discussing photographic art

Category: Bright Young Things

Maria Kapajeva

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Baiba from the series Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

Originally from Estonia, Maria Kapajeva is an up and coming artist wholly dedicated to her work.  As a researcher for Fast Forward, a photography symposium coming to Tate Modern in 2015, a tutor at UCA Farnham and visiting lecturer elsewhere her personal work is also thriving.  She talks to me here about the changes she has made to her life in order to follow her passion for photography and the themes that fuel her drive.

It seems like you see a project in every situation you find yourself. How did you develop your artistic vision? Would you call yourself an opportunist?!

I don’t know if I am opportunist but I do use opportunities. Both those that come to me and those I create for myself. When I moved to the UK from Estonia nearly 8 years ago I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, except take pictures. My passion to pursue photography meant I left all my comforts back home, such as a good job with a good salary and my own flat. I started everything from scratch in a new country where, together with my studies, I had to earn money to survive and pay bills. But I was ready to launch myself into it.

I think I was lucky to come to The University for the Creative Arts (Farnham) as a student. The course there gave me so many opportunities both during my studies as well as after. I do appreciate the people I am surrounded with there (now as a tutor and researcher). It is a privileged experience to be at a university where you can meet people from around the world, get access to all kinds of books and see artists work you could only dream of and meet great professionals and talents. I think this experience transformed me as an artist as well as a woman. Actually I don’t think I ever was an artist and I am still not sure if I am, but it shows me that there is always something to learn – the possibilities are endless and it is very exciting for me. I would never have felt the same working in an office.

Can you say a little about how your ideas have developed over time? It seems like you are moving into more and more personal work, putting more of you into the concepts. What has this been like?

I think there are two ways of working as an artist (at least I see these two): one is you start from a technique and develop / master/ transform it. The second way is to start from an idea and find a technique for it. I think most of my works take the second path. So, I don’t think I pick up ideas, but rather they find me. But saying that I do understand that the questions I have and try to visualize in my projects are all connected to my personal interests. I don’t see myself working on an abstract idea if it does not relate to me somehow. At the same time, although some of my projects are quite personal, it is not my intention to involve myself in it as the main character. However it is my work, so I am in it of course.

I find the hardest thing nowadays for me as well as for other artists (I can see it happening a lot with the students I teach) is the massive volume of information we all confront. We need to learn how to select the right subject and focus on it. Otherwise we will easily become overwhelmed and never manage to produce any work. It is hard to find our way through that and I am personally still in the process of learning how to do so.

I think what excites me most is that there will always be something new to learn, discover or question. So, I am not afraid of losing inspiration or ideas but I am worried about my capacity to reflect on them. Let’s see how it works out.


From the series Interiors

You have made three series around the theme of arranged marriages and specifically online platforms for Russian brides.  How did this interest come about and what drove you to make work about it?

Well, I could say it started from my first visit to India in 2008 but, to be totally honest, the idea of marriage has been with me since I was a teenager. I grew up in a culture where marriage is the most important and essential step in your life. Going to India I felt, like nowhere else, very conscious of my single status. Every time I met new people there, they asked me straight away if I was married and why not. So, I decided to turn my self-consciousness about my status into a project about young educated women of that country who I met during my visits.

It fascinated me that most conversations in India always ended up in discussions about marriage or weddings. Marriage is an incredibly important tradition for people in India. It is one of the last expected tasks for the parents to give their children, so they cannot fail as their future depends on it. (Often parents live with their adult children who take care of them when they retire and get older).

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From Marry Me

So, that is how my project Marry Me started. I didn’t have a strong opinion about arranged marriages. I was curious if the reality is so dramatically different from how we see it in Europe. Distance always breaks perspective, doesn’t it? So I managed to interview and photograph 20 young educated women who were of marrying age and who had their own concerns about the Indian tradition of arranged marriage. I produced 20 black and white portraits which I then hand-painted. While I was doing research on the subject I discovered that a hand-painted photograph in India is used a lot as a tool to make people look more wealthy in the photos or more attractive to the grooms and their families if it was a woman’s portrait. So, I used that idea and decorated my models. I left their reflection in the mirror unpainted to reference the original imagery. The portraits are accompanied by extracts from the interviews.

After that project, I worked on a few ideas and somehow my research lead me to the representation of Russian women on the internet. I found one collection of pictures of women posing half-naked in their domestic interiors so they became a basis for my project Interiors. I saw that these women were trying to be noticed by men via their profile; to stand out.  Ironically most adopted a pose which made them fit the stereotype of their culture even more. Even in these pictures I saw a culture where women are seen as part of the domestic landscape in a variety of roles (sexy wife, dutiful mother, housewife, cleaner etc) but not much more.     

The digital manipulation in these images is a visualization of the women trying to stand out but ultimately blending into the domestic interior.  It also protects their identity.

interiors3 From Interiors

Russian Brides was quite a logical step for me after that. I have always been interested in representation of ‘the other’ and communication, or rather miscommunication, between cultures and how easily we operate within stereotypes. I think it came from my personal background of being Russian in Estonia. Somehow I realized that my ideas about cultural stereotypes, marriage and the re-evaluation of women’s position in contemporary society all came together in the phenomenon of Russian Brides. So when I discovered that I thought about doing something about mail-order brides and the whole new amazing world of matrimonial websites opened to me. I spent months and months doing research on them. That is why I wasn’t satisfied to produce just one piece for this topic. At the moment I have 3 different bodies of work related to the Russian Brides phenomenon (I Am Usual Woman, Birch Trees of Russia, Fifty/Fifty) and I am working on one more.

What did you learn most about these women? How has it helped shape who you are as a woman today, if at all?

Interesting question. I think I learned and understood more about the complexity of communication between various cultures and what a huge role mass media plays in it. It forms and cultivates our stereotypes about each other, and ourselves and it deals with very basic and primitive models of behaviour, especially when we talk about capitalism which is based on the idea of sales.

We tend to like to be ‘different’ (often means ‘better’) than ‘others’. Stuart Hall, a multi-culturist theorist, talks about stereotypes. He says that they are usually formed not only by what is perceived as real but also what is fantasy about the Other. Mass media uses stereotypes so well they cultivate our fantasies supporting the stereotypes so we can benefit and feel better about ourselves. Obviously people are more complex than that and they never fit into “Hollywood happy-endings” or ‘Cosmopolitan’s How to…’ models.




I am Usual Woman

I used standardised imagery of Russian brides for my two projects with the purpose of critiquing and questioning them. In I Am Usual Woman I made a quilt (in collaboration with my mother who is a patchwork artist) from a selection of website images which recommend how women should be photographed to ensure the best matchmaking! The pattern of the quilt is a popular design called Double Wedding Rings and is a traditional wedding gift to the bride from her female relatives. In the video piece Birch Trees of Russia I put together a selection of women’s profile images in which they state belonging to Russian culture posing next to the very well-known symbol of Russia – a birch tree. I found it fascinating that almost every woman on these websites had the same sort of image.

I think I was playing a game of ‘reversing stereotypes’ a term used by Stuart Hall when he writes about being trapped in a ‘stereotypical other’ and the need to overturn and subvert it. I do this by contradicting these images with a song which is sung by a male singer about women as birch trees, waiting for him to come back to his homeland. It was in an ironic tone that I put together images of women who dream of leaving their motherland with a male who feels secure in the fantasy that women will always be there waiting for him.

The technique of cross-stitching and quilting is very intriguing. Can you tell us more about the cultural significance of the technique and what it means for you personally?

Well, to be honest I never ever thought I would be working in these techniques. When my mom saw the images of my embroidered tapestry (Fifty / Fifty), she said ‘Oh, I remember when you were a kid, you refused to learn stitching and knitting when I tried to teach you, but, well, now you are doing it’. So, it is strange for me.

I grew up with the understanding that stitching and knitting was a daily task for women. My family almost never bought any clothes because my mother designed and stitched them all. I did some stitching but mostly knitting in my childhood and I never consider these skills as THE skills I have, if you know what I mean. It’s like to fry an egg for yourself – you are so sure that everyone can do it. So, when I was doing these two pieces, I was amazed how many people commented on the skill aspect of them.

When I researched these techniques, I realised that patchworking and cross-stitching could be found rooted in many cultures. There are many different patterns and motifs but as techniques they are universal. I guess it can relate to the global side of the Russian brides phenomenon. Another factor which was very important to me is the amount of my own labor I had to put into it. Historically the stitching and embroidery were mostly done by women (in the European and Russian side of the world at least). For instance in Russia women were never allowed to paint icons for churches, this was done by men only and it was the most privileged work for an artist.  Women were allowed to embroider clothing for the church people and domestic items. In most of the cases they were unrecognized for what they were doing. We know the names of painters but we don’t know names of embroiderers. As part of my research I went to see the Bayeux tapestry in Reading Museum (a 19-century British copy of original Bayeux tapestry from 11th century which is preserved in France). The interesting thing I found on the British copy is signatures of all the women who did the stitching under each part they embroidered. There are 35 women in total and we know all their names – what a celebration of the craft masters!

I was inspired by that and decided to create quite a generic image based on a story of one woman and stitch my signature on it as statement. The tapestry is displayed as an installation piece and goes together with an audio lasting 13 min – a story of a woman who married English men and what she went through for it. The embroidery process was a test for myself. I decided to do it and have fun with it. I wish I could still say it was fun but the reality was different! I really slaved for my art, it was physically and mentally hard to do every evening and weekend for 6 months. It nearly killed my back!

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Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

Bringing us up to date is your current and ongoing work A Portrait of the artist as a young woman which I find to be an effectively simple strategy in presenting the complicated view of what it is like to be a woman in today’s society.   What is your main aim with this work?

I honestly don’t know the aim of this work. I just felt like taking portraits of women I have met in my life who I admire as individuals and professionals in whatever they specialize. It just happened that they are all my peers and they are all immigrants as I am. It might be some sort of reflection on my long-lasting connection with the ideas in ‘Russian brides’.

I also feel that immigration, including my own, can be a positive thing. I believe that in most cases when people want to move somewhere else it is because they are not happy in their home countries for various reasons. It is never an easy decision to leave your own country.  At the same time, travel is so much easier nowadays than it was even 20 years ago, so why not try? It is a big step for everyone if they decide to do it and I absolutely admire what these women have achieved by making that choice. It’s not easy to be Other and become someone in a foreign place.

It is very important for me to photograph these women in their own environment; studios, homes etc. I believe their own spaces add to the story and it is a collaboration in that sense.

It is interesting that one of the comments I got from the recent show in the United States at The Harn Art Museum (Gainesville, Florida) was that these women look too feminine to be presented with the feminist statement as I put with them. I found it an interesting comment which relates again to the stereotypes we build up about each other and ideas about how ‘they’ should look. Anyway, it is ongoing project, let’s see how it goes.

What is your experience of being a female photographer in this industry? Do you think we are in a good place and does anything need to change?

I never thought of my gender until I came to the UK nearly 8 years ago. I grew up with the idea that between men and women marriage is the most important step in their lives. After that both man and woman work full time, the man is always the breadwinner, but the woman takes care of the house and children and she would probably sacrifice her interests for the sake of the man or the family.

When I came to the UK the whole world of feminism opened up to me. Back where I am from feminism is still understood to be a backlash from women, who must be single, unsatisfied, with no children and who are angry with the rest of the world because of it which is why they call themselves feminists.

I never thought I could be discriminated because of my gender. At the same time, all my projects about marriage are about re-visiting the idea of marriage for myself and other women in contemporary society. I guess it’s not about being a female photographer but just being a woman. I still sometimes feel a pressure (sometimes from others but mostly from myself) or obligation to get married and to have children because it is supposed to be THE main task for women in this world. I think producing my work helps me to understand myself better and clarify what I really want in this life.

Teaching at the university, I am happy to see that more and more women tend to come for degrees in arts and make a careers in academia. I don’t know how it is in other countries but it is definitely a change in the UK, this can only can be seen as positive thing.

*Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman is currently showing as part of the group show Walls at Pushkin House in London until June 2014.


Monica Takvam


Work in progress by Monica Takvam

Monica Takvam is a visual artist and photographer living and working in London.

Monica’s interests, as a photographer, may be obvious. She is interested in seeing. However her exploration of what it means to ‘see’ goes much deeper than most people who use a camera. Her approach to research is done in a reflective and thoughtful manner, often in collaboration with her subjects. Her work probes issues of solitude and detachment.  She explores how people see themselves or others, how communities see people and how individuals are positioned, or restrained within those structures. In her search for what it means to see she has become interested in the inability to see physically; in those who are blind. When the most dominant sense is removed much is revealed about seeing.  By following her early fears and fascinations, photography and a fear of losing her sight, she has come to build a personal body of work that continues to delve into the complex understanding of perception and what it really means to see and be seen.

Monica’s work has been shown in exhibitions throughout England and Norway, including NorskArt, LaViande Gallery, London 2007 and DogA, Oslo 2007; Essence, Beldam Gallery, London 2008; solo-exhibition at Menier Gallery, London 2009; Reports from an Ordinary Satellite, Birmingham 2010; Test, London 2012; New Form (part of Photomonth festival), London 2012 and Photography and the Contemporary Imaginary, London College of Communication, 2013. She has been shortlisted for the award This Working Life, and was exhibited at the AOP gallery in London, Liverpool and Manchester, and has just had her photographs featured in the Exposure 2013 exhibition in New York.

Monica received honourable mentions in two categories for the work ‘Janteloven – Small Town Mentality’ in the IPA – International Photography Award. This body of work was also featured in Portfolio Catalogue issue #47.

In addition to her artist practice, Monica is assistant editor at Photography and Culture and research affiliate at UCA.  She is also involved in curating exhibitions and organising talks and workshops.

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From the series See You See Me by Monica Takvam

How we see ourselves, others and how the camera sees us are prevalent issues in your work.   

How would you describe your interest in seeing?  How does photography as a medium help you to express this?

I have been interested in photography since I was a child, and always very curious and questioning. For a photographer, eyesight is arguably the most important sense and I’ve always been terrified of losing my ability to see. I am also very fascinated with how sight works, and how we see and perceive people and all things around us. I felt it was completely natural and necessary for me to deal with my questions about seeing through my work, and to explore photography as a mechanism for seeing.

I have been concerned with the relationships between identity, self-perception and physical perception since I was a student, and it is something I’m still researching and making work about. In my work ‘See You See Me’ (which has several parts to it) I’m considering the exploration of questions specific to how we see other people and ourselves.  I needed to research the scientific side of perception, sight and the brain in order that I could carry out my photographic practice and understand what I was looking at. The core theme of perception uncovers a dependency between the thing perceived and the means of perceiving it, which I find interesting.

How does blindness fit in here?  What have you learnt about ‘seeing’ as you have researched and worked with blind people?

Exploring blindness became a very natural fit in my project. In order to understand sight and how we see, I really needed to explore blindness and lack of the seeing sense. I’m intrigued by loss of sight, and I’ve always thought a lot about how fragile our eyesight is. What replaces it when it’s not there and to what extent do we see with our minds?

My work to date has juxtaposed the visual medium of photography with non-visual information sources, including audio and Braille, to question what identity means to those who describe themselves as blind and those who experience them as individuals.

Through my research and from working with blind and visually impaired people, I have learned so much about how our perception works. An incredible amount of what we ‘see’ is perceived through a combination of impressions from all senses, but sight is the clear dominant sense.  It makes me feel extremely humble to work with someone who ostensibly faces so many challenges in not being able to see the world or the people around them, and yet in reality they can teach us how to really see, perceive and listen to our surroundings. A woman I’ve worked with told me about how she became blind overnight, she woke up totally blind one morning. Now she obviously has do deal with our extremely visual-based world in a completely new way. To try to understand how that’s like is quite overwhelming.

Can you tell us more about the Braille in the images?  Is the print actually raised?  Is it how the subjects answered after you asked them how they see themselves?  

Yes exactly.

In my series ‘See You See Me’ I asked blind and visually impaired people ‘How do you see yourself’ and I have transcribed their answers across their portraits into the actual photographic paper. I felt it was quite important that the words (in Braille) were written directly onto the photograph. It is something about the photographic paper and the tactile, the fragility of the small dots and the confrontation of exploring by touch to get to know something (or someone)…

I had to learn Braille for this project, and I’ve inscribed all the prints by hand (with the tip of some kind of home-made knitting stick invention). So I’m now pretty good at reading and writing Braille, although I need to practice my by-touch-only reading. The series has been shown with sound, by each portrait there’s a pair of headphones where you can listen to the person’s description of himself/herself. Voice is also such an important factor in perceiving someone, something I’ve perhaps become even more aware of now, after working on this project.

I’m currently working on a new project exploring the same subject area and similar questions around sight, and I keep finding more and more to explore about this. I find myself being interested in the hidden, the un-seeable, the invisible, and at the same time I’m still working out what sight means…

In my new body of work I’ve focused on the face and the close-up portrait, and the idea of not seeing in photography. I’m making the photograph less visible and the surface-information less tactile, less accessible. There are no headphones to listen to either. I guess it becomes a little more unreachable for both people who can see and those who can’t, but the merge makes a new impression and question all together.

In parallel with these photographs, I’ve also been making some tactile sound-devices. I started just exploring tactile sound, devices that activates when you touch them, and the sound on these are very ‘abstract’ rather than melodic. It made me consider language in a way I hadn’t before, and I’ve experimented with ‘translating’ bits of text into Braille, and then into musical notes. You end up with a melody language no-one (or everyone) can understand.

Are the images your interpretation of their words or an expression of how you see them?

A photograph taken by someone of someone else will inevitably always be an expression of how the person behind the camera sees them, to some degree or another. I guess I was less concerned with making an active analysis of the people I photographed; I very rarely feel it is about my view or conscious interpretation of them. I am just genuinely interested in how we perceive people and how we describe ourself, and my portraits in that series were (I hope) my records of them on that particular day, with my emotional response in there, of course.

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From the series Janteloven by Monica Takvam

In Janteloven you explore small town mentality, which can operate to make people feel inferior and act as a vehicle of suppression.  Is this something you encountered in your own background?  If so, how has it impacted you as the photographer you are today?

It is a very familiar and well-known term in Scandinavia, and I think many people based there can relate to it to some degree or another. It is of course transferrable to communities all over the world, as I’ve also explored through my research and interviews with different people, it is just that it was given a ‘name’ by an author (Aksel Sandemose) in Scandinavia in the 1930s and is therefore seen as a very Scandinavian thing. Perhaps it ultimately is…

I was very interested in exploring this social phenomena, and very specific collective mentality, but from a more ‘observational’ point of view. I never grew up feeling this extreme suppression; I had a good childhood and have always had loving, encouraging parents, but I think you will have had to encounter this way of thinking at some point in order to respond to it. I have of course met ‘them’ at different points in my life. Some places in the world nurture an attitude of self-oppression; that you should not think you’re better than others, or that you know more than anyone else, which in moderate forms I’m sure is done with good intentions. However, what I was interested in exploring is how, where and why it can go as far as to give an extreme crippling feeling and be de-motivating to the individual to the point it suppresses uniqueness and desire for any change.

Through all my research and exploration, I can now see a link between some of my core interests of perception and seeing, and self-perception and personal memories. At the moment I’m also working on a conference and exhibition exploring nostalgia, and from researching this topic I’ve become more aware of how much a resentment for uniqueness and something new can also be rooted in deep nostalgia for ‘how things used to be’, which some societies feel more strongly about protecting than others. However, it’s never that simple. For me it is a constant area of research and reflection and I love dealing with these questions through my work.

What do you hope to achieve in highlighting this important issue?

I guess I didn’t initially aim for it to change or achieve anything when first making these, it was an issue I felt like I needed to question, deal with, tear apart, put together again and explore through my images, and people who encounter my images are welcome to make up their thoughts and interpretations. But I do often hope that my photograph and the topics I explore might resonate with someone, and that some people might connect with the work. If you react to photographs you see in some way, so that you either question or reflect or have an internal emotional response to them, the project must have done something good.

Screen Shot 2013-07-12 at 11.13.47From the series Janteloven by Monica Takvam

You are involved in many roles; editing, organising, researching, practicing.  What’s the best part about being a photographer for you?

One of the best parts of being a photographer is being able to work on many diverse projects, meeting different people all over the world and working with something I’m passionate about.

It’s a mode of work and expression that feels completely natural. I love photography and being able to create work is important to me. I feel fortunate to spend my days making or looking at images, editing images or talking about images. In addition to being a photographer, I also work with organising and curating exhibitions, talks and workshops, and I work with a journal called ‘Photography & Culture’. Working with writing and research around visual art is a large part of what I do, so I am able to work with photography, in some form or another, all of the time.

I feel a strong need to make photographs. To work with photography was never a career choice in that sense; I just always knew I needed to do this.


Work in progress by Monica Takvam

Michael David Murphy Interview

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Unphotographable is a catalog of exceptional mistakes. Photos never taken that weren’t meant to be forgotten. Opportunities missed. Simple failures. Occasions when I wished I’d taken the picture, or not forgotten the camera, or had been brave enough to click the shutter.

Michael David Murphy.

I first saw Unphotographable in Brighton as part of the BPF and was intrigued by the idea behind the series.  As photographers and really just as people, most of us can identify with those missed moments.  I can even picture a few of them in my mind now and feel gutted because I know those moments will never come back, no matter how much I try to re-construct them.  What a good idea then, to recreate them in text form, and allow the words to do the talking.  Aside from the missed photo-op this work brought to my mind questions of theoretical interest, relating to the nature of photography as a tool for remembrance and as a record of what may or may not have happened.  It made me wonder whether these texts are more or less reliable than the images would have been themselves.

Michael David Murphy is a photographer and writer based in America.

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I have a terrible long term memory, which may be partly why I’m a photographer. Memory and the-photograph-as-memory are obviously related to this discussion. Do you find you remember moments from your life better with or without a photograph?

I’m sure there’s a long-term affect from living with a photograph year after year that impresses that picture into one’s memory in a profound way.  The images I “fix” into text are definitely remembered with a similar seriousness.  Between photographs and unphotographables, time will tell which I’ll forget first!

What role do you think photographs play in the construction of our individual memories? Are they false memories?

I don’t think they’re false at all. I don’t know if they’re true, either; the stance on that is up to the maker. They’re a certain something — a something with certainty, even if it’s a bit of a fiction. My unphotographables are decidedly real and true to me, and in no way false — they happened, yes, but it’d be naiive to think there are parts of the frame I may not have described, that were just beyond focus or my field of view.

Your titles / captions are quite detailed and often poetic. Do you think the words you write capture things from those moments that the photograph may have missed? Or are you trying to replace the potential picture with words? How do you view this hypothetical conundrum?

I’m trying to create something out of text that resembles the urgency and import of a photograph. All of us read photographs so quickly. We can see that’s a cow and that’s a wheelbarrow. Text takes more time, so it’s my job to make the text as energized and forward as I can in order to replicate the experience we all have viewing photographs. I’m trying to hook the reader as quickly and as efficiently as possible.

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Do you hope to evoke a hypothetical photograph in the ‘viewer’s’ mind or is it important to you that the image is removed entirely?

I don’t mind if the viewer sees a one-inch border on the picture and if it’s printed on fiber paper, or if it’s black-and-white or in color. I’m trafficking images, but I can’t control them after their issued — if someone sees the “picture I did not take” as a painting, or as something in three dimensions, that’s their experience, and it’s alright with me. There’s only so much I can lasso.

Most would agree that images are polysemous – i.e. they have layered meanings and multiple interpretations. When viewing images we are filtering all the information at the same time, rather than in a traditional language (or written word) where we are given information in stages, allowing us to develop an understanding as it unfolds. Do you feel your work loses something of this polysemy by omitting the image or is this the whole point?

Unphotographables are akin to watching an image form itself on paper in a bath of developer in the darkroom. They come into the clear, a word at a time. Omitting the image may not be the whole point, but it’s a necessary part of the effort, yes.

The presentation of the work seems to vary, I have seen small black text on white documents as well as larger, coloured poster style reproductions. What is the thinking behind this variable approach and how do you think they affect the readings?

The latest installation of the work is (in part) a collaboration with The Entente, a Brighton-based design firm. For years, I’d been wanting to collaborate with a great designer to see how they could shape the text in a way that might make it come alive in new and unexpected ways. The collaboration has been a great success, and I’ve incorporated it with smaller, handwritten pieces in a group exhibition called Shadow Puppets, currently on view at Georgia State University.

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As a practitioner as well as writer, how does this work fit within your repertoire?

Schooled as a writer and self-schooled as a photographer, Unphotographable is the hybrid that joins the two. If everything goes according to plan, a book of the work will be published by the end of the year. It’s an ongoing, never-ending project, but it will feel satisfying to see it in yet-another-form, between two covers.


Jamie House Interview

From the series Strangers by Jamie House.  

I have access to people’s memories, vacations and celebrations which I record in one single-image; a portrait of someone I do not know.  The resulting images are layers of images and time within someone’s life. This project investigates how we disseminate and share images in the public domain and makes us consider issues of representation and privacy.

Jamie House

Jamie House works with social networking sites, taking people’s personal photographs and turning them into art.  If you care to distinguish between the two.  The images vary between being reminiscent of abstract paintings and sketchily detailed aspects of life.  I am personally drawn to the former approach; the distinguishing parts of someones life merging and fading into obscurity somehow summarises the online world for me.

I asked Jamie to make me a personal montage (see below) and was amused by the results.  I was searching through the condensed mini-archive trying to locate parts of myself, my history and the key moments I deemed important enough to share with the online world yet found hard to make sense of here. Unfortunately I was disappointingly detailed, I clearly need to add more images to my albums to blend me into abstraction and help make better art. Nevertheless, Strangers raises timely questions whist also making visually interesting work, which is one definition of art, for those who need one.

Jamie is a practicing photographic artist and has been involved in photography education for the past 8 years.  His work has been seen in the Aperture project What matters now?, Brighton Photofringe and Hotshoe Gallery as well as being part of international art fairs and solo shows.  He is currently the artist-in-residence at Karst, a contemporary arts space in Plymouth.

SB: What captures you about photography?

JH: It`s a medium that is constantly evolving and changing, photography being a product of technology since its inception with Talbot and Daguerre at the forefront constantly experimenting with this medium. Fast forward to 2012 and photography is a very different animal and still very much a product of technology and our time. I am very interested in the way technology, digital imaging and the digitization of photography has fundamentally changed our visual culture, and changed the way we think about what a photo is.

The digitalization of the medium has changed how we store, view and access images online.  The idea of the “networked Image” an image being an algorithmic piece of data that can have its own life online fascinates me, and how the “average” young person views hundreds of images a day also changes the way we “read” and process images in a non linear way.

However aside from the digital image, I still take great pleasure in submerging myself under the red safe light in the darkroom and experiencing the latent image appear in the developer in front of my eyes. The alchemical process of developing a black and white image still excites me after 13 years of being a practising artist.

Who are your influences?

-Leonard Kleinrock for creating the initial idea of the internet after he published his first paper entitled “Information Flow in Large Communication Nets”.

-J.C.R. Licklider for sharing his vision of a galactic network.

-Robert Taylor for helping to create the idea of the network.

-Mark Zuckerberg for creating Facebook.

-Artists Micheal Wolf and Jon Rafman for questioning the very nature of photography and experimenting with Google street view, capturing the sublime beauty and absurdity of everyday life and highlighting questions surrounding the surveillance of public spaces.

-John Balderssari for using photography as a art form especially his early photography series “Wrong”.  In this early and important example of conceptual  art (with humour!) , Baldessari puts himself in the role of the amateur photographer. An   unwritten rule known to every amateur photographer is not to photograph a person standing in front of a tree, especially not a tree that appears to be growing out of the subject’s head. For this work Baldessari had himself photographed in front of a palm so that it would appear that the tree were growing out of his head, this and other work really challenged the canons of photography in the sixties.

Can you talk us through the technical process of ‘Strangers’?

I have for the last several years’ stolen images of other people’s memories that I have mined from the internet on various social media sites (mainly Facebook). These people have befriended me online but are not people I have met in person.

Each image is produced by a long exposure focused on a computer screen while browsing a stranger’s social media images. The resulting images are layers of images and time within someone’s life.

Some images are more painterly and abstract; others are more figurative showing images of people with clearly defined profiles. The final aesthetic of the image is controlled by how many images the person has in their Facebook album, if they have one hundred images the final work  is abstracted if they have ten images details of the person, their friends and personal possessions are recorded in more defined detail.

I use my skills as a photographer to frame and compose the computer screen and isolate details. For me these images and the process I use creates a new visual language if I zoom into the screen a grid of colour and the structure of the screen pixels become apparent. The individual size of peoples images within people browsers, the arrows that advance Facebook images, even the mouse cursor can and do become part of the work, these indicators of how the users navigates images are very interesting to me and hopefully make people question how we process and interpret images differently with the advent of digital images.

How did you have the idea and how did it evolve into what it is now?  (i.e. talk us through your thought process.)

I am naturally quite a nosey and inquisitive person, and this was a way I could vicariously live through other people lives through images they took and get under the skin of what it’s like to be alive today. I began to realise by using Facebook, that I have this vast archive of images from friends I know only virtually from across the globe, a giant melting of cultures and backgrounds. I am very interested by the meaning and interpretations of images I don’t know the answers to, I enjoy trying to imagine the intentions of the stranger’s gaze who originally took the images I am re-photographing.

The photographs on somebody’s Facebook photo albums are usually really poignant in terms of the absence of the photographer taking the image, and how people’s subconscious vision informs what they are taking pictures of. However unlike a traditional analogue family album which was usually taken by one main family member, a Facebook picture album with the technology of geotagging enables multiples photographers to share their images of that person in one album so you have this very diverse and multi faceted view of someone you don’t know.

How do you feel about using other people’s images to create your own, albeit very different, image?  Has anyone ever questioned it in terms of copyright?  

I am totally comfortable in using other people’s images especially on social media platforms such as Facebook where they have signed up to share. People share their most private and intimate details with people they don’t know. In our current age of the “celebrity” we have a voracious appetite for ways to share what we are doing through you tube to the remains of reality TV, people have an increased desire to observe human beings at play. I personally think our rights to privacy are almost entirely non-existent, we live in a world where our every action is almost totally transparent to all.

When I complete my images I usually repost these back on Facebook and it’s very rare that anyone recognises their own images.

I see myself at times adopting the role of the curator, re-organising other peoples images that are representations of their lives, re-photographing and re-contextualising them.  My long exposure technique seems to flatten all these layers of time into one single image.

Do you know if the images, although often abstract, give any sense of the subject’s personhood (or at least how they are portrayed online)?  E.g., chaotic, bright and vibrant, calm, serene etc?  

This is a very interesting question and a hard one to answer. I am not sure if the images I produce respond to emotions like chaotic or serene, however maybe the amount of images people have respond to how they define themselves by how they are seen by others, validating their actions and sense of self to the world.

As a photography educator – do you think art can be taught or is it a natural way of seeing and interpreting the world?

I am not sure if art can be taught or not, some people have a natural intuitive approach to image making where they almost immediately understand how to sequence images, colour relationships, metaphor and formal considerations of line, tone and perspective. I believe we are all born creative and as children undertake a lot of creative play and as we “progress” through the schooling system become more institutionalized to think and act in certain ways.

I think one thing that can be taught is how to think critically and the ability for one to contextualise and position their work in contemporary practice and acknowledge the role of photographic and art history in one’s own practice. In addition to this I believe artists should and can be taught how to be “visible” and follow etiquette for contacting people in the art world. Finally I think an important thing that can be taught is how to promote yourself, be organised, have systems and have a good sense of business acumen.

To see more of Jamie’s work:

His work is curators choice at Photofringe.

He is currently chapter 11 of The Digital Chain.

Clare Gallagher Interview

Clare Gallagher’s series Domestic Drift resonated with me instantly as a new mum dealing with chaos on a daily basis.   Instead of getting through the day waiting for the ‘good bits’ Clare has managed to achieve the discipline of seeing beauty in the mundane. Quite an accomplishment in a world of distraction and dissatisfaction.  I wanted to find out more about her way of seeing and how the project evolved.

The everyday is complex terrain. It is always there, readily and universally available; surely it is so obvious that it needs no unveiling. And yet, it is also shrouded in haze, our sense of it dulled by familiarity and habit… We are at risk of missing out a significant portion of our experience that is ever-present yet escapes attention.

Inspired by Guy Debord’s Theory of the Dérive, I began by following his directions:
In a dérive, one or more persons during a certain period drops their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and lets themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.                                                                                                                                   Clare Gallagher

Clare has exhibited in New York, Houston, Delhi, Dublin, and London, and she was shortlisted for Saatchi New Sensations.  The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston recently acquired one of Clare’s images for their permanent collection.

We met for an espresso (double) in Belfast where we chatted fondly about Northern Ireland’s oddities, art education, family life, talking art with the folks and the terrible necessity of ‘getting your work out there’ (shudder).

SB: Well done on Domestic Drift.  What is your greatest sense of accomplishment with the series?

CG: Thank you. I’m really happy to help get the ordinary into cultural discourse and pleased that my work is resonating with a wider audience than I thought it would.

Do you feel you have found your voice with this project?  

I’ve always tried to work with the idea of fragmentation, trying to overcome the sense of there being hierarchies in the ways we experience the world. Domestic drift surprised me though by feeling so political – I wanted a revolution of everyday life! I began it very timidly, worrying that no-one would be interested in seeing what some woman was doing with the most mundane, obvious bits of home life.

Seeing the good things in the everyday really resonated with me.  How did it click with you that instead of waiting for the ‘good’ stuff to happen you should start to see them in the vernacular?

When I took the image of the penguins I had a real turning point – I had been trying to avoid looking at the mess and the work, photographing ceilings and windows and the like. I went home one evening and saw the kids’ room was like there’d been an explosion of toys and clothes and books, put the camera on the floor and focused on the first thing in front of it. Amidst all of what looked to me like chaos and chores, the boys had left these two little penguins, like two brothers chatting away. It was so touching!

Has your project helped you to view life differently?

I’m hoping it doesn’t sound like therapy but yes, I don’t feel so constricted by the constant bedlam around me. I can see home more clearly without the persistent filter of action. I try to appreciate the transience of all the aspects of home life instead of waiting for it all to be ‘just right’.

In your work the hint of other worlds is imminent.  How did that evolve?

Part of learning to respond to my surroundings differently was trying to see from the kids’ perspectives and be fascinated by the ordinary. It had a lot to do with relearning how to make do with what’s there instead of feeling dissatisfied with what we have or how things are and learning to really notice things through all the senses.

What’s it like being a regional artist after living in England for so long?

It’s a really exciting time for photography in Ireland – there are two new photofestivals, a number of new photo magazines like Prism and Supermassiveblackhole as well as the long-established but as-relevant-as-ever Source. The University of Ulster has great BA and MFA photography programmes with fantastic lecturers like Magnum photographer Donovan Wylie. Gallery openings are more fun here too – great craic!

Andrew Bruce Interview

I saw Andrew’s work in Arles this summer in a beautifully restored gallery which looked more like an aristocratic home than a white cube. His work is certainly eye-catching.  Whether it retains your gaze depends upon your demeanor towards dead things and your level of squeamishness.  Faced with looking away in disgust or being drawn in with perverse fascination, I chose the latter.  It was such a nice addition to find that he has a thoughtful approach to his practice and career considering his young age of 22. Andrew completed his BA at The University of Creative Arts, Farnham and is now doing his MA at the RCA and teaching at CCCU alongside.

We barely notice the ‘thud’ when we literally come into contact with animals. My work takes that ‘thud’ as it’s starting point.

I started to see roadkill as a potent symbol of humanity’s clash with nature, both literally and figuratively. Of course people are going to avert their eyes from roadkill; it’s horrendous. Seeing a dead body, be that of a man or a beast, is understandably a traumatic experience. One minute we are a person, with relationships and a personality, and the next minute we could just be an object; our bodies are so delicate. So when it comes to that point of contact – metal against flesh and bone – whether you’re man or beast, you’re powerless. It doesn’t take much to turn a body into something unrecognisable, something repulsive even. I find this the most horrendous thought; it pierces through me, and it’s my worst nightmare.

Andrew bruce

SB: What did you learn at Uni that you couldn’t have learnt in the real world?

AB: Doing my BA was really great, it was time to escape from the real world – and to immerse myself in a wholly new world.  The tutors, the other students, the technical facilities that are available to you – that’s all important too, but for me, most importantly, it was the time. I don’t think there are any real shortcuts in photography.

I really love and believe in art-school education, it is such an exciting institution, and also I see it as a chance to make photography a better medium, better for the viewers, the makers; everyone.  Having said that, I don’t feel like I’m seeing these kind of positive changes coming out of many art schools right now, and in fact in some cases it’s quite the opposite.

What have you learnt from the real world that you didn’t learn at uni?

It’s  hard after graduating, suddenly the safety-net that being a student gives to you disappears, and you are thrust into situations that feel far too big and important to deal with – I’m still so young, and to go from worrying about your marks at Uni one day to pricing prints the next, it’s scary, but it is very exciting!

After graduating I did a lot of assisting, and that opened up a whole new world of amazing experiences and opportunities, and it helped a lot to cushion the transition from finishing my BA.

Do you feel in control of your career path?  If so, how?  If not, how?

I do yes. But a large part of that confidence is just the knowledge that it will all take a long time.  It’s a compelling time to be a photographer, with the economy as it is, the face of photography in a years time could be unrecognisable from how we see it now.  If there are no jobs, then we will make the jobs.

What has surprised you most about your art so far?

The fact that I still really don’t know why I’m making the work that I am.

How do you measure success?

I hear a lot of artists saying that they make work for themselves.. I really can’t identify with this. I make photographs for everyone else, and they can take from them what they wish.

Like I said above I find it hard myself to define why and what it is I’m doing, so success for me is any genuine positive feedback from… anyone.  I have goals, I have certain routes that I would like to see my career taking, but I’m sure these will change over time – if I end up living in a cave, developing my film with rainwater, then I would see this as a great success!

How do you balance the tension of enjoying your accomplishments whilst striving for more?

There are always accomplishments and there are set-backs.  It can be the most intense emotional journey – but I would be worried if it didn’t feel intense and if it didn’t hurt.

I worry about balancing these elements, I don’t know if I do balance them very well, but that’s life… or photography… the same thing…