Ciara Leeming is used to telling stories. It’s what she’s done for years; talking to all kinds of people from right around the world.
But one of the most fascinating tales of her career actually materialised right on her doorstep just a few short weeks ago.
When COVID-19 struck Manchester in March and the region swiftly shuttered up, Ciara, a freelance journalist and photographer, was one of thousands left without any work on the table.
Craving a creative outlet, she opted to use her permitted hour of daily exercise a little differently.
Instead of simply going for a stroll around the block, Ciara decided she would scoop up her camera and snap the street during lockdown – curious to see how her fellow neighbours were coping.
As spring turned unseasonably warm, Ciara boarded her bike – sometimes with her two young sons in tow – and headed out to record the residents of Levenshulme; all of whom stood behind glass away from the district’s sun-dappled streets.
It began as little more than a personal project; an anthology of photos that Ciara could look back on later down the line when life finally returned to normal.
But within days of the first picture being taken, it snowballed into something much bigger.
Ciara ended up shooting more than 260 portraits of her neighbours over six weeks between April and May – capturing a collection of images that showed an entire community calibrating itself to a quarantine lifestyle.
Her ‘Levy Lockdown’ photos offer an illuminating snapshot of joyful defiance in truly testing times – and now the collection is set to feature in print.
More than a hundred backers have already raised over £3,600 to cover publication costs – with Ciara’s book set to feature an introductory text followed by frame after frame of wide smiles beaming out from within windows.
“The photos were quite organic; I definitely didn’t set out to do 260 portraits!” Ciara tells The Manc.
“I just started on my street; it began just as a little project for me, really.
“But soon I saw that people liked it, and I branched out to tell others and shared it on the Facebook group.
“Then people started coming to me.
“It really grew after that. I was amazed it got so big.”
Rainbows, flowers and heartwarming messages of hope have adorned the windows across Levenshulme throughout lockdown, and in order to make the project as representative of the local community as possible, Ciara attempted to reach further by doing some door-knocking.
This, she anticipated, might be tricky.
In Britain, we’re hardwired to shudder at the sound of an unknown visitor. Most of us will admit to feeling a mini jolt of panic in the seconds that follow the rat-tat-tat of the front door or jingle of the bell.
But when Ciara popped up to ask if her neighbours fancied taking part in the portraits, 90 per cent leapt at the chance.
Many didn’t even rush upstairs to fix their hair or makeup. They simply stood and smiled as Ciara clicked away.
“I was taken aback by how people were so keen,” Ciara chuckles.
“That was really nice and refreshing. It was amazing to see how enthusiastic people were.
“Boredom might have played a part to be honest! Lockdown had been going on for a while by this point, and at least this was something a bit different and interesting.”
If the enthusiasm for the photos came as something of a surprise, the overall impact of the portraits – which exude positivity and togetherness – was not.
Levenshulme has changed a lot since Ciara settled in the region in 2004, experiencing the type of gentrification that has seen it dubbed “the new Chorlton”.
Buildings have budged, streets have shifted and paths have parted. For better and for worse.
But the united spirit of Levenshulme hasn’t wavered an inch. And it’s there to see in every single one of these lockdown photos.
“It’s a very diverse community here in terms of class and ethnicity – it’s a super friendly and engaged community,” Ciara tells us.
“A lot of people here have a real passion for the area.
“We know all our neighbours, the kids play out on the street.
“It’s really tight-knit here and I value that very much.”
Having lived in the area for more than a decade, Ciara already knew many of her neighbours before the shoot began.
But now it seems like she’s being recognised by half of Levenshulme.
“Lots of other people are saying hi to me now!” Ciara laughs.
There might be a few more greetings coming her way when the book is released later this year…
You can pre-order a copy of the amazing Levy Lockdown portraits book, learn more about the project, and/or make a donation by visiting Ciara’s kickstarter page here.