we found pound shops, discount shoe shops, and fast-food outlets dotting the high street, interspersed with boarded-up empty shops.

Manchester has been undergoing an economic revival, but prosperity has not reached Leigh. Under the surface, refugees are trying to live without permission to work until their immigration status has been resolved – which might take years.

Our photography day was steely grey and cloudy with drizzle and heavy rain. The weather gave a depressing feel to the day in keeping with the difficult circumstances the asylum seekers face. Despite this, we laughed and shared life experiences.

We made photographs with the refugees in front of an old textile factory and various spots in the centre of town.

I met a wonderful couple from El Salvador who have been here for almost four years. They are grateful to be away from the violence of San Salvador and for the educational opportunities that are available for their children. Still, they miss home.

Chloe talked to a Congolese family about the struggles their children experienced after leaving school at eighteen. They described how hard it is going from an environment where you receive support and training for the future to adult asylum status, which makes working and educational funding impossible. How you are unable to have a bank account which affects everything you do…

I returned to Manchester on the following weekend to make more portraits. Leigh was much colder as winter had taken hold. Ice, snow, and zero temperatures made the conditions challenging, but everyone was in good humour. We photographed three families, rather than individuals, as we have done previously. This gives us the opportunity to highlight the specific difficulties faced by asylum-seeking families.


Between the two Manchester trips, I travelled to Birmingham with Jenny Christensson. We visited the Library of Birmingham where we met Nicola Gauld, Project Manager for Everything to Everybody, and her colleague Lauren Jansen-Parkes. We discussed plans to show work from “You can see me, but I don’t exist” in the Shakespeare Memorial Library housed at the top of the Library of Birmingham. The Shakespeare Library is an interesting context for the work as the Bard wrote a well-known speech in one of his plays for the character of Sir Thomas More, who sets out to explain the importance of welcoming refugees to an angry mob intending to attack a group of people fleeing religious oppression in Europe. We hope that our project will contribute to Everything to Everybody’s mission to re-connect Birmingham’s communities with the city’s Shakespearean heritage and recover Birmingham’s once proud reputation as the most democratic and progressive cultural centre in the world.

We also met Stephanie Neville, the founder of Stories of Hope and Home, which is partnering with us for the photography and writing workshops with asylum seekers in Birmingham, along with another organisation in the city, the Baobab Women’s Project, where we are working with Sarah Taal.

Alan Gignoux

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