Remembering the birth

A few years ago I went on a day long workshop run by David Hieatt, the guy that set up the Do Lectures among other good things. I filled my notebook with ideas, quotes, actions I needed to take and realisations. At the time, I didn’t know they were realisations or shifts in my thinking, but looking back it all seems so clear. I get that notebook out every now and then because it’s full of useful stuff and sometimes I need to be reminded of those shifts that took place.

I got the notebook out today because I am 8 months into setting up a new thing called Fieldwork and I feel a little adrift. Not in a bad way, but in a way that happens when you are deeply involved in something that you care about and it becomes harder to step back and get perspective. It’s funny, because Fieldwork is partly about helping companies get perspective and see their work with fresh eyes again. It’s important we take our own medicine, and I’ve been documenting my working life for the past week using a Fieldwork DIY Kit, to be reviewed together with my studio buddy Emily.

The thing that stuck out the most amongst the pages of notes was this line,

“Why has this thing been born?”

And then I remembered the talk I’d written for Made by Many a couple of months ago, which told two stories about why I’d founded Fieldwork.

Gavin, Refuse Collector, Halifax, 27th December 2014 — Photograph by Curtis James for Beyond Work

The first story was about my personal photography project called Beyond Work. I’ve spent the past 4 years documenting and trying to understand how people got to now, and why they’ve done the things they’ve done. It’s a look at what it means to be human at work. The idea came from a book called Work by Ronald Fraser, published in 1968 and found on a rainy day in a charity bookshop in Lincoln. It’s a collection of short essays from policemen, factory workers, solicitors and others. This is the introduction.

We talk shop, yet we rarely say what we intimately feel about work. We spend the greater part of our lives working, yet we rarely find time to think what our jobs mean to us. The repression is curious, as though a vital sector of our lives were incommunicable, or perhaps not worth communicating.
And yet work, the capacity of acting humanely on the world, is a shared experience for the majority of us it is done in common with others, for everyone of us it is done, however privately, for others.

One of the reasons Fieldwork was born is to bring the story of work alive way beyond graphs, numbers and academic papers, and Beyond Work has been a brilliant primer for that. It’s taught me about looking and listening and it’s reminded me that there are many different reasons people work. It’s opened my eyes to hidden depths in peoples work that I may never have noticed, and I want to share those discoveries.

The second story was about a company I’d founded and been working on for the 6 years before Fieldwork. It was a story about my need to get organised whilst working long days and nights for Heineken. I devised a way to help myself which became a workshop to help others. I started small, helping friends, but soon the project became a company with two partners and some simple principles. Over time we grew a little, and with the noise that comes from the day to day running of a company, we started to lose touch with some of those principles and with each other. We’d stopped taking our own medicine and forgotten why this company had been born.

At our second (low key) Christmas party, we invited a few people to speak, one of them was Paul Levy. He used a phrase that was soon to be ringing in my ears during the final years of this company.

“Colluding in mediocrity”

We had fallen prey to this with some of our clients along with what felt to me like chasing the money rather than chasing good and interesting work.

Fieldwork Portable Research Lab in the Clearleft offices

Colluding in mediocrity, chasing money and not working out what the real needs are have become the enemies Fieldwork must slay. I only want to do work where there is a real desire to observe, ask lots of questions, photograph and analyse before we start offering any kind of next steps. That doesn’t have to be a long drawn out experience as long as we uncover what the most appropriate action might be.

I love this from Singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell who says that “whatever she feels is the weak link in her last project gives her inspiration for the next. Well that project has become Fieldwork and I must never forget it’s birth and why I’ve worked so hard over the past 8 months to nurture it.