Photography + Women = Alchemy

Honey J Walker, 17 March 2023

Honey J Walker,  is a London based abstract and aerial photographer, exploring colour, metaphor and emotional intelligence throughout her work. Her process involves in-camera multiple exposure and hand-finishing with encaustic or gold leaf. Walker’s images are abstract and removed from familiar points of reference. This challenges and disturbs the viewers sense of subject, whilst dazzling with the texture and colour content of each image. Her early years growing up in Nigeria gave her a deep-rooted interest in travel and an awareness of the inequalities facing humanity. This is echoed in her aerial work which documents the impermanence of nature and the immediacy of now. Walker has been shortlisted twice for the Royal Photographic Society International Photography exhibition, 2021 and 2022. She has been awarded the  for her panel of aerial work over Iceland and exhibited at both Barge House Gallery, London, Horsebridge Gallery in Kent and Sea Picture Galery, Suffolk.

In all its forms photography is my passion, my therapy and my happy place. When things are not going according to plan, photography is always something I return to. This fantastic artistic medium has taken me around the world introducing me to the most varied and interesting people with incredible stories to tell. Best of all and most rewarding. photography has given me a platform to tell those stories through my lens and creative vision.

I started off as a portrait photographer, or perhaps you could say a documentary photographer, as it was my children’s lives that became the main subject of my lens. Throughout their formative years I was working full time in fashion, so time with them was scarce, and I wanted to document those precious moments. From tantrums to tiaras it was always fascinating to me.

Ultimately, I have always found people incredibly interesting; how lives evolve or the empathy shared between two souls from completely different backgrounds, religions or experiences. I find this especially between women; that shared connection that seems to transcend age, ethnicity or language. I always remember attending a wedding in Slovakia of a dear friend. I greeted her mother with an enormous hug and we both started crying and laughing at the same time. She spoke no English and I spoke no Slovakian but the chemistry and empathy was immediate. It is that hidden, deep emotion that I like to explore in my images.

Sometimes in life, if we are incredibly fortunate, our passion for something and the opportunity to do some good come together. That was the case for me-it was between the two lockdowns sitting in my car outside the GP’s surgery waiting to be called in, listening to the radio. I remember it clearly. It was 11 am. On Radio 5 Live, Naga Munchetty was talking about a refuge for homeless women in Marylebone, London. Marylebone is an area I had worked in and shopped in, so I knew it well. Yet, I was racking my brains to think if I had ever noticed a shelter, let alone one exclusively for women. In fact, I couldn’t really remember having ever seen a homeless woman.

It really was a moment of alchemy. We had recently sold our business and had decided that some of the proceeds should go to a charity. We had narrowed it down to two areas that were particularly important to us; homelessness and abuse of women. In addition, we were looking for a charity that was not enormous, without head office overheads that would suck up our donation, and a charity that might also be interested in using some of my life skills and business acumen to assist in whatever way I could.

The Marylebone Project appeared to fit the criteria.

Two weeks later I had an escorted tour around both the Marylebone Project housing facilities and The Sanctuary, by Ruhamah Sonson, the charity’s Acting Operations Manager and warrior. The Sanctuary is a safe, women-only space that women can access day or night, 365 days of the year. It provides access to advice on housing, education and training, laundry facilities, showers, home cooked meals, a clothing bank and much needed empathy and care.

That initial meeting was powerful. So much of what I took for granted as a woman was a luxury for a whole section of society that I knew little to nothing about.

Why are homeless women less visible on the street? Of course the answer is obvious, but not one I had considered previously. So often in life? something is not immediately visible it doesn’t enter
our consciousness. This immediately spoke to me and seemed to echo the themes in my photographic work which explores what is emotionally hidden; what is there but not fully visible.

That is the nature of abuse generally; it can be insidious, hidden away and through shame, fear or ignorance women often accept their lot without complaint. Homeless women are even more vulnerable to rape, abuse, violent attack and coercion. Living on the street is an awful prospect for anyone but as a woman it is an incredibly frightening and dangerous environment.

I think one of the most shocking things I discovered on that first visit was that The Sanctuary is the only women-only centre in the UK where the doors are always open and where it is a female-only, trauma- informed environment.

The women I spoke to feel such enormous gratitude and relief to have found a genuine safe space where they feel nurtured and supported by their own gender. In addition to money, which the charity needs to keep its doors open annually (£1.2 million is required this year), they also need ongoing help with numerous projects or daily tasks.

The first project that Ruhamah and her marketing/ donations expert James Marlow identified that I might be able to assist with, was the launch of a new brochure to go out to corporate clients for donations. The previous brochure was rather tired, frankly text heavy and uninspiring in a very crowded market, where a charity brochure needs to elicit interest immediately or at least hold someone’s attention long enough for money to be pledged.

A plan was formulated for me to come into The Sanctuary and photograph some of the women and the environment to be used for the brochure. It quickly became obvious that no one wants to
be identified as homeless. Being the poster girl for that is not top of anyone’s list of aspirations. Anyone in that situation is hoping it is temporary and at some point they will be able to forget the insecurity and terror of that period of their lives.

Consequently, I took another approach. My work had evolved over the last few years to be far more nuanced. I had become very interested in multiple exposures shot in camera and in ICM (intentional camera movement). I find that both techniques can create some very interesting and unique results which are my own internal reaction to a moment, a person, a place, or a situation.

I use colour as a metaphor, and my work is always about the hidden story. I want the viewer to use their imagination. My images seem to find me without a preconceived plan. This project seemed to exemplify that.

I took a couple of days just listening to the women’s stories. Some wanted to tell me everything; the loneliness, the fear, the danger, the cold, the smell of living on the street. Others wanted to talk about art, politics, fashion, nail varnish; to gossip, like girls love to do and to be normal in a very unstable world.

The challenge along with finding the words to express the incredible work the charity is doing. was to create images that encapsulated the spirit of hope and the uniqueness of the centre. I wanted the work to feel inclusive; the images needed to capture the uplifting spirit of the charity but also the deeper issues of fear and abuse. The Images also needed to be about some of the women I had the privilege to meet. I used their hands, the side of a face, an eye; nothing identifiable as an individual, but it felt important for them to be tangibly included. One ex resident came to meet me and showed me some Incredible drawings she had done. She kindly allowed me to incorporate one of these as the base layer to one of the final images. The cover photograph has the title “Phenomenal Woman’ and is an homage to the poem by Maya Angelou with the same title. We included the poem on the back of the brochure as a call to arms to all women. You are all phenomenal!

My proudest moment was when the brochure was sent out to various prospective donors and one of them doubled their initial pledge having received and read the brochure. I was doing two things I get enormous satisfaction from; meeting people and photography. Somehow, they had made a real difference and created something tangible that could positively affect women’s lives.

Of course, no sooner was that project complete than a much harder one was identified. The charity currently collects donated food from local supermarkets to feed the residents of the refuge. They don’t own a van and so each day stall must wheel trolleys along the busy Marylebone Road to pick up the donations. Additionally, if local hotels or benefactors want to donate mattresses or goods, the charity cannot collect the items because they have no transport.

Consequently, I have started a Just Giving campaign to raise enough money to purchase an electric van for the charity under the title Karen’s Gift A Van. Hopefully, despite the very difficult economic times we are all facing, with lots of hard work, cajoling and nudging we will achieve the goal.

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