Self-promotion

Final Major Project: Future Directions

The end of this module and the MA course has arrived so quickly. With my head still spinning from the whirlwind of activity that preceded and encompassed the exhibition and website launch it is difficult to rationalise what might come next. 

I was surprised to be asked a number of times at the Reaching Out Into The Dark private view“So what’s next Justin?”, and as the reality that I’m soon going to be a former student starts to sink in, I’m obliged to start trying to come up with some answers.

Visitors to the ROITD Private View

Visitors to the ROITD Private View

Here is what I have so far:

Project

The work so far in this project feels very provisional, like only a surface scratched, with the FMP outcomes simply demonstrating the potential audience for the work and also how many more facets of this theme there are to uncover and explore. 

I’m proud of what I’ve achieved so far but already have a clear idea of the next few steps for the work, visually, which include:

·     The urgent need to include older people in this work. This is especially important as I’m confronted with lonely older people every day in my job, such that it feels almost criminal not to give them a platform in this project and a prominent one at that! There is also the need to represent younger people (adolescents mainly) and finding a way to reach this group and engage them with this work will be a future challenge no doubt.

·     A need to better represent the internal world of solitude and loneliness, both with more images of interior spaces, and by finding an effective way to visually depict the internal emotional landscape. I think my work already does this to some degree (hopefully), it certainly reflects my own internal emotional landscape in a sense, but there are a variety of emotional responses to this subject (not all of them negative of course) that would be really interesting states to explore photographically if this could be done in a manner that wasn’t too obvious and was based on a coherent visual strategy. My initial goal had been to explore solitude, this gradually evolved to me wanting to explore solitude and loneliness as I started to research the theme and understand the topic more. This further developed into a desire to better represent the positive aspects of a solitary life. Latterly though, I’ve thought a lot more about specific scenarios and how they could be explored, such as feeling alone despite being in a relationship, or the feeling of being alone among a large throng on a busy street in rush hour – all these experiences that are broiling away internally but which may never be discernible on the external surface of our persona, yet have a profound impact on the way we experience the world and relate to each other. This is a really interesting area that I am keen to explore further. I’ve been thinking a lot about this since the exhibition concluded and it might even be separate project, or sub-project, as the potential ground to cover is vast.

My internal emotional landscape?

My internal emotional landscape?

·      I also want to examine the role that technology plays in our modern solitude. There’s an irony that while we were all sold these devices as ways to better connect with each other, we spend most of our time now experiencing daily life with our heads down fixated on a small screen whenever we are out in the world, such that the happenings of the world around us and the existence of other actual humans is no longer necessarily a vital part of our daily experience in the main. We thus live a voluntary solitude, detached from each other and hypnotised by our personal mini computers. It’s not clear whether these were the intended consequences of these devices but this is the reality we are faced with and it’s interesting to consider what that means for our emotional and mental health and what it means for our wider communities and societies. 

·     Reconsideration of the outputs and how best to use them is another element that can further progress the aims of the project. I’ve learnt a number of useful practical lessons during FMP, particularly from putting together an exhibition. Reflecting on the aspects of the planning that worked well and what things I’d wish to do differently in the event of a future exhibition is important learning to take forward. I’m also more convinced of the need for a book as an eventual output for this work. I arrived at this conclusion after seeing the work take shape during the website build and getting a clearer understanding of how the interaction of text and image might work to successfully communicate to the viewer on a page as well as a screen. Continuing to refine and mature the work over the coming year or two will gradually make a book project seem like a foreseeable future milestone of the project I believe and will offer yet another way to present and experience this work.

Considering one of the aims of this project is to stimulate dialogue and help to facilitate discussion about the experience of loneliness and solitude, I’ve always been keen to find a way to take the work outward in the form of a workshop. This had formed part of an (as it now seems) ambitious FMP project proposal, but it remains an important pillar of what I would consider to be a fully realised project.

Shutter Hub’s   Camera Amnesty   campaign to help homeless photographers

Shutter Hub’s Camera Amnesty campaign to help homeless photographers

To that end, I’ve already made initial contact with Shutter Hub, an organisation that has a lot of experience of delivering talks and workshops, about how we might collaborate to bring this work to a different audience in that format. Shutter Hub have already been working with potential target groups in their own outreach work and so it would be a potentially mutually beneficial collaboration that would align with their existing corporate activities. 

 

Practice 

Moving forward I have to consider how I will balance my photographic practice with imminent changes in my job, working pattern and place of abode. The MA has given me a much better understanding of how to approach trying to communicate through photographs and associated/accompanying media, as well as a grounding in how to carry out research to support one’s visual aims. I’ve also learned practical skills that will benefit my practice and my ability to connect and collaborate with other practitioners. The aspects of my practice that I will be concentrating on in the immediate post-MA future are likely to include:

·     Continued regular contextual research to support the ongoing progress of this project but also to provide the basis for potential future work of a different nature. It’s not always possible to directly quantify how the research done contributes to the final work but it certainly does, and this is one of the aspects that sets my current work apart from what I was producing before starting this course. My work now is supported by extensive research of visual and written media and prolonged reflection, whereas before I was just taking photographs that interested me for no clear reason. That’s not a bad thing in itself of course, but I can say that the work I’m producing now is a more eloquent expression of my ‘voice’ than anything I produced previously. This is only due to the research and consideration which underpins it and thus I look forward to further clarifying my voice with ongoing research and learning.

·     Writing will become an increasingly important element of my practice moving forward. I very much enjoyed writing for this project, in the process reawakening an interest in creative writing that I’d had in my much younger days. While continuing to write more critically during the course as well as book reviews elsewhere, I envisage less constrained writing being a larger proportion of my future output. I’ve found writing to be a good way to synthesise my reflections and the conclusions I’ve made about the work I’m doing, and so the writing serves to further my thoughts and offer another conduit to connect with the emotions that I always want to bring to my work. Thus, in the time that’s freed up after the completion of the MA I intend to take a writing course to help develop my competence in this area and will continue to write at every possible opportunity. 

Excerpt of my review of Robert Hirsch’s book  Seizing The Light  on   Amazon

Excerpt of my review of Robert Hirsch’s book Seizing The Light on Amazon

·     Another aspect of my practice that I will be concentrating more on in the future is networking and self-promotion (horrible as that sounds!). The exhibition cemented the importance of this for me, as the private view was attended by a number of people who became aware of me on social media. Edo Zollo, a photographer I’ve looked up to for years, was kind enough to visit my private view and stated that he’d been following me for years and that I was one of his favourite photographers. This was very surprising and obviously great to hear, but it also highlighted the importance of presenting yourself online. He’d never have heard of me otherwise and it’s currently the best way to connect with your audience, communicate your motivations and describe your practice in ways that people will hopefully identify and engage with. I saw this in action during this FMP and I have to take this aspect of my practice more seriously if I hope to reach a bigger audience, position myself for future professional opportunities and connect with potential collaborators. I’m by no means comfortable with what can at times seem like relentless self-promotion but I have to find a happy medium where I’m regularly nurturing this audience of supporters and steadily adding new followers as well, people who are supporters of my practice in one way or another. There is a lot to learn too about how to promote and market specific events. My exhibition only came together at very short notice, so it wasn’t possible to build a solid buzz about it with a long lead-up. In future, the planning of the exhibition will take better account of what’s needed to promote it effectively to give it the best possible chance of success. These practical lessons are one of the most useful takeaways from the MA course for me. Being an artist is great, the licence to stay in your head where dreams live, the onus to be creative, to challenge conventions and to bravely explore new territories. Yet there is no escaping the practical realities involved in researching, producing and promoting the work. I’ve learnt some of these realities first hand (my credit card can certainly give you some chapters about the harsh realities too!) in these final weeks and have a more pragmatic appreciation of what is required to continue making good work, that people will want to see and possibly support, in the future.

Final Major Project: Reaching Out Into The Dark Exhibition, November 2018

The ROITD FMP exhibition took place this week, November 27th and 28th, at studio1.1 gallery on Redchurch Street in Shoreditch, London. The decision to actually hold an exhibition was only taken earlier this month, so pulling it together from conception to opening occurred in the space of 19 days.

studio1.1 London gallery

studio1.1 London gallery

The progress of the work during this FMP period has been slow and hindered by outside factors, such that I initially felt that trying to hold an exhibition would prevent me from focusing enough time and energy on actually having enough work to submit by the December deadline. I was also discouraged by preliminary enquiries into potential exhibition spaces. Space hire seemed so prohibitively expensive and difficult to arrange that I figured I should concentrate on putting the work together for online presentation in the form of a project website, which I’d always envisaged as the main repository of the finished work.

I had wanted to present the images in triptychs, aiming to suggest quite open-ended narratives, and had decided that each triptych would be anchored by a portrait. After completing a couple of portrait shoots in the last six weeks or so, I saw this vision finally begin to take shape in a way that made an exhibition now seem possible.

Triptych

Triptych

Additionally I was encouraged by a conversation with tutor Wendy McMurdo, an incredibly accomplished artist in her own right, who seemed to confirm that the work was heading in the right direction and encouraged me to keep pushing forward. She perfectly understood the internal conflict that I was having – ‘that’s the artistic process Justin’ – and this reassured me that I wasn’t going crazy and that I could possibly pull it off after all. 

I also realised that without an exhibition I’d be missing a great opportunity to engage with the audience, to ‘reach out’ as I had always been aiming to do with the work. Reflecting on this aspect of the exhibition is something that I’ll discuss further in another CRJ post.

So, once decided upon, it was key to find a space to show the work. I was really fortunate that studio1.1 were able to accommodate me for two days at the end of November at a discounted rate that was within my budget. I had enough time to pull everything else together and also make more work, which at the time of deciding to have an exhibition was still necessary.

The initial plan was to show 12 to 15 images, but it quickly became clear that to do so would not allow me to articulate the idea well enough and would also not fill the space that the gallery afforded. The final exhibition consisted of 18 images presented with accompanying text panels taken from the project research, as well as some additional contextual information about the issue of urban solitude and loneliness. 

Following on from my recent experience with the Shutter Hub Open, I explored the possibility of using newspaper for the printing and made enquiries with Newspaper Club about the papers and sizes available. The price to print on newspaper was certainly very attractive compared to my usual printer Digitalarte (approximately 10 times cheaper!) but once I was clear about which images I wanted to show and considering the subtlety of tonal variations and deep shadow in many of them, I ended up going for the tried and trusted, and much more expensive fine art method. 

Once the space was secured I started promoting the exhibition via Instagram and Twitter and received a number of tentative responses suggesting that people were interested and planning to attend. The private view was held on the evening of Tuesday 27th and I’m really happy to say that it was well-attended.

Visitors at the Private View on 27th November 2018

Visitors at the Private View on 27th November 2018

The show ran for two days, 11am to 6pm on both days, with the private view from 7 to 9pm on the first day. I would have ideally held the exhibition for longer, but the gallery only had two free days available and it was difficult enough getting time off work for this period as it was. All in all it worked well, allowing those who expressed an interest in attending to do so. I was really gratified that people travelled from outside of London to see the exhibition and the feedback was generally really positive, which validated the expense and effort that had gone into putting the show on. 

Overall, I’m really glad that I made the effort to arrange an exhibition. It was an incredibly valuable learning experience, both in practical and organisational terms, but also in terms of helping to better understand how to present work to attract and engage an audience, what considerations are important when planning what one hopes will be a successful show, as well as helping me to gain a better understanding of how different outputs can connect differently with audiences and thus how to more strategically present one’s work in order for it to have the maximum reach and impact. 

I will write more about my reflections in this regard in a subsequent post. 

Informing Contexts: T-shirts make the dream work!

Towards the end of the previous module I’d experimented with putting an image on a t-shirt, firstly to see how it would look and also to consider whether this might be another way to share and potentially market my work. I’d taken inspiration from Juno Calypso, who successfully blends a critically-acclaimed fine art career with a more accessible commercialism, selling a range of posters via her website.

Posters available via Juno Calypso's   shop

Posters available via Juno Calypso's shop

To this end, I set up a limited duration campaign on Everpress offering print t-shirts in four colours in the period just after new year, and promoted them via my Twitter and Instagram accounts. 

The range of t-shirts offered during the promotion

The range of t-shirts offered during the promotion

It’s fair to say that the response was…terrible!

The way Everpress works, you’re required to stipulate how many items must be sold in order to trigger the shirts being printed. The t-shirts are then only printed at the end of the offer period, if the minimum number of orders is reached. If the minimum orders is not reached, those who have ordered are refunded and your campaign is consigned to the sad list of losers (maybe that last part isn’t totally accurate!). 

Having set a minimum order of 5, I was sadly unable to convince 3 people to buy a t-shirt (I bought two myself!), with only one other item purchased. 

Despite being on the face of it a crushing failure, I learnt quite a few things from this experiment: 

  • People on social media are not as engaged as they might seem. The numbers of people who viewed the Instagram stories and favourited the posts related to the t-shirts did not translate into traffic to the Everpress website (the site helpfully gives you data about number of page visits etc). It’s interesting to reflect on how to consistently turn a social media following into active engagement outside of the immediate social media platform, whether that be to promote a project, convince people of an idea or turn followers into purchasers. I am sure there’s a lot of information out there about how to do this better. It would be wise to take a more strategic and informed approach to selling on social media if this was ever to become a significant income stream.

  • Pricing is obviously key. I set the price of my t-shirts at £19.99. The cost of producing each shirt was around £12 due to the low number of predicted sales. There’s certainly a discussion to be had about value and how this relates to exclusivity and desirability of the product on sale. Speaking to a friend of mine who enquired about how the sales had gone, she interestingly said that she was put off from buying as she felt the price was too high compared to the equivalent item she usually buys on the high street. This raises another question about the context of the sale and where you seek out your audience. Using Juno Calypso as an example again, it’s probably easier to convince a visitor to her slick website, that showcases her work to best effect and reinforces the impression of it being high concept art, to part with £50 for a poster than it might be if she were trying to find the same customers via Twitter. In the first case the customers have somewhat self-selected. Of course, I could have simply listed the t-shirts for a few pennies over their cost price. I’m not sure this would necessarily have resulted in any more sales. It would also have done little to affirm the value of the work, which is of course a complex concept in itself and not one that is solely dependent on my view of the matter!

  • I really don’t enjoy self-promotion and find marketing decidedly uncomfortable. My efforts to drum up interest in my t-shirt campaign were lacklustre I have to admit, and basically amounted to one post on Instagram and a couple of Instagram stories, as well as a couple of posts on Twitter. Even this felt horrible! I have to consider what the root of this discomfort is and whether it would make future attempts at self-promotion or product selling impossible. It’s difficult to expect anyone to buy your product if you’re not enthusiastic and passionate about it yourself. 

  • Trying to sell t-shirts in winter when it’s snowing is stupid! (Maybe this partly explains my sheepish marketing…)

Overall, this was a valuable thing to do. I’ve not been completely deterred from doing something similar in the future, and I would hope to have a slightly more successful outcome by applying the lessons above. It’s worth considering how much of one’s income can ever be from selling these sorts of products, if my career heads in the direction I’d like it to. Equally though, the underlying principles of marketing, audience engagement, understanding your customer and what they want etc. are all skills a successful photographer must master.

So, anyone for a t-shirt?