If you’ve walked through the market recently, you may have spotted the brilliant Cafe Art exhibition on Market Street, or more recently, their stall selling beautifully curated calendars just outside Giraffe. We caught up with the man behind it all, Paul Ryan, founder of Cafe Art and the MyLondon calendar, to find out a little bit more about the project…
What inspired you to start Café Art?
I set up Cafe Art with Michael Wong in November 2013. We had both volunteered (Michael) or worked (Paul) with people affected by homelessness and knew that art and photography can help people in many ways, not only in creating it but in exhibiting it and our first project, set up by Michael, was hanging art by homeless people in cafes.
What’s the process of curating the My London calendar?
We distribute 100 disposable cameras in the summer and participants in the project have 5 days to take 26 shots. When they have returned the cameras we develop the film and a panel of judges choose 20 photos from 3,000 printed. After enlarging the top 20 we display it in Spitalfields in early August and the public gets to choose their favourite photos. From the public vote, we choose the calendar (12 months plus a cover photo).
In which ways does the My London calendar help homeless people?
The MyLondon calendar helps homeless people in many ways. By participating in the photography contest, participants learn new basic skills in photography. We teach about composition and how to use the light to make a good photo. We talk about the subject matter – the theme is London. People have only 26 shots and they can’t delete them like a digital camera so they have to learn to be patient. All of this help boost people’s self-esteem. Later, participants are required to submit three photos into the exhibition and asked to write captions for the photos. If they are in the top 20 they will be interviewed and asked to talk about themselves in a way they want to be represented. After we write up the interviews we go over them with the participants and they are hung in the exhibition with their photos and also into the calendar. This way of telling their story empowers people. If they need to earn an income, they can sell the calendar later in the year. From October we sell the MyLondon calendar in Spitalfields Market. This helps their income, gives them selling skills and also helps them gain more confidence as they need to speak to customers.
What has been the most rewarding moment of working on the My London calendar?
In 2015 we were lucky to have our project receive worldwide attention. We were in more than 200 media websites in the US, Europe and the rest of the world. This helped us sell many calendars online, but also introduced us to a team of individuals and organisations and this has resulted in partner projects: MyBudapest, MySydney, MyNewOrleans, MySaoPaulo and MyToronto.
Do you have a favourite photo from this year’s calendar?
I love all the photos (I would say that!) but there are some photos that just grow on you over time. I particularly like the one of street art near Brick Lane by McGinlay, I love the details in the artwork that she calls ‘Brick Lane Octo-Brain’. It is March in the 2019 calendar. (Below)
You must hear some incredible stories along the way, can you tell us any in particular that have stuck with you?
Tragically one of our vendors had been working for BT and lost his job and then his flat. He was sleeping on Night buses. He missed an appointment with the Job Centre and lost his benefit for six weeks in October. We were able to let him sell the calendar as he had nothing. It felt good to be able to help him.
Aside from the My London calendar, do you work on any other projects or events to support homeless people?
We have the Art in Cafes programme, an annual international homeless art exchange called This Is Where I Live between London, New York, Berlin, Sydney, Auckland and Mumbai, we rent art to corporate head offices and offer a mentoring group to teach people how to use digital cameras.
If somebody wanted to get involved with the work you do, how might they be able to help?
We have many volunteers – people can help in many ways, including helping with the camera handout (next year it will be in May), helping us hang pop up exhibition and help us hang art in cafes.