The power of representation

28 June 2016

Pete Seaman looks at the Representing Communities programme in Dennistoun and how it is using film to capture people's stories about their neighbourhood.

The stories that circulate about communities can be powerful. They frame the possibilities for what their futures, and not just their pasts, may look like. Representing Communities sees us working in a new way. With support from the Arts and Humanities Research Council we are applying creative and participatory arts to explore the stories that circulate within and about communities, to know how they are currently understood and what new potential stories could be told about people and places so often defined by their problems. 

Our approach is to support communities in representing the places they live back to themselves and to the wider world to help them set the course of their own futures.  This way of working complements the statistical profiling of communities such as those found on our Understanding Glasgow website through allowing new opportunities for change and transformation to be brought into the portrait of people and places.

There are number of principles we are operating by in Representing Communities. These are:

  • That having the power to shape your own narrative is empowering and therefore health enhancing
  • The process of taking part in creative activities has wellbeing benefits
  • The stories that circulate about particular communities can be powerful resources for change
  • These narratives can impact on identity and self-worth. Communities that are represented  through narratives that portray failings and what a community is lacking (by their deficits) can become understood as stuck, disconnected and reliant upon the actions of organisational others to change their circumstances.

What are the strengths of a particular community? What are people proud of? Where are the catalysts for change within a community? What nascent skills and capacities are there which can be invigorated? These are all factors capable of re-directing the statistical trajectory of places whose headline health indicators do not appear to have responded to the actions of public health professionals. Policy in Scotland increasingly supports this approach, led by the Christie Commission report and more recently through the Community Empowerment Act.

Representing Dennistoun

In Glasgow, our focus of engagement has been the east end community of Dennistoun. The Community Health Profile for Dennistoun illustrates statistics that have been increasingly associated with other communities in deprived parts of this city. For example, 17% people are identified as claiming out of work benefits, 19% are identified as being in income deprivation and life expectancy for both men and women is lower than the Glasgow average.

A walk along Duke Street however will tell you another story. Here we see a colourful and lively mixed community. Where pound shops and places to obtain short term credit speak of the community’s obvious challenges, a smart Italian café dating back to 1928 thrives among African and Polish shops speaking of an intricate network of the established and the new. Dennistoun reveals its uniqueness. A palpable sense of place pervades and its vibrancy points to the character of the people who live here and made it the town it is.

So what is it like to live here? Exploration of only needs and daily challenges cannot satisfactorily answer this question. We need to go further and seek to understand the kinds of lives people are trying to create for themselves. How do the new and established intersect? What possibilities are people striving to create?

Using film to capture people’s stories

To explore this we teamed up with Dennistoun Library and Impact Arts, a local social enterprise, and a number of filmmakers. The films produced capture the perspectives of an older persons’ residents group (Connecting Dennistoun, directed by Lyndsey Goodall) speaking of a lifetime of change and what remains important within the place they live. Neighbourly chats over the fence belie sensitively shaped relationships over time, a vignette about the days of penpals reveals ageless human sensuality and resistance to being labelled as ‘old’.

In Local Girl, (directed by Bash Kahn) a young incomer talks of her commitment to the area, of being present and active, inspired by the hope she experienced in the build-up to the 2014 independence referendum. A film of an electrical repair man (The Repairman, also directed by Bash Kahn) on Duke Street highlights the adaptability and entrepreneurial spirit at large in the community. Described in the past as ‘a dinosaur’, he now makes a living repairing hair straighteners, finding opportunity for his skills in an increasingly throwaway economy.

A film currently in production by John MacDougall builds on six weeks of community workshopping, exploring the characters and stories that circulate the streets of this neighbourhood. Vignettes created by community members were performed on the streets as part of a ‘historically unreliable’ walking tour.

A deeper truth is emerging, however. About the vibrancy and energy of the people who make their lives here, their ability to imagine a well-connected and liveable community, of what is important beyond the indices of policy-defined problems that the east end is so often known for. Policy-makers have in these films a resource which can be used to ensure Dennistoun remains a thriving place into an ever changing future. The people of Dennistoun have not only a new set of representations to add to the pride already tangible in the area but they may have reconsidered themselves and the future of their own community also.

Local Girl

The Repairman 


About the author

Pete Seaman Interim Associate Director


Pete is currently the interim Associate Director of GCPH, providing leadership and strategic direction towards the Centre’s core aim of generating insights and evidence, supporting new approaches and influencing action to improve the city’s health and tackle inequality.

Pete also oversees the operational running of the Centre whilst maintaining research priorities within the Centre’s programme of activity on innovative approaches to improving health outcomes. Interests include processes that support community resilience and developing responses to racialised under-representation in the Public Health workforce and data. His works supports the shift in policy and practice towards prevention and the development and use of community and individual assets. 

Since 2005, Pete has worked in variety of roles within the Centre including programmes of work encompassing community engagement, resilience, social capital and the role of alcohol across the life-course. Previously, he worked in research roles at the Universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, gaining a PhD at the MRC Social and Public Health Sciences Unit.

Read all articles by Pete Seaman