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Anne Worthington on the germ of the idea for The Unheard

Anne Worthington on the germ of the idea for The Unheard

I am a documentary photographer and writer. I came to writing having been a documentary photographer first, and what I’ve learned finds its way into fiction. Most of the photographs I take address social issues that put me in touch with people at the edges who are often the canaries in the coal mine of society. Of all the possibilities that exist with a camera, it’s the storytelling power of photography that interests me. Most of all, I want the people I meet to tell you about themselves. Like writers, photographers can see a story in something that might pass most people by, but a photographer must reduce this to a few frames. A photograph might not provide enough space to do this justice whereas writing can.

My camera allows me to walk into many worlds and make bonds with people I probably wouldn’t meet otherwise. I like to work closely with people and I get to see the pressures they’re under, and how these forces play out over the course of a life. Over the years, I’ve witnessed circumstances that are hard to deal with but need acknowledging. The people I’ve worked with have touched and altered me and I’ve never left some of them behind. Documentary photography leaves you with ghosts, I won’t be the only one who finds this.

I was looking through some of my photographs when I came across a contact sheet that had a few frames of an old man bent over a bed, crying. I was seeing them with fresh eyes as if it was nowhere I had been before, a time and place I did not know. They were four frames of a moment in someone’s life, running with reflected light, his face obscured in some, all shadow, no colour. There was something about these images, the ashes of a moment, so much charge in each frame. There was so much that was unexplained, and the writing that followed uncovered what happened before, during and after the image took place. I wrote until the image was spent of its content. Other images emerged and I began to think of them as markers in a story. This was the germ of The Unheard.

Images were the anchor for the book, starting me off in a certain direction. I wasn’t working with story and plot, I was working with voices that made the writing feel alive, discovering the characters as I wrote. Each voice was an invitation to go as far as I could with a person I was coming to meet every day, and was as exciting to work with as it is with the people I take photographs of. Writing was a process of discovering what the characters would do, but if I tried to insist on an idea, everything went dead. I wanted readers to inhabit the characters’ experiences as much as possible and understand the way they see the world. The voices come from inside their heads so we get to hear and see what they think and feel, and have a good understanding about why they act in the way they do. They would sometimes go past the boundaries of education and intellect with their honesty and what they laid bare about themselves. In the end, just as it is in real life, the reader gets to see the things we make public as well as an entirely different world of thought and feeling that’s hidden from view. The book is full of unheard things.

The Unheard by Anne Worthington is published by Confingo Publishing on 11 July as a Paperback Original at £7.50

The Unheard is available now from the Confingo Publishing website.

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