How moving to Teesside led me to embark on a whole new journey

When Jo Booth relocated to Teesside from her native Sheffield back in 2019, it set her on a completely new path. She immersed herself in village life in her new Skinningrove surroundings, took up photography and enrolled at university

Jo, who is 53 and originally from Nottinghamshire, shares with Talking Teesside how she has “gradually got more Northern” and how pushing your personal boundaries can result in “the universe giving something back”. 

Guest blog: Jo Booth

In 2019 I changed my life and began a new journey towards becoming a mature student.

Leading up to it, I’d had a really difficult period where I cared for a terminally ill relative, burned myself out working too hard at work, ended a long-term relationship and became poorly due to a newly diagnosed genetic kidney disease.

So, I got radical!

I upped and moved from the centre of busy Sheffield to the quiet village of Skinningrove, having stumbled across it on a drive out with a friend one day. I spent my 50th birthday walking on the beach in my new home, not quite believing I’d made such huge changes to get there.

Arriving in a new place, by myself and knowing no-one, it was a challenge – but one I was determined to win.

Taking some time out of employment for once, I embarked on ‘integrate Teesside’ activities. This led me to volunteering as a trustee for a local charity, taking part in friendship and chat groups, joining the village hall knit and natter sessions, and getting involved in building the incredible Skinningrove Bonfire.

I was lucky to be able to build on a lifetime of meeting and talking to people through my career as a post-16 teacher and voluntary sector programme manager. And I had nothing to lose, so I just went for it.

I am extremely grateful for the relationships I’ve made since I’ve moved here. I am now Chair of the Village Hall which I love, and I feel a real part of the community.  Skinningrove is a magical, wonderful and friendly place.

Looking back, it was only six months after my move to Skinningrove that we all felt the impact of Covid.  I count my blessings that I arrived here before that. It could have been a very different experience if I’d landed during, or between, the many lockdowns we encountered.

I’ve also been grateful to have discovered more of Teesside through my work with Middlesbrough and Stockton Mind, where I had the amazing opportunity of being involved in the Ageing Better Middlesbrough programme.

My new life has definitely proved to me how important it is to take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way. It also led to me start at Teesside University as a mature student.

My genetic kidney disease is progressing, but at a slower rate than it was prior to 2019. My hope is that I’ll complete my degree before any further intervention is needed. Whilst I know there is life beyond kidney transplant/dialysis, I’m determined to make the most of ‘now’ and hope there is much more to come.

What made you decide to study at Teesside University?

It’s my local university, since moving to Skinningrove. It’s easy to travel to, and has a good reputation. I was initially thinking of studying history but felt the more active nature of the photography course would be positive for my health and wellbeing in getting me out and about.

I completed an Intro to Photography short course during the pandemic, visited the university campus during an Open Day and felt very welcome. I’m now completing the BA (Hons) Photography.

I still have a keen interest in history and am linking it to my photography, but I’m glad I made the swap – I am loving developing my creative side.

What do you enjoy most about being a student?

I am enjoying learning the fundamentals of photography after purely being a ‘snapper’ for many years. I love being able to control the camera fully to make my photographs. Being immersed in the subject is allowing me to develop my photographer’s eye and artistic awareness.

I am enjoying visiting exhibitions, galleries and cultural centres. I’m becoming a real ‘culture vulture’ alongside being an emerging artist. I also love working with my peers on the varied tasks, supporting and inspiring each other.

Where can we see your work?

I run Skinningrove Village Hall’s Facebook page and post my local pictures each week, which regularly creates engagement and discussion amongst our followers. I also became involved in the Crossing The Tees festival, which is run collectively by Stockton, Middlesbrough, Hartlepool, Darlington and Redcar & Cleveland Library Services.

I saw a post on Facebook page recruiting for a photographer in residence for 2023. I originally contacted them about potential shadowing opportunities to gain experience, having never had paid photography work before. After a discussion, I was encouraged to apply.

I quickly pulled together an online portfolio, wrote an application, was invited for interview and was offered the position. It really shows the benefits of pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone. I am loving the work, visiting libraries around the area, working with a writer to gather people’s memories of libraries, and documenting through photography, capturing portraits and candid shots of the diverse community of Teesside.

It’s all for inclusion in a book documenting the social history of Teesside libraries called Everyone Welcome, which is due to be released this summer. I can’t believe I am getting the opportunity of having my work published so early in my photography career.

I was awarded the Success Photography Scholarship in November and decided to put some money towards some higher spec photography kit, to update the entry level stuff I owned. If I hadn’t done this, my equipment would not have stood up to the demands of the Crossing the Tees contract and I would never have considered applying in the first place. There’s something to be said about the universe giving something back when you push the boundaries of your comfort zone!

What are your future hopes?

At 53, I am lucky to have had a great career working in education and community development. I hadn’t realised that my background would complement my work in photography so much, but Crossing the Tees is helping me to see how I can build on both for a future freelance career in social documentary/socially engaged photography.

What inspires you in your work?

I am greatly inspired by the work of many documentary photographers working in the UK. My move to Skinningrove and my entry to photography as a whole has been inspired by the famous Chris Killip, whose Retrospective exhibition is currently on show at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead. Attending the preview night with a group of ‘Grovers’ who remember the photos being taken in the 1980s, I was also able to meet the amazing Middlesbrough photographer Graham Smith. A very inspiring evening and one which will continue to influence my own photography into the future.

Photographs by Jo Booth.

Author: Michelle

Michelle is a former regional newspaper journalist now working as a Communications Co-ordinator at Teesside University. She’s happiest when listening to music and has a soft spot for indie-rock, house and 90s rave.