The State of Photography – GRAIN Symposium

23rd January 2015, Library of Birmingham

The Library of Birmingham

Having returned from The Library of Birmingham, and the excellent GRAIN Symposium on The State of Photography, late last month, I find myself reflecting back on a positive and enthusiastic response to the theme.

Spending a day in a room full of people sharing ideas, motivation, passions and with such a diverse set of approaches to how they contribute to photography left me feeling inspired, energised, positive and confident.

It was a long day, with intriguing and diverse presentations, each followed by a panel discussion giving new light on the topics raised in the individual presentations and providing opportunity for audience participation, discussion, disagreement and energetic debate.

In my work as a freelance photographer, university lecturer at Edinburgh Napier University and co-founder of the photographic collective Document Scotland, drive, dynamism and commitment are themes I can relate to, whether channelling them or battling with them. To see these qualities in so many at this event was inspiring to say the least.

The conclusions of the day, if there were any to have, was that photography is in a state of flux. Be this satisfying or frustrating, encouraging or concerning, the day demonstrated the diversity, enthusiasm and passion shown by all of those presenting, and many of those attending. For me and others the conversations and debates planted seeds of thought, highlighted diversity, showcased examples, celebrated individuality and praised passion, drive and commitment. Set in the context of the vulnerability of the Library of Birmingham archive, the day highlighted the drive, adaptability and dynamism demonstrated by many of those working in photography today.

I’ll go through the day and dwell on some aspects of it in greater detail than others. There was a lively social media following happening in parallel to the conversations of the day – take a look at #stateofphoto and #stateofphotog on Twitter to see some of the comments, photographs, conversations and thoughts which were taking place online.

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin started the day by presenting work from Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt and their book War Primer 2, (recently included in the exhibition The Kings’ Peace: Realism and War at Stills Gallery, Edinburgh August – October 2014). This project, a reworking of Bertolt Brecht’s “Kriegsfibel” (“War Primer”), won the 2013 Deutsche Börse photography prize, and uses montage and found photography to comment on photography’s role in conflict and warfare. Describing it as an ‘illustrated bible”, the pair worked with The Archive of Modern Conflict on the project creating relationships between text and image.

Their work poses wider questions about photography and memory – what fragments of images do we hold in our visual memories, how we interpret, communicate and translate those fragments, and then create new meaning. When you consider photography’s role in ‘bearing witness’, Broomberg and Chanarin’s work hopefully, makes us think again. Re-thinking images and photography, juxtaposing them with text and questioning meaning.

I’ve seen this work before, at The Photographers’ Gallery, today it’s an intense start to the proceedings. There is a playful element too, we are asked to recreate an image shown to us on the screen ear;ire in their presentation – a test of memory and visual recognition I think. In any case, slow motion images of falling figures from the World Trade Centre Twin Towers on September 11th 2001and graphic Wikileaked footage of Reuters journalist Saeed Chmagh being killed by US airstrike in 2007 are now embedded in my mind.

I’m left with a renewed feeling of how important it is to question what we see.

David Birkitt

David Birkitt of DMB Media, is up next, he leads the discussion towards the commercial and the agency – or not – as he points out, “I see DMB Media’s role not as the photographic agent – but as one who supplies visual conversations.” He points out a remarkable fact: “Imagery isn’t going anywhere. More images will be taken this year than have been taken since the beginning of photography. That’s something to consider…”

“Photography has always been about telling stories,” David continues, DMB see themselves as a management company – just as a band might need management – so do many photographers. “In today’s industry,  the journey of making the work has become almost as important (to the client) as the final work itself.”

A case in point is a recent campaign shot by Simon Roberts for Citizen watches.

It’s an interesting point to consider – Instagram, Twitter, Facebook etc have brought a new client expectation, and one which is, potentially, increasing the responsibility of the photographer to maintain communication about what they are doing. In DMS’s case both photographer and management contribute to building and maintaining the relationship with the client. For advertising – David explains that 62-65% of the £112 billion budget for imagery is going to be spent on digital media in the future. A very high percentage – it’s clearly something clients are looking for in increasing amounts.

For DMB, this process includes careful branding of their artists, “we create a very narrow portfolio of each person, choosing the font, design etc very carefully. We marry up the personalities – we spend time, and in some way, have created one big massive family. In the past a physical portfolio was what everyone needed, now, they hardly exist. More often that not, when I first meet clients, I don’t take anything along with me.”

It’s interesting to consider how agencies, representation, management, social networking and personal contact all contribute to building and maintaining relationships and client satisfaction. There are many contributing factors, and blurred lines between each, David explains that DMB’s role is to “step into the middle and find a way for the artist to deliver what they need.”

He finishes by reinforcing his earlier point, “Process is key. It’s how we deliver it which becomes most important”.

Next to present was Louise Clements – talking about her role as director of Format Photography Festival in Derby, the history of photography festivals and the affect on them from the web.

“Photo festivals are my thing.”  Louise explains, describing a history of photography festivals …

“The first photography festivals were about 25 years ago, including Hereford, Arles, and Houston, now there are many many more – perhaps 100s around the world.

Ten years ago, the best advice of starting out might have been to get a degree, put together a print portfolio, assist and get out there. Today that may well still be true – however online platforms have changed everything. Social networking, blogging and self representation is a huge part of how photographers make an impact now.

Photography and social media is an important part of the globally connected landscape. On and offline there is great activity happening all year, there are continuing opportunities. Benefitting from those opportunities is hard work, emerging and established photographers are still finding it hard. Today, photographers must have many strings to their bows, most people do more than one thing.

Photo festivals are key to developing and mediating opportunities and to building relationships. All throughout the year portfolio reviewers (of which Louise is one) travel to shows and festivals, spot talent, and develop contacts.” As she points out – “you could do it all year – there seems to be a never ending stream of photo festivals and portfolio reviews.”

Format Festival started in 2004 (the same year that Facebook began) and runs every 2 years. A successful team and a lot of work makes it a success. Starting with £5k and lots of help, by 2012 they had 100,000 participants including 45 volunteers per day and 300 artists.

Louise continues, “The important things about festivals are that they offer insight into contemporary trends, the zeitgeist, current commissions, create vitality, act as catalyst for production, and places where you can meet hard to reach photography professionals. They play an important part in defining and understanding our lives and histories. Format builds on a legacy of photo festivals, exhibitions, processes which happened in the City”

What’s been important is the collaboration. “Working with partners is an interesting way of trying out new curatorial ideas”. Format have worked with some exciting projects and individuals, they’ve built relationships with local property agents etc enables them to use fascinating venues, and create dynamic exhibitions, they’ve worked with a number of interesting organisations, individuals, groups and partners. To list a few:

The Caravan Gallery (who’ve also worked with Street Level Photoworks in summer 2014).
The Human Printer printing images by hand, format did a live event.
Archive of Modern Conflict – involving a ‘zine making workshop.
Slideluck – retrospective – Hungry Still publication and exhibition
Eye Em involving the public working on images, curating the space and geo tagging element. (pictured below)
– curator Eric Kessels (pictured below)

Eye Em involving the public working on images, curating the space and geo tagging element.

Exhibition at Format curated by Eric Kessels

Louise summarises, “essentially photography is one of most social mediums. Open Calls and portfolio reviews are a big part of the scene. Individuals have to choose which are the best ones. There are many benefits to having your work seen by the reviewers – they might not be immediate but spin off benefits can be important.” After seeing work, Louise adds it to her ongoing files of interesting work which might contribute to projects in the future. These events provide opportunities – which might pay off at any time.

“Photography festivals facilitate the meeting place, are a rich breeding ground for ideas which can lead to collaboration, they lead to great conversations and bring people together. Festivals are the explorers of the future.”

Format Festival takes place in Derby from 13th March 2015 and is one of a number of international photography festivals connecting and promoting each through a network called Festival of Light.

Some links about Format and The Festival of Light shared by Louise Clements of Format Festival, Derby

The panel (L-R) Louise Clements, Oliver Chanarin, David Birkitt and Adam Broomberg.

The four speakers then took part in a panel discussion, combining much of the conversation from their presentations and crossing over of themes. We started off on the subject of branding – not an altogether comfortable subject for many in the room.

Oliver Chanarin: As an Artist there’s a pressure to define yourself, “black and white, landscape” etc The community wants to box people. Adam and I resist that as much as possible. With our work it’s is hard to pin point a style, hard to define us, we use different strategies for different projects that make sense to us. That has, perhaps, been an impediment to us in our careers.

David Birkitt: The brand will take care if itself. You guys have a name, people know it. You are a brand, perhaps of methodology rather than visual style.

Louise Clements – It takes time to form brand identity. We take our events around the world, and we care how people perceive us. It makes me happy when I go to South Korea and people tell me what they think of Format. It is hard to control and you have to do that through working hard.

Adam Broomberg: The word brand is so revolting. It’s everything that work shouldn’t be for me. Ultimately the art world is very conservative. They want something quotable. The idea of a “brand for an artist” is worrying for me.

Oliver Chanarin: We curated “Alias” at the Krakow photo festival in 2011 as an opportunity for photographers to work outside their own visual style. All worked under a different name, for some the process was liberating, for some it was impossible. Often it might be that the work that doesn’t fit with your usual way of working, or “brand” is interesting and really exciting – it’s important to experience that also.”

Adam Broomberg: Adam talked of an example of a photographer who demanded that a panel discussion not discus her work from before a certain date.  Did this mean they were ashamed of that work? Prejudice exists but I think that’s a shame, I feel it’s more interesting if that work is brought into the conversation – it’s part of where they came from, it’s informed where they are now. There’s also a n example of a photographer who turned down a Prada campaign because they felt it would undermine everything they’ve worked towards. This is something that makes people uncomfortable.

David Birkitt: I think in part it’s circumstantial, what might work at one time, might not at another in your career.

Oliver Chanarin: I think that it can how much you care about your audience is what determines how much info you give your audience. Sometimes it’s important to give your audience a long text and a lot of context, to explain everything about the work. At other times that miscommunication, ambiguity etc is important. You don’t always want to give too much away. It depends. Sometimes that ambiguity is important for the audience to figure out themselves.

Adam Broomberg: Instagram could be seen buy some as a kind of mode of grading self worth, a validation. I decided recently to not put photographs on there of my kids, because I realised in the future they might question why I did that – I never asked them. So I’ve taken the pictures down.

Oliver Chanarin: We shifted to contemporary art market because in some ways we couldn’t see another context for our work. The abstract afghan work for example – the only way to show that was in an art gallery.

Angel Luis Gonzalez Fernandez of Photo Ireland and The Library Project

Next to present a key note speech was Angel Luis Gonzalez Fernandez who gave a fascinating presentation on Photo Ireland festival and The Library Book Project. Following his journey from first coming to Ireland and finding the contemporary photography scene to be lacking – (or in his words “Photography = Camera Club”), and going on to create a successful, dynamic and international photography festival in Dublin, was both energetic and exhausting. What he has helped create, is an exciting platform which adds many more voices to photography in Ireland, has stimulated the photography scene in the country, and which promotes local photographers’ work overseas.

Working between Zurich and Dublin for a year developing the model, Angel started the first Photo Ireland photography festival in 2008. It spanned 11 days and took place in 39 venues across Dublin, included a newspaper publication, numerous talks, events, night projections and portfolio reviews. By 2014 the festival now includes a project called New Irish Works featuring 25 selected Irish photographers, and takes place in venues in Dublin, Cork and Limerick.

Alongside this is The Library Project – a research library of sorts which in turn organises and hosts talks, events and work by collectives. What it’s NOT, Angel is passionate to point out, is “a f*cking Pop Up” – however – so best not ask him about that.

The whole project takes place on a budget of €40,000, €8000 of which comes from the Arts Council. According to Angel photography is underfunded, all the visual arts are underfunded. He has an ambition to change that, and argues that there is a critical demand for photography.

Many in the room agreed with his closing statement: “We must ensure we continue to demand an ongoing critical debate within photography. Photography is currency, everyone can communicate with it. There is visual literacy and context, – the state of photography is a state of flux. Long may we keep it that way.”

Fiona Yaron- Field – of Uncertain States – an artist led, non-profit lens based project, started by showing work (including my own) from their free newspaper.  “We are about the slowed down and the considered, not the immediate and the fast.”

Fiona outlines some of the work the group undertake, including a free newspaper featuring contemporary photographers, talks, presentations, exhibitions and print sales.

“What Uncertain States has done is make us all think about what it means to work in a group. We’re democratic, and nomadic, there’s no office, no central base – this is freeing but it’s hard work too. We appreciate that this structure is vulnerable, we have trust, respect as well as arguments.”

She continues – “We hold exhibitions as well as publishing our free newspapers, because we feel that engagement with the artefact is important. Our informal salon talks create dialogue, we’ve partnered with the V&A mini symposiums, we’ve worked with Four Corners on print limited editions, we had our first open call this year to expand our reach and meet new people. Individuals such as Zelda Cheatle, and Pete James have been key contributors to that. A really really fabulous and unintentional part of all this is that it’s built a community. ”

Fiona then outlines some of the qualities they’ve found from working in a group; support, the ability to reflect, the capacity to overcome. She recognises that it’s not always easy, it can be a difficult balance, they have a good dynamic, and that’s partly because they appreciate the above, but have learned the importance of not always compromising, “it’s important not to lose your position, and to challenge things you feel strongly on.

I recognise these points she makes – working as a group brings with it challenges and enormous benefits. It took a little time to appreciate it, in my experiences but it’s important to recognise that if everyone agrees all the time, or looks to come to a mutual consensus about everything – then the group runs the risk of their message, or reason for existing, becoming diluted. Keeping passionate about those things you feel strongly about isn’t always easy – but works better for the group int he long run. Disagreements can be incredibly productive and important.  

“So … the future of photography” – she finishes with – “well it’s a bit uncertain but we like it that way”.

There followed further excellent presentations from Lara Ratnaraja – a freelance consultant who discussed ‘mining the archive’, collaboration and the future. She spoke passionately about the exciting opportunities to come from collaborations between universities, artists, academics and arts organisations.

“There is a symbiotic relationship between Higher Education, organisations and artists – and it’s important to always realise that collaboration + partnerships = success.”

Karen Newman of Birmingham Open Media (B.O.M.) spoke next about how they have created a collaborative workplace with a creative hacker mentality at their core. B.O.M. is a combination of Art, Hactivism and Open Culture.  #Hactivism
Prior to BOMB Karen was curator at Liverpool’s Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (F.A.C.T.) and the city’s Open Eye Gallery. With B.O.M. they accessed a derelict building and created a social enterprise. There is cafe, a hub, a network, they welcome 6000 visitors and have delivered 33 events in the last 2 months. Some of the questions being addressed with B.O.M. are:

How do we address the skills gap between the current generation of artists using creative tech?

How do we prepare for the next super skilled generation of artists, producers and audiences?
How do we develop programmes with real culture and economic value?

The project appears to thrive on experimenting, combining technologies, ideas, and exploration. For example she describes a photo dark room combined with a biology lab in the building. Karen finishes by explaining that with B.O.M. they are “taking a set of educated risks. Time will tell”

Panel discussion with (L-R) Lara Ratnaraja, Fiona Yaron-Field, Karen Newman and Angel Luis Gonzalez Ferdandez

The panel discussion following these four speakers touched on commercialism and value – amongst other things. There were arguments from Angel for charging for all the visual arts in the UK – something which happens in dance and music, but for some reason “we expect all our visual art for free” – is this then responsible for de-valuing it in someway? An interesting point. One which Lara disagreed with “I believe in the fact that are country’s art galleries and museums are free”. Karen then differentiated between something being free, and it’s value – “it’s about the impact and how you value that, some impacts are very hard to track.”

This all raised a number of interesting questions – all agreed that it’s important for everyone to feel as comfortable and safe in a gallery environment, therefore is it not likely that charging entry would probably result in that not being the case? By making something free, doesn’t mean necessarily that people will come. If it’s free, does it communicate less value? Is charging for a library for example, out of the question?  Why is it accepted that the Tate who receive large amounts of government funding, charge high prices for exhibitions when small arts organisations are expected not to? In the current context of the archive at Birmingham library this is all certainly food for thought.

We then heard from Tim Clark editor of the excellent 1000 Words Magazine – launching a new website this week and a place for contemporary art photography. The online resource presents a carefully curated set of photography in each issue, and has accumulated 30,000 Twitter followers and 140,000 visits to the site every month.

It’s published quarterly partly, as Tim explains to give their readers a “laid back digital experience” in these times of such fast paced web traffic. #slowwebmovement

Tim describes the experience of browsing the site as a “little adventure through contemporary photography”.

Faye Claridge then presented her intriguing work which uses archives and explores themes such as folklore and reminiscence. She looks at personal and national identity, based on tradition and working with archives. Her working processes and methodology is fascinating, as are the finished works. One of her pieces at the moment involves the construction of a 5 metre high corn dolly – and with images and thoughts on that she reminded us that “we must not lose sight of the visual and critical literacy when we think of digital literacy.” 

Peta Murphy-Burke, Relationship Manager, Digital and Creative Economy at Arts Council England, gave a run through of the ways photographers can access the funding available from the arts Council England, and showed examples of successful projects and bodies of work supported by them from local and national photographers, groups and organisations.

Paul Herrmann from Red Eye was the final speaker, with the job of summarising and winding up the day.

He started with this image and talked of pigeon holes and divisions – “photography is not a selection of segregated boxes and categories anymore”. Instead, today, photographers are working across different genres, as one big happy family.

Paul continues, “In this culture visual literacy, education and communication are vital. Not everyone can become a photographer, but they can become visually literate. The link with visual communications is vital, Red Eye are involved with that, in building networks with the Library of Birmingham for example.

Photography does interconnect, it needs to remind itself where its common ground is. Photography needs a voice, and we need to understand better the value of the photograph. The brains of photography need strengthening, ie the metadata needs to be there. Photography needs to look inside itself and grow sustainably. It’s got to keep moving, and changing and producing.”

He asks that we please keep testing our work as photographers, self publishing and portfolio reviews are all part of that. “It’s important to understand failure.”

The final panel (L-R) Paul Herrmann, Tim Clarke, Faye Claridge, Peta Murphy-Burke and Pete james make their observations.

Pete James summarises, “so photography is in a state of flux, and it seems like if it wasn’t then it wouldn’t be interesting.”

Faye Claridge adds Being an image maker may be quicker than ever now, but engaging in the conversation and the debate – that’s more than a lifetime’s work. There’s not enough time, but it’s still worth it.” 

After a question from the audience about whether we have the time to be photographers, Tim Clark talks about the numbers. “Traffic” he explains “is what I’m talking to my funders about, it’s the less sexy side of photography, the behind the scenes stuff. They want to know about demographics, survey monkey, Google analytics, etc. The audience for photography is larger than ever, the possibility for circulation is vast using eg Instagram etc. The challenges are attention span, dissemination, exposure, critique, and adding value and contributing to the conversation.”
Tim continues with a critical voice “Individuals innovate, not institutions. If we look to the USA, they are 50 years ahead of the UK, the Tate only got its first curator of photography recently in Simon Baker. Lots of institutions in the UK haven’t given contemporary photography its dues. Perhaps that’s because older generations are protective of their ideas therefore that can trickle down into education. Overseas the UK is known for its social documentary of the 70s and 80s, that represents only a sliver of the contemporary photography happening within Europe. Our history casts a long shadow over where we stand at present.”

To end, Paul Herrmann from Red Eye makes his closing statements which he summarises into 4 points:

1. “If you come up with a good idea – people will give you the authority.”This highlights how important it is that we continue to have these ideas. A lot of the old models are around the table, we need to continue looking at the new ideas.”

2. “It’s important that we continue to work within constraints but without compromising artistic integrity.”

3. “We’ve talked a lot today about collaboration, mutual respect, leaving your egos at the door, that’s looking to be an important part of the successful future.”

4. “Discussion and debate is vital, storytelling is vital.” 

Sophie Gerrard, January 2015
See more on the GRAIN website and their Flickr pages

The GRAIN newspaper publication available at the symposium.

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