Sandra Harper - Women in Photography
Sandra Harper is an Anglo-Caribbean photographer based in Brighton. In 2016, she was a RPS International Exhibition finalist. Sandra balances working on IT contracts with her self-funded Photography projects that have seen travel internationally to Bosnia, Mexico, Thailand and Ireland.
Sandra’s work is sensitive and compassionate and tackles difficult subjects such as her parents’ ageing, illness and eventually her Dad’s passing. Whatever subject she tackles, she eschews stereotypes and gets to heart of the matter. Sandra would love to do more extensive photographic work exploring her Caribbean background in homage to her Mum and Dad.
Could you tell me a bit more about the Photojournalism Workshop that you did in Mexico and what you learnt during it?
It was a Foundry Workshop - they run a workshop every year somewhere around the world. Previously I have done two (Thailand and Bosnia) and then I did the one in Mexico. The reality of working prevents me from going every year.
During the workshop I was inspired by a photojournalist and tutor there called Adriana Zehbrauskas. She had done some amazing work on Afro-Mexicans and I felt really energized by this idea.
During my time in Mexico I did two stories – one on the Mexico City Roller Derby and the other was after talking with Adriana. I started searching on Facebook for potential Afro-Mexicans to be in my project. It was then that I found Danielle – a Cameroonian. Danielle works in a restaurant in Mexico City, starting at the crack of dawn and often working into the night til 1 or 2. She was very welcoming and I ate some wonderful there – fried cactus, plantain and peanuts – real fusion food: a bit like my project. She had wanted to emigrate to Canada but ended up in back in Mexico City amid a thriving community of Cameroonians.
I presented an edited story with 10 images at the end of the workshop and enjoyed hearing about everyone’s work on the workshop.
Can you tell me about your first camera and your journey into Photography?
It was over 10 years ago when I was living in Brussels. I bought a film camera – a Pentax K-1000 from a local second-hand shop. I also found a Photography workshop by a great photographer called Michael Chia. He taught black and white Photography and dark-room techniques. As a group we put on an exhibition at a Flemish community centre. I sold one of my images to my French tutor – I put it down to beginner’s luck!
Can you tell me how you started the work on the Irish Traveller community?
It was during another workshop (yes, seemingly, I do a lot of workshops!) run by a great photographer and friend who’s from Boston but has lived in Ireland for over a decade. He knows a few Irish Traveller communities and has been taking their portraits for many years. The images produced were a result of two trips over a year. I visited horse fairs and gatherings. It’s awful how some people’s perceptions of the traveler community are the ‘Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’ documentaries. These feed into the prejudice and stereotypes of Travellers and it was something I consciously avoided.
Hestelle - The Carer's Story is very personal work on your Mum caring for your Dad who had dementia and cancer. Did you find it hard to make the work?
My priority was always the welfare of my parents before the camera. If my Dad needed help or my Mum – I was just there for them. My parents came from the Caribbean to the UK over 50 years ago to work and raise a family. To witness my father’s declining health and my mother’s struggles as his primary carer was extremely hard for me. I have so much gratitude to them for their unconditional support. At times, my Mum felt isolated and ignored by the health professionals in charge of my Dad’s care. That’s why it was important for me to give voice to my Mum’s story. Photographing my Mum and Dad gave me time to prepare for the inevitable fact of my father’s passing. This is as personal as it gets.
You've travelled extensively - do you have a place that you enjoy returning to and photographing?
I haven’t travelled as much as I’d like to. I would like to explore the Caribbean including St Vincent and the Grenadines as that’s where my parents are from. On my mother’s side, they fought the British in the 18th Century. I would like to visit Cuba as my Dad’s ancestors were slaves there. There are gaps in my family tree that I would like to fill in photographically as well as with extensive writing.
You work in IT as well as pursuing your photography - how do you balance your creativity with making a living? Do you wish you had more time for Photography?
I work in the IT contracting market and this allows me the flexibility to work on Photography projects in between contracts. IT pays my bills and helps me self-fund Photography projects. Do I wish I had more time for Photography? Of course I do! Sometimes I don’t get to pick up a camera for months but without the work that pays the bills, I can’t do the work I’m actually interested in. It’s all about balance.