A Conversation between Gemma Thorpe and David Forrest

Wednesday April 4th, 2012 by No Comments

Transcription of one of our initial meetings discussing the collaboration.

DF: I see the project as an opportunity to look at the way in which storytelling, in its broadest sense, can empower people; to hear voices, stories, narratives that have not been previously heard. There’s a really interesting opportunity with working with the Chinese student community in Sheffield because they’re such a conspicuous part of the University’s life but have very little in the way of cultural representation, very little in the way of stories that are told about them.

I’m quite keen on thinking about the city as a site of everyday experience, and thinking about the validation of everyday experience. We might begin to find ways of using narrative to explore and illustrate ideas of belonging and identity in a very city that is shared by a very diverse group of people. Narratives aren’t always about the spectacular, and aren’t always about the conclusive, but can exist to itemise very important, meaningful aspects of everyday life in the city.


GT: Maybe we could talk about how this came about, because I met you with the idea of working with Storying Sheffield, and we ended up talking about my interest in China. I was telling you how I remember coming back from Beijing and walking through the city and my ears pricking up as I heard these pockets of Chinese, groups of people chatting away in Mandarin. I was obviously heightened to it because that was the environment I was used to but certainly when I was at University here I wasn’t aware of that as much. There has been a huge increase in the number of Chinese students here over the past few years, and to me that speaks on some level of the change in relations between the two countries, between the UK and China.

But, what was it you were particularly interested in, in terms of the Chinese angle, I suppose, because I know your interest in the community angle…


DF: I think it was when we spoke – and I listened to you talking about Chinese students, and the Chinese community – it occurred to me there and then that there was a kind of invisibility, a strange, paradoxical invisibility, because of the conspicuous presence of Chinese students here.

Overseas Student Population 2008 and 2011. Source: The University of Sheffield Student Profiles


Another thing that sparked my interest was this idea that often when we’re thinking about telling stories which aren’t particularly dominant, and which challenge the mainstream version of identity as propagated through popular culture and the rest of it, we think about that in terms of economic class, or in terms of socio-economic factors; there is a clearer framework of political and economical indicators of that marginalisation.

But for Chinese students, we see the economic power, we hear about it in the news all the time, and, by extension, the economic power of Chinese students, so to have an economically empowered group of people, living as marginalised individuals in a northern, post-industrial city, especially one who’s own representation of its self is all about inclusivity and its political past – about celebrating working class life for example, and the triumph or tragedies of left-wing politics in the city – it wears those scars in a very self-conscious way. So you have quite an interesting interface then when you’re thinking about storytelling, it challenges those sort of very easy binaries about narrative and representation and about class, and so, that is particularly interesting for me.

But the main inspiration, I think, was hearing you talk – the original conversation we had, got me thinking about the silent voices, if you like, of Chinese students –the lack of an opportunity for those voices to be heard, and it really occurred to me that that idea chimed with a lot of the things I was interested in anyway, about how the arts, about how narrative can facilitate that, and if it does or not. That conversation really inspired a lot of ideas in me, so it was an important one I think.


GT:  I think it’s interesting the way you talk about economic power, and there’s such a difference in the way you see China represented in the media, which is through quite powerful metaphors: it’s always about the tiger or the dragon yet there’s a kind of disruption between that impression and what you see when you’re in this city, thinking of how Chinese people interact with the city, and with other people in this city. It’s not very forceful. It’s a very quiet, very subtle interaction.


DF: I’m really interested in the idea of this over-arching attention, which is paid to the economic and political discourses that surround China, and it got me thinking about the emphasis in your work, on routines, and the everyday –do you see that as a means of nullifying difference? That the everyday, the city, and, by extension, the everyday routines within the city, are a way of highlighting the fact that we all do very similar things? That despite this quite divisive discourse that we hear about in the news, that a return to some kind of understanding of the everyday, of routines, of the domestic, of internal spheres, and despite superficial cultural differences, there are numerous bonds which hold us together – I mean is that something that interests you?


GT:  Oh yeah, absolutely yeah. I think that’s they key to understanding, is finding the similarities, and the common threads that bind us together as people, and not that it should only be about that, that it should be some kind of celebratory, really positive project, you know ‘we’re all amazing, we’re different but we’re the same’. But certainly to draw on the commonalities…


DF: so is that a purpose in your work?


GT:  I think so, in many ways, because the last thing I want to do is to highlight the difference, or to have a kind of shock-value in my work, or to present things as fact, I think it’s about presenting things as suggestions of ideas, and to hint at things.


DF: I’m quite interested in the use of that word ‘shock’ –does your work respond to that concept? To the, while not exploitative, very emphatic form of documentary photography, which is about statements, which is about stark exclamations of fact? Like you said, you know ‘this person is in this situation and I’m going to project that through photography’. Are you against that?


GT:  I’m not against that, I think I’m not very comfortable with the single image: you know, ‘this is this situation’ – I mean, I understand its importance and its value in many other situations, but I think that its not as straightforward as that really, and its dangerous to present things in that way, and as my work is developing and maturing, I’m more interested in how the use of audio, for example, or the use of more participatory techniques, can help to unveil more layers, to feel that the people you’re working with, or the people you’re photographing, that it’s more of their story –  it’s actually their voice. You can project as many ideas as you want onto something, but how many people actually then speak to the people in the photographs, and ask them how they feel about they way they were represented? And, is this done in the best way? Or, the ideas I have about an image might not be the same that someone else has – which is the beauty of photography really, and that’s the best thing about it, it has this great multiplicity of views, and ideas, but its certainly more about, trying to…


DF: add that extra layer?


GT:  yeah


DF: you see, the audio is adding that extra narrative dimension. I’m really interested in that idea of empowerment through adding that extra layer of narrative, and in some ways it’s this ‘extra layer’ in your work that interrogates pre-existing forms of representation in photography. But to what extent do you try and retain some degree of faithful representation of conversation when you’re editing? Or do you see that idea of selection, of selecting the images, then editing the audio to go with that – do you see that as running counter to the participatory nature of the relationship?


GT:  I suppose in some ways you could say it is, but essentially I don’t think you can give 100% control to the participant, and likewise I don’t think you should give 100% to the photographer. I don’t think by using audio and photography together you’re taking yourself out of the picture and that it’s the most empowering thing, I think empowerment is a dangerous word, as much as it is a really positive word, because realistically, what then? You’ve done this thing, you feel like you’ve empowered someone, they’ve hopefully enjoyed it, or have appreciated being listened to, but how long does that last?


DF: I love that idea that you are disempowering yourself in some respects, by allowing participants to speak. That’s a necessary loosening of control and there’s more of a dispersal of narrative, but you’re also acknowledging the fact that your narrative is built into this, which is great, and I think, really quite a dynamic relationship, and interesting tension. So, it’s really important that you used to be an international student yourself, and you’re building relationships on the basis of that, of that shared experience, rather than going in with the objectivity of a more traditional documentarist. So how important is that personal narrative to the facilitation of the narrative of others?


GT:  I think it’s really important, I certainly feel more comfortable with the idea of doing this project knowing that I have certain connections, and certain experiences that are maybe similar, and I certainly have a huge interest in, China and a passion for Chinese culture. I think with this kind of thing, you can have an interest in things to enough of a level of depth to be able to engage with people on a particular story, but for that to always come through in the work… I think you can see, in photography, or in film, you can see a connection – you can tell when someone’s really into it, and it really comes across, that they are 100% into it, and I’m kind of excited about that hopefully coming through in the work I’m going to create for this.


DF: I’m really interested in that idea of authorship, I really like the idea that you want people to see the passion for the subject, that you’re not just coming from an objective position, and that you have – both stylistically and thematically – a signature. Is that something that you’re conscious of, that it’s important to embed a signature in your work? You’re combining that signature with a kind of narrative signature, a thematic signature, an interest, a passion. Do you think that’s something you’re excited about?


GT:  yeah, absolutely, For me this project is a real opportunity to kind of bring that all back, and it’s linking up so many things that I’m interested in. I feel like it’s been building up for a while, since coming back from China, I’ve been keeping up with my Chinese language studies, keeping up with what’s happening in China, following reporters and all that kind of thing, reading books, looking at photographers in China, Chinese photographers. To do something here, in my hometown, that draws a lot of my previous interests together, that’s what I’m so excited about.

I think as well, over the last couple of years, I’ve become more interested in how China is seen, from the outside. When I was living there it felt like there’s an assumption that everyone is really fascinated by it, there’s a real excitement, real energy about being there and things changing really fast and rapidly, and everyone’s eyes being on it, and sometimes people being scared, or fearful of these massive changes that are going on, but also there are more subtle things happening here and in America and in other countries in Europe, that are just as significant, but I don’t think they’re being talked about as much.


DF: Do you mean in terms of change? Economically? Socially?


GT:  yeah, socially and culturally. So many people are fascinated by China -I don’t really know anybody who doesn’t have a bit of an interest in it, or isn’t aware of how significant its change is, how it is re-shaping our world. But you don’t hear about the social and cultural influence as much. I read something yesterday, ‘The myth of China as a harmless tiger’ -that Yu Jie, a Chinese dissident had written, who’s now in Washington. He basically said the West is sleeping, and it’s kind of worse than in Soviet times, because in Soviet times, no-one in the US would buy anything made in Russia, no-one wanted to engage with Russia at all, but here, or in America, there’s China everywhere. Made in China, and everyone’s kind of comfortable with it, nobody’s questioning it.


DF: So there’s this sense in which the negative aspects of Chinese society are kind of being willfully ignored, because of the economic benefits. Or the ease with which those economic benefits can present themselves to consumers across the West? I was listening to a piece on the radio this morning about the fact that China is expanding its military at an incredibly rapid rate – I guess there’s this kind of fear aspect again that comes into it, which is, I guess, not very quantifiable. This brings me back to the point about giving a narrative voice, not only to individuals who are living as part of a diaspora in another country, but also just saying something about China, which isn’t explicitly about economics or aggressive expansionism, it’s about a new world order, one which which counters the kind of comfortable capitalist society that we live in now so yeah, that’s interesting.


GT:  I think that’s definitely the wider context. But, this project is so much more intimate, and personal, and almost at the opposite scale, although I think it’s important to highlight the context of where it fits, and I don’t think it has to be an explicit thing, it doesn’t have to be like ‘this is Zhang from Beijing, and she thinks in 10 years time the economy of China will blah blah blah’, do you know what I mean? it’s there, but if you talk about it that much…


DF: so would it be more ‘this is Zhang from Beijing and she likes doing this that and that?’


GT:  yeah but then that’s almost too simplistic… I think the interesting elements will come with the conflict between that, between wanting to sort of having someone voice their experiences of being here, in Sheffield, as a student, but with this wider context of the changing relationship between the two countries. Whether or not that’ll come off I don’t know.


DF: So it’s less about spectacle than empathy, actually. And I think storytelling is about, in many ways, about empathy, and building identity, and solidarity, and communal identity, and I guess that goes back to thinking about the things we are sharing. I think this work is important because it shows that storytelling, that narrative technique, and that the arts, do have a role to play in terms of broadening understanding but also in terms of countering a lot of negativity and a lot of distortions, and that actually taking a more socially-involved approach to the arts, can challenge that idea.

In terms of challenges, I guess the fear for me, is that students who speak from a minority, or anyone who speaks from a minority, are then seen as representative of that minority. That’s something to be very mindful of, in a sense that we say these are Chinese students. And that’s why the domestic –the personal, not intrusively personal, but the things that make the person who they are, are important to identify, and that individuation is really crucial, versus a generic categorization. And then there’s the tension of minority versus majority, thinking about then this tension between the minority of students versus this overarching discourse around the dragon, so to speak.


GT:  and also the other thing is, like with the seminar we went to, when somebody posed the question why is this any different to home students’ experiences, why Chinese students? Why is this project about Chinese students? I mean, we know why we’re doing it about Chinese students but why not Indian students, why not Malaysian students, why not UK students? But the point is, it’s not just about Chinese students, is it? The idea is to draw on commonalities and as long as we can do that in a way that is engaging, and is interesting enough for other people to learn from, that are shared experiences…


DF: so there are, broader themes, which are really interesting, I guess it hadn’t occurred to me before, so displacement is really important,  displacement and belonging –and those are ideas that anyone can relate to, if you’ve ever been in an environment that is not particularly homely…and how you negotiate belonging when you’re physically displaced, is fascinating. That’s a narrative process as well, because you are creating.


GT:  absolutely,and that comes back to how you present yourself, and how you occupy spaces, doesn’t it? The things you bring to your home, and the way you display objects, and the things that you eat, and the places you go –it all comes back to that.


DF: how you create a physical narrative that enables you to negotiate, or begin to serve a sense of belonging. I suppose another thing I enjoyed about that talk was the anecdote about the student that wanted to feel isolated – he didn’t want to belong. I think there’s a tendency to assume that people must create the self, and the homely, within any environment they find themselves in.

What you said about space was interesting, how you create space, and use space, and function in space, and that’s something that I’m particularly interested in myself, because, when I think back to the analysis of film that I do –with visual images and visual narrative – I’m always interested in the way in which space becomes narrativised, how it assumes narrative function, the way it begins to code thematic meaning – I think it’s very true of photography as well, that humans change spaces.

That’s something I’m interested in exploring in this project from my own perspective – the way in which you, as a photographer, and the way your participants, the people you’re working with, the students, use spaces, and how you represent that.


GT:  I think it could be a theme within the work, within the imagery, there are kind of spaces that are quite safe, there are spaces that you create that are yours, and you put your stamp on, and you feel safe and relaxed and comfortable in, whereas those spaces where you feel alien, where there’s an element of fear almost, or the unknown, and that’s true for anybody if you’re in your own room, your own house, you’re very comfortable and relaxed and you’ve got your own things around you but then if you go to a foreign environment, or a place you’ve never been to in the city and you don’t know your way around, and how that negotiates how you interact..


DF: So do you see a distinction here in the work you’re going to be doing, between the external – about framing participants within communal spaces – and framing participants within individual spaces? Is that something that you’re going to do consciously, to explore, and bring out that idea of safe space versus…


GT:  I think so yeah, I mean it just came to me to be honest as we’ve been talking but ..


DF: and that’s the point of this.


GT:  yeah! I mean, one thing I don’t want to do is to do too much on campus. I think that it’s important to show, the placement of why, that’s the reason why they’re here, is because of this institution, this University..


DF: but that’s a given


GT:  Yes and I don’t think that needs to be so explicit, I think it needs to be shown for sure, but I think the real interest, the real substance, is in the other elements which we’ve just been talking about.


DF: The other day I was running in Shalesmoor, and I went past the privately-owned accommodation and I saw Chinese students congregating on a bench which was in-between two blocks of accommodation. There’s a tension there between the post-industrial, the kind of emptied-out wasteland space, and the synthetic, imposition of student living; of cheap housing and flats, and by extension, to make that more profound really, is Chinese students, this newness there. That they then occupy these spaces with buildings that then become connected to their experience of the city, which have no connection to traditions in the city… so there seems to me to be a really interesting visual representation of a social group imposing itself, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense, but just writing itself into a really loaded landscape, you know? So there’s lots of layers in the narrative of the city to explore and I think that photography, and the way that you have a strong narrative element in your photography, can hopefully elucidate that.

View of Opal 3 student apartments, nicknamed 'China Town', in Shalesmoor.


Student Li Zhen in her apartment in Opal 3.

GT:  I think that the other interest is that it’s quite a transient experience isn’t it? It’s not a permanent thing, and it’s changing constantly, and the people that I’m going to meet, you know, maybe none of them will come back to Sheffield, maybe it’s just that they’re here for this time, and I’m interested in that sort of element, how something that is quite short-lived, the transition, sort of…


DF: That’s fascinating, this idea that belonging…is belonging linked to permanence? And how, if you’re someone who is transient, can you ever develop a sense of belonging? I suppose It’s a bit like falling in love, but knowing that the person you’re in love with… that you have to part from that person at some point, so what’s the point of it? Maybe there’s something in that. I mean that’s kind of a ridiculous analogy but, actually, I dunno if it is. The idea of going into something, embracing something…


GT:  but with the idea, in the back of your mind, that there’s no way it’s forever.


DF: that it’s never going to be forever


GT: and that’s true of many things isn’t it?


DF: exactly. Much more so, more and more, now. I think people are understanding that. But is domestic belonging predicated on, at least the illusion of permanence?


GT:  the idea that it could be permanent


DF: the wonder, the potential


GT:  the idealism behind it.


DF: Yeah, exactly, And that’s something that I guess it makes me think of really.


GT: And in some ways with something that is short-term, you’re almost more willing to put more into aren’t you


DF: because you know it’s going to be over. Does that intensify it? does that make it a more vital experience because you know that it’s limited really?


GT:  yeah, you’d put more energy into it


DF: It’s like people who have got a life-threatening illness, or people who live a full life; I know that this is not going to last forever so I’m just going to do this.


GT:  absolutely.  Maybe we could talk about what’s exciting about it being a collaboration, what might be the challenges of a collaboration. For me, I’m really excited to be working with somebody else, from a totally different background to me. When you work on your own a lot it’s sometimes difficult to see the wider context, and there’s always the worry of who’s actually going to see this, who is really interested in it, outside of this small space, of maybe my friends, and the wider photographic community, and the photographic community and the industry is very insular. There’s debate about how to better engage with a wider audience, and I don’t think photography does that enough, I really don’t. It can be very self-congratulatory, which I suppose most industries are, and maybe academia is like that too.


DF: yeah, that’s what I was going to say


GT:  yeah, and so for me, to work with somebody in a completely different line of work to myself, with someone in an institution, who is all about the research, and the written word, and to learn about the way you articulate your ideas, is amazing, and really interesting to me.


DF: This idea of audience is really important, and engagement, and I think that’s something that I’m particularly interested in as well, from an academic perspective, whereby I feel that what we do in the academy is very, very introverted, particularly in the arts and humanities, and that, actually, form and aesthetics are really, really, fundamentally important to us all.  But, I’m interested in the way they connect with our experience of everyday life and space and the cities that we live in and the communities that we live in.

I spend so much of my time writing about people in film – but also in other areas of visual narrative – and thinking about style, and form, and aesthetics and thinking about the way in which narrative is constructed through those elements, and so to work with a photographer and get a window, and to get the level of contact that I’ve got with this collaboration, to see what it is that you’re interested in, and what you do, and the processes that you enact in doing them, is fascinating, and really interesting to me. It gives me another layer to what I do, and makes me reflect on the creativity of it, so I sort of see it as a research-led project, but also here there’s no distinction between research and creativity, and that’s important. Obviously I’m thinking in a more reflective way about it, but also I’ll be thinking creatively as well. I think that’s what you’re saying too, that your default position is creative, the position you’re starting with, but then this layer of reflection is added to it, and it’s something we both can take from it, to enrich the work that we’re doing.


GT:  I mean photography is not just about the picture is it? It’s a way of explaining things, it’s a way of showing things, and presenting ideas, and asking questions – it’s a really good way of asking questions, and that’s why I got into it in the first place, it wasn’t because I wanted to make beautiful photographs. I told you before I think, I went to see this exhibition by William Klein when I was studying Geography, and all of these ideas that I’d been learning about the city, and representation, all of these theories were just on paper, I was reading books and articles and suddenly there were these photographs of life in a city that had so much energy, and they were so alive, and it was just there. It was amazing.


DF: That’s fascinating. So actually your route into your work is academic, it’s about inquiry, it’s about research, it’s about statements, about thinking in a meaningful way about your environment and how this is a means of reflecting that inquiry, and a means of illustrating it in a dynamic way, in a visual way, which is really, really important.


GT:  yeah I mean there’s photography for photography’s sake isn’t there, there’s art for art’s sake and I don’t think that’s a bad thing, I don’t think that’s a problem, but I think that it can be much more interesting and much more challenging when it goes beyond that…


DF: when it’s formed with ideas, yeah, that’s crucial.

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