Symposium: Photography Matters

Photography Matters was an OCA-led event that sought “to map out areas for discussion in photography’s relationship to the everyday lived experience, visual culture, evolving technology, archiving and history, news media, education at all levels and public perception.” (WeAreOCA 2016)

Overall comments

The overriding feeling I came away with was this: we ask too much of a photograph.

We often try to stretch a single still photograph to do things it’s not best suited to:

  • We ask a portrait to express the character of the subject
  • We ask a news photograph to summarise an entire situation
  • We ask a single scene to project a narrative with an imagined past and future

… and we find some clever and interesting ways to overcome these limitations. I don’t mean this as a criticism of either photography in general or these five papers in particular, I actually find it quite thrilling that people are pushing at the constraints and finding the outer edges of what photography can do.

The day also reinforced one of my recurrent thoughts on the discussion of photography – that we conflate any and all uses of photography under the single word as though there is some kind of universality to the photograph, when my view is much more that it is a medium that has many uses. It’s difficult to imagine a ‘writing symposium’ with a panel made up of a novelist, a copywriter, a technical author, a speech writer and a journalist and asking them to talk about ‘how they use words’.

We credit ‘the photograph’ with more universality than it deserves. Again, we raise our expectations of the photograph (and by ‘we’ I probably mean photographers, I’m not sure the average person gives it much thought).


Les Monaghan

Les Monaghan
  • On making art photography for public audiences
    • With a particular focus on fairness and effecting change
  • ‘Fairness’ rather than ‘truth’
    • Spoke about decisions not to take particular photos, and not to include inflammatory views in public portrait projects on the grounds of fairness to the subject, even if they do actually represent a prevailing ‘truth’
    • A more critical view of this would be that it’s a kind of squeamish self-censorship? A pure photojournalist / documentarian would place ‘truth’ over ‘fairness’?
    • But Monaghan doesn’t position himself as a pure documentarian, but more as a sociological photographer I think
    • ‘Fairness’ assumes a widely shared value system – but this is subjective
  • Talked about his work existing “in the space between art and documentary
    • Documentary is usually intended to be unambiguous
    • Art is usually intended to be ambiguous
  • Honest description of difficulty in getting the audience to engage
    • Choosing the right audience and distribution channel is important – e.g. London gallery world unmoved by portraits of working class Doncaster people
    • Public portraiture project Aspirations had more participants than exhibition visitors, only reached a wide audience when turned into an outdoors installation
  • Spoke about getting audience feedback
    • Interviewed people who see the Aspirations portraits every day
    • Mixed results – some people were unmoved – effecting change is harder than you’d hope it would be
  • There’s a political undercurrent to Monaghan’s work that I really connected with (but I know that some other students didn’t)
    • The dispossessed residents of underinvested northern cities don’t have much of a voice, and projects like Monaghan’s Aspirations and Desire Project give them a platform – albeit only in their home town
  • To my overriding theory that a photograph is asked to do too much:
    • Monaghan’s public portrait projects sidestep the challenge of getting a single portrait to express the identity of an individual by using a collection of portraits to express the identity of a whole community
    • And yet this only works because of the text captions – exposing another limitation of photography as a purely visual medium
  • I really liked this talk, I reckon it was the highlight of the day for me
    • Partly because I engaged with the kind of work Les does – trying to bring change to disenfranchised communities
    • And I think also partly because I had the chance to see one of his projects in person, the Desire Project at the local shopping centre, which I will write about separately

Dawn Woolley

Dawn Woolley
  • On selfies, consumer culture and identity
  • Social media has become the primary space for commodification
    • In the ‘attention economy’ consumers are adept at filtering out pure commercial messages
    • So brands are using ‘industrialised intimacy’ to covertly advertise to impressionable (usually young) consumers
    • Micro-celebrities on Instagram etc who endorse products (although to be honest I thought this was more of a YouTube phenomenon)
  • I confess I struggled to engage with this at the time, as I failed to recognise the world described (I am middle-aged but childless) and felt that the examples given of ‘covert advertising’ were so transparent as to fool no-one!
    • But talking to another student afterwards, a mother of teenagers, the penny dropped that this is indeed a genuine phenomenon, and that young consumers really believe that these micro-celebrities are just good role models who happen to mention brands quite a lot… :-/
  • The other major takeaway was that Debord was right with his Society of the Spectacle theories, just 40-odd years ahead of his time!
    • The examples given here about the nature of the spectacle made more sense than those in the original book
  • To crowbar in my ‘a photograph is asked to do too much’ theory:
    • We tend to ask that a photograph is ‘true’ and ‘honest’, but businesses are exploiting this by hijacking social media, which is still seen primarily as the platform for individual communication
  • Overall sense of this paper was that it raised more questions than it answered
    • It articulated a problem but I came away unclear on what (if anything) can or should be done about it

Keith Roberts

Keith Roberts
  • On ‘photographic archival intervention’
  • Gained access to portrait archive of Edward Chambre Hardman, Liverpool photographer active 1920s-1960s
  • Seemed to struggle initially with what to do with the archive – tried rephotography approach first
  • Chronotype approach – the Intermissions project – worked well in my opinion
    • Selected portraits of same person x years apart (usually separated by WW2)
  • First takeaway here: positioning two images together, separated by time, gives the viewer the space in between the two data points to insert an imagined narrative
    • So overcomes the difficulty a single image has in implying a narrative
    • Example given was of a particularly androgynous army lieutenant during and after WW2, and it’s easy to imagine a fascinating story in between the two images taken six years apart
  • Second takeaway: archivist (/curator) as author
    • Roberts chose the pairings, and either consciously or subconsciously could have steered the selection based on pre-conceived narratives (on how the war changed people)
    • Or is it me as viewer that’s bringing these preconceived narratives? Viewer as author?
  • Archival projects rarely do anything for me but this was an exception – it’s the time-gap approach that did it

Rachel Smith

Rachel Smith
  • On the materiality (physical features) of photography
    • The tension between the process and the product
    • How much physical aspects of the image-object influence the interpretation of the image
  • Some people ask a photograph to be a physical object as well as an image
    • Even when it doesn’t inherently need to be
  • Photographs that announce themselves as photographs
    • Very self-conscious, postmodern
    • Can’t ‘lose oneself’ in the image – the ‘transparency’ of a photograph is gone, replaced by an over-emphasis on the photographic status
    • Conceptual – art about art (limited audience?)
  • Abstracts that emphasise the photographic process over the content
  • Wolfgang Tillmans, Gerhard Richter, Anne Collier
  • Interest in materiality is on the increase (as evidenced by examples at Photo London)
    • A reaction to the rise of digital? nostalgia?
    • Audience member who asked a question on this may have put his finger on it: the art world prizes materiality as it’s easier to monetise – they rely on selling ‘objects’ so purely digital images with no inherent physicality are harder to sell!
  • Digital still needs a physical ‘carrier’ though – the device with a screen
  • Digital has its own virtual form of materiality – glitch photography as a genre
  • Is photography ‘too perfect’ (too indexical) and needs imperfections added to make it more interesting?
  • I found this an interesting diversion but don’t see it influencing my own practice a huge amount
    • The images are interesting to look at, especially the abstracts, but as a concept it’s a little too self-referential and I think photography can be used to comment on so much more than… itself

Derek Trillo

Derek Trillo
  • How to use experimental photography to depict notions of time
    • Specifically to denote building usage in architectural photography
  • Architectural photography is unchanged in 90+ years
    • Buildings are always shown empty or virtually empty of people
    • Form is valued over function, photographically speaking
  • Like the Dawn Woolley paper, I found this to be more about articulating a problem than pinning down solutions, though some interesting ones were offered without making definitive conclusions yet
    • Light trails to depict movement
    • Layering multiple images
    • Extremely long exposures (months)
  • This was another great example of stretching the photograph to its outer limits
    • Still images are inherently unsuited to depict movement and duration
    • Yet it’s admirable that someone is trying to find ways to do so!


A fascinating day. I didn’t find all of the papers equally interesting or equally applicable to my (still-developing) practice, but I got some nuggets out of each of them. What was particularly interesting was finding the links between the papers and thinking about them all holistically after the event (hence it’s taken me 48 hours to get around to writing this up).

It was also great to meet up with some fellow students that I’ve only previously encountered online – one of the recurrent benefits of study visits and events like this – must do them more often.


Photography Matters (accessed 19/05/2016)

The Desire Project (accessed 22/05/2016)

Intermission Portraits (accessed 23/05/2016)


5 thoughts on “Symposium: Photography Matters

  1. Catherine 24 May 2016 / 13:06

    Good to read your notes and gain a sense of the different themes.


    • Rob Townsend 25 May 2016 / 09:32

      Thanks! Not sure how much I could do it justice in written form but it was really inspiring.


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