This is Youth Work : The Artist Talks

We are pleased to post this fascinating insight by Jethro Brice, the creator of the illustrations in our book, into the  challenges faced and the solutions posed in relating text to image and vice-versa.

He was invited to give a presentation about his illustrations for the book  ‘This is Youth Work – Stories From Practice’ (In Defence of Youth Work/Unison/Unite, 2011) at the formal book launch which took place at the  House of Commons, Westminster on the 17th October 2011.

I’d like to start by thanking In Defence of Youth Work for inviting me to contribute to what I consider an important and persuasive document.

To accompany this document with images was not a straightforward assignment, and I’d like to share with you some of the challenges and solutions behind the illustration process.

The text is based on the personal stories of youth workers and young people, and draws its strength from the lived experiences of individual contributors. At the same time, the stories are presented with an eye to their universality. Details of locality, ethnicity and gender are omitted, except where they are integral to the story. This protects people’s identities, but also challenges habits of association and reinforces the commonalities of youth work experience and the applicability of these lessons across time and place.

The minute you switch to visual language this sort of neutrality becomes much more difficult to achieve. Any figurative image comes laden with signifiers of identity – just as an example, let’s look at the illustrations from the two stories we’ve heard today.

[ The two stories read at the presentation were Pen and Paper youth work and A modest journey in self-discovery.]

Media portrayal of young people tends to fall back on photogenic stereotypes, while professional publications prefer to focus on workshop activities and leave out some of the harsher sides of young people’s experience.

Artists have responded creatively to these issues, but we agreed that the ‘silhouettes and rainbows’ approach was already too familiar, and had lost its power to disrupt habitual conceits.

It’s a tricky situation: put the details in and you immediately become tied to specific identities; remove them and you lose the character and diversity which gives your images life and consequence.

I wanted to walk that precarious line between anonymity and facelessness.

I found I had to deploy a range of strategies, choosing my battles carefully, scrambling identities, making inanimate objects speak for me, and sometimes obscuring identity with distance or cinematic angles.

No single image could provide all the answers. But taken as a whole, I hoped the illustrations would help to represent our society for what it is – a rich tapestry of individual lives; stories that defy classification and reward closer scrutiny.


My first proposal for a cover image was based one of the stories, a conversation which takes place over a game of pool. We dropped this idea because we felt it recalled an uncomfortable stereotype about youth work, but to close with I’d like to share some thoughts about the pool game as an illustration of the indirect nature of youth work.

We could start by challenging the stereotype – youth work is never about ‘just’ a game of pool. It can involve many activities; enjoyable, challenging, educational or casual; but the critical point is that the shared activity provides a context for significant human interaction, building relationships based on trust and respect, reaching the kind of mutual understanding without which youth work does not bridge any gaps.

The pool game also appealed to me as a slightly tongue-in-cheek metaphor, and I’d like to leave you with the following image to flavour your reading of the rest of the book:

Youth work resembles a game of pool – to excel, you have to approach things from surprising angles, your actions may have a knock-on effect, and things will often spin off in unanticipated directions.

Thank you very much for listening and I hope you find the book a challenging and empowering read.

This text and a power-point version will be posted on to the This is Youth Work page so that it will always be available.

And from all involved in our Stories Project a huge message of thanks to Jethro for his creativity – lifted our spirits and certainly lifted the book itself.

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