Documenting at The Pearl Exchange

Tuesday, 15th August 2023By Emily Barlow

As we approach September and the start of a new university term, for me this is a time to reflect on the last three years and some of the things I have learnt along the way, now that I have graduated with my degree in commercial photography.

Firstly I learned that I am a documentary photographer at heart, and these last six months in particular I have been documenting life at The Pearl Exchange. If you are reading this, then you have already landed on their website and are discovering the support they offer Bude’s young people, totally free of charge (something that is becoming so rare in our country).

The second thing that I learnt is that my absolute favourite thing to document is creativity and communities, and The Pearl Exchange is the perfect melting pot for both of these. Of course, I didn’t really quite know what to expect when I first approached them to speak about spending late winter to late spring in their company, documenting what goes on here, but it turns out that I should have expected fun, laughs, creative buzz, enthusiasm, kindness and the most hugs I have ever known.

I started out with the vision to create a project that was mutli-faceted. There would be still photography, podcast style conversations about what happens here and why, a short film and a book. I had an idea of what the story may be, but didn’t want to dictate the story, I wanted to discover. I wanted to find out not only what The Pearl Exchange does, but why they do it and what the root causes are for young people seeking out a place like The Pearl Exchange.

The challenges in our local area for young people are diverse, but not all unique to Bude. This story is about Bude, but extends further afield. Our town is remote and perhaps our landscape is isolating more than most, but our young people share similar challenges to others across the UK: a lack of access to mental wellbeing support in our NHS, a public transport system that doesn’t meet rural needs, a diminishing funding for the arts, a lack of affordable activities that bring together young community and very seasonal and temporary jobs that don’t offer the kind of diverse career options that our young people deserve.

This project doesn’t have all the answers, but I hope it starts a conversation about how as a wider community we can support The Pearl Exchange in its wonderful program, and perhaps in time we can inspire other local communities to create their own versions of The Pearl Exchange. I truly believe that big change starts and continues from small communities and Bude is always leading the way in that respect.

In completing this project, I feel like I have been absorbed into their community and whilst I am definitely over the age limit, I hope that I can continue to support the amazing work they do in some small way in the future.