40 years ago Finnish photographer Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen came to Byker as a founder member of Amber. Her photographs from the working class Tyneside terraced streets became an exhibition and book; wove their way through Amber’s film Byker (1983). Studied and feted across the world, the work was a celebration of the community that was demolished to make way for architect Ralph Erskine’s Nyker Wall Estate.
Sirkka returned in 2003, negotiating an individual journey through the new Byker, building a portrait of of the estate, opening up on the richly complex, often transient and fragile nature of contemporary urban lives and the architecture that is part of the story.
This new project took a very different approach. It’s no longer OK to walk the streets with a camera and photograph anyone – especially children – without permission. So I got to know people, and asked them: if you were to put your life into just one picture, what would be in it?
I wanted pictures that weren’t just people sitting on the sofa, looking blank. The man in this picture is a lorry driver, and at first he seemed a typical Byker lad, but he had a Lebanese grandmother. They were about to move out, and the whole place was in boxes. I set up the tripod and lights, and framed the picture carefully, but I hoped something spontaneous would happen. Then his dog, a bull terrier, appeared from the kitchen and leapt up onto the seat; the father started blowing soap bubbles. The dog got so excited – snapping, trying to catch the bubbles. I didn’t take too many shots, as it was over so quickly, and they had to get back to their packing. But the moment of drama encapsulates things beyond the photograph. There is a lot of fragility in this community, it’s very transient: to me, the soap bubble symbolises that.