After 3 years of living firstly in homeless hostels and then inadequate housing, the woman in this photograph sits on her bed after moving into a new, permanent home. She’d become homeless through domestic abuse and recounted that she felt doubly punished: not only had she lost all that was associated with her previous life, both personal and material but also had to live through the emotional and practical impact of being homeless. This home is a new start for her, but indelible trace of trauma remains significant. –Margaret Mitchell

“It’s tiring – this is your life, I’m safe now but it’s all limited, I don’t exist anymore.”

As part of our Time for Change initiatives, some of our peers took part in a project with the photographer Margaret Mitchell. To coincide with the exhibition of one of the portraits at the National Portrait Gallery’s Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, Margaret answers some questions on the story behind this image. The woman, whose identity is protected, also reflects on being involved in the project.

Can you tell us a little of the background to the project?

The wider project ‘An Ordinary Eden’ has been going on for three years and involves multiple individuals, who have all at some stage experienced homelessness. Each person came with a distinctive story on housing and home. Some people were in hostels when we first met and moved into permanent housing during the project. Others were in substandard accommodation whilst others had moved into a permanent home but still needed ongoing support. Others had experienced homelessness years ago and reflected on its impact on their lives. The thread that runs through all their experiences is the need for safety and security that accompanies a need to belong, to lay roots and re-establish lives. Whilst the work concerns ideas around ‘home’, wider social issues are raised alongside the very human need for connection. It is fundamentally a project asking how we can do better as a society to support people.


When we look at this image that is on show as part of the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition, the face is not shown or a name given, can you explain why that is?

Working with people was very much about respecting their needs in terms of how they could be photographed. With this woman, we spoke at length on the phone before we met. She told me she did not want her full face shown or name used. She worried this might rule her out of being part of the project as she was keen to be involved. I consider it important that people who want to share, can share, but in a safe way and on their terms. Working closely with her, she has seen all photographs in my edit during the project’s development.


What is the wider background to this photo, was it done the first time you met for example?

No, this photo was made nearly a year after I first visited. In that time, the woman had moved from a substandard, cramped studio flat into her permanent home, which was in good condition and had a separate bedroom and a living room. The first photo reflected her personal story, the cramped conditions and the isolation felt. The second visit resulted in an image about her current situation: even though she had got her home, the experiences that led her to be homeless still left their trace and their impact.


Can you share the background to how her homelessness had occurred?

The situation was one of domestic abuse over many years. Eventually, she managed to leave and was initially placed in a homeless hostel but felt unsafe in that environment and returned to her abuser. She managed to leave again and by the time we met was placed in a studio flat which was in poor condition. Not only was it incredibly small but it also had damp. She had to pile up her possessions and hang her clothes from curtain rails. She had a single bed and one chair. The question this raises for me is: why do people have to live like this? Why are we not able, as a society, to provide better and more dignified solutions for people who need support?


How else have people been involved during the project?

Most people I photographed have also worked collaboratively with me, putting together a mixture of creative work for a publication which will be available next year at the exhibition.


What’s next for this work?

This image is on show as part of the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition until mid-December and another image is at Head On Photography Festival in Sydney. The project also received an honourable mention from the 2022 Marilyn Stafford FotoReportage Award earlier this year. I’m delighted that the full project will be exhibited next year at Street Level Photoworks in Glasgow.

There is also a small selection from the project on display across the Shelter Scotland offices. A good number of people photographed came from the Time for Change peer network and I am extremely grateful to everyone who has taken part through Shelter including the fantastic support from all the development workers in Time for Change.

Our peer reflects on being part of Margaret’s project ‘An Ordinary Eden’:

It’s been a really positive and empowering experience working with Margaret. From the outset she had a natural empathy for my story and consulted me throughout, discussing the photographs, accompanying writing, double checking facts and if I was happy with it. I’m pleased her work is being recognised and that the issues it raises are known more widely. My aim all along through my involvement in her project was to raise awareness and I am incredibly glad the story has spoken to people.

Written by Iona Rennie


Margaret Mitchell is a documentary and portrait photographer who lives in Glasgow –

The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition is offsite this year due to renovations at the National Portrait Gallery and can be seen at Cromwell Place Arts Hub, London until 18 December 2022.