‘All artists are alike. They dream of doing something that’s more social, more collaborative and more real than art’ Dan Graham.
This statement formed the introduction to the North East Photography Network’s Annual Symposium on Socially Engaged Practices which I attended last Friday. The Symposium was a challenging and stimulating day, with presentations from photographers, researchers and producers who are all moving towards more collaborative and participatory ways of working with photography underpinned by social concerns.
Photograph from Michelle Sank’s Endgame series
We heard from Michelle Sank, who’s portraiture with young people is based on a symbiotic model of working. Michelle was keen to point out how the interactions she has are as important as producing the actual photographs themselves; that she sees it as a privilege to have access to her participants’ lives. This is something that’s worth remembering; the time spent sitting chatting, sharing thoughts and experiences – not taking photos, is absolutely as valuable, if not more, as the time spent behind the lens. I loved Michelle’s honesty in expressing how she felt a genuine excitement and happiness at ‘being there’, however I would have been interested to see more from the participants of her projects, in terms of their own writings, or voices.
Anthony Luvera introduced his talk with the statement
‘Collaboration is 1. United labour 2. Traitorous co-operation with the enemy’.
Anthony addressed the issue of empowerment, questioning who is being made visible in socially engaged/collaborative work, and also the importance of how the work is contextualised; that it is not what is in the image, but what is done with it.
Anthony talked us through his long-term collaborative projects with people who have experienced homelessness, work which started with handing out disposable cameras at Crisis shelters in London, and has developed into Assisted Self-Portraits, where Anthony facilitates portrait sessions with participants, who themselves choose the location, the moment to take the photograph (the shutter release cable is present in many of the images), and the final image to be shown. I was particularly interested to read the participants’ statements, which Anthony showed on the screen without talking – allowing the audience to really take in the words. One quote from a participant from the Belfast ‘Residency’ project really stuck with me: ‘Lots of people have called me vulnerable and I bloody hate that. I’m not’. It made me wonder how unlikely it is that people using social services are consulted on the jargon that becomes common place to describe their situation, words that in turn define them and by so doing homogenise their situation, providing a kind of meta-narrative rather than exploring the individual stories which can offer much more insight. Anthony’s practice prioritises these individual stories, and it was inspiring to see such commitment to this way of working.
Assisted Self-Portrait of Caroline McDonnell, Caroline McDonnell / Anthony Luvera, from Residency by Anthony Luvera
Craig Ames‘ photographic work is informed by his personal background in the British military; he has developed a particularly self-reflective way of working that has empathy and mutual understanding at its core. His work offers new ways of looking at Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; he has re-visited the sites of his own post-traumatic stress triggers and paired them with witness statements. Craig stated that he doesn’t see the images as being more important than the text, nor that this way of working was in any way for him cathartic, rejecting the tendency to refer to this kind of work as therapeutic. He shared with us how in his more recent work with a female participant, sharing experiences and coping strategies has been a mutual exchange, and that he deliberately avoids referencing the conflict or event itself, instead giving prominence to the individual and their own experience.
I was interested to hear from Ben Jones, a PhD researcher, who stressed that he sees himself not only as an artist/researcher, but as a resident, a neighbour, a community member. His work is embedded in his own environment, he lives and works in his community of Saltwell, in Gateshead, and has set up The Saltwell Road Project, ‘a community led digital art project that will be a place for people who live, work and play in Saltwell to debate, discuss and be creative to solve issues and challenges together.’
Ben referenced Miwon Kwon’s 2004 book ‘One Place after Another’, which talks of the tension between identity and location, specifically with reference to site-specific art. Ben highlighted Kwon’s description of the ‘Community of Mythic Unity’ – how there is a danger/tendency to homogenise community rather than acknowledge the difference within that community. This struck a cord particularly with reference to the Youzi project, how from the offset we have been concerned with avoiding a ‘this is the life of the Chinese student community in Sheffield University’ narrative, and have been working towards how better to draw on the individual stories from within this community.
Finally we heard from Bas Vroege, Founder and Director of Holland’s pioneering Paradox organisation, who ‘develop projects around contemporary issues with documentary authors: photographers, filmmakers, visual artists, writers and researchers.’ Paradox are all about reaching out to audiences, using a multi-platform strategy that is focused on conveying an independent message. Bas noted how the organisation is partially socially-driven, partially technologically-driven; their vision comes from recognising the importance of re-framing, and re-thinking material. This kind of approach is paramount in highlighting the value of collaboration, of reaching out to and working with others in order to maximise the potential of a project.
The debate at the end, chaired by David Campbell (who has succinctly summarised the day here), drew out several ideas – David reflected how the day had made him consider how there is too much focus on change at the macro level, and that in fact change on a smaller level, through participation, and collaboration, does happen, and has an enormous impact, as was seen through work by the presenting photographers. Also, photographic practice itself is part of being social, it engages people because they want to be photographed. The audience also create material – through commenting and giving feedback, they are part of the community. Bas Vroege drew attention to the fact that we are all becoming media producers, and that the only way to effect change is through as many channels as possible, to reach out to people in various ways, and Anthony Luvera re-emphasised how the photographer should be thinking of the best context for showing the work, to always put the work first. There was also talk of how the practices of collaboration themselves are not always well-documented; the process of participatory work is not often shared, and the concern was shared that in education, there is a focus on authored practice rather than socially engaged work.
The symposium got me thinking about the ways in which we have used collaboration and participation in this project so far, and how we can better those methods of working. Now we have a firmer idea of how the work will be presented, I have been arranging meetings with the participants who will form a bigger part of the project, to view all material gathered so far and discuss future recordings. We have also invited the participants to join us for the talk as part of the exhibition, and are keen to hear their perspective on contributing to, and being part of the project.
With thanks to Michelle Sank and Anthony Luvera for letting us use their images in this post.