University: London College of Communication
Genre: Conceptual Art
'you are not alive to please the aesthetic of the Colonised Eye'
My artistic practice crosses photography, film and theatre, using participatory practice to engage with the people that I work with. My focus is creating innovative, community engaged art, powered for social change.
This project, which quotes the Nigerian poet, Ijeoma Umebinyuo; is an exploration of my relationship to, and understanding of, the role of photographic images within the politics of representation. Using early images from my own practice as a photographer, NGO imagery and media sources , I attempt to unpick the political and ethical framework around modes of representation of Africa within a post-colonial context.
Where did you attend university and what year did you graduate? I graduated from London College of Communication in December 2016 – I studied online, so my student experience was a bit different to the traditional MA experience.
What are some standout moments from your time at university? Studying online is quite a strange experience, you are connected to a group of people around the world, but most of the time you have never met them. It was an exciting way to learn, every week when we would come together for seminars and tutorials we would see work from all sorts of places, influenced by the range of cultures and places that the other students were living in. When I started the course I was worried about studying online. If I could have afforded to, I probably wouldn’t have chosen it, but by the end of the course I absolutely loved it. It’s such a flexible and accessible way to learn. Paul Lowe and the other tutors have worked hard to build the course in innovative and exciting ways. We had great guest tutors and there’s something very special about sitting on a bus in the centre of London, sharing a seminar with someone in Sydney or Egypt and debating ideas about your work.
Our final show was an absolute highlight. We were the first year to be held outside of the college building, it was held at Ugly Duck in Bermondsey in December. Some of the online students weren’t able to make it to London for the exhibition, which was really difficult for them, but for those of us that could, it was great chance to match voices to faces and meet in person. We all worked really hard to hang each others work, I spent a lot of time on Skype checking with people they were happy with how their work was displayed. It was a real team effort. Despite moments of chaos it all came together brilliantly. On the opening night over 3,000 people came, people queued outside in the cold for hours, which was an incredible event to be part of. To top it all off, Tim Clarke from 1000 Words Magazine picked my project as his selection from the show, which was a real honour.
Which photographic genre do you consider your work to fall into? I would describe my work as socially engaged participatory art, but the product of each project changes to reflect the process of creating it, so it can be a bit difficult to define. This project is probably best described as conceptual.
What themes do you find yourself exploring? As a participatory artist I draw on my photography and theatre practice to engage with the people that I work with. My focus is creating innovative, community engaged art, powered for social change. Most of my work has been concerned with participation in a traditional form, working with communities affected by an issue the project is seeking to explore. For example, survivors of domestic violence, prisoners or young people at risk – both in groups or on a one to one basis. As such, the themes for my work come from the people that I am working with.
What encouraged you to study for an MA in Documentary Photography and Photojournalism? Did you study for a BA in Photography before this? Initially I trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama on their BA Drama, Applied Theatre and Education course. After working in community arts and participatory projects for a few years, I noticed that my interest in photography had become more than just documenting our performances for funding purposes. It had become quite an important part of my practice as an artist and facilitator so I decided I wanted to retrain and understand the art form better. I applied to study on the MA Documentary and Photojournalism course at London College of Communication. I worked full time while I studied, so it ended up taking me three years to complete the part time course. I graduated in December 2016.
How did this series come about for you? Why have you chosen to make this work around Africa? As a white, middle class, British woman, I believe my cultural identity has been shaped by a patriarchal, white dominant society seeking to oppress other perspectives and understandings, actively denying our colonial history. By using images taken by myself ten years ago as stimulus, I tried to reflect on my naivety and interrogate the internalised prejudices from my background. Through my previous work with charities and international development organisations, I have gained an increased understanding and critical awareness of the politics of representation. However, it is easy to reflect on an academic theory without considering its application in everyday life, particularly on a personal level. I wanted to critically consider my position within the complex concepts I was researching – in some ways it was a process of visually ‘checking’ my privilege. This work is the unpicking of the images, influences and politics that contribute to my current understanding. I’m sure over time it will develop and change, just as my own position will.
Your images are very experimental and thought provoking. How did you make them? Most of the pieces are a made as composite images using photographs that I took 10 years ago during my gap year in Tanzania with elements of the research process I went through during the project. Some of them are satirical, referencing things like the Humanitarians of Tinder blog and the Barbie Saviour Instagram account. Others include quite academic references from international development research or theorists like Frantz Fanon and Stuart Hall.
What's the significance of showing commuters on the underground with some of your imagery as an advert? It was important to me that I approached this work from a personal perspective, that I acknowledged my own role in what I was exploring and I realised that the most common place for me to see representations of Africa was in charitable campaigns on the tube. I wanted to play with this idea, so I snuck my own images into the advertising spaces on the tube, and observed as people reacted, (or didn’t!) to them. I guess it was a bit of a reference to John Berger’s Ways of Seeing and as I wanted to think about the project encouraging the audience to go on a process of exploration with me, I tried to think of ways of playfully engaging them.
Can you tell us about any of the photographers who influence your work? Wendy Ewald has always had a big impact on my practice as a facilitator and educator, I really love her collaborative approach to image making. Her project Towards a Promised Land, made with ArtAngel is a particular favourite, and I think it has a massive relevance today.
Alfredo Jaar is also a huge inspiration to me, I find his work subversive and political but incredibly accessible which I think is really important. I am very much of the belief that art has a role in social change and activism, and Jaar’s work is a great example of that for me.
For this project, I got to know Lorna Simpson’s work, and I think there’s a few references to her coming through. Recently I am becoming more and more interested in Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s work, so maybe their influences will start to be seen in my work in the future.
You’ve recently finished your MA so what are you hoping to do next? That’s a very good question. I am still working full time for PhotoVoice, finishing a project that I have been managing there called Having Our Say 3. I want to try and make some more time for my own work, but Im not sure what that looks like yet.
Where do you see your work taking you in the future? Do you think you’ll make work in reaction to Brexit and the future of the UK in ways that it may affect you? Possibly. Though at the moment I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of a deserving or undeserving victim. Before I worked at PhotoVoice, I worked a lot within the prison system, with prisoners and ex-offenders, so I am really interested going back to this field. Something like a fifth of the UK population has a criminal record, but for many people, the term ‘offender’ is a distant concept that evokes a mix of fear, curiosity and judgement. In the media we are presented with an image of a young, hooded male figure; angry and often violent. The issue is caught up in societal structures of class, race and gender and allows many people to distance themselves from the issue. The stereotype image has become so engraved that they are barely human; and the people themselves are rejected from the society that they have acted out against, unable to find work, a home or form new relationships without having to disclose their ‘status’. I want to explore this I think.
If you can give one piece of advice to a new graduate, what would it be? Just to use all of the platforms that are available to you! We are so lucky to have so many different opportunities at the moment, you have to grab them. I’ve been really grateful for all the support Ive had, and most of that has just come from talking to people and putting your work out there.