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How Hull’s UK City of Culture volunteers became the real stars of the show

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As a thank you for their contribution to Hull2017, the volunteers are celebrated in two exhibitions at Humber Street Gallery. Yvette Huddleston reports.

Welcoming, warm – and very visible, thanks to their bright blue jackets – the vast army of volunteers who played such a signifcant part in the success of Hull’s tenure as UK City of Culture are being celebrated in two exhibitions which opened at Humber Street Gallery last week.

Artist-in-residence Julia Vogl’s large-scale experimental piece Grains of Scandalous Blue draws upon her residencey and the data she collected – including gender, the most popular names and even shoe size – from the volunteer programme during the year.

While Hull-based photographer Leo Francis has created a striking series of images of the volunteers – as a group and as individuals – in some of the most iconic locations in and around the city.

“The project came about as a thank you to the volunteers who took part because they have been so instrumental in making City of Culture such a success,” says Francis who worked with art director Sarah Harris. Together they began to discuss various concepts to try out – and they certainly didn’t hold back in terms of ambition and thinking outside the box. “What we wanted to get across was that when all the volunteers came together they could create something amazing,” says Francis. “But we also wanted to break it down so we could see different personalities coming through.” Over six weeks they orgainsed eight shoots featuring over two thousand volunteers with images taken from kayaks, using drones and from specially built scaffolding towers. Francis says that he also wanted to capture the benefits on both sides that came out of the year-long event. “Talking to the volunteers I discovered that the whole experience of being part of the City of Culture programme had such a postivie impact on their lives. They have made so many friends by spending time with like-minded people – for some of them it has been completely life-changing. When I got to shoot the volunteers on a one to one basis I got to hear their stories and, for me, that was one of the best parts of the whole project.”

Large-scale shots were set up at various locations including the Humber Bridge and at Burton Constable Hall involving big numbers of volunteers but Francis also asked a group of 140 to be photographed individually with objects that were significant to them. “The brief was that they could bring as many as they liked, the more the better,” he says. Some people brought just one or two items, others brought rather a lot more than that – including scuba diving equipment, hand bells and one volunteer even brought the kit car he had made.

“It was great because, normally when you are doing a portrait you need to spend a lot of time with someone in order to get a sense of who they are, but the objects really helped me to make an instant connection,” says Francis. All the volunteers have been sent a postcard set of all the images and Francis was pleased with their response when he saw them at the opening the show. For his part it has been an equally fulfilling and meaningful experience. “I loved working on the project,” he says. “It was such fun all the way through – they were all such positive people. Even when they had to turn up at Humber Bridge at 5am on a cold November morning they were singing and dancing. There was a real joyfulness to it.”

At Humber Street Gallery, Hull until February 25.