On Friday the 21st of May, Bristol Photography Festival held a full day symposium discussing the issues of diversity and inclusion in Photography.
This symposium was a collection of talks with and by photographers who are recognised as being from under-represented cultures and communities.
The speakers for the day were;
Vanley Burke, a black documentary and street photographer from Birmingham who’s work represents the experiences, rituals and struggles of black people over the last 50 years in Britain
Joy Gregory, who’s practice is one of not only photography butmixed media and technique. Her work is more of a personal representation nd interpretation of her experiences as a Black Woman.
Dexter McLean who recently completed his MA in Photography and focuses on the representation of disability and colour in portraiture, referencing and influenced by his own experiences as a black photographer with Cerebral Palsy.
Dr. Shawn Sobers, Associate Professor of Cultural Interdisciplinary Practice at the University of West England, and who’s work includes the research of black culture and the representation of ritual in commercial and documentary photography.
David Constantine, a quadriplegic wheelchair user who, following a diving accident at the age of 21 has gone on to rediscover their passion for photography and documentary through adapting their own equipment for use with a wheelchair and restricted mobility.
Joanne Coates, Kirsty MacKay, Fiona Rogers and Max Houghton presented a panel discussion on the experiences of female photographers in different fields of photography.
Joanne identifies as a working class documentary storyteller whose work includes the lives and experiences of female farmers in the North of England.
Kirsty a Scottish photographer who documents the lives of working class people in Scotland with a focus on the underrepresented.
Max is Course Leader for MA Photojournalism and Documentary Photography (full-time) at London College of Communication
Fiona is the Director of Photography and Operations for Webber Represents and Webber Gallery and founder of Firecracker.
Overall I found the symposium both interesting in it’s theme and goal of engaging with and promoting the work of underrepresented groups but similarly a little disappointed in what I would describe as a sense of tokenism in the selection of speakers.
I raise this issue with trepidation as they idea of a symposium built on the premise of diversity and inclusion being tokenistic is the antithesis of it’s purpose, yet I felt that whilst two of the speakers showed commitment to their practice and a potential to develop a high level of work or in another case a high standard of craft, I found both their views on their practice to be outdated or even problematic.
In both cases the individuals were from groups which face extreme physical challenges and both showed high levels of commitment to adapting their practice to their circumstances which in both cases deserves recognition when discussing their work. I believe that to judge the technical aspects of their work in comparison to an able bodied contemporary would undermine the intent of the work and their individual ‘vision’ I prefer to understand their process and views first and see the work as part of the translation of those ideas. and in both cases to dismiss the work based on technical ability would be a form of discrimination in itself. However I found that the ideas they communicated is where I feel that other practitioners would have been more suitable candidates for the board.
The belief that the portrait is the window to the soul is, I believe, a fallacy which is based in the early theories and marketing techniques of early photographers which is essentially perpetuated by commercial photographers as part of either their lack of knowledge or knowingly as a technique to continue the mythical status of ‘artist’. Similarly the style of travel photography adopted by another speaker is quite obviously founded in the imperial gaze and observation of the other. Again a style which has been perpetuated in commercial photography such as the National Geographic and tourist imagery.
Whilst excluding these voices could be seen as a certain level of elitism, especially as only one of these individuals had a formal education, I feel that the contextualisation of the speakers was that they were leading voices in their fields and communities which when framed against an understanding of academic discussion around representation validates ideas which have already been raised as contentious.
I feel that Dr Sobers tackled the balance, between engaging with photographers who don’t necessarily have a critical view on certain practices whilst also challenging their views where needed, extremely well. His presentation included an interview with a well regarded black commercial photographer in which Dr Sobers questioned his motives and techniques in a way which allowed his subject to speak freely and without judgement but also allowed the audience to ‘read between the lines’ and draw their own conclusions about the influences and effectiveness of his work.
For me, the highlight speakers of teh event were JoyGregory, Kirsty Mackay and Max Houghton.
Joy is someone I had heard speak previously at an OCA arranged event. Previously I hadn’t really engaged with her work and thinking back I feel part of that was the length and structure of her previous talk. In this discussion I feel she was able to communicate her concepts more clearly. Drawing together a presentation which connected her methods and materials to her concepts in a way which enhanced the understanding of her work. Where before I had felt a certain amount of making for makings sake, I came away feeling that her use of different techniques added more complex ideas and themes to the work, it enhanced what appeared simple whilst also adding a continuation to the story. Particularly in her use of unfixed paper which age and fade with time.
Kirsty MacKay I highlighted here for her connection to working class themes. Her focus on farming life in Yorkshire is very close to home having grown up in similar circumstances in Lancashire. I felt her thoughts on the use of photography and the representation of women in both the medium but also the farming community was insightful and topical. Whilst I didn’t feel she was reinventing the wheel with her work, I felt that it was a very refined perceptive use of photography to discuss a new topic, something which in time I hope to refine in my own work.
The main reason I picked out Max Houghton for this post is primarily her personality. In discussion with the board Max’s sardonic nature was refreshing. Max spoke in a natural and conversational way which can be refreshing when faced with a torrent of views and approaches to the medium. Whilst I feel that everyone had valid points to make about the field of photography and the ability for female practitioners to achieve recognition and succeed in building a career, Max felt like a pragmatic yet ‘light’ speaker. Someone how points out the absurdity of the situation that women face but also very aware of the perceptions of equality initiatives and advocates for careful consideration of how they are implemented.
I did want to finalise the post with reference to Vanley Burke. Vanley is a photographer I have seen in a previous presentation and as of yet a photographer I still have to follow up on. However from what I have seen and heard so far from Vanley, I’ve been very intrigued by. Often my perceptions of peoples or can change quite drastically when I read or hear their justifications and explanations and Vanley thankfully is one of those photographers who managed to keep me engaged with his work. I feel that is because his focus appears to have very much been on, for want of a better description, to just make photographs for and of the lives of black people. His home of Birmingham was the centre of great struggle, injustice and strife for the large black population of the 1960 & 70’s, events and effects which have repercussions even today. HIs understanding of the underrepresentation of black people at that time was very insightful and whilst he may not have known academically of the question of representation in photography and media, his work clearly reflects his desire to show what the impact of discrimination was on his community but also the communities commitment to, their now home country of, England and Britain.
I look forward to seeing each of the speakers again in the future and I hope to discover in those I critiqued a facet of their work I overlooked of development in their future which reveals aspects of their practice which I overlooked in this short session