In April and May 2021, Alex McEwan from Albatross Arts produced a series of walking photography workshops in partnership with Katrina Sayer from Jean’s Bothy in Helensburgh.

Funded by Creative Lives’ ‘Get Creative’ micro-commissions, this five-week project was designed to help individuals – especially older people – who were at risk of loneliness, isolation or poor mental health, to reconnect socially and in-person after lockdown.

Each older participant was paired with a peer from Jean’s Bothy. The pairs then set off on a pre-planned walk at staggered start times to ensure appropriate social distancing. At the end of the project, the photographs taken during the walks were displayed in places with lots of foot traffic, such as local cafés, the library and in Jean’s Bothy itself.

Responding to and learning from the Covid-19 Pandemic 

As restrictions began to ease in the spring of 2021 and small groups were allowed to meet outside, Alex recognised a need to help people regain their confidence when socialising in-person. She understood that the re-opening of society might pose several challenges for those who had been most isolated during lockdown, particularly older individuals who live alone and who were less likely to engage digitally with Jean’s Bothy or with other cultural providers.

Re-engaging socially after a long period of isolation could feel quite intimidating, especially when combined with the uncertainty caused by changing regulations. Another potential difficulty was not knowing what to talk about upon meeting up, often due to a feeling of life having been on-hold during lockdown. In response, the Walking Workshops provided a predetermined route and the ability to meet up with others, while being assured that this meeting abided by current government regulations.

Through the photography element of the workshop, creative activity provided a source of conversation and connection. By bringing a camera and documenting the walks, members of Jean’s Bothy were able to reconnect with their environment and even engage with it in a new way, as taking photographs caused them to notice elements of their surroundings that they would have otherwise overlooked. Having a goal in common with the other participants (for example, to document the man-made objects spotted on the walk) also helped to facilitate the group’s social connections.

“Rather than trying to make conversation, which might not necessarily have happened very easily, suddenly there was a common goal, a common theme to the walk. Everybody’s in it together, everybody is sharing stories of their local environment or of their cameras when they were younger. The younger people in the group were showing the older people how to take photos using their smartphones. It was a really positive experience.” (Alex, Albatross Arts)

Mutual trust

Given that the workshops were negotiating issues of uncertainty and nervousness, building trust with group members was essential for Alex. A key factor of the Walking Workshops’ success was that the walking group environment was already familiar to participants, as these types of activities had been run in the past by Jean’s Bothy, which is already well-known and well-trusted in the local community.

The importance of mutual trust between the participants was heightened by the atmosphere of anxiety caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. With a group of individuals out in a public setting, it was vital to be aware not only of the feelings of the group but also those of the general public, some of whom were understandably anxious or at least curious about seeing groups of people together, even when these groups were abiding by the rules.

Opportunities for Innovation

While Jean’s Bothy already had a well-established walking group, adding a creative element (in this case, photography) to this existing group worked well because it built on an activity with which people were already comfortable. Bringing in an additional dimension was beneficial because it allowed participants to learn new skills and have new experiences. This approach is, therefore, an effective way for a group to expand its activities while maximising existing resources and knowledge.

Incorporating a new element into an existing activity was so successful that Katrina was keen to consider how else this model could be used in future to open up new opportunities and experiences to people who might initially be hesitant to step outside of their comfort zone:

“It made us think about our programme. Joining some of the activities up actually works and it can introduce new things to people. In this instance, people who were comfortable going out in the walking group were suddenly presented with something quite new. It's made us think about how we can possibly do that in other areas as well. When people are already joining a certain group, how could we bring another element to it that would either stretch people a little bit and make them think about new things or would simply introduce them to something new in a more comfortable way?” (Katrina, Jean's Bothy)

Another advantage of the project was the small size of the group involved, partly prompted by the legal restrictions in place for outdoor meetings. As Alex and Katrina observed, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, activities planned for a small number of people were often harder to justify to funding partners, who wanted to see the biggest impact possible. However, during the Walking Workshops, the small group size was essential for the participants when learning a new skill and for the group to be able to connect interpersonally. This can be seen from the Walking Workshops’ outcomes.

Transformative outcomes

Alex noted the transformation in participants’ confidence and sense of community during their engagement with the Walking Workshops photography project. In the beginning, participants were somewhat doubtful of their creative abilities, as well as being wary of using the cameras, for fear of damaging something expensive. To counter this, disposable cameras were used first. Once people became comfortable with these, they began to experiment with different shots and angles. This emergence of creativity prompted conversation, as participants started discussing what they were doing and exploring new ideas for their photographs. 

With a new level of confidence achieved, Polaroid cameras were introduced. This created further excitement as people could instantly see the physical photograph taken, which then encouraged creative collaboration and feedback among group members. Having the photographs in front of them immediately meant that some participants started arranging the images, producing a form of photo-essay or exhibition. 

Alex explained that the individuals gradually became a cohesive group. They began evaluating each other’s progress and moved from talking about “I” to talking about “we”. In this case, creative activity encouraged social (re-)connection and cohesion, and so produced a positive impact on isolated individuals following the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I'm really proud of our wee group. We're all so different. But we all get along well and we're all having a go. I think, as time goes on, we'll all get better at trying new things.” (A quote from a Walking Workshop participant, provided by Alex)

Moving Forward and breaking down barriers

The pandemic highlighted the importance of individuals’ connections to their local environment. However, many of the Walking Workshop participants displayed reticence about visiting certain public spaces – for example, their local park – as they did not feel that they belonged there. By incorporating these spaces into the photography project, the Walking Workshops enabled group members to investigate places on their doorstep that had previously seemed off-limits.

Introducing a creative activity through a trusted provider (Jean’s Bothy) allowed the members of the group to feel a sense of belonging and enjoyment in the spaces around them, potentially allowing them to have a more fruitful connection with their local environment in future. For example, when the group planned to visit The Hill House in Helensburgh, some individuals were concerned about the trip. However, once the participants were there as part of a supportive group, with their camera in hand, they demonstrated a new level of confidence and curiosity.

“In the last week, the group got to choose where they went, and somebody suggested Mackintosh’s Hill House.  And the general reaction was: “It's not for me. I've never been. Is it not very expensive to get into? Is it shut?” There were all these reasons why they should not go or why they had not been to Hill House before. But when we got there, it gave everyone a bit of a buzz. One person who had been quite quiet suddenly took on a leadership role because he felt more confident around, for example, climbing stairs and going very high because at the moment you can walk over the top of Hill House. He had suddenly grown in confidence, and everyone was very impressed with him, and he was very impressed with himself. So, he took the camera and the problem at the end of the day was getting it back off him. 

It happens again and again in projects: you take people to a space like a gallery or a  museum, and they don't feel it's for them. They feel that it’s for other people, for more educated people or for people from a certain section of society. It's about breaking down those barriers.” (Alex) 

Walking Workshops demonstrate how creative activity can be used to present public spaces as welcoming to all. This is especially important as we reconnect with each other outdoors after long periods of isolation. This photography project has also provided an opportunity to consider the impact that creative community groups can have on mental health and wellbeing. At a time when issues of loneliness and social isolation are key concerns for communities, Walking Workshops demonstrate how a sense of social cohesion and connectedness can be created and cultivated through arts-based community initiatives.