Cheetham Hill Road in North Manchester is, according to data from the 2011 census, the most diverse street in Britain. Almost half of the people who live and work along this 8-mile stretch of road speak English as a second or other language and the area has been the first port of call for new Mancunians arriving from all over the globe for well over a hundred years.
One of the most impressive surviving buildings on this road is the former Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue which opened in 1874 and is now home to Manchester Jewish Museum where I am employed as Learning Manager. One of the things I love most about my job is being able to work closely with such a diverse community in order to ensure that we are living up to our commitment to be a museum for everyone and to help people appreciate our multicultural world. The museum is currently involved in a major development project to renovate the synagogue building and to build a new museum alongside it.
With this in mind I have been working with a local photographer called Jan Chlebik on the museum’s most recent exhibition – Cheetham Hill Road: A People Panorama. The exhibition is centred around twenty-nine enormous panoramic photographs which showcase the incredible diversity found along the road. Groups featured range from those which you might expect; such as schools, shops and places of worship right through to more unexpected hidden gems like climbing centres, trampolining clubs and even a cage-fighting gym.
The first stage of the project involved drawing up a “most wanted” list of groups we felt would make a great picture and really show off the diversity of the area. Once we had this list I set about the task of approaching people and inviting them to take part. Incredibly, every single group that we approached said yes and we actually ended up taking more pictures than we had planned as we kept meeting people who we felt we couldn’t possibly leave out.
The most difficult part of this project proved to be finding the right location for each picture. You need A LOT of space for each one. Every person in every picture is exactly 18-feet from the camera. So for the largest gatherings of people, which involved shooting a full 360-degree image, we needed at least a 36-foot circular area to work with. When you combine the fact that many of the venues we visited are what you might call “cosey” and the fact that most of the pictures had to be taken in the dead of winter, so outdoor shoots weren’t always an option, you can imagine that things didn’t always go to plan and there was a fair bit of creative thinking required to ensure we captured an image that both ourselves and the participants would be proud of.
The most rewarding part of this project for myself and Jan has been meeting the people that make up this amazing community. Without exception we were met with a warmth and affection that we had not expected at the start of the project. The best thing of all was getting to sample foods from all over the world, from the most amazing Ukrainian comfort food to the best onion bhajis you have ever tasted.
The idea behind the exhibition is a simple one but the fact that each person is given the opportunity to be seen clearly and nobody is given higher importance than anybody else makes it the perfect way to encapsulate the greatest lesson I think we can take from this most diverse of communities. Every single one of the 1500 people featured in the exhibition is unique, we met some incredible characters covering every faith, culture, age and background, but in every way that really matters they are the same. They told us they just want to get on with their lives and get on with their neighbours.
Since we took the photographs there are two messages which have stayed with me and will continue to shape my work at the museum. They are the mottos of schools featured in the exhibition (Abraham Moss Community School and Temple Primary School) and they put into words what I have learned from this project far better than I can. “Strength comes from diversity” and “All different. All equal.”
Words: Gareth Redston
Cheetham Hill: A People Panorama is open to view from 21st March 2016.