Don McCullin the renowned photographer called this week for more photographers to chronicle Britain. Although best known for his war photography, McCullin spoke with conviction of the need to highlight life in local communities, both the positive and the problems faced by those living in the most deprived areas saying it was a way of promoting understanding and bringing a community together. His first ever published photograph was “The Guv’nors”, a 1950s gang standing in a burned out building from his neighbourhood around Finsbury Park in London.
The ability to record many different aspects of local life in Wester Hailes was one of the real strengths of the Sentinel newspaper and contributed to developing a sense of community. In 1977 the Sentinel’s first issue was sold for 5p and provided coverage of local activities and news about various tenants’ campaigns. A committee of local residents was quickly formed to take over the running of the paper, deciding both content and format. Although keen to show a different side to Wester Hailes in an effort to combat negative portrayals in other news sources, the paper never shied away from the reality of the issues facing people in the area. Difficult and controversial subjects including drugs, AIDS, crime and vandalism were covered. But some of the huge challenges facing people living in the area were also highlighted: unemployment, poorly built housing, a lack of infrastructure, and disinterested authorities. Often the paper took a campaigning role, mobilising protest efforts and calling officials and representatives to account. And it recorded the detail of life in the area: local meetings, events, activities, creating an archive of memories. All this detailed content provides a complex and insightful depiction of a community over the years that both celebrates its achievements and reflects on the journey taken.
Photographs played a major role in this process and from the beginning, images of the area and the people living there were an important feature of the paper. Photos were often used as a way of rallying residents over an issue for example images of building faults to highlight a campaign for improvements, or photos of local protests and demonstrations. Photographs taken of the demolitions and rebuilding in the area, the redevelopment of the canal, the creation of green spaces showed the dramatic regeneration changes taking place. Equally important were photos capturing everyday life, local events and activities such as carnival days and the fun run, photos of football teams, dance troupes etc. Many people still remember having their photo taken by the Sentinel and the photos that are uploaded to the From There To Here Facebook page each week often attract comments and memories.
If the original Sentinel was being set up today, it would not be looking at print as its primary medium but would instead be looking at the potential of online production, both in terms of economic savings but also level of outreach. The new Digital Sentinel was formally launched in October this year as a community news website for Wester Hailes. A group of local organisations and individuals put together the idea, based on using the ethos of the old Sentinel through a new digital format that takes advantage of the range of social media people now use. Regular training sessions are now being held for local residents who are training to be citizen journalists and who are creating content for the site. They are reporting on news, opinions and events relevant to the people living in the area using a variety of media including photographs, You Tube clips, Twitter and Facebook. If you live locally and would like to be involved or have an idea for a story, they want to hear from you and you can contact them on firstname.lastname@example.org, or for submitting a story/ event etc. – email@example.com.
Echoing the aims of the residents who established the original paper, the site says
“The Digital Sentinel is an ethical media site which aims to represent Wester Hailes as the vibrant and rich community it is.”