When I was contacted by the RSPH and the Health Foundation to apply for the healthy lives photography commission, I knew immediately it was something I wanted to be part of.
As a documentary photographer, I am fascinated by life, its culture, behaviours and evolution. I love observing the way people act and how they adapt to the challenges and opportunities they face daily.
Our health is one of the most fundamentally important things in our life and is essential to our happiness and prosperity, but sometimes it’s not easy to live a healthy life due to the circumstances in which we are born.
Education, wealth, environment, prejudice and opportunity are all factors that can determine the kind of life we live. What inspires me to pick up my camera is the challenge in capturing how we deal with the circumstances we’re dealt. What is it about the environment in which we live that restricts or enables us to live a healthy life?
Choosing the environment to document was the first challenge, but soon became serendipitous. I began by researching the healthiest place to live in England, and to my surprise, discovered a media article from 2015 indicating that Chiltern District Council was the healthiest local authority to live in in England. It was surprising to me because I had moved there from London two years ago. But even more surprising was learning about the health disparities that exist within the district.
While the health of people in Chiltern is generally better than the England average, it still hosts a life expectancy gap of nine years for men and six years for women between its most and least deprived wards.
Chiltern is far from exceptional for having this disparity. As one of the 20% least deprived districts in England, it fares better than most when it comes to health inequalities. But I was surprised to learn that the three most deprived wards, relatively speaking, were all situated in Chesham, the town where I now live. I was keen to know what it was about the environment of these three wards, and the diverse lives being lived, that led to this gap. How different were the opportunities for health being experienced under this label of the healthiest place?
I eagerly began walking around the streets surrounding my home, camera in hand, to get a feel for the environment, capturing whatever fascinated me.
Chesham is a predominantly white working-class market town, with the second largest group being Pakistani. Since moving to Chesham I have felt that the two communities largely live alongside each other peacefully, without necessarily interacting. I was keen to gain access to the Pakistani community to try to understand the difference in the ways of life of these two communities.
The Ejaz family welcomed me into their home, and I spent a couple of days photographing them. The obvious differences in diet and language were clear, but I was surprised to see such a traditional patriarchal hierarchy still in place. Although some women work, as was the case in the family I photographed, many stay at home and take responsibility for the house and the raising of children, and young women are strongly encouraged to marry within their community.
Senior citizens are also a prominent demographic in Chesham, but many of them can feel isolated by the limited transport services and lack of community-based activities available to them. I discovered a fantastically named event called the POP In Group (Pond Park Over 30s People’s Group). This takes place every Monday morning at Hivings Free Church. Attendees bring homemade cakes and biscuits and enjoy free tea and coffee, and most weeks there is a guest speaker. I was impressed with this group - I strongly believe community and social interaction is an essential activity to the physical and mental wellbeing of all, especially people in their later years, some of whom who live alone.
Debt is also a major determinate to mental and physical health. I was able to photograph a single mum who benefits from the successful debt relief programme run through Christians Against Poverty. They create a portfolio of the finances of the willing participant and budget an affordable monthly amount to pay off the debt. The scheme enables her to raise her young child without worrying that her debts will spiral out of control.
One of the most outstanding programs I discovered was the At The Edge project. About nine years ago, Pond Park was seen as a no-go area after dark. Even the buses didn’t run due to the levels of anti-social behaviour. A local vicar and a former Cameroon international footballer joined forces to tackle to problem head-on by creating the Pond Park Rangers football team. They invited young people to engage with them and with football, rather than being drawn into petty crime. The scheme was backed financially by Thames Valley Police, who reported a 69% reduction in antisocial behaviour within three years.
The At The Edge project afforded players not only physical and mental stimulation but also a sense of pride and belonging in their community. This was a common thread with all of the projects and pastimes I documented.
Throughout the project, I saw the strength of the community to offer solutions to some of the challenges facing people and was impressed to see the effective work being carried out by voluntary and religious groups in the community.
The project also opened my eyes to the health inequalities that exist even within a relatively affluent area such as Chiltern. Above all, it showed me the richness, challenge and diversity that exists within Chesham, and the different stories of the people who live there.
Photographer Matt Writtle, was commissioned by the Health Foundation and Royal Society for Public Health to illustrate the social, economic and environmental factors that influence the public’s health. You can view the photographs on the Royal Society for Public Health’s website.
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