Recently I have been engaged in an on-going argument between myself and photography - more specifically, the photography that I am creating. The argument started after I had a discussion with one of my course mates about how they were considering leaving the Press & Editorial Photography course. When I asked my good friend why she was considering changing courses, her answer was because she felt as though she was spending too much time (and money) photographing things that she simply did not care about and that would ultimately end up counting for nothing; after all, we are not being paid to be at university, and nine times out of ten the work we are completing in this first year will spend the rest of its days glued in to a bloody work book. What we are doing, though, is spending hideous amounts of money on consumables such as paper and film and driving ourselves in to massive debt which we probably won't pay back for another twenty years or so.
Of course, by signing up for university we are putting ourselves in to immediate contact with connections within the photographic industry - two of my three main tutors are industry professionals (Guy Martin/David White), the other being retired from industry work but still has connections in all the right places. In the second and third years we will be given the opportunity to take work placements at such major agencies as Rex and Noor, which will no doubt put us in the right direction to working professionally. But this idea of 'connections' is something that - for some reason that I can't put my finger on - really bugs me about photography. It is something that is evidently important, of course, without knowing the right people, or without them knowing you, how are you going to get jobs? Or get your work printed and shown in the right places?
Connections are fine in that sense - crucial, even. What I cannot stand about the photographic world is the brown-nosing, the ass-kissing, the cock-sucking - however you want to say it. I spent last week in London with my course and a handful of second years, visiting galleries, independent printers, agencies and labs as part of a field trip. Before entering each establishment we were encouraged on nearly every occasion to "be nice" to the people who ran the exhibit, gallery or agency, because they may just remember you for it. Well, apart from making me feel about three years' old, it made me want to hit the next fashionable art curator I saw. Why the fuck should I "be nice" to anyone? If I wanted to get my work printed by a lab or a digital printers, then I would ask them, and they would subsequently take my hard-earned money because, and correct me if I am wrong, but I am pretty sure it would be considered bad business if a company declined a client on the basis of not being their friend. This theme was carried throughout the week; I witnessed, for example, a second year explain to the organiser of Labyrinth Photographic Printing how "he would like to keep in contact" and subsequently handed the man his card... I felt as though I had been transported in to Brett Easton-Ellis' American Psycho, where the metaphorical size of a man's penis is judged by the quality of his card. And that is, really, what photography boils down to - if you have money, then it would appear you can do whatever the fuck you like.
Unfortunately, I don't have a lot of money, and neither does my friend who sparked this argument. So where does that leave us? Quite frankly I don't know. All I do know is that I will continue doing this course until something happens - by 'something' I am talking along the lines of an internship or similar. Of course, it would be all too easy for me to complain about the ass-kissers if I were not trying in some way to gain connections through methods that do not involve blowing the wind up the ass of a curator. I am proactive about what I do, I am currently under-going a project with the homeless people of Newquay (and before you sigh and dismiss it as something everyone has seen before, that is something I am well aware of and intend to stay well clear of it). Off my own back I have gotten in contact with numerous organisations who are doing everything humanly possible to help these people, ranging from soup kitchens and food banks to the Turnaround Project, an organisation which accommodates 16-25-year-old people with no home. I am receiving help from an ex-social worker to get contacts within the world of the homeless and we have already begun liaising with a gallery in regards to exhibiting the work once it is finished. It is here, however, where I stumble across the second half of my dilemma: exhibiting.
Nia Haf, a second year on the Press & Editorial Photography course, recently wrote on her blog how exhibiting work of "death and destruction" can appear to be rather counter-productive. In her argument she used the example of Guy Martin's Shifting Sands exhibition that was recently shown in Falmouth. The body of work was from Guy's tour of Libya and Egypt in 2011 covering the Arab Spring (see: http://www.panos.co.uk/bin/panos2.dll/go?a=disp&_m=1&_s=1&_ml=Stories&_sl=&_tlid=2&t=gl-loader.html&groupid=13&galleryid=1318&glbid=1824&page=1&si=F89DB5CFCC4A4B4CB0FCCF3818061F&rnd=0.0, (apologies for the ridiculously long link)).
I was present at the private viewing, as was everyone else on the Press & Editorial Photography course, and I have to admit that I got very much the same feeling as Nia did. We stood there with our "expensive beer... in one hand and ridiculously tiny salmon canapé in the other" saying "I really love that frame". We viewed the images, partook in some philosophical conversations and went home after a nice, civilised evening of looking at dead or dying people in a country so far removed from the UK. As Nia put it on her blog - "Isn't there something a little fucked up about that?".
Yes. I think there is something a little fucked up about that, which is why the last thing I want to do is be a 'conflict photographer'. It is, on a smaller but no less relevant scale, how I am now feeling about my project with the homeless of Newquay. No matter how much I get to know these people, however much I befriend them, there will always be a divide between them and I, between these incredible young people who have had no parental figures in their lives (in the case of the Turnaround Project) and myself, the hideously middle class man from a quaint village in East Anglia who also happens to have a camera in his hand. And then there is the case of exhibiting the work, ergo gaining exposure as a photographer and taking another step toward the hipocrisy that I am ultimately bitching about in this post. But I want to gain exposure, right? Isn't that what we as photographers do? Otherwise there would surely be no industry. I keep telling myself that I am doing the project to (and I hate using this phrase) 'raise awareness' of the situation, to hope that people might be interested in these incredible stories. I truly am interested in these people and their lives, but sometimes I feel simply 'being interested' doesn't quite cut it.
Thus, I have come full circle. I am proactive - but not an ass-kisser - I love photography (it is what I want to do) but in doing a project such as mine I appear to be fulfilling one of my ultimate hates about photography: hipocrisy. I want to empathise with these people and produce a compelling body of work, but at the same time - without beating around the proverbial bush - I do want to gain exposure as a photographer through exhibiting the work, which, more or less, would mean I am gaining from other's misfortunes. Tricky, huh? I guess it really comes down to how I wish to portray these people, and how I do eventually want to exhibit it, but it is constantly at the back of my mind (I then tell myself that there is nothing that can be done about the fact that they are homeless and I am not, and to simply get on with it).
I am fearful of falling in to the pit which so many photojournalists these days have fallen in to and to photograph something that might be considered 'sad', and it seems all too easy to do it. I guess in future I will just have to choose to cover something more light-hearted...