Helia Phoenix founded We Are Cardiff, a blog sharing interesting stories about culture, arts, and people in the city. Helia is a writer, DJ, photographer, film maker and one of Cardiff Life’s 50 people shaping a brighter Cardiff.

Can you tell us what you do? 

I founded We Are Cardiff. I currently co-ordinate the content and the team extends to about four or five people on a rotating basis, all of whom put forward  voluntary contributions.

It was set up originally five years ago to combat the negative news that was in the national media about Cardiff at the time. There were lots of really great things happening in Cardiff and I didn’t see that represented anywhere I looked. I set the site up with a few friends, it literally took me about an hour and a half. The idea was that we were going to get all the people in Cardiff who we knew were doing interesting things, interview them about their passion project and photograph them. I think We Are Cardiff has done a really positive PR job on the city.

I fund everything on We Are Cardiff myself, though the running costs aren't high - it's more your time that is the thing. I haven’t monetised it because I feel like that may comprise the editorial ethos. Also, my time is really valuable and I don’t want to waste it chasing cash around. This might change one day, I may find a way to monetise it that is sustainable and is in line with how the site is run.

It is also a hobby. I love writing, I love Cardiff so those two things together for me at the moment - it works.

I work with the photojournalism course at the Atrium – University of South Wales for a lot of content. While the photojournalists are studying they need commissions, the idea is to get them working as they would do if they were photojournalists. I give them a brief and they go away and take the pictures then submit them to me for the site. There are some amazing students on that course, really good. A lot of the photography content on the site comes from those students. There's also some great students coming from the Music Business course too who are contributing content. Some great practical skills being learned at USW today.

If you're making money, I am a firm believer that you should be paying people for their work, especially artists. If you’re a brand or business and you’re making money, I think it is out of order to ask people to do stuff for free for you. I was very aware of that when I set We Are Cardiff up but because it is voluntary it's a bit of a different beast. I always explain to people if they approach me or I approach them. I don’t pay anybody (including myself!). 

One of the problems of not monetising We Are Cardiff is that it can limit the content - I end up posting stuff that is easy for me to cover or get information on, rather than stuff that takes time to research, because my time is so limited. I’ve got a whole notebook of complex story ideas – I just can’t do it all. If anyone is reading this and wants to come on as a staff writer, I’m always looking to recruit!

Why have you chosen to work in Cardiff?

I’m from Cardiff originally, I was born here. I went to university in London for half a year and absolutely hated it, it was the worst experience of my life. It wasn’t the right thing for me. Some of my friends from school had gone to Cardiff so I came here to visit them in 1999 and was like, ‘what am I doing!?’. They were having a riot, it was brilliant, you could walk from halls of residence into town, it was a safe city, a small city – it felt a lot more like I could fit in here than I ever did in London. On my first weekend we went to Clwb Ifor Bach (which you needed a membership card for back then - I had to say I was a 'Welsh learner' before I could be signed in!), we went to Hobos, Spillers - I loved it. I was hooked.

I dropped out of Goldsmiths in London after about six months, came to Cardiff University and met with the head of English. I had been a real slacker at school - preferred drama club to studying! - so I had terrible A level grades. I really wanted to study English, so the head advised me I could transfer onto a course with lower grade requirements and sign up for English as an additional humanities module, and could transfer onto English in my second year, but only if I got a first in that first year. Needless to say I worked my arse off for that. I look on that whole experience as being ultimately very positive - I would never have learned how to really work hard and apply myself if it hadn't happened. 

I stayed in Cardiff to do a Masters then worked at Catapult (used to be a record shop in town), and worked at BBC Wales too. Then I got my first proper communications job at a magazine in Bristol. While I was there I applied for a scholarship for The Scott Trust – the charity that runs The Guardian – which developed the journalists of the future. I got on that scheme, studied for a year at Sheffield and got my NCTJ and also got to study some computer science. I ended up applying for a million different jobs afterwards as I knew wanted to go into digital media and jobs were scarce. I ended up getting a job as Web Editor at the National Assembly for Wales back in Cardiff, which was truly amazing as I'd been prepared to move anywhere. All roads lead back to Cardiff!

What challenges have you found in working in Cardiff?

Cardiff needs better PR. Either people have no idea where it is or what's here, or they just see it as a handy place to come and get trashed for the weekend if you want to go on a hen or stag do. But it's also a place where it is really easy to come and have a fun and totally sober time. We’re near beaches, near the mountains, and the city itself has some reasonable attractions. It's such a lovely place to live! Sure, Bristol is bigger, and London may only be a couple of hours away, but Cardiff feels like the gateway to better things. We don't get much positive praise for that, but then bad news sells more. it's just lazy journalism a lot of the time. It's harder to be positive and praise than it is to criticise.

The perception and its reputation is very different from the Cardiff that actually exists and the Cardiff it is possible to visit. All you have to do is get people here and the city does the rest of the work: they start saying ‘oh, this is really nice’ and you’re like ‘yeah, what did you think it was?!’

I would love for Cardiff council to be more open to people who are trying to do a good PR job on Cardiff on the city’s behalf. I can't say I've had much joy on the occasions I've tried to engage with the council on projects I've been doing through We Are Cardiff (like asking for filming permission when I was making a documentary - they asked for more money than made up our entire budget and took weeks and weeks to get back to us, so in the end we just went with Cardiff University who let us film for free and even ended up sponsoring the film). To be honest it was so difficult I just gave up and haven't even tried for a few years now.

Having said that, the Visit Cardiff team do an amazing job, considering how small the team is and non-existent their budget is! 

How successful do you think Cardiff has been at making itself a creative capital, particularly in your area of work?

Cardiff is a great place for artists or creatives to live - the cost of living is still low and you can find big spaces (studios etc) for not much money. It is big enough as a capital city - you have access to lots of different people doing lots of different things. You can access beautiful scenery, different resources and arts organisations without it costing you a bomb to live here. That is why I think Cardiff is successful. I can't say I think it's successful because of any big strategic push to make it that way.

In your opinion, what needs to happen to make Cardiff a more creative city?

I would love to see more space being made available for arts organisations. There are so many empty spaces - empty retail units in town, empty warehouses - is there no way to can match up this space to artistic or community organisations – even on a temporary basis, the way they’ve done in Berlin?  Give people space and they’ll create amazing things. Just look at The Abacus. To see a community space like that so visible in the city centre was incredible - where you had people walking past every day who might never engage in the arts. They would look through the windows, seeing a hula hooping class going on, seeing gigs and art installations. Getting exposed to that - isn’t it better to make art visible and bring down the barriers? So people aren’t like ‘oh, art is posh people doing things in places I can’t afford to go to’. No - art and participation is a hula hooping class and it costs you a pound if you want to go, it is literally right here. But the Abacus is gone now, and I'm so sad about that. Did we really need another Boots? I want to cry every time I walk past its bland corporate exterior.

What do you think Creative Cardiff should try to achieve?

I feel like this is asking a genie for a wish! I would really love somehow for the community to have physical and practical input into what is happening to all the old industrial buildings in the Bay. I live in Butetown and I have been walking past these buildings every day, for years, and I’ve got so used to seeing scaffolding, boarded up windows and To Let signs. I would love to see a practical output, a co-working space or some kind of facility for the creative industries or community groups - something that reinvigorates these buildings. Please make that happen.

Describe your favourite creative place to work in Cardiff.

I end up in Little Man Coffee quite a lot. I love the vibe and I like supporting them because they’re an independent business doing lots of great events and are a bit of a hub for creative people. This is going to sound really bizarre but the Mount Stuart Wetherspoons in the Bay is also great to work in! During the day it is really quiet and has nice booths upstairs. Plus the building is really old and has great views on the Bay. One of my other favourite places to work is the Senedd Café, it just feels really cool to be able to work in a parliament building. They also do free tours! I really like working in Milgi and Penylan Pantry in Roath but I’m not on the side of the city very much anymore.

What’s next for you? What projects are on the horizon? What new ideas are you working on?

I write quite a lot in my spare time, though you won't see much of it - writing is my compulsion, it's what I'm driven to do, so if I'm not writing a few hundred words every day, I get very grouchy! I’m at the end stage of finishing a novel, it has been really hard – I don’t think it's very polished, but I’m thinking of it as a practice book – how could you just write something for the first time and it be objectively good? I marvel at novelists who somehow manage to pull something amazing off as their first book and get it published straightaway.

I work very industriously but I don’t often have a goal in mind. I put myself in situations to set stuff up initially, but often I don’t have much in the way of long term vision. I guess that's just the sort of person I am, but I’ve been thinking about setting a specific target and working everything towards that. Even this novel was just something I started doing as an exercise on the side, I never really meant to write one! So I’m going to go through a period of trying to set goals and be focused. That's what's up next for me.

Share