It was great to be back in an art gallery to see the 2021 Newcastle University Degree show at the Hatton Gallery. With 56 artists on show, this was a diverse and variable experience – viewing this amount of disparate work is quite fatiguing in itself. There was very little in the way of context or artists statements available which also made navigating the work difficult, and I wonder why this was decided. Certainly there is an argument about letting the work speak for itself, however, when the conceptual nature of art is so central to understanding, not giving the reader any direction is problematic – I certainly would have appreciated some guidance as a I varied the work and suspect my enjoyment of certain pieces would have been aided immeasurably by this.
I write this a week following an altercation on the street as I took photographs that has significantly affected me and forced me to confront my personal photographic ethics. From a place where I was feeling very comfortable about my photographic practice and strategies, I now feel on edge and conflicted – it is not too dramatic to say that I am feeling a moment of crisis that is forcing me to confront a number of uncomfortable realities about myself, my privilege and the violence of my photographic gaze. I have spent the week following this event despondent and even questioning if I can continue. I am now at a point where I can process and make sense both of what happened and how it has affected me – I am hoping that this intense period of introspection will ultimately be something that forces me to interrogate how I move my practices and strategies forward – how to work in a more considered, ethical and strategic way – to make me think long and hard about the photographer I want to be.
Anyway – here is what happened –
I set out about 8am on Sunday 4th April 2021 for a walk taking my camera with me. Walking was the main purpose of going out with taking photographs a secondary consideration – I had no preconceived ideas about what I would photograph, but I hoped something might spark my imagination and lead to a project I could pursue.
I took a route along the back streets, taking a few images without much consideration mainly of things that caught my attention such as shadows and details. I noticed a house that was particularly run down with bed sheets used over the windows as curtains and took a photograph. In a matter of moments I heard shouts of ‘what are you doing?’ and was quicky faced with an extremely agitated and angry man. He stood in front of me repeating his question with a hyper-agitated demeanour, bobbing from side to side, coming close and then moving away. He continually asked me to explain myself while not allowing me to speak. I cannot remember the exact exchange – it seemed to last forever and yet be over within moments – but these points have stayed with me:
He asked ‘what was I doing at 2 in the morning?’ When I answered it was about 8 o’clock to which he did not respond well. I noticed a strong smell of weed coming from his house which partly explained the way he was behaving.
He asked me how would I like to be photographed by him in my kitchen? This was something I had not even considered until after the event – someone taking a photograph of my house in the way I had of his would be deeply disconcerting to me – so what gives me the right to do this?
I tried to explain I was doing a photography degree and making a documentary project about the local area to which he responded ‘bullshit!’ I must admit this explanation sounded poor even as the words left my mouth.
At some point he began filming the exchange on his phone. Although there is a certain poetic justice on him turning the camera on me, this is something that made me extremely uncomfortable – what would he do with this? I worried what would happen if he posted it to social media – it would be difficult to imagine that I would gain much sympathy, in fact, I imagined most people would think the reaction was justified. I wondered how I try to explain myself to friends and family.
After what seemed like an age he told me to go, move on and if he ever saw me round here again he would kill me. As I walked away he shouted ‘fucking crank’ and I was in no doubt that I had been extremely lucky that the incident had not become violent.
While I certainly do not want to get into a fight, this is not the main thing that bothers me about the confrontation – I know hand on heart that I would struggle to justify what I was doing. Knowing this makes me realise that taking the image at all was wrong. I chose to photograph this particular house because it was run down with smashed windows and looked like the home of someone living a chaotic life. I could justify taking the photograph with an argument about the documentary value of the scene, but I was really succumbing to the allure of ‘poverty porn’ by pressing the shutter. Although the house is only 13 streets away from my own, the life and circumstances of the person I encountered are 100 miles away from mine. What would I expect or want these images to say? Just because I can take a photograph, does not mean I should.
As I start this final part of my OCA/degree journey, I feel a mixture of excitement, trepidation, and, an urge to dive head first into the course combined with a voice in the back of my mind telling me to hold back. Before I received the course material I felt confident and ready, excited to be in a position to become self directed in my practice and research. My last course, Digital Image and Culture has by far been my most positive experience with OCA. During the module I managed to put many demons to rest, or at least found strategies to cope with feelings of self doubt that have often been paralysing. I managed to find ways to become more productive and strike a happier balance between reading and making work – something that previously has been too skewed towards research. However, having the course manuals in my possession changed this – the road ahead suddenly seemed a bit too real. I hope that having now finished my assessment submission for DI&C these thoughts will dissipate – perhaps all I need to do is make a start?
This post is the first part of that process – I like to begin every course with my thoughts and ideas about what I am going to do, and since this strategy has helped in the past, it seems like a good idea to do the same now.
Below are some of my thoughts about what I want to do and achieve, in no particular order, far from comprehensive and possibly even to be discounted quickly. I plan to use the process of writing as a way to explore thoughts and ideas throughout the course, more details of which can be found below.
How to balance BoW and CS?
During DI&C I found my research began to inform my practice and vice versa, and although that was before I found myself in the position of studying two courses in tandem, I am hoping that to build on this way of working through level 3. The HE6 study groups I have managed to attend so far with Ariadne Xenou have helped with my expectations in this regard. Ariadne has been excellent at describing how theory should feed into practice and encourage a process of ruthlessly interrogating what we are doing. I made these notes from the meeting I attended in November 2020:
Carlo Ginsberg says – we mine the rubbish heap of our observations.
There are millions of observations – how do we control these?
allow some and exclude others.
this can only happen through the writing process –
the mining happens when you write.
writing is investigation/a means to understand and discover
through writing itself we decide what we think and how we interrelate information.
An approach of dividing study into days or weeks looking at either BoW or CS is unlikely to enable me to gain any traction. My hope is that I will organically find a way to bounce between the courses – indeed this is a necessity rather than a need as Ariadne is quite explicit in her view that this is the only way to be successful at level 3.
How to approach the coursework?
I need to remember the good habits I have built through DI&C and not fall back into bad ones, for example, doing too much reading that is ‘nice to do’ and taking away focus from what I should be engaging with. Having a free rein with these courses is potentially fraught with danger and I need to recognise when I am being led down rabbit holes. But I also do not want to disregard the course material completely – clearly it is designed to stimulate thought and action and I should embrace it as such. A complication in my belief that I just need to focus on the things that interest me is that if I had done this through DI&C I would have skipped over researching artists that did not immediately seem to appeal to me – once I learned more about their practice this was some of the work I found most inspiring through the course.
Possible themes for BoW
I would say I have a wide range of artistic influences ranging from the traditional to experimental and the more I learn about art the more ‘challenging’ my tastes become. And yet, I would describe the work I make as very much based in the real world, conventional even. Now there is nothing wrong with this…but…I do feel the need to push myself to make something more challenging than I have already, although I have no idea what that will be.
I have always been interested in photographing my local area and this is a theme I have returned to over many projects. My last assignment for Digital Image and Culture (The Loop) is an example of this and also the potential starting point for my BoW. It was very personal, although not overtly so, and contained images made within a few miles of my home. Continuing this exploration of my local area is important personally as I wish to continue with this as a theme, but is also a practical consideration as it will allow me the opportunity to make lots of images and try different approaches. A number of things made this project a success in my view:
The project developed organically, enabled by having an open mind to where experimentation would lead me.
I was able to explore broadly the same area over a sustained period – I followed the same walking route each day for 100 days and made images using my iPhone. The practical considerations working locally should not be underestimated.
I explored thoughts and feelings about my relationship with my local area in more detail than I have in the past and began addressing the duality of these, a combination of pride and despair, while considering my place in the community – and ideas about whether community even exists.
When I first became seriously interested in photography, it was documentary work that I looked at and admired. Since then my interests have become much more varied and I am not sure that a traditional ‘social documentary’ approach is one I want to take. The Loop is very much based in the real world, but, I would not classify it as a ‘straight’ photography project due to its autobiographical and personal nature. While I want to build on the momentum that this project has given me, I am also conscious that I do not want to just repeat the same thing. I also recognise that I am already thinking too far ahead to the the finished BoW which is at least 18 months away from realisation – I need to keep this in mind in order to remain level, pragmatic and patient.
Some thoughts I have about possible themes/concerns/things I am interested in:
Class/poverty/injustice/austerity/deprivation/marginalisation: something that the Covid-19 pandemic has shown is the deep divisions in society and how many people are truly struggling. I live in an area with a great deal of deprivation, but like anywhere it is a mix of different demographic and affluences and to focus solely on this would be a mistake. I have had to think and consider my own place in this as well. I have a managerial job with a good salary and a lifestyle I would consider privileged and comfortable. Am I equipped to make work about the deprivation in my area given that this is not the reality of my life? Is this even ethical? Perhaps one way would be working with people in the community, but as an outsider (economically not geographically) I am not sure. I read an excellent book Poverty Safari by Darren McGarvey recently, the title of the book refers to the phenomenon of well intentioned, but misguided, middle class people arriving in deprived areas in an attempt to help in some way without understanding/being able to understand the reality of life in these marginalised communities. In short, the inequality makes me angry, increasingly so, and if I do anything around this as a theme then I want it to be positive and not a fulfilment of stereotypes.
Community: This is really on my mind. What part in my community am I? What does community even mean? Perhaps this could be the theme of the work in itself? The idea of whether I am an insider or outsider would also be a consideration here.
Society: A loaded word since Thatcher’s infamous assertion that there is ‘no such thing…’ Again, fits into the same sort of territory as community but perhaps wider reaching. (In an HE6 tutor group I attended there was a discussion of grand narratives and micro histories – something I need to research further. In this case, the grand narrative would be an exploration of society and whatever work I eventually make would be the micro history.)
The North/Northerness: perhaps addressing some of the stereotypes of this or looking at how my identity is entangled with my geographical location.
Thoughts about research
Looking through the course material I am so glad that I chose Understanding Visual Culture as my last level one course – this means that I can dive straight into the concepts referenced in part one of CS without the steep learning curve that considering these for the first time demands. I need to think carefully about how much I go back over and refresh myself on though, and ensure that I do this in a focused way. Perhaps being selective about what I write about is the key as this is what takes the most time. This may be a strategy that helps me keep focus and make progress.
Looking at the work and conceptual strategies of different artists was one of the most stimulating parts of DI&C. I was also surprised by how much I was inspired by the work of artists I previously knew little about and may not have engaged with without the direction of the course material. Preparing for my level 3 progression meeting I made a long list of artists that I felt could inspire the direction of both BoW and CS. I decided not to share this as I reasoned that doing so could stifle my desire to develop my own artistic voice. However, one of the first things I intended to do starting level 3 was some more detailed research on these – it is only writing this now that it strikes me that the reasons I chose not to do this for my progression discussion are just as relevant now, perhaps more so. I will keep this list in my notes, add to it as I see work that interests me, but resist the urge to delve further unless I believe doing so would advance my BoW and CS in some way.
The potential audience for my eventual BoW is also on my mind along with concerns about how to present work to non-art audiences. This is something that will become more of an issue in SYP, but is also something I need to consider at this early part of the journey – it is my strong belief that art can be accessible whole being challenging without the need to be simplified and if my BoW is eventually to be presented in my home town I need to keep this in my mind so academia does not take over my thinking and approach.
It feels good to have this maiden post finished, even if I worry that much of it is rambling – the only way I will start to distill my ideas into something firmer than generalisations is by continuing with this way of working and thinking…so, here goes…