A year ago today I took the photograph that changed my life and had an impact on the lives of others I could not have foreseen. It has changed the way I see my work, the city and myself.
The image has appeared in newspapers and magazines, analogue and digital, on every continent. People applaud my attempt to capture the essence of the city, but it’s hard to come to terms with the fact that I’ve propagated the myth of Manchester as this city of northern grit. I just took a photograph of what was in front of me. It’s what I do.
It was almost Christmas and I’d agreed to shoot a wedding round the corner. Afterwards, I ran down to meet my wife at The Niche. We grabbed a bite then jumped in a cab that ground to a halt on Deansgate. That’s when I saw it. The traffic was about to get moving and it was one of those split-second decisions: I wound down the window and took the picture. It was perfect – we were right outside the place and I had the camera in my hand.
When City Voice asked me to recreate the image a year later, the weather was bang-on. The pavement is wider now but the main difference is that the bar has gone, the inside has been gutted and they’ve put in a row of those spiky things to stop people lying along that ledge.
Nick Kirkham reflects on his City Voice Manchester Photograph of the Year 2021
A year to the day every day
Leanne is carrying coffee cups in a cardboard tray, running through the order in her head. Ryan and Chloe, standing at the copier, stare at her passing through. Chloe’s eyes are fixed and wide. Ryan nods, turning his face away as Leanne looks over.
“Definitely is,” he says.
Steadying the tray, Leanne continues. Atif’s head is rising above his monitor. He studies the screen, looks up at Leanne, then disappears again.
‘You better see this,’ Atif takes his coffee. He rolls back his chair for Leanne to see the screen.
It’s City Voice, Manchester Photograph of the Year 2021, the competition winner: a street at night in the rain, the window of a familiar bar, twinkling lights, Christmas decorations and a merry blur of faces in the background. Then she recognises the young woman front and centre. It’s her own face, perfectly in focus, lit by the screen of her phone. She feels the muscle memory of scrolling through, her thumb rubbing against the screen, her snowflake deely-boppers sagging forwards. Beneath her feet, a narrow ledge stretches across the outside of the window. A man cocooned in a sleeping bag is wedged into the space, white shocks of skin visible between strands of wet hair.
Christmas in Manchester in the twenty-first century –
She can feel it in her stomach.
– where an evening of festive fun can involve literally looking down on those without a home. This year’s winning photograph –
Her cheeks starting to burn.
– is a timely reminder of the city we live in, the city we often fail to see beyond our phone screens –
Hotter and hotter.
– and Yuletide cocktails.
Cheeks on fire.
Nick Kirkham’s photograph went viral soon after he posted it and the sentiment chimes with our annual City Voice Christmas Appeal: Street Mission…
‘Seen it then?’ Chloe standing next to her.
‘I didn’t know…’
Ryan sidles up, photocopies in hand. ‘Bit shit that, innit? Stepping over the homeless on your way to the bar?’
‘When were that taken?’ Chloe jabs a finger at the screen.
‘Never asked us to go out. We’ve been dead nice to you since you got this job, wasn’t like that when I joined. I’d die if that were me in that photo.’
‘Thought you’d better see it,’ says Atif, as Ryan and Chloe walk away.
Returning to her own side of the desk, Leanne sits down and removes the lid from her coffee. The wrong coffee.
Over to St Peter’s and onto a Bury-bound tram. She squeezes into a fogged-up window seat, the air thick and wet with limbs and luggage. She studies the image again. City Voice Manchester Photograph of the Year 2021. Nick Kirkham. Bastard. She scans down beyond her face in the glow of the phone, down below the narrow table: black tights, black boots, the silhouette of the man swaddled in the sleeping bag, side-on towards Deansgate, towards the darkness of the ground, the edge of the frame – almost invisible, right beneath her feet.
‘Told you it’s her.’ Mocking voices. Young voices. ‘Girl from that photo. Proper scummy. Hey love, ‘scuse me…’ People stare hard into their phones, screening themselves with The Metro. ‘Talking to you, love. That’s your thing, though, isn’t it? Ignoring people.’ Laughter. Radcliffe station approaching. ‘Guilty silence, that’s what that is…’
Up at the doors as they open and out onto the platform. The tram is gone and she is down the steps without looking back.
She is sitting on the edge of the bed, bath running, scrolling through the notifications. #ManchesterPhotooftheYear is trending. A hand emoji points towards a grab of her face cropped and enlarged:
Absolute state of this… Sometimes I’m ashamed of this city… Not surprised she’s on her own… Hope Santa’s got something for you this year… SCROOGE… You’re either blind or heartless or both…Typical of a certain type on the rise in Mcr: CAN’T SEE/WON’T SEE…
Switching her phone to silent, she steps into the steam of the bath. She submerges herself below the surface, into the tears and bathwater.
The doorbell is ringing.
07:34 and her phone screen is full of notifications. The doorbell again. Late. Stack of renewals to process. Dry mouth. Knocking on the door. Hammering.
‘You in there? Leanne?’
Jackie, her face tight with rage. ‘Where the hell were you?’
Still waking, still piecing everything together.
‘Don’t remember, do you?’
‘Sorry…’ She steps back from Jackie’s inward march.
‘What happened? Been worried sick. I waited ages, missed the film. Have you not checked your phone?’
Jackie is scanning the room.
‘I came out from work and… it was just horrific…’
‘I was sat there with two coffees, two tickets, had to cancel the reservation… not a word, no text, nothing!’
‘You don’t understand…’
‘Now I’m late! I can’t get to work from here in twenty minutes. You ruined last night and you’ve already ruined today!’
Jackie is opening drawers, snatching underwear and hairspray.
‘What you doing?’
‘Can’t do this anymore. Just can’t do this anymore, Leanne.’
Too late for the rush, it is the absence of the crowd that fills the tram carriage now. Leanne’s phone is vibrating. Gail.
‘… on your way? Best if you don’t come in today… no, not ‘in trouble’… totally understand… it’s just … a lot of talk… concerned about you, your welfare… keep it professional… Chloe will handle those renewals… only two days until the break anyway… take the next two days… best all round…’
At Heaton Park she disembarks, crosses to the other platform and takes the first tram home. Back at the flat she switches off social media alerts. No banners, no sounds, no badges. She calls Jackie.
‘Hi this is Jackie, leave a message…’
The long beep then the not quite silence waiting to be filled. Words won’t come.
The Christmas tree is still boxed in the hallway, the Disaronno bottle unopened on the coffee table. Putting the tree up now seems pointless. Being alone in the flat over Christmas is an even worse prospect. She counts to five then drags the box into the living room. She combines the sections of the tree into one tall stem and calls her mother.
‘Mum… I’m coming home for a couple of nights…’
Separating the branches, fanning them out.
‘It’s okay, I’ll take the couch…’
Wrapping the lights around, weaving them in and out.
‘Don’t worry about the turkey, you weren’t expecting me…’
Threading on baubles, silver and gold.
‘Yeah, I’m fine …’
Stretching up to fix the star, the almond taste too sweet, the ice too cold, the tears too hot to stop.
‘Got to go…’
Walking from the station, her small case rumbling through the North Wales night: have they seen it? A little knock on the front door to be polite. Hugs, kisses, smiles.
‘Bet you’re ready for a glass of wine?’
Onto the sofa, next to the dog. No-one reads City Voice when they don’t live in the city. Questions about the journey, questions about the job.
‘Alan’s coming. Christmas dinner. Bringing the kids.’
Roast potatoes, Radio 2, the dog whimpering for scraps beneath the table. The kids ‘want to get back and have some time with their presents.’ She helps them out to the car.
‘Think you left something behind, Leanne.’ Alan is shutting the boot, the others belted in, mum waving from the doorway. ‘Your common fucking decency!’ he hisses, teeth barred, leaning in. ‘Might want to check inside while you’re here. Maybe it’s where you left it.’
The star is the first to come down. The baubles next, plastic bagged. She unwinds the lights and wraps them round a rolled up Red magazine. Folding in the branches, the phone ringing. Jackie? Where is the phone?
Voicemail. Mum. Speaker phone: ‘Hope you’re alright love, you got back safe? Let me know. Lovely to see you…’
She packs the tree into the box, tears blurring her vision.
No-man’s land between Christmas and New Year. Heading into town for a few bits and pieces. Thinking it must be safe now, she scrolls through her phone. Her notifications rising like nothing she’s ever seen. Her personal account has been tagged in. It’s a storm.
In Boots, she is mumbling at the cashier, dropping mascara onto the floor, backing into the person behind her in the queue.
The old flags clack underfoot, in the shadow of St Anne’s, past the empty barrow of the florist finished for the day. Her heels slide over the grooves into the grit of the city. In her mind’s eye, she is seated in the window again, scrolling through her phone. She’s laughing, liking, tears of mirth emojis. Jackie hasn’t arrived yet. Jackie’s late. Jackie can talk. Jackie’s got a bloody nerve. The screen is a portal through the faux-wood surface, through her black tights and dangling boots, through the wall, through the layers stacked between her and him, the centimetres between unshared realities: now she too views the scene through the sharp focus of Kirkham’s lens. His face is clear now, visible behind every eye blink: deep copper hair, skin almost translucent in the freezing rain. Dartboard eyes, bruised circles surrounding darker lids; stubble lighter than his hair, younger than she first thought. Pink, blue lips, nothing to smile about.
Deansgate’s too soon. She swerves into an alley.
‘Spare any change, love?’
She freezes; he is frozen already. Then they both move, his arm extending from within the sleeping bag, her head turning slowly to the side. Movement at the edge of the frame, in the margins, in the grit, in the gutter.
‘I don’t…’ She is fumbling through her bag. ‘Sorry …’
The footsteps of shoppers are a world away. A twenty, a five, a fifty: who has change these days? A constellation of silver coins spread across her black cotton palm.
‘It’s all I’ve got…’
She leans forwards, tipping them into his cup. Her handbag swings down from her shoulder, the cup is knocked over, the coins scattered. On her hands and knees, her own bags splayed around her ankles, she is pinching coins from between the cobbles, the gum and the fag ends.
‘Watch yourself there, love, it’s dirty… got more than I started with!’
She gives him the cup, her face close to his, no window, no wall between them.
‘Have a good evening now, love…’
On the tram again. As it darkens, the faces of her fellow passengers become clearer in the mirror of the glass, their dark eyes meeting in the void above the tracks. Their pale, almost translucent skin, their red hair falling in thick wet strands, their jawlines softened with stubble. Every face the same, heads turning from every set of seats, hovering luminous over back yards and depots, A roads and brambles.
‘Leanne!’ A man is calling from the other end of the carriage. He is on his feet and moving towards her. The doors split open and she is on the platform. ‘Leanne! I need to speak to you!’ She is down the steps and onto the street.
Inside the flat, she leans against the wall, hunching over, hands sliding down to her knees.
‘Leanne, I know you’re in there. I just saw you go in.’
She opens her eyes wide, steels herself: she will have to look through the peephole to confirm it’s not him. She brings her face to the door, he is right there on the other side. His hair is not red but black, shaved at the sides. His skin is not white, it is brown. His beard is trimmed and speckled with grey. He is wearing glasses.
‘I’ve been trying to get hold of you. Atif gave me this address. He was hard work though. It’s Rizwan. I’m with On The Ground – you know, the magazine? I’ve come to help you… well, it’s help all round to be honest. Leanne? You letting me in or what?’
He presses his lanyard to the peephole. She unlocks the door and walks towards the kitchen. Rizwan follows.
The radio is on, steam rising from their mugs. Rizwan leans forward.
‘So we do the interview. We’ll go through the questions together: your words, your thoughts, no surprises – we’re not the tabloids. You make the donation to kick things off – undisclosed amount. Then you take on this ambassadorial role. You’ve got a voice now – we want to use that to help you and to raise the profile of the issue in a more constructive way. We can’t portray you as an “innocent victim”, but we can say that one of the victims in this is your innocence.’
‘I’ll do it.’
‘Great. I’ll leave you with these questions. Think about how you want to answer them. Free tomorrow?’ Half out the door, he pauses, ‘Got time to meet Rod afterwards?’
‘The guy in the sleeping bag. A photo of the two of you would go a long way…’
‘I don’t know…’
‘Seems like a big deal, but he stands to gain from this too. For you, it’ll be closure – not from the issues, but from all that crap on social media. You in?’
Rizwan shuffles behind his desk, looking across at Leanne. A woman appears, then a young man, phones in hands.
‘Really appreciate you meeting with Rod today. I don’t want to speak for him, but right now he’s not around. Angie spoke to him yesterday but he’s not arrived yet. Not unusual. Plenty of time. Right, what have we got?’
It is hard at first but the more they talk, the more it feels like therapy. There is something inclusive about his language. She begins to see herself on a journey that others have also made. By the end of the interview, Leanne can see every pixel in that photograph. She can see herself in it too.
Out on the steps of the building they are joined by Cat, clutching a Nikon and grumbling about the fading light. Rizwan is sending another text, waiting for Rod to emerge from the edge of the frame. Now he is running over to an On The Ground seller with an unsold stack under his arm.
‘No-one’s seen him today,’ Rizwan shakes his head.
I see him, she is thinking. I see him when I close my eyes. Now he has a name. They haven’t met, but since Rizwan has shown up, Rod has become real.
Making a loose arrangement to reconvene when Rod can be located, they disperse into the ashes of December, kicking through the embers of the year. Maybe this will be the spark, she thinks.
Back to work. Nervous stomach. Blank faces at the reception desk. Half the office on annual leave. Decorations forlorn and drooping. Cleaners checking bins that are empty.
A text. Rizwan: ‘Call me. Urgent.’
Outside. The phone tight to her ear.
‘You’re sure it’s Rod?’
His face again. Rod’s face. His rain wet copper hair. Pink blue lips, translucent skin. Eyes closed. Eyes that will not open again.
Rizwan has seen it all before: ‘We’re in touch, next few days. Going to need time to process this in relation to the article. Figure out what we can do. I’ll call you…’
Back to the office. Carol, dragging the Henry behind her like a stubborn dog, looking up at her: Rod’s face. Ryan, always at the copier, raising the flatbed lid, illuminated in the flash: Rod’s face. Atif: Atif’s face. He is leaning forward, her mouth contorting as she tries to explain. Atif shifting his gaze. Chloe standing over the desk, New Year’s Eve nails gripping the edge, braced.
‘Can’t believe you’ve got the nerve to show your face in here. After all this. Now that poor man, that tramp from your photo, he’s dead now. You’ve got a nerve.’ Shouting yet whispering, grinding the words through her white Christmas teeth. ‘He’s dead in some gutter while you come swanning back in here like nothing’s happened…’
In one flowing movement, the coffee cup lunges across the desk, a rich oily slick across Chloe’s dress, scalding her splayed fingers, hot flecks on her face. Screaming, shaking, everywhere wet. Atif on his feet, Ryan rushing over, Leanne backing away. Gail and security marching through the wilting tinsel.
‘Collect your things, Leanne. You’re done.’
Early new year, finally a message from Rizwan: ‘At this moment in time, with Rod’s passing, we feel it would be insensitive to publish your interview… put the ambassadorial role on hold for now… refund your donation should you wish… be in touch…’
Hours marked with soup and toast, radio and pajamas. Soup and toast and radio and pajamas. Soup and toast and shit TV and pajamas.
Mum on speaker phone: ‘Wondered how you’re doing?’
Opening the letter.
‘Not heard from you… ‘
YourEnergy: emailed you recently…insufficient funds in your account…
‘…not since Christmas… that was weeks ago…’
‘Busy, work… ‘
‘How is the job? Alright?’
‘You said some of those girls on reception could be bitchy?’
Folding the letter, adding it to the stack on the kitchen counter.
‘Just take no notice, it’s a big office…’
Sniffing, stifling the tears.
‘Sound a bit run down. There’s a lot going round. Alan says he’s asking how you’re getting on over there.’
‘Fine. Everything’s fine, mum.’
‘Alright, love. Leave you to it.’
One year to the next. One day to the next. Soup and toast. Pajamas, duvet. From the bed to the sofa. From the sofa to the bed. Trying not to see his face. Eyes open. Eyes closed.
Mum. Voicemail: ‘Give me a ring back when you get this. Thought we’d come and visit. Alan’ll bring us over. Show us where you work, where you’re living…’
Opening the letter:
Notice is hereby given that I require possession of the dwelling (the rental property) known as: 5a Silver Close, Radcliffe, M26 4TZ, after the expiry of this notice.
‘Starting to wonder where you’d got to,’ Atif is opening the door. ‘Give you a hand with those? Christ, you moving in?’
‘Just a couple of nights.’
They are standing in Atif’s living room. Atif, whom she has only ever seen across the office desk. Now she is here with her baggage.
‘Any of your stuff damaged, then?’
‘No… thought I’d bring all this in case there’s another leak while they’re fixing it.’
In the box room ill-fitting sheets stretch over a chair-bed.
‘Bit pokey,’ he laughs, setting her bags down.
‘It’s great,’ she turns her face away.
‘I’ll put the kettle on…’
She unpacks a few things and wonders what comes after the chair-bed with the ill-fitting sheets.
‘Still fetching the coffee in your new job?’ Atif raises the mug to his lips.
‘How’s it going?’
‘What time do you need to get in tomorrow?’
‘I took a few days off, with all the upheaval…’
‘Hang around here if you want, make yourself at home.’
In the morning she waits for the front door to close, jumps in the shower and then runs an iron over a white top and black trousers. Getting ready feels good, feels normal.
Out of Atif’s house and down to the tram station. Feeling nervous, feeling optimistic, just a taste that things are changing, that the future can really begin.
The receptionist escorts her up to the eighth floor. The interviewers are cordial, offering water, setting her at ease. Then the questions begin. She sees the city through the window behind them. From here it is almost unrecognisable. She is sitting in The Gods, the streets so far below, the people so small, almost invisible.
Back to Atif’s and out of the interview clothes. A good rapport, everyone smiling, more like a conversation than questions and answers. What would I have done without Atif? Need to get him something. She sits on the sofa, her phone in her lap, waiting for the call.
It rings once:
‘Apologies for keeping you waiting. I’m sorry Leanne, but on this occasion I’m afraid you’ve not been successful with your application.’
‘Can you tell me why?’
‘Unfortunately, we have reservations regarding your dismissal from your previous post. I’m afraid it presents a risk we’re not willing to take. Thank you for applying and we wish you every success in the future.’
‘Everything okay?’ Atif at the bottom of the stairs.
‘Sure? You sounded a bit upset…was that your landlord?’
‘Yeah… bit of damage… back in tomorrow…’
‘Stay longer if you need to.’
‘Tomorrow’s fine. Need to sort stuff out.’
The queue snakes around the corner of the red bricked building. She hangs back, uncertain in the shadows of the arches, until others jump in front of her and she’s forced to get in closer, to take her place shuffling in through the door of the mission.
‘You’re alright, love, we don’t charge anything. Come on, what you having? Want beans with that?’
Can’t speak, can’t look them in the eye. She nods as they fill the plate. It warms her hands as she heads to a corner table.
A woman with an apron round her waist leans over two young men with empty plates. ‘If you’ve finished eating, there’s people need the table, lads, sorry…’
Leanne tries to eat slowly, her eyes following the two boys, packing their stuff, shooting glances at her. She watches them leave and then they’re over the road, into the arches, at the edge of the frame.
‘Can’t believe that woman. Seen this?’ Chloe shifts her chair to one side, inviting Ryan in.
‘Is that her?’
‘Do you not recognise her from the photo?’
He looks closer.
‘Different hair colour. I’ll never forget that face, though.’
Ryan scrolls through the City Voice article, Leanne’s smiling face staring back at them.
How I Lost Everything And Finally Found Myself
‘None of us can afford to turn a blind eye to the people who sleep on our city streets.’ Leanne Wilde talks exclusively to City Voice’s Taylor Shay about rebuilding her life after the fallout from last year’s Manchester Photograph of the Year, her homelessness and her new career as a motivational speaker, inspiring others with her own story.
‘Motivational speaker?’ Ryan shaking his head in disbelief.
‘Probably earning more than we do. Nothing better than a rags to riches story, is there?’
They leave their desks and head into town. It’s sleeting. Mid-afternoon. Dark already. The Christmas lights are shining on Deansgate. The markets are in full swing.
‘Just thinking, want to sack the coffee and head up to Albert Square for a mulled wine?’
‘Yeah. Those renewals can wait till tomorrow. Gail’s not in now till new year.’
‘Watch out there,’ Ryan is guiding her arm, urging her out wider beyond the outstretched hand of the man sitting on the floor, almost unnoticed, shaking a sodden cup.
‘Spare any change?’
His voice is lost in the mix of Christmas shoppers.
His voice is lost.
‘Trouble is,’ Chloe heads back in from the edge of the pavement, her gloved hands warm in her pockets, the begging man now behind them. ‘It’s hard to have just the one mulled wine, isn’t it?’
Based in Manchester, Lee Ashworth is a teacher currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. He is also co-creator of the Manchester Art Authority, exhibiting original artwork at Home Open and Head to the Hills Festival. His short fiction has been published in Idle Ink and he has written on film and music for The Double Negative and Louder Than War, where he was also film reviews editor. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram.
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