#TheHug Project Week Two

I’ve been so encouraged by all the positive responses I’ve had to #TheHug Project this week and it’s been great to come across lots of folk keen to tackle the current state of polarisation:

The Depolarisation Project https://www.depolarizationproject.com/ aims to give people better skills for opening up and changing their minds. Their founder, Alison Goldsworthy, told me that she finds it “almost entirely impossible to find pictures of people being reasonable or civil to each other from different political backgrounds”. Always great to hear there may be a demand for my work!

@poppynoor wrote a great personal piece in the Guardian about how it is possible, if challenging, to have friends across the current political divides. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/oct/12/why-i-can-still-be-best-friends-with-someone-whose-politics-i-despise

Pro European activist Femi Oluwole and Pro Brexit Conservative activist Ellie Varley showed an appetite for better political discourse with their warm and tolerant conversation on Twitter. https://twitter.com/OFOCBrexit/status/1184491303729545216

I’m still working on getting volunteers - who disagree - to actually hug! But, this week, I’ve also come to understand some of the challenges I’m facing more deeply:

Robin Dunbar, a professor in evolutionary psychology at Oxford University, helped with a scientific explanation for why #TheHug can be difficult. He wrote an article about some of his research findings here http://www.ox.ac.uk/research/hugabrit-science-hugs-and-why-they-mostly-feel-so-good . To quote him: “The extent to which the experience of hugging gives us pleasure and helps bond relationships has a deep psychological component. Somewhere in the brain’s frontal lobes is a mechanism that can switch touch from being pleasurable to being unpleasant if the wrong person does it.”

I had a fascinating chat with someone from Thames Valley Restorative Justice, which facilitates communication between victims of crime and offenders. She explained the long and complex process they go through in order to prepare for a meeting and how it does, on rare occasion, lead to a surprising hug. She was appalled at how Donald Trump tried to orchestrate the encounter between the parents of Harry Dunn and the woman who is accused of killing their son in a car crash. No such meeting should happen without proper preparation. It’s not possible to go straight to the hug in such complex situations.

My aims for #TheHug this week:

1. Hug someone who I disagree with

While listening to a podcast “Only Artists” https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m00094hg I was struck by Tracy Chevalier’s story of learning how to embroider so that she could fully understand the embroiderers in her new novel “A Single Thread”. It made me realise that if I’m going to ask people to hug those they disagree with, I need to do it myself. So, I set about trying to find a Brexit supporter among my friendship group in Oxford. Not easy! So far, I haven’t found anyone -but I think via friends of friends, I will manage to hug a Brexiter this week.

2. Connect with interfaith groups

People with strongly held religious views have lots of experience of working together despite their differences. I am planning to approach some existing interfaith groups this week and see if I can get some hugs that way.

3. A taxonomy of hugs

While trying to bring people together across divides, I’ve also been photographing people who are more than happy to hug. That’s been fun too, but it’s reminded me of the time needed to get an image that I’m happy with. This could be even more challenging if people are not actually comfortable hugging. At the end of the week when I tried to photograph a 2-year-old, I got a taster of what I will need to do to capture the moment. That situation certainly required me to act quickly and spontaneously and to leave my perfectionist self at the door.

On other photography related matters this week:

I had a few frustrating battles over not being properly credited for my work. Sadly, this is an on-going issue for many photographers. I found images published uncredited and some which were credited to Frank Monks or Fran K Monks. But undoubtedly the most alarming issue arose when someone writing about my exhibition at Keble College, Oxford, referred to me as the wife of a well known economist - without even mentioning my name! Why is this still happening in 2019?

The time is now for #TheHug Project

Hugs. I’ve been thinking about them a lot over the last week. The kernel of an idea about a hug photography project has been running around in my head for some time, but without a commissioner, or a client, sometimes the kick into action needs to come from somewhere else. In this case, it was a lucky coincidence. I completed a couple of big commissions recently, freeing up a little time for project development. At the same time, a dear friend generously offered to help me manage a social media campaign. I have also felt genuinely motivated to do something to combat the increasingly toxic political environment we find ourselves in. The time is now. #TheHug Project must happen.

#TheHug Project aims to bring together people who disagree on important and interesting issues to hug. It’s as simple and as difficult as that. Every time I start reading a Twitter chat, or the comments on a news website, I feel increasingly desperate about how polarised we are becoming. I wonder how we can move forward on the big challenges of the day, if we can’t get along.

The list of ‘hot potato’ topics is ever increasing: climate change and Brexit go without saying, but we’re also struggling with questions of immigration, gender, race, religion, sport, policing, medicine, science, agricultural methods, nutrition and so on. The question on my mind is - are we really as divided as we seem, or do we actually have, as the saying goes, “more in common”?

As a portrait artist, I’m driven by two key aims. One is to make beautiful images and the other is for my work to have a positive impact. With every job I take and every project I embark upon, I hope to fulfil these aims. 

In the case of #TheHug Project, my starting point was realising that hugs make great pictures. The entangling of two human bodies into one single entity can happen in so many different ways. Visually, I find it a fascinating subject. Then I began to think that my camera could help bring people together - to hug - and build some important bridges. The hug might create a pause that would spark a new idea or a change of course. Just maybe. 

Next, I started researching the impact of hugging on the human psyche and I became even more interested. Hugging can improve your health, your immune system and your mood. Researchers have also found that hugging can make you feel better about conflict. Could this be just what society needs? Hug therapy.

But so far, I have found it difficult to persuade people to take part in the project.

One of my first opportunities to photograph #TheHug came a few months ago at the Oxford Student Union. The Union reps thought #TheHug was a great idea and suggested that I photograph the people who were participating in their weekly debate. It so happened, that the debaters that week were Nigel Farage and Andrew Adonis; an ardent Brexiteer and equally ardent Remainer. It turns out, that if you ask two passionate political opponents, out of the blue, to hug for a camera, they are pretty reluctant to cooperate. Farage did manage to give Adonis a pat on the shoulder, but that was it. Everyone left, myself included, feeling very awkward indeed.

I have spoken to lots of people this week about the prospect of hugging for my project and there are some common negative responses:

The person who I disagree with doesn’t actually know how strongly I feel and so suggesting a hug would highlight something that I would rather brush under the carpet.

I really don’t want to hug the person who I disagree with.

I can see I am going to have to work a bit harder at my pitch this week.

However, it has been fun so far and I’m not too disheartened. I have managed to get a mother to hug her daughter for the camera. That one was easy and I think resulted in a wonderful picture. My husband hugged our son. Also easy. Up next, I have a doctor who has agreed to hug a homeopath. They were careful to point out that doctors and homeopaths are not “principally in opposition”. I think it will often be true that a disagreement is very nuanced and in fact this highlights an important difference between real life interactions and those on social media. Life isn’t black and white, and when we are forced to consider each other’s point of view up close, people will often admit that the difference is not as big as it may seem at first glance.

I also discovered the campaign Project Divided this week; Two millennials in the US who are trying to work out how to bring their own polarised nation together. They use a great expression, which I think is very relevant to #TheHug Project - “it’s harder to hate up close”. If only we can persuade a few more people to get close to those they disagree with. I’m working on it.

Andrew Adonis and Nigel Farage not doing #TheHug

Andrew Adonis and Nigel Farage not doing #TheHug