Reflection

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.  

Informing Contexts: Week 8 Reflection

“My life is kind of, at least equally influenced by pictures of things, as it is in things. We know what’s nice because we saw it in a magazine…we make lots of decisions about our life, and what we want, who we are and where we want to go, from pictures”

Thomas Demand, 2013

This has been one of the most difficult CRJ entries to write. Week 8 encouraged us to consider and evaluate the ways in which photographers discuss and defend their own practice. This has always been, and remains, something I find very difficult to do. This inherent incapacity coincided with another testing period at work and along with my ongoing inertia with my project, left me stumped. 

It seems, as we get ever closer to the final project, that we’re required to be more specific and more articulate about our objectives as practitioners...not an unreasonable demand at this stage of a postgraduate photography degree. Yet for possibly the first time, I'm questioning whether I was ever that suited to MA study, having had no formal photography training prior to starting this course. Combining this course with an increasingly demanding job hasn’t gotten any easier, and has left me perpetually frustrated that I haven’t got more physical and mental resources to devote to the course and to reaping the rewards of prolonged, intense concentration and reflection on my work. I find myself thinking that I will not truly have internalised all the lessons on this course till probably two or three years after graduation (I’m hoping to achieve that at least!).

So week 8 was a bit like that!

Asked to consider what ideas, aesthetics, techniques, contexts and theories we are exploring in our practice, I initially just baulked and was completely unable to engage with the question. Only after a couple of weeks of rumination have I been able to come back to this question in even a provisional way. I’m still wrestling with these ideas, still trying to absorb some of the lessons we’ve been introduced to during this module and during this course (which has flown by the way!) and still trying to understand my place in the matrix. I apologise in advance therefore, if this entry feels somewhat nascent and unformed. 

The ideas I am trying to explore in my current work have been consistent in big picture terms but have changed in subtle ways on the micro level as I've moved through this course. 

At the moment, I'm trying to examine:

  • Solitude/loneliness as a pervasive and yet under-discussed state.

  • Loneliness as a negative – isolating, depressing, oppressive, diminishing and destructive, leading to communities lacking cohesion and interpersonal connections.

  • Solitude as a positive – regenerative, contemplative, protective and liberating.

  • My own experiences of solitude and loneliness – how/where/why I’ve felt lonely in the past, what my feelings are about these events now and what I hope for moving forward.

  • Solitude and loneliness as these states might be connected to previous emotional trauma/memories/significant moments in time.

  • Solitude/loneliness as experienced at different ages/stages of life and how one's experience might differ depending on your age/stage of life.

What am I trying to say in my work? Well, I'm trying to say loads of things (successfully or otherwise, who can say!):

  • That there's beauty at night

  • That there's room for reflection, contemplation (and possibly temptation) at night

  • That you might be alone but that you aren't really alone – we're all in the same boat, feeling this way is not unique (or as isolating as it may feel at the time). 

I'm also trying to say that I too feel this way, alone, adrift, cut off at times and that I'm trying to understand myself and my situation...how did I get here? How can I bridge the gap between myself and others? I'm trying to say that we need to look out for each other, and look after one another. We need to look outside of ourselves. I'm trying to say that it's ok to be different and to stand apart from the crowd. 

There's a lot there! These elements come in and out of my thoughts at different times as I try to build this project and conceptualise the work. They have also, to different degrees and possibly in less explicit ways, been present in much of my photography since I first started taking pictures back in 2013. 

Artists and practitioners whose work resonates with me, and feels relevant to this project include:

  • Clint Eastwood
  • Sofia Coppola
  • Christopher Nolan
  • Todd Hido
  • Alec Soth
  • Gregory Crewdson
  • Rut Blees Luxemburg
  • Edward Hopper
  • Stephen Shore
  • Rebecca Solnit
  • David George
  • Olivia Laing
  • Mark Rothko
  • Barry Jenkins
  • Sam Mendes
  • Lynne Cohen

For me, these people – filmmakers, directors, photographers, writers, painters – have in common that they produce work that relies heavily on storytelling, narrative, sentimentality, beauty, giving voice to the outsider or disenfranchised and taking an alternative view of things at times. Many of these practitioners have directly referenced solitude as a concern of theirs, or produced work that explores this theme to at least some degree. 

Thinking specifically of the photographers, there's a consistent thread of producing images that challenge the viewer to consider what's happening both inside and beyond the frame – narrative images that demand interpretation or discussion. Most of these practitioners stare directly at bare emotion, have an obvious interest in the human condition, and are not afraid to confront or explore sometimes difficult feelings. Even in the case of practitioners such as Cohen, whose work rarely actually includes humans, there is an inquisitiveness about the impact of humans on the world and the environment and an encouragement to think beyond the boundaries of the image. 

I am predominantly producing images at night at the moment. This aesthetic choice stems from my own comfort with this time of the day and the techniques required to produce interesting images at this time, but it also fits my own conception of solitude, my own feelings around this and my previous experiences. There's also something in there about how I process things visually and the way memories tend to come to me more easily at night, in darkness, than they do during the day. The idea of reaching into the depths of memory or emotion to connect with these feelings certainly works best for me at night. I've written before about how the night stereotypically lends itself to some of these ideas, the ‘dark night of the soul' etc and this also feeds into and informs my practice to some extent. Practitioners in the list above who are also predominantly known for night work (e.g. Luxemburg, Hido, Hopper to a lesser extent) often portray a strand of displacement and disconnection in their work, Hido in particular. 

Increasingly, I’m convinced that I need to introduce people into my world of solitude, whether that's portraiture or as actors in the urban landscape, because the work now seems to be somehow incomplete without finding a way to include the people I’m trying to represent, the people I am trying to 'reach out' to. I plan for people to play a more prominent part in the work in the next phase of the project. 

When considering the context of my work, I'm hoping to argue that the state of solitude is an almost universal one and thus the context is potentially everywhere and everyone. This work should be applicable, and hopefully accessible, to all. I originally conceived of this work as being a useful starting point for a workshop about this issue, hopefully with the aim of providing strategies and resources to help people ‘reach out’ to others and ameliorate this state of loneliness. Moving forward into the final project phase, this has to be a key strand of the work – making it accessible and relatable to people in different strata of society. This aspect of the project is really important to me, but has yet to be fully explored so far. 

Some contexts for this work are easily identified – the book, the exhibition, the short film. These strands interest me in different ways, and feel like essential parts of the final complete whole of my ideal project. Of course, constraints of time/finances/collaborators/my own competence etc. may mean that these avenues are not all available, but they still represent the goal. I would ideally like my work to be available in all of these contexts, but appreciate that that work may necessarily extend beyond the duration of this MA. 

Thinking about the professional placement of this work, I believe this largely depends on how well I'm able to engage potential audiences, where they are, in a way that encourages them to interact with and respond to the work. For example, it's certainly possible to be more strategic about how I share this work via my current social media channels. Finding effective ways to interest my followers could give the project a new lease of life and propel it into a wider consciousness that then opens up the possibility of publication or exhibition. I must engage the audience, I have to generate sufficient interest and feedback from those who do encounter the work, to be able to leverage that for possible professional dissemination of the work. 

Considering critical theory that might underpin this work, I suppose the project relies in some way on the idea of connecting with the viewer through common references and common experiences. We’ve already discussed in this module the idea that a large part of the success of an image relies on its ability to utilise commonly accepted ideas and signs to communicate with the viewer. As the work becomes more personal and more introspective, I have to consider the importance of expressing myself in a way that optimises communication, possibly by using accepted visual references, but that still allows me enough creative leeway to produce work that’s individual and distinctively 'mine'. 

Ultimately, I want viewers to be moved by the work, to feel an emotional connection to the subject and the content of the images. Of course, this relies on me communicating clearly and skilfully. I want the viewer to be able to see something of themselves in the work (another reason why adding people into the mix seems to make sense to me). I want my viewer to be challenged to review their environment, to look around more, to see opportunities for connection where maybe they hadn't done previously. I'd like the viewer to know that I feel the same and that in most ways that matter we're all the same. 

References:

YouTube. “TateShots: Meet the Artist - Thomas Demand”. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fpesyyXWMvg[accessed 12 April 2018].

Sustainable Prospects: What’s It All About?

“When a person picks up a camera and starts to feel photography is for them, it is usually for reasons so complex that simple biography will not do. If you suddenly find that a camera really is your means of expression, it is not so much because it gives you the chance of a brave new start, but because it’s a way of drawing on the unspoken experience of your life lived so far. Making photographs is so often an act of recognition, conscious or otherwise, that what is before you resonates with things that came before. Those things might be direct experiences. They might be movies, picture books, music or novels. We can never know for sure.”

David Campany, Intimate Distance, 2016

I wanted to write a little about something I’d briefly mentioned in an earlier post, which is the change of direction in my project that has occurred during this module in response to advice and feedback received from my tutor and peers.

As I’ve outlined elsewhere, I’m really interested in the idea of urban solitude and how we experience this state and how we articulate and contextualise this experience. I’m also really interested in commonalities amongst us, in the idea that there’s this unspoken network of loneliness where people are closely packed yet living in silent isolation and I believe that if we can stimulate an open debate about this issue then we’d be on the way to being able to challenge taboos, while also accessing and offering support.

My project had increasingly sought to invite contributions from others around this issue, in various methods that felt right for them. I’ve found this aspect of the project really rewarding, providing as it has an insight into the emotional world of some people that I know well and people whom I hardly know at all. These insights have been incredibly privileged, as well as confirming my initial supposition that there’s a rich seam to be explored. The topic is so big, with direct and indirect links to issues as varied as mental health, social mobility, the link between music and memory…there are so many threads that can be explored.

Of course, the potential breadth of this topic had caused some difficulties. It’s a challenge to be able to provide structure to a project when the topic is so vast and the potential responses from people are limitless. I also found that I was increasingly being thwarted by practical and attitudinal obstacles. For example, many people had agreed to contribute to the project and then, despite gentle but persistent prompting on my part, failed to follow through.

In an attempt to gain some momentum and in an effort to further broaden my appeal to potential contributors/collaborators I contacted Georgina Lawton, a journalist who had written a piece for The Guardian earlier this year about her experiences with loneliness.

Georgina Lawton in The Guardian, 19/8/17

Georgina Lawton in The Guardian, 19/8/17

I asked if she would be willing to contribute to the project in some way but she was unfortunately unwilling to do so.

Overall this failure to engage people with the project was increasingly disheartening.

At the same time, I was feeling a growing disconnect between the story I was trying to tell through others and the origin of the inspiration behind this project which undoubtedly had come from within, and which I had gradually drifted away from without even noticing. I’m unsure whether this was due to an implicit unwillingness to confront the issues that a deeper examination of my own feelings might unearth, but I had certainly become a little emotionally detached from the work and this was affecting the quality of the work and my motivation to produce it.

A comment from Krishna (our module tutor) a few weeks ago really pierced the fog, as she challenged the direction I’d been taking with the project. She felt that the work produced and inspired by others would be better as a standalone project and that the focus should be on my own perspective and vision at this stage. This view seemed to be shared by my class mates who were present in the webinar and I left the session feeling quite shaken. I wasn’t sure at first why this advice was so discomfiting, but on reflection it was due to all the reasons I’ve outlined above – the imperceptible drift that had occurred from the original heart of the project, the fact that this advice challenged a possible reluctance to truly examine my own motivations for pursuing this project in the first place and I realised that I’d thus gotten a bit lost and had needed an outside view to ‘bring me back to my senses’.

I reflected on this and the pitfalls I had fallen into in the project to date. I’d certainly suffered due to a lack of structure. Listening to various practitioners describe how they approach project work, one of the key themes was the idea of a narrative impulse that infuses the work with life and allows the photographer to know when the project reaches its natural end – when the story has been told the end has been reached. Of course, if the narrative structure isn’t clear and if themes haven’t been clearly defined, it’s difficult to know how to proceed and it’s impossible to know when you’re off track. I had certainly suffered in this regard.

So I went back to the beginning.

As David Campany writes above, the reasons we shoot are often complex but are almost always connected to our own experience. I have tried to examine this much more closely, seeking to understand what solitude and loneliness mean for me and why I am drawn to articulate this visually. I think I have a clearer idea about this now and as this clarity has been restored it’s been interesting to note how my motivation and passion have returned.

#1726 as displayed on Todd Hido's website

#1726 as displayed on Todd Hido's website

I’ve been considering the work of others that's inspired me and still resonates with me, people like Todd Hido and Lynn Saville (to name just a couple) and examining why I shoot at night, why the issue of solitude is important to me and what my own feelings and memories are of loneliness, how it resonates with my emotional world.

Alongside this, I’ve been re-examining the aims of my project – how I hope to tell the story, who I hope to reach with the work and why would they care.

I’m confident that this change of direction and period of self-examination will result in a stronger project and a more coherent practice moving forward and I’m excited about moving forward.

Reference:

·      HIDO, Todd., CAMPANY, David. and TYLEVICH, Katya. 2016. Intimate Distance: Twenty-five Years of Photographs, A Chronological Album. New York: Aperture.

 

 

Sustainable Prospects: The New Global Landscape

The digital world is full of noise, and that cacophony of noise makes it hard to be heard. It makes it hard to stand out and make your point, express your opinions, build a client base, and tell your personal stories. Adding to that cacophony without a distinctive voice is therefore pointless. It is better to be quiet while you define what you have to say and how you want to say it. Listen to those who are speaking clearly and observe how they disseminate what they have to say so that it can inform your own language.

Professional Photography, Grant Scott, p16.

 

“"I am a photographer, I take photographs, that is and has always been the spine of any photographers professional practice. But is that enough today? You may, of course, perceive that as being a rhetorical question based on what I have written so far in this book. But it is not. Its a challenge to any professional photographer to take up and address, no more or less than that. Only you will know if your answer to this question is convincing and honest.

Professional Photography, Grant Scott, p176.

Highly recommended reading...

Highly recommended reading...

I have just finished reading the book ‘Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained’ by Grant Scott (2015). 

This book perfectly amplifies the work we’ve been covering in the Sustainable Prospects module and has given me much food for thought, as well as a number of avenues to pursue in my own practice moving forward.

Scott makes a very compelling argument for the existence of what he describes as a new and ever-changing landscape of professional photographic practice. He states repeatedly that the practitioners who will be best-placed to exploit this changing landscape to create opportunities and survive the economic squeeze that has affected the entire photographic industry are those who accept that the old norms are no longer given and who are open to adopting new skills and developing familiarity with new media. This will allow them to create and disseminate their work as well as engage with a potential audience who are no longer to be found in the traditional places.

These messages are of course very similar to those we have been presented with throughout the MA and more particularly during this module, where the focus has been squarely on positioning oneself and defining our own space in the professional landscape. The questions that must be answered by all of us are similar to those which are alluded to in the quotes above – what are you trying to say, how are you going to say it, and how are you going to define your practice?

As Scott also argues, without a clear appreciation of and willingness to tailor one’s efforts towards the needs of the client, it is not possible to consider oneself to be a professional practitioner. As such, as the client’s demands change thus must the photographer adapt their offering in order to remain relevant, and economically viable.

As I have written elsewhere, I’ve had a continuous internal discussion going on during this module in particular, trying to articulate to myself and subsequently to potential clients and collaborators, what sort of photographer I am and how I plan to engage with the professional world. This book has really helped to make certain elements of this challenge very clear and has also helpfully provided some clear and practical advice as to how to proceed, that I can take forward.

This also comes at a time when I have been trying to reconsider my project in light of advice given to me by tutor Krishna Sheth about the direction my project should take. This has left everything somewhat open to question and I am unable to progress without heeding the very pertinent advice that I have been given and which is echoed in Scott’s excellent book.

As such I am planning the following over the next few weeks, including the module break over Christmas/New Year:

1.     Explore how to gain some basic skills shooting video

2.     Get some basic audio recording equipment

3.     Shoot a trailer for my project using these skills gained (I already have a broad outline)

4.     Promote the trailer via current social media channels

5.     Commence research for a new personal project

 

Reference:

SCOTT, Grant. 2015. Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained. New York & London: Focal Press.

 

Sustainable Prospects: Work It, Work It For Me Baby!

Ok, so I might just have had some kind of P-Funk/Rick James moment there, but that’s only because I’m suddenly enthused and totally convinced of the utility of networking (work it!!).

Last night I attended the launch of MAYNa creative photography and video agency out of Falmouth University. The event, helpfully, took place ten minutes down the road from my house, in Shoreditch (as they’d obviously realised at MAYN HQ that it would be too much of a stretch for me to make it to Falmouth after work on a Thursday!) at the achingly cool headquarters of the advertising agency Mother.

Cool people milling about in a cool place!

Cool people milling about in a cool place!

It was a genuine pleasure to meet artists represented by the agency, such as Alex Flemingwhose work was also on display at the event, as well as the person running the show Lynn Chambers who was just incredibly friendly and passionate about the new agency and what they are hoping to achieve moving forward. 

Aside from feeling honoured to be there, it was also great to be able to put human form to people who had previously only existed to me in the form of a small thumbnail on my screen, fellow students on the course, as well as Jesse Alexander (our MA course leader) and Anna-Maria Pfab, who is our module leader for Sustainable Prospects as well as the founder of another hot photo agency, Kiosk.

Having the chance to meet and speak to these people really cemented something that I have heard a lot during this module…the importance of networking and making genuine human connections in the creative industries. I felt like I learnt more in one evening than I have during most of the rest of the time on my course, simply by absorbing the wisdom of those in the room, and having left a sterile hospital environment immediately before I found being amongst like-minded passionate creatives to be really inspiring. Aside from the possible career benefits of networking, I can see that it’s also a way to stay connected to the energy and passion that got everything started.

For me, there’s a natural caution about these events, usually because I feel that I have little to contribute. I’m sure most people have an innate dread of being placed in a room of strangers and having to make conversation, but it just needs to be done. And it’s a lot less scary than we make it seem in our heads before we’ve actually dived in.

A key lesson from this module, aside from the relentless push to emerge into the  professional arena, is the importance of differentiating yourself in a saturated marketplace. It seems to me that this first starts with your work, having a visual approach that connects with viewers and stands you apart from other image makers. Second to that though is the ability to make genuine connections with others, either as potential clients or other artists who may become collaborators, work referrers, or ‘brand advocates’ almost…

All of these things require some personal connection and interaction and so networking is the lifeblood of any successful photographic practice, particularly in the early stages.

During this module I have made closer links with some of my class mates, discussing further collaborations with Chris Chucas for example, as well as arranging a meetup and exhibition visit for some of us who are local to London. It will be great to spend more time with my MA peers in person rather than in the virtual space of Canvas.