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Final Major Project: Exhibition Engagement

One of the key aims of this project has been to stimulate dialogue about the issue of solitude and hopefully contribute towards a more open communication about this difficult topic. 

This aim underpinned the decision to hold an exhibition in a gallery, as one of the intended consequences would be to bring people together in the same place for a shared experience and hopefully some discourse about the issues explored in the work. 

During the MA and particularly leading up to the completion of this FMP I have made largely unsuccessful attempts to provoke discussion about the issues on social media. Aside from the occasional comment agreeing that it’s a topic worthy of examination, it has been difficult to get people to participate in any meaningful way or to volunteer to talk about things more deeply in a more private setting. 

I was thus hoping that by bringing the audience into a physical space there may be opportunities to engage with them in a more immediate way than had been possible via social media. 

Another aim of the project had been to produce an online space that would allow the work to be explored in more detail, and that will hopefully continue to evolve into a richer and deeper resource as the project continues after the MA as the scope of the work naturally broadens. I thus created a project website, which launched the day before the opening of the exhibition. In another CRJ post I will outline how this site developed and the response it has had so far.

ROITD Project Website

ROITD Project Website

As the exhibition was only of short duration I felt it was important to try and maximise its impact as much as possible. This would be partly achieved by it being supported and accompanied by the material on the website. The location of studio1.1, in a busy and traditionally creative part of East London also helped in this regard. I had preceded the show with an Instagram poll asking what solitude meant to the viewer and received only a few responses. However, I posed a similar question to exhibition visitors and placed comment cards to allow anonymous responses to this question. 

Comment box placed at the front of the exhibition

Comment box placed at the front of the exhibition

Once the exhibition was finished I was delighted to find that in the two days the show was open there had been a really encouraging response to this very broad question. I received a number of intriguing answers and what was reinforced is that these experiences are not easily generalised, as everyone experiences being alone differently.

If forced to organise these responses, I would say that they fell into two main categories – those who value the opportunity to connect with themselves, and those who are silently battling against unwanted isolation while maintaining an external façade that all is well.

Comment cards collected during the exhibition

Comment cards collected during the exhibition

Another benefit of holding an exhibition was the opportunity to get into conversation with visitors. It was so heartening when a passer by stopped in, spent some time looking at the work and then unprompted volunteered that they felt this was an important topic that needed to be more frequently discussed, and then went on to share personal experiences or reflections on solitude and loneliness. This happened on many occasions over the two days and was the definite highlight of the exhibition for me. 

This validated a number of ideas: that it is an important issue that merits exploration, that more people than is immediately evident are experiencing (suffering?) this in silence and that it would therefore be a desirable objective to try and stimulate a more open and inclusive conversation about it. Having seen the sequelae of loneliness in a medical context for many years, mainly in older people, it was illuminating to have clear evidence that this issue affects younger people of varying demographic profiles also and this was reflected in the conversations I had with visitors over the two days. 

Another element of the work that was validated during the two days was that of the visual approach taken in this project. I’ve written previously about narrative and how I’ve struggled to find a way to tell stories visually. I have spent a lot of time looking at the work of Crewdson, Soth and Hido in particular during the latter part of this MA and this research, as well as having a revelation while attending the London Nights exhibition earlier in the year about how using a series of images together could be an effective way to suggest a story, I had been convinced that this would be the way to create narrative in this work.

As I had continued to reflect on this and also realised the importance of including people in the work, I’d settled on triptychs as the vehicle to tell this particular story, each anchored by a portrait. In the exhibition I also experimented with combining triptychs to create even larger stories. It was really interesting then to see how visitors responded to these series of images. The various interpretations of the image combinations, particularly those that were presented in a group of 6 images, were really interesting – people finding all sorts of different elements, which were on the whole very different from my nominal intention when grouping the images together. This is exactly what I’d been aiming for. It did mean though that a number of visitors were frustrated when, after asking me to tell them whether they had gotten the ‘right answer’ when trying to interpret the images I replied by telling them that there wasn’t a right answer and that the fact they’d arrived at a completely different interpretation to myself, or another viewer, was exactly what I’d intended!

Holding the exhibition therefore served to allow direct engagement with the audience, in a way that had not been previously possible via social media. The accompanying website definitely worked in conjunction with the exhibition to provide different ways to access the work and explore it in depth at a time that suited the viewer. The exhibition also provided direct feedback about the success or otherwise of the work in communicating the themes and achieving the aims of emotionality and open-ended narrative. Judging from the verbal and written feedback received during the show, I am reassured that these objectives were largely met and this is very encouraging when considering how to take this project forward after the finish of the MA course. 

I was asked on a couple of occasions during the exhibition – ‘what’s next?’ – whatever the answer to this question, this exhibition assures me that the work is on the right course.  

Sustainable Prospects: Week 3 Reflection

This week, the focus has been on the challenges and opportunities afforded by the ever-increasing importance of digital image capture and image distribution platforms. We were set the task of devising a targeted social media strategy to increase our Instagram following by 30 or more followers over the week. This challenge felt particularly uncomfortable for me, as it requires me to explicitly acknowledge the fact that I have a desire and obligation to engage with my audience and thus to strategise the best way to achieve this. This feels instinctively inauthentic and contrived, which is not how I ever envisaged my photographic practice and not how I would wish to view myself. 

My Instagram homepage

My Instagram homepage

Since the start of this module I have been wrestling with this idea of professionalism and what that actually means, in practical and tangible terms. What does it mean for me to call myself a ‘professional photographer’? What behaviours and qualities do I have to demonstrate to be worthy of that title and to be able to meet the expectations of others who might engage me on a professional basis?

A lot of this conflict comes, I think, from a self-image that possibly doesn’t allow me to properly accept that I might be good at something or that I might wish to become good at it. It seems almost too boastful to call myself a ‘professional photographer’ and somewhat presumptuous to conduct myself as if I were one. There’s an inherent contradiction of course in that last statement, in that I am in the middle of an MA in photography so have already attained a certain level of competence and to progress from where I am now requires, actually probably demands, that I embrace the idea of professional practice and decide how best to operate within this new unfamiliar world. There is also the contradiction of shying away from the idea of professional or outward-facing practice while maintaining a website and social media presence that essentially only makes sense in the context of engaging with others and providing me a means to show my work to the world. Lauren Cornell’s (2015) words certainly cut right to the heart of this conflict:

“But social media, in its omnipresence and ubiquitous use, has become a main site for the contestation of identity and the self—a new arena that repeats and extends previous eras’ questions of visibility and self-definition, and begs for artistic challenge.

Hardy said she took the portraits only for herself without caring who might see them. “Only for me” now seems an outmoded or rare sentiment in a culture in which personal archives accumulate in public, not in bedrooms or on dusty hard drives.

When we take photographs today, we always care about who, besides us, might see them.”

Lauren Cornell, 2015

The final sentence there really hit home. It seemed almost impossible to run from this fact, that we always care about who might see our photos. This being the case, it then seems ridiculous to avoid an honest and thoughtful look at how we connect with our audience and who we believe, or would like, our audience to be. The next step from there is, inevitably, to decide on a strategy to achieve this audience connection in the best way possible.

So I’m back where I started.

Having accepted this reality but not yet being comfortable with it, I decided to instead update my website. This is something I have been meaning to do for some time, but had been avoiding for various reasons. 

Old website homepage

Old website homepage

I set about drafting an outline of what I wanted my new website to look like and searched around for an appropriate template that would fit my requirements. Once I started down this route, I faced a number of other technical and philosophical questions about website provider, domain names, how much I felt it was worth investing in getting a website that looked good and functioned well and what I was really trying to achieve with my website – did I just want a nice looking portfolio, did I want to represent myself in a professional manner to potential paying clients etc.

While it’s not necessary to articulate those decisions here, the act of thinking these things through has helped me understand what I’m trying to achieve with my work, what I thus need to try and get out of my MA studies and where I might want to go next. I have also accepted that I need to generate at least a rudimentary social media strategy and will thus get on to this as my next task now that the website is complete. 

New website homepage

New website homepage

For me, the key thing to reconcile is the desire to take photographs simply for my own pleasure, which is what drove me initially, with the present need to progress through my MA and to position myself for a post-MA world in which I hope to be able to practice as a photographer in some way or another.

“Once the world has been photographed it is never again the same. (This is where Eve and the Apple come in.)

Once the images begin to replace the world, photography loses much of its reason for being.

Into the vortex, then, comes the digital.”

Fred Ritchin, 2010, p23

I don’t want to lose sight of the world with all its complexity, nuance and beauty in the rush to create a well-strategised digital façade, however I concede that I must engage honestly with the digital world and its possibilities and will aim to do this in a more thoughtfully structured manner going forward.

References:

  • CORNELL, Lauren. 2015. ‘Self-Portraiture in the First-Person Age’. Aperture, Winter 2015, Issue 221, p34-41.
  • RITCHIN, Fred. 2010. After Photography. London, New York: W. W. Norton.