10 Amber

    “Seacoal” 1985

10. Amber

“Whoever paints the wall chooses the colour”

I first became aware of Amber films during the heady early days of Channel Four. I believe that C4 had commissioned the film “Seacoal” which I was to see many years later. But I remember seeing Amber Films listed in the Radio Times and thinking they look really interesting.

I became more aware of them when I came to live and work in Newcastle upon Tyne. I used to pop down to the Side Gallery and see exhibitions and I would watch the films on Channel Four and bought the books – but I never met them for many years – because they were somehow connected to Live Theatre – and I was working for Northern Stage and I just felt that they were Live Theatre people. My narrow thinking. My loss.

Years later, after I left Northern Stage, I did work with them for a moment in Jerez de la Frontera when they became involved in a project we were doing in the South of Spain. We made a little  taster film about a Flamenco Rap Group which we hoped to develop into a full project working with young people from the North East of England and young gypsies from Jerez.

They are an extraordinary collective of people who have steadfastly and stubbornly held on to their beliefs for over 40 years. They have been an inspiration to many people – artists and journalists and photographers and – to me.

The following is taken from the Amber-Online Website  – I couldn’t put it any better

“The Amber collective came together in 1968 and moved to the North East of England the following year. Committed to documenting working class and marginalised communities, in 1977 it opened Side Gallery, to show its own work and celebrate the best in international documentary.

The group started commissioning other photographers to tell the stories of the changing region. It collected exhibitions to show in the gallery and to tour, reflecting its political, social and artistic explorations of the possibilities of documentary photography. And alongside this, Amber continued to make films.

The collection that has grown out of this is unique: hundreds of different stories held together by a single, coherent, continuing narrative; a complex body of artistic work, the focus of which has been sustained for over 40 years. Deeply rooted in its relationships with north eastern communities, the interlinked narrative Amber’s films and the photographs of collective member Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen was recognised in 2011 by UNESCO as of national cultural importance. The collection is, without question, one of the most significant bodies of cultural work to have been created in the North East over the past 50 years.

The work of Amber is rooted in social documentary, built around long term engagements with working class and marginalized communities in the North of England. Through the gallery and cinema programs and at festivals and screenings, the group makes connections with inspirational production in the wider world. There is an integrated approach to production (which includes documentaries, dramas and photographic projects), publication (including exhibitions, books, DVDs and works created specially for the web) and distribution (though the odds sometimes seem to be stacked against it).

The approach is celebratory, even when the marginalization of lives and landscapes makes this more difficult.

Production grows out of the relationships with these communities, and our creativity is inseparable from that of the people with whom Amber works. In any project, the first commitments are to individual lives, a particular landscape, or a set of concerns. The stories always emerge, opening up more ambiguities and possibilities than you can shake a stick at.

Rooted in practical craft skills (camera work, direction, editing, sound, etc), there is an egalitarian, collective approach to the film making. Technological innovation has made the different processes ever more democratically accessible, and Amber has taken advantage of this to extend its on-going experiment in collective creativity. Photography is necessarily about individual vision, and this can provide a healthy tension within the work, but Amber importantly provides a context for photographers, whether they are members of the collective or commissioned by the group. Everybody has a voice in all of the group’s activities, from the gallery and cinema programmers to the menus in the café, from the film projects to the photographic production. At the same time, the group abides by the dictum: Whoever paints the wall chooses the colour.

Amber’s approaches and concerns are best explored, looking at the work it continues to produce, commission and collect. The website is a constantly expanding educational resource, aimed at allowing you to explore the connections between the different strands.”

I had to include them in my top ten personal choices of my favourite community arts projects.


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