From Day 1’s extended write-up on photography’s relationship to archive, community and libraries, to Day 2’s focus on the future and new world of work for photographers, including authorship and value, socially-engaged practices, digital innovation and responsibility, climate change and environmental impact, gender and education. The second day of speakers and sessions at the National Photography Symposium 2018 (NPS2018) was overflowing with knowledge and insight, often jumping between topics in different local to global contexts, showing a voracious appetite for new understandings of and contributions to the field of photography.
Setting the landscape for Day 2’s discussion on the future of work in photography was Redeye Network’s Director, Paul Herrmann, who stated we must come together for positive change in the industry (rather than reinforcing stereotypes). Also, emphasising the need to nurture skills and talent in line with the new world, which is driven by technological, environmental, migratory and social change (and more). Here, photography permeates every level. Using the analogy “food versus feed” – a repeated reference throughout the day – he discussed (for animals) engineered content through controlled administration with minimal disruption for maximum profit, where the more automation the better. However, is there an equivalent for, and does this apply to, humans? He alludes to the automation of image generation, where images are often mediated rather than created via Instagram, Facebook, Google – this functions as the human “feed” and can be identified as building blocks of the visual economy.
“In this ever growing ocean of digestible images, algorithms are not the future, they are the now.”
He continued by discussing how photographs within our feeds are mediated, translated and distributed to become visible through algorithms that automate cropping, optimise or prioritise technical and aesthetic qualities. Now photographic images are increasingly even generated without the human use of a camera. Highlighting the importance of empathy and collaboration, the part photography plays in health and wellbeing (citing Open Eye Gallery’s ‘Cultural Shifts’ socially-engaged photography programme), a move away from meritocracy to democracy, and the need to find controllable and distributed solutions to the centralised web and big data (metadata and perhaps blockchain can play a part), Paul concluded by questioning…
How can we build our voice and instigate change?
- Don’t be part of the feed or understand how you can disrupt the feed
- Set the agenda
To the first panel of the day on ‘The Future of Work’ chaired by Beth Knowles with (from L to R below) Robyn Ellis, Paul Herrmann, Ian Hunter and Sian Bonnell, which focused on the power shifts and key currents affecting the future of work for photography. Beth Knowles opened discussions on community and purpose, stating they are two things we need, where it is our collective responsibility to come up with questions, ideas and solutions. As we are living in a time of insecurity…
- How can we be flexible and create choice in insecure situations?
- What barriers are we facing and how can they be smashed down?
- How can policy change in line with work?
Also, a key focus is on equality where “the future is female” and “the future of the arts is the future of work” – it is about democratic devolution, skills sharing and disruption. All these themes resonated throughout the panel presentations that followed. Next, Robyn Ellis jumped into the notion of “jobs obsolete” where up to 60% will be obsolete by 2020 in the creative sector – therefore, what are the right skills for the new world? How do we harness AI?Photographers must step in to the technology sector and be the voice of reason by challenging and disagreeing respectfully. With a growing trend of self-employment and self-movement, there needs to be more security in our roles and focus on wellbeing, autonomy and purpose – on looking after community and listening. So she asked…
“How do you like your eggs in the morning?”
Also, an awareness of “nudge theory” and being “nudged”, which includes who is controlling the data, of the tools to grab data about yourself, “gamification” and data security referring back to the “food versus feed” analogy, often seen to increase division and reduce discussion. She raised questions, how does mental health look in the new world? What roles do we play in each other’s lives and worlds? How do we build a sense of community? How do we make it safe to fail and learn?
“It’s important to be uncomfortable and to be conscious of the discomfort.”
Next, Ian Hunter briefly introduced photographers as those responsible for creating the new discourse and criticality, specifically those with a greater sense of social responsibility. Focusing his dialogue on the cusp of a shift within social and cultural policy from urbanism to agriculture, where he identifies the “future is rural” as the new arena for aesthetic and cultural discourses. Therefore, how do we engage with the rural when the countryside is now more volatile than the most accelerated city? He notes a problem in the “spectacle of empathy”, the development of rural economies and cultures of sustainability, stating the provocation “out of the rural comes revolution” part of a new post-agricultural discourse that marks not the end but the rethinking of agriculture.
Finally, Sian Bonnell echoed the hopefulness of Professor Elizabeth Edwards from the day prior, questioning how people are educated and prepared for work, where we need to rethink education (Higher Education) to provide the solutions away from universities as businesses and their lean towards digital futures, towards education as a community. She notes there are slow food movements, so why not “slow art movements” to give space and slowness to work so we can trust ourselves and others. She raises the important question, what will we do with all this leisure time on our hands if we cannot work? As such, the importance of creating a cultural economy through creative community – working, making and sharing – a cultural economy of kindness and economy of love. Important to this is rethinking the relationship between amateurism and value, and value of the arts, where we must reclaim the idea of the amateur to aspire rather than divide.
Following the morning panel discussion were a series of individual presentations giving broad and personal insight into ‘Photographers at Work’. Starting with Colin McPherson who framed his presentation as a a letter of and from his younger self as a way of echoing “back to the future”, again resonating the previous day’s conversations. As such, what can we learn from the past? Going back 30 years, when he was working his first assignment for a local newspaper in Edinburgh, he shared his hopes and fears for the future and idea of a career, where so much has changed, yet stayed the same, whilst bearing witnessed to great socio-political events. A few of the many hopes, fears and dreams he mentioned were equal numbers of men and women photographers; people from ethnic backgrounds in the institutions representing photography and photography representing them; voice as authentic, honest and valuable; courses offered across the country along with hundreds of jobs; representation of different world views from different angles; to be democratic, honest and collaborative; to have ability, determination and skill, with support and cooperation of others for success; to be the chroniclers, witnesses and creators, campaigners and agitators of change; question and challenge everything to be disruptors, whilst recognising and praising progress and making sure to call out bad practice when you see it.A set of values and mission statements that still clearly resonate today.
“The revolution will not be televised but sure as hell it will be photographed.”
Moira Lovell followed with her intuitive insight into her staged documentary photography practice on the contemporary female worker; the artist as a craftsperson; prohibitions of touch and pleasures from the act of looking; intimacy through detail and dressing, whilst referencing a fight against alienated labour. Often returning to an original photograph to rupture images as a form of collage to transgress the image, she focused on what remains to remove value judgements and regain focus on the performance. An intimate interlude into the day’s proceedings, where it was insightful to see her acknowledge and present her practice in a new context.
After lunch, Colin Harding used more of a quantitative approach to discuss the photographer in history and enduring values by citing numbers, gender, age and geographical spread of photographers from census notes of the 1850s. He stated information and representations of the photography of photographers, photography studios, the role of family and the emergence of photography as a business, more so how they all vary in their reported accuracy and quality, reinforcing the notion, “there isn’t one single history of commercial photography”.
In this period, photography was often identified through the work of artists (or photographer as artist), revealing details into contemporary concerns and perceptions. He cited British photographer Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901) who was an amateur painter then studio photographer, who believed photographers need a working knowledge of the technicalities of both photography and of art; to train the mind and select with ease; have an agreeable manner, and patience of job; show fairness, gentleness and knowledge of human nature. As such, Colin revealed while there were preferred ideas of what/whom photographers represented at the time, it also showed a vast gulf between the highest and lowest classes in photography, differing social and moral contrasts and how there are as many different histories as there are different photographers, where ultimately, more work needs to be done in this field…
“For far too long, commercial portrait photographers have been kept in the dark, time for them to enjoy themselves in the sun.”
Next, Kai Bastard unfolded the digital innovation vein and undercurrent to NPS2018 by explaining how everything we create now has a digital context, where photography is manipulated through space (such as screens) and programming (use of data such as, location, colour recognition, gender). Also, how we can manipulate still images – changing the language of still images – in accordance with us, the end used to create new contextual imagery, almost like an individual road map. He stated the provocation that all photography – digital photography – is now being manipulated by the end user.
Followed by Ian Clegg, another supporter of the role of Higher Education as with many of the speakers at NPS2018, who looked into pedagogic goals and photography, where learning experiences should prepare for change, and photography should be able to portray narrative and story-telling representative of such cultural change. He believed education was behind the curve in providing skills and tools training to “explore and contest” noticing a return to visual communication. We need to reach a level of education to embrace change. Again, returning to the notion of “back to the future” of the day prior, stating a need for “photography of the present whilst accepting of its function in the future”.
Garry Cook cut through the formal format of the symposium with a performative approach – and yes, as you articulated Garry, you were the most remembered speaker by the end of the day. Standing on stage, clutching a set of oversized pieces of card emblazoned by hand-written statements, his audio soundtrack and video background kicked in…the cards were read out loud…falling to the ground one-by-one. Like a female Gillian Wearing (Garry’s probably been referenced in this way before), his work was socio-politically-minded, reflecting his honest approach to, and experiences of, being a photographer in real-time. It was of the here-and-now. Clarifying the tone of the day, it made the audience wake-up and realise what we are all there for…to understand and listen to different ways of thinking and seeing.
The final session of the day was a lively panel on ‘Social and collaborative photography’ chaired by Becky Warnock with (from L to R above) Lisa Oldroyd, Les Monaghan, Liz Wewiora and Anthony Luvera, who shared their perspectives on new and developing areas of work for photographers through socially-engaged practice, social practice, participatory practices in community, health and welfare settings. Lisa Oldroyd opened by stating how social engagement in the arts is often seen as “us and them” and through social class divides when it is about “educational engagement”. How would an audience look at an aesthetically rewarding picture or see themselves in a project they can take part in? This is the future of work, where it needs to be studied earlier in the curriculum and careers for it to be accepted and regarded more as art – artist as facilitator (instead of producer), and author rather than passive viewer. By building relationships with communities, it also promotes the arts and cultural sector to enrich photography is so many ways – it is about “socially-engaged looking”.
Next, Les Monaghan spoke of having honesty throughout each stage of the process, in what you are working towards, including how it is funded, why it is happening and where it is potentially going to go. The importance of working together towards a shared vision, rather than the final image, and earning the trust of people – you have to listen and be prepared to compromise – “what’s in it for them?” Social engagement is about process, facilitation, the things that happened elsewhere in the minds of the people that took part. Also, the importance of fair pay for all.
“What is your mission statement for social engagement? We are all part of the a public, the public.”
Following was Liz Wewiora who discussed her understanding of the panel theme through authorship and ownership, and a need to seek multiple voices and more-inclusive forms of image making. Also, the importance of challenging power dynamics and hierarchies, whilst highlighting diversity and the range of photographic practices out there. Also, to create shared visual languages through community consultation. Collaboration is often assumed as a group, community effort when it is often about individual collaborations to share lived experiences. There are ethical responsibilities of the commissioner to invite a photographer into a community – what is left for the photographer and community when the project commissioning period is over? A solution to this may be the idea of a photographer-in-residence embedded in communities. She notes how photography can be a way to visualise health – “a tool for health” – to visualise conditions unseen. Similarly to other speakers, she notes the importance of raising aspirational levels in Higher Education, through partnerships and professional development opportunities beyond formal education concluding on the launch of a new MA in Socially Engaged Photography Practice at the University of Salford and national network for social-engaged photography. Finally, Anthony Luvera focused on the methodologies and pedagogies of co-production including community organisation and group action. He stated the term “community” as confusing and fluctuating where we must acknowledge how its context affects representation, and the particular and varied intentions of the work we do – the benefits, outcomes, targets, aims. He raised important questions and key considerations fundamental to this kind of practice…
- Who is being empowered?
- Whose voice is amplified?
- Who is being made visible?
- What can the participating individual or community group gain by taking part?
- How does the artist profit?
- How does context affect representation of the participant?
He aims to explore every potential whilst presenting the viewpoints of the people with whom he works. Also bringing greater attention to the issues that directly affect their lives, as it’s a privilege that involves different levels of disclosure.
With so much to digest from Day 2, it seems appropriate to conclude the blog post on these words. If you read this over morning coffee today, take time out to understand and listen to those around you, before engaging in dialogue with the world…
– Dr. Rachel Marsden
(Guest writer for Redeye Network)