In 2019 I began a commission to create a series of portraits of people who live in or are associated with Northampton. The commission is an ongoing part of my practice that primarily looks at identity and place. The team behind the exhibition selected 26 people to take part. The project was not just about the iconic faces or well-known characters, the exhibition objective is to represent the everyday folk who contribute to the town on a daily basis. The initial intention was that the exhibition would open in the summer of 2020 but something happened, oh yeah, bloody Covid!!!! We’re now looking at exhibiting during the summer of 2021 

Northampton is a town in England’s East Midlands region. The town was/is known for its shoe industry. The ‘We are Northampton’ project celebrates the town’s rich heritage through a sense of identity and place. The dynamics of industrial sectors in our towns and cities contribute hugely in our sense of self. This work explores personal, cultural and civic identity. Civic identity is a particularly important factor in civic engagement and participation. The existence of the shoe factories weaves the Northampton community together but there’s more to this place than just shoes. 

The series includes Paralympic swimmer and gold medal winner Ellie Robinson. Her portrait was taken at 6am on a Saturday morning during Ellie’s training session for the 2020 Paralympic games that were postponed due to Covid-19. In another of the portraits we’re introduced to Michael James in his workshop. His company (Spring Line Limited) is at the heart of the British shoe-making industry, which is renowned throughout the world. The company is now the only remaining last manufacturer in Britain. Spring Line have produced last styles for a range of footwear and fashion clients that includes Vivienne Westwood, Church’s, Trickers and Paul Smith.  One of the images below is of Ayo Popoola. There’s plenty of media stories of disengaged youths in the UK. Ayo is a member of his town’s Youth Forum, made up of representatives aged 13-19. Their aims are to speak up for, and on behalf of young people and take an active part in decision making. Other portraits range from friends that met at a girls-school 60 years previously and never left the town to musicians where creativity was nurtured but never hindered by place.  

Photography is one of the greatest mediums to enable people to make sense of themselves and their environment. The work seeks to conjure up the presence of people who live and work in this town whilst at the same time recording an active fragment of a town’s history. Understanding our place (or not) within post-industrial towns is an ongoing part of my research and practice.  

The work will open the redeveloped Museum and Art Gallery in 2021. There’re also a few images of the construction process with Cassandra Killington and Louise Hannam-Jones who were such lovely clients to work for. I’ll release my images in the build up to the opening-night. 

I feel like I’ve got my mojo back and want to get back to making and disseminating my practice. 

Ayo Popoola. We are Northampton byPaul O’Leary
Louise, Cassandra and Paul (pre-Lockdown) in the new Northampton Museum and Art Gallery.

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