October 1st, 2010
Over the past few months, geeks, scientists, writers and presenters have been mulling over how to raise more funds and awareness for libel reform. This follows a number of recent high profile libel cases in the UK which have been seen as attempts to silence debate – particularly in areas of health and science.
While the Libel Reform Campaign has been involved in a number of activities to boost awareness, those of the geekier persuasion wondered if there might be something they could also contribute. After some discussion a charity calendar was hit upon as a way of uniting and celebrating geekiness in all its guises – while celebrating a good cause.
A number of high profile scientists, writers, artists, performers and broadcasters were invited to take part – including Simon Singh, Gia Milinovich, Jonathan Ross, Brian Cox, Chris Addison, Ben Goldacre and Evan Harris.
The calendar was put together by a team of enthusiastic volunteers including
Alice Bell, Louise Crane, Mun-Keat Looi with photographers Ben Gilbert and Greg Funnell. Each ‘geek’ had a photo depicting different aspects of their lives, work or hobbies. Everyone involved with the calendar gave up their time for free.
Given this stellar line up I was massively surprised and extremely flattered to be asked to feature in the calendar. Although I’d deny it if you asked me, it’s fair to say I am a geek. I’m fascinated with research methods, the whole process of research and how it works, and deconstructing how we study people in the health and social sciences. I’m obsessed with critical appraisal and applying evidence to practice and evaluating our health and educational activities. I’m driven to improve research practice internationally, along with increasing our understanding of research ethics, and the safety and wellbeing of researchers. Clearly when your interests are that dull you need to liven them up – and I do that through adding sex to the mix. You’d be amazed how much more understanding research governance becomes if you’re considering the ethics of studying our intimate lives.
Once I’d agreed to take part the dilemma of what we’d do for my photo shoot began. I was offered the choice of how I’d like to be photographed, with ideas from shoots already undertaken provided for inspiration. With that encouragement my first choice was to recreate this shot of Josephine Baker with her cheetah Chiquita*
Ms Baker is my hero and has been since I first saw a photo of her when I was six. I thought she was the most glamorous woman I’d ever seen. I still think that. Having a pet cheetah was the icing on the cake. In true geek style over the years I’ve been obsessed with La Baker, her career, her values, her trials and tribulations and her achievements. (If you’d like to know more about her this book is a great introduction).
However, I wasn’t sure my fandom of Baker would be clearly conveyed within the calendar, and anyway I couldn’t find a co-operative cheetah for love nor money. So that idea was out.
Because my research involves talking to people about sensitive issues photographing me actually doing any research or training introduced ethical problems around consent which made that kind of photo shoot inappropriate for a calendar.
Since sex research and education is so important to me I really wanted to have a photo shoot that captured that passion, as well as indicating how varied sexology is – and why it’s important.
So we eventually settled on a shoot at Crossbones Graveyard in Southwark. If you’ve never heard of it you wouldn’t be alone. It’s a pretty much forgotten part of London where ‘single women’ (aka prostitutes) were buried, along with paupers (male and female), and infants. Although it’s part of old, hidden London people clearly haven’t lost touch with their history as the gates of the old graveyard remain adorned with ribbons, mementos and messages to ancestors and those who have passed more recently.
I thought it would be an excellent choice of venue because history is vital to sex research – you can’t understand your present situation without understanding what has come before. Given the histories of the poor, the oppressed and particularly sex workers is so often airbrushed from our cultural memories, the idea of commemorating those who lie buried at Crossbones was a privilege. It also drew together for me the core aspects of sex research – understanding history, geography, anthropology, plus documenting and interrogating people’s lived experiences. I hoped including it in the calendar would encourage people to think more about those we often ignore and overlook, those whose sexualities or sexual lives differ from our own.
Knowing those buried there included sex workers, unmarried mothers, impoverished fathers and infants drew upon my commitment to researching and educating in sexual health. It reminded me why this work is so important – and how gender and health inequalities have harmed and oppressed in the past and continue to do so today in many parts of the world. The tributes to infants who’ve died that are still lovingly placed at the memorial also serve as a poignant reminder for any of those working in reproductive and maternal health (and more personally for those of us who have lost a baby through miscarriage, stillbirth or cot death).
As you can see I didn’t make this choice lightly. One of the core criticisms made by sex workers regarding how they’re represented by research revolves around being misrepresented, patronised, sidelined or spoken for. The frequently made criticism that (some) academics work ‘off the backs’ of sex workers and benefit (while workers may not) always needs remembering – even if those being represented in this case have long departed. In choosing Crossbones as a venue I didn’t want it to seem we were ignoring those who lay there, nor that we were glossing over or in any way making light of their histories.
This extended to how we’d photograph the gates of Crossbones. Among the ribbons and adornments include many messages, including names and personal details of people’s relatives – many of which are deeply moving. Some of which speak of very recent losses. All of those involved in the calendar felt it wasn’t appropriate focus on this identifying information and so we used the gates as a backdrop to avoid this.
Aside from the wish to link with sex worker history there were additional reasons for me wanting to be photographed south of the river. Apart from being proud of my South London roots (I was born in Lewisham), other members from my family on my father’s side come from Southwark. I have also worked with healthcare practitioners and young people across many South London boroughs, as well as conducting research (with colleagues) on modernising sexual health services there.
UK libel laws currently restrict our ability to raise questions about many social and health issues. The fear many journalists, bloggers, academics and activists have around being sued for asking questions or highlighting inequalities or poor practice has a potentially devastating chilling effect. We can all do our bit to challenge this problem but you can do something right now by ordering a calendar (you can buy one here).
And to give you a little more inspiration here’s a trailer of the calendar showing the geeks in all their glory….
* most accounts of Baker refer to her having a leopard although I’m told on good authority she actually owned a cheetah.Tweet