Life Through a Lens – photography workshops at The Sanctuary

The Sanctuary - CV

**If you have any stories or experiences from the Social Prescription workshops, and would be happy to share them, please contact me via the email below**

Ed King /


“A camera can be like a piece of armour,explains Ming de Nasty, “it can be a comfort zone, something that helps you interact with the world around you.”

Ming has been teaching the photography workshops at The Sanctuary, as part of the centre’s Social Prescriptions programme, since the beginning of February. “I used to go to parties with my camera,” continues Ming, “and just take pictures all night. People would say how sociable I was, but sometimes it was just easier being behind a lens. It took some of the pressure off.”

Ming’s photography workshop meets at The Sanctuary every Monday, between 3-5pm. A group made up of all ages, backgrounds and levels of experience – about 12 people now regularly attend the free classes, most of whom are from Castle Vale or surrounding areas.

Today the group is out taking pictures in the park on Tangmere Drive, about 5mins walk from The Sanctuary. During last week’s session, each member had randomly selected a subject to think about whilst out with their camera. Making the most of the early spring sunshine, the group is spending the first hour of the workshop looking for things they find inspiring and interesting.

I joined some of the group members earlier on, as they went out and took pictures. One man had picked the word ‘happiness’, as his subject to photograph, and went to the singing workshop (which is held directly before the photography workshop) to get a shot that represented this feeling. I’d been to the singing workshop the previous Monday and agreed ‘happiness’ could be found there, but the man had also photographed bars of chocolate on display in a local supermarket, just to be sure.

As I suggested taking pictures of the sprouting buds, as the beginning of spring always makes me happy, another man, who had been coming since the first workshop in February, told me to visit the trees along Farnborough Road – which had come out in an early blossom. They sounded beautiful, and I told him “even without a camera I will go and see them for myself.” This man had picked ‘thoughts’ as his subject.

Then, by the railings that keep the park from the street, we noticed a woman wrestling with a small puppy. She was trying to take it out for a walk, but the dog had other ideas, digging its young heels into the ground and refusing to move. It was so small but so stubborn, it really made us laugh; we asked if we could take a picture of the dog, which was still refusing to move. After a friendly chat with the woman, and a few snaps of the dog, we all carried on with our day. I don’t know how happy the puppy was but this interaction certainly made me smile.

“I didn’t want the group to be too rigid,” explains Ming, as she brings us both over a cup of coffee from the small Sanctuary kitchen. “Whilst I’m here to guide people, to teach them techniques that will increase their skill and enjoyment, I didn’t want there to be any pressure on ‘getting it right’. I wanted people to make up their own minds about what’s important to photograph.”

Ming de Nasty has been a professional photographer in Birmingham since “starting in 1987”. She began taking pictures of Birmingham’s bands and live gig circuit, commissioned by local record labels to provide images for album covers and artist publicity. “You start by capturing what’s around you and what excites you,” explains Ming. “That can be your family, your friends, your school or work environments. But for me it was music.”

Two years later and Ming opened her first studio, called Poseurs, on the Ladypool Road, before eventually moving to the Custard Factory in Digbeth. Ming has exhibited original work all over the Midlands, and been commissioned by The Custard Factory, Blowback Magazine, Walsall New Art Gallery and Audiences Central – the later setting her two original briefs as part of the Birmingham City of Culture bid. Ming has also run a wide range of photography workshops, from a professional to community focus, and has a clear idea of how to engage her group.

Earlier in the park, after our run in with the stubborn puppy, I talked to a woman who had, initially, felt anxious and uncomfortable about coming to the workshops on her own. I appreciate feeling nervous in front of new people; we stood in the crisp spring sun and talked about her photography.

The woman told me how, after a couple of sessions, she began to feel much more confident in the group. This confidence grew, she explained, until one day she decided to look outside the workshops for photography opportunities. A keen football fan, she contacted several local clubs and ended up taking photos for the Olympic Football team, who train nearby. After attending a few sessions, the club asked her to be their regular photographer, personally inviting her document their games. I was impressed, and asked to shake the woman’s hand. Anyone who has the courage and self belief to generate new opportunities for themselves is well deserving of my open respect.

The first hour of the session is coming to an end and the group trickles back to The Sanctuary for Ming to upload their pictures onto a special online gallery. There is no pressure of an exhibition, it’s just a way for the group to see, and talk about, each other’s pictures.

I look around the room; as with the singing group, I’m surprised these people have only just met. The atmosphere is very social, very comfortable, and people seem genuinely interested in each other’s photographs and stories. Over the next hour I talk to some of the members I’d not yet met, sometimes about photography and sometimes about the day to day worlds we live in. Two hours pass in no time at all.

But pass it does, and Ming brings the group together for their next project brief. “I want you all to take about ten shots,” begins Ming, “depicting one day in your life. From when you wake up to when you go to bed, I want you to document your day through photography.” The group laugh with each other; it’s one member’s birthday in the coming week and we joke whether that would be a good day to capture, or if somethings are best left un-photographed. It’s friendly banter, but I can see each member start to think about how to approach this new project for themselves.

I guess that’s one of the best things about photography, it’s a personal expression – something where you can never be wrong as long as you’re involved.

These photography workshops teach genuine skills but aren’t about excellence or competition, but supporting each other whilst trying something new. And if I had to document a day in my life, with all its personal peccadilloes and embarrassing idiosyncrasies, I couldn’t think of many safer places to share it.

The Sanctuary will be hosting workshops on singing (Mon 1-3pm), photography (Mon 3-5pm) and Storytelling (Weds 12-1:45pm) every week until the end of April. All are free to attend, with no experience necessary.

For more information phone The Sanctuary on (0121) 748 8111 


**If you have any stories or experiences from the Social Prescription workshops, and would be happy to share them, please contact me via the email below**

Ed King /

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Posted in Photography, Visual Arts Activities

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