Joan Russell

When I was first asked to take part in the Above the Noise exhibition, I felt quite nervous about what I could contribute and what form that would take. I suppose I questioned the validity of my experience.

My parents Mary and Patrick Mulvehill with daughter Bridget, Bedford, England 1960. Image credit: Joan Russell

My parents were Irish and had passed on, and the Irish community that had been such a big part of my childhood had begun to dwindle by the 1980s. In Bradford, many catholic churches saw declining numbers, children tended to ‘marry out’ and Irish pubs and clubs became less popular (the last Bradford Irish Club was finally closed and sold in 2016).

Ceilidh at the Queens Hall, arranged by Luke Kearns and the Irish Club 1985. Photo by Joan Russell.

Taking part in the exhibition made me look at my family and their experience in a more focussed way and I became more confident that this story could be of interest to people. I felt this even more when I worked with the others in my group (two sisters with Jamaican heritage and a Scottish artist). It was so fascinating listening to their stories and comparing our experiences. You really began to feel that you were part of a community.

Brian and Elizabeth McGrory (my great aunt and uncle) Monaghan, Ireland 1984. Photo by Joan Russell.

It was wonderful to work together and see everybody’s lives and heritage laid out in photographs, objects and mementos, and to be a part of the creative process that would turn all of that into something that people would look at on the walls of a National Museum.

The museum staff really listened to each person’s story; I felt like we were all ‘heard’. They took care to try to present each person’s contribution in a way that matched their vision as closely as possible. It really felt like a relationship was being built between the museum (staff) and ourselves. This was in part a personal one, because we were disclosing our family histories, which requires an amount of trust, and in part, a professional one, of mutual respect in working towards a fixed goal and contributing to the structure of the exhibition.

There are very few public places where people of different backgrounds can really mix and exchange ideas, and work together creatively to build something. This felt like the beginning of something exciting, a feeling further strengthened on the opening night.

This was the best moment for me – just to see the wide range of people that had come together to share this public space and see the exhibition. I know that museums are very keen to be inclusive and appeal to all but, more often than not, they are frequented by white, middle-class people, while anybody else often doesn’t feel quite as at home there. It was just wonderful to see such different groups of people from every culture and community of Bradford – families, groups of friends, children with their grandparents – all so excited to see their family’s stories on the walls. These are the ordinary, extraordinary people of Bradford and I hope that the museum becomes the kind of place that feels like it is theirs.

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Joan Russell's bio

I became interested in photography from quite a young age. I loved the idea that you could frame the world to match your view… could capture that moment and keep it for all time. I eventually got a place on the Documentary Photography course at Newport College in Wales. It was during that two year period that I began to photograph the Irish community. It was still a relatively thriving scene then, with a well attended Irish club, Irish dance classes, Catholic churches and schools. It was wonderful, as well, to link up with and photograph my family in Monaghan at that time.

After leaving college I secured a job at a Press Agency in Bradford. The agency supplied photographic coverage of events in Yorkshire for the (regional and national) newspapers of the time so there was a lot of travelling involved and very tight deadlines. In those pre-internet days we would have to get the photographs shot and printed, and sent on a train to London (where the film or prints would be picked up by a courier from the newspaper) in the same day. It was very exciting but somewhat stressful.

After working for myself for a number of years I began working for Shipley College, shooting their promotional pictures, supporting students with their learning and also teaching evening classes in photography. I hope to visit Ireland more regularly and pick up where I left off all those years ago.