As photographer Philippa James prepares to launch her exhibition 100 Women of Oxford on Sunday 8 March for International Women’s Day 2020, Esther Lafferty went to meet her and find out about Philippa and the women she is putting on show in West Oxford’s Tap Social this spring.
Philippa, who moved to Oxford ten years ago, recounts how several years back she realised there was more to know about this city and the circles of people who live here. She therefore resolved to step outside of her normal day-to-day parameters and meet 100 strangers with whom her path would not ordinarily cross to help her understand more about her community and those who live alongside her.
“There are so many facets to the population here,” she explains, “from the well-documented town and gown divide to intangible sectors defined by age, race, gender, interests and myriad other dimensions.
“I chose to include only women in the project as gender inequality was part of my childhood, growing up in a tiny Welsh village. I wanted to hear 100 women’s voices and their views of the city and put them together.”
Philippa’s journey took her to 100 homes where she uncovered not only each woman’s relationship with Oxford, but also their intimate stories. She drank 100 cups of coffee and listened to over 100 stories about injustice, abuse, fear, death and inequality; about race, gender, politics, and art; acceptance, love, life and strength. “I laughed so much,” she smiles, “and cried just as much."
“The very first woman I met was outside a vets, she had an infectious laugh so I stopped and we got talking. She was so much fun and we had a lot of banter. We went to her house, and she shared her troubled life: she had a son in prison and a daughter who had given birth to a baby who had to be weaned off heroin. I felt honoured that she had opened up in that way.
“I put myself in a variety of places across the city outside my normal sphere, and another wonderful woman told me how she had raised her children with every privilege and opportunity, only to have her daughter run away and choose to live on the streets of Brighton. For years she blamed herself and only now, in her 60s, is she starting to forgive and learn to be kind to herself.
“Others worried about issues in the wider world from homelessness to climate change, often giving so much of their time and themselves to support others or fight for their beliefs.
“I went to other community groups helping people overcome various challenges, asking those I had real eye contact with whether they would take part in the project and about their thoughts on Oxford and on life, their fears and their future. At the food bank, I met a woman who invited me back to her home which was literally a van she shared with her boyfriend. They had been kicked out of their flat and were homeless. While aspects of this woman’s life were clearly challenging, it was fascinating to see the persona she puts on when she’s having a glitzy night out. Her aspirations and her dreams were incredible, none of which you would expect if you passed her on the pavement.
“Other women surprised me in different ways. One Jamaican lady, Icolyn ‘Ma’ Smith, I met at the soup kitchen which she had set up 30 years ago and for which she has won a multitude of community awards. She had a huge beautifully-designed outdoor kitchen in her back garden, created by Alan Titchmarsh for last year’s TV series Love Your Garden.”
Another iconic Oxford women Philippa was delighted to meet was Dr Clara Barker, a trans woman scientist, recognised by the prime minister’s office for her LGBT+ voluntary work. “She shared her story of growing up in the 80s and 90s, knowing she was different without a role model, and she struggled with depression. She is now happy, proud of who she is and fiercely passionate about speaking up for the LGBT+ community.”
Philippa also met people in an organic way, following recommendations from one woman to the next, revelling in the randomness of the approach, visiting them in their own environments from archetypal foursquare family houses to student flats and canal boats. “This exhibition documents my journey,” she says. “It isn’t meant to be a representation of all the women of Oxford: I could continue until 1000 women and there would still be more mini-demographics yet to uncover. These photos are simply a record of those who shared a cup of something heart-warming with me and a reminder of the human connection we built. Interestingly, I asked what advice each of my subjects would give to other women and the overriding answer was to trust in yourself, listen to yourself, and be yourself. You are enough,” she says, “and yet imposter syndrome is rife.”
Although Philippa took a number of shots of those she met, some laughing, others reflective and so on, in the series on show, each woman looks straight at the camera. The uniformity of this approach emphasises the commonality of being a woman whilst each person photographed has their own very different experiences. Together they fill the Tap Social space with life, community and humanity.
100 Women of Oxford runs 8 March-25 May at Tap Social, Oxford (Oxfordshire Artweeks listing 369). Visit artweeks.org to see the other places you can visit throughout May during the Oxfordshire Artweeks festival, as hundreds of artists and designers open their studios to the public or host pop-up exhibitions in interesting spaces.