How far would you travel for a stranger?
James Hopkirk started South London Stories in 2015 to document the lives of his south London neighbours - highlighting a view of the city that is seldom seen and voices that are often ignored. James Hopkirk writes for us about the journey he went on for his photo essay The Blood of A Woman telling the raw and complex story of Mirela.
The Blood of a Woman is a story about Mirela, a young Albanian woman and her torturous journey through the UK’s asylum system. The title comes from a line in the Kanun, an ancient set of rules that, as I came to learn, still influence the position of women in Albanian society today.
When I met Mirela at the beginning of 2016, through a small refugee charity near my home in south London, I didn’t realise that her story was going to dominate the next two years of my life, or that it would see me shooting not only in London, but also Surrey, Bedford, Liverpool – and eventually Albania and Kosovo. It culminated in a highly charged immigration tribunal, at which I testified.
It was after we’d been working together for about six months, having talked at length about the events that had brought her to the UK, that it became obvious to us both that I needed to visit Albania and Kosovo – if I was to have any hope of doing justice to what she had endured.
I knew by then that this would be a lengthy, in-depth piece of work, encompassing as it does not only her personal experiences, but also complex issues such as trafficking, domestic violence, mental health, gender inequality and the dehumanising nature of bureaucracy.
I was building up traditional photojournalistic images as I spent time with her in the UK, documenting aspects of her life – but I also needed pictures that could represent the past traumas I would be writing about. They would establish a sense of place, a mood – and hopefully connect the reader more deeply to the story.
Above all, though, the images had to feel right to Mirela. As I boarded the flight to Tirana, Albania’s capital, in August 2016, I was nervous. These were incredibly personal, painful events that I would be retracing, and my fear was that the pictures might re-traumatise her or unintentionally disrespect her memories.
I had just ten days, and Mirela had set a tight schedule for me. It wasn’t safe for her to return, but she patiently helped me plan where I needed to go, and we discussed the sort of things I needed to shoot. It’s a strange thing trying to photograph someone else’s memories, to try to capture a place as they saw it – and then try to convey that feeling to an audience.
I think, in retrospect, that my unfamiliarity with the locations helped. I knew nothing about them beyond what she had told me, and so any impressions I arrived with were hers. I had to try, as far as is possible, to set aside my own viewpoint and take pictures that felt true to what she had described.
What also helped was how vivid a picture she had painted of her homeland – the details, the smells, the temperature, the sounds of things, how she felt at particular times in particular places. For example, there was a woodland path that had a particular significance for her childhood that I could never realistically hope to find, so my task was to pick a path that could represent it. I shot a few, but one just felt right to me, and when I got home and showed my selection to her, she instantly pointed at that image and told me we had to use it.
Not everything went as smoothly. I discovered that one location, a motel where she had been forced to work, had subsequently been demolished – so I photographed the building site. And as I travelled around Albania and Kosovo, it was uncomfortable at times. I felt duplicitous, as I couldn’t talk to anyone about why I was there, or only in the very broadest of terms – the risk of identifying Mirela was too great.
It was difficult to align the horrors of her past experiences with the overwhelmingly warm and welcoming reception I received as a foreigner in the present day, in what is a gloriously beautiful country. But I reminded myself that I had a job to do, and recalling what she had been through helped to focus my mind.
Lots of images didn’t work. Many simply didn’t feel right to her when we looked over them back in the UK. But it was a great feeling – a huge relief – to find that we had more than enough photographs that she loved and that could represent the Albanian and Kosovan sections of the story.
We spent another 18 months working together, following her journey through the asylum system. I had never worked on as long or personally involving a story as this before, and it was a deeply affecting experience.
The photo story ends with Mirela in a better place than where it begins, and thankfully that remains the case today – but there are nonetheless still a great many bureaucratic battles left to be fought as she attempts to rebuild her life here in the UK.