Wednesday 9 November 2022

Redundancy, two years ago and now

It’s been two years to the day, November 9, 2020, that I received my redundancy notice. ‘Hi Russell, You are required to attend a mandatory meeting to discuss...’ The clue being that it was mandatory and senior HR staff were cc’d. 


What set me thinking about my progress over the last two years is this: last week I walked past the location of my first ever picture story, ‘Bob Carver’s Fish and Chip Restaurant’, when I was an inexperienced photographic student in Hull. 

I have been in ‘transition’. A journey that everyone will make, regardless of their job, a transition from working to not working. I believe everyone will transition in one of three ways:  one death, two life-changing illness or three fulfilling the next stage of life. Sadly many people, men in particular, fearing that they will not know who to be without the status of career, push on far too long in their workplace. I now believe I would have been one of those people.


My colleague Victor, the same age as me and looking forward to spending fulfilling days fishing and being with his family, shockingly died of a heart attack one month after being given all my responsibilities.


Three weeks after being told that I was being made redundant I collapsed watching TV at home, and I came round to see two paramedics standing in my front room. I’d had a stress-related blackout. I took a picture in the hospital, it’s a significant part of my transition, a sort of ground zero from which to build upon. 

I knew I had to move on. The job I loved was taken away, no status, money uncertainty, ill health and sometimes I worried what I would do to fill the hours I spent working. I am no gardener and struggle to see the point of golf. But instead, I quickly discovered that I would not have enough hours to feed my passion for pictures and story-telling.  


Back to November 9, 2020. On the same day I got my redundancy notice I also received a mail from Craig at Café Royal Books. It was the proof of my first ever book, my documentary pictures ‘George Norris, Rag and Bone, Hull 1980s’. A bitter-sweet day. The book was published on December 19, 2020 and sold out. 

I describe myself as being ‘post work’. The word ‘retirement’, like ‘redundant’, has negative connotations. I feel, on the whole, positive.


What took a while to slow down was the roller coaster of emotions I felt in the weeks and months after being made redundant, especially as I was undergoing medical tests after my collapse. I felt fear, anger, a sense of rejection, but also a sense of relief at being free of spread sheets and pointless meetings. There was sadness at letting my team down by not being there and simultaneously guilt that I no longer needed to worry professionally about them. I was missing the adrenalin rush of chasing the news and the beauty and power of the picture file. I enjoyed having time for family, friends and myself. I regretted not spending more time doing that before. There were no more midnight calls and the day no longer started with a 6:30 a.m. planning meeting. I felt the joy of having time to shoot pictures to please myself but the frustration that I had no platform to share them. There was the fear of being professionally invisible, and being overlooked because of my age. But conversely, confidence to do things because of my years of experience. This roller coaster had new twists and turns, day and night. 


My advice to those going through this experience is to accept all these emotions. You’ll need to give it time. Try to do something small that makes you feel you are taking control.


I switched off most (but not all) news alerts and deleted work-related apps.  


At this time, early 2021, it was full Covid lockdown. 


To move on I decided as a first step that I’d listen to online discussions where people were exploring photography. I learned about a new archive being collected by the Museum of Youth Culture. After a quick call with them I rescued my 40-year-old negatives of youth groups from the attic and offered to scan them for their collection. 

I didn’t want to get stuck in all my yesterdays by poring over my old images or shooting black and white 35mm pictures, nor did I want to shoot news feature stories on colour digital. For sure, no one would want work from me: a 58-year-old man recently made redundant. I had to rediscover my confidence and sense of fun in taking pictures. 


While walking in my local park during lockdown I overheard snippets of conversation as people passed by. I decided to start a small project producing a gentle set of images of people I met on those walks, called ‘Overheard in Lockdown’. I emailed the images to everyone I photographed. The response was wonderful, which reminded me why I love photography. My confidence quickly came back to life.

A major turning point came when a friend told me that he had been loaned a Rolleiflex 2 ¼ camera. This was a lightbulb moment, as I thought this would combine learning a new skill, shooting square format on a vintage film camera, revisiting my passion for documentary photography, and using my experience to execute the whole project. My great aunt Ivy had died and left me a small sum of money that I spent on a Rolleiflex 80mm f2.8. I decided to use a tripod and practice on neighbours. The pictures now hang in their homes.  

From this came my idea to shoot the story ‘A Portrait of the High Street’. To push myself further I decided that I’d ask each shopkeeper on my local high street about their hopes and fears post-Covid and record their answers on video. This led to a journey into the dark arts of sound and video editing. Technical help came from another colleague also made redundant.

An equally challenging proposition was getting permission from the council to exhibit the work outdoors and get funding to pay for the printing. With support from local estate agents The Stow Brothers, London City Council, Epping Forest and Redbridge Vision, this all happened.

It was a small project, but the joy on the faces of the people I photographed when I gave them framed prints was as rewarding as anything I have done. 


This gave me the confidence to start my story on the Lea Bridge Road. I wanted to document a moment along a street that I think is representative of London today. This is an ongoing project that you can see here.

The Peterborough Museum and Art Gallery confirmed they wanted to produce a one-man exhibition of my youth groups picture stories that will go on show in January 2023 for three months. Below is a sneak preview of one of 14 wall sections exhibition designs.

In May 2022, Rag and Bone man George Norris mentioned that he was back out collecting scrap, but this time with his 81-year-old father. I spent nearly two weeks with them, and was great to reaffirm an old friendship. I combined shooting colour digital 35mm and black and white film on the Rolleiflex. I interviewed them on video and recorded audio. I also shot some B-roll on the iPhone. I didn’t intend to create combination picture comparing 1983 with 2022. It just happened. The video seems to have caught people imagination and has nearly 90,000 views. You can see it by clicking here . The BBC picked up the story and you can see that here

In July 2022, Café Royal Books published my second book, ‘Star & Garter Hull 1983’.

While I was in Hull photographing George and his father, I had a bit of fun reintroducing prints from 1983 into the pub and photographing them, lining them up in the same place in 2022.  The BBC also picked up this story and ran the images. The response has been amazing with people who saw the broadcast taking the time to send emails to congratulate me on the images. 

It’s not all been plain sailing. There has been disappointment too. Only recently I had three project submissions rejected in one day. My mentor Dave Caulkin died and I regret not making more time to see him. He had been post-work for many years. 


This post has been a way for me to examine my journey since my redundancy notice two years ago. I was tempted, once was written, just to delete it. But I have decided to publish in the hope that anyone facing the same situation might find it useful. 


Being post-work is an opportunity because what you have is the greatest asset: time.  I hope that options one and two are a long way away as I’m now having fun. 


Russell Boyce  

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