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Friday, 21 September 2018

Broken Camera Pictures

I'm delighted to get into the Taylor Wessing Portratit Prize with this Broken Camera Picture of Isabel in a field in Kent in February.

The camera that was broken was an old Hasselblad. Everything was broken on it - the shutter, the back, the viewfinder. This picture is from a roll where half the pictures were completely black. The next roll was all completely black.

It was the lastest in a long line of broken cameras I have. I used to buy old Rollei 6000 series cameras - the backs would be hanging off them. I had one that I kept together with a piece of string. this is what happens when you keep a back on a camera with a piece of string:

I don't have a broken camera at the moment but I do have a broken flash that I keep together with sellotape. It sits on a broken trigger that is stuck on top of my camera. This is what it looks like.

And that's Tito Mouraz trapped in the screen. Let's release him...

The great thing about having broken cameras is you get these happy accidents that are a product of your poverty. Let's be quite clear about this. I would much rather have fully functioning cameras that don't break, have lens and shutters that work and are predictable. But that not being the case, I will glory in the happy accidents. You can buy those. They have personality. You can't buy personality.

I went to the excellent Tish Murtha (and Alex Prager) exhibition at the Photographer's Gallery last month.

Included in some of the emphemera is a letter from the college in Newport telling her what to bring when she came to study. It didn't amount to much: '...a couple of developing tanks, film clips, and if you have the money buy a Kiev or a Seagull for a tenner.' That's the gist of it.

Oh and her university fees were paid, a maintenance grant was paid, a travel grant could be claimed, you could (and people did) sign on in the holidays. Studying at university was accessible for her. That's how she got to make the work she did, work that she is almost a part of.

Now when you study it's a Macbook (I love it when you get twenty individuals sitting round a room, all with Macbooks. I wish I was an individual too and had one of those nice shiny machines but alas), a massively expensive camera, phone, contracts, subscriptions and all the rest of it.

God help us, God help me, my daughter will be studying an Arts degree in a couple of years. Oh and £9,000 a year. And a student loan because there are no meaningful grants. But just to help out a little, a travel grant from the local council to pay for your bus fares...? Get outta here!

So there's that. It's expensive to study to be a photographer now in a way that it never used to be. And then after you study, it's expensive to be a photographer. Of course if you have money it's much easier. If you are wealthy, it's much easier.

If you're rich and want to make work, you make it. You don't worry about cameras, or film, or sd cards that write fast enough. You don't need to wait for grants, for sales, for an invoice to be paid. You don't have to juggle money around, you just make it. And if there's too much time involved in teh making, or there is something you are technically unable to do you can pay for assistants to make it for you.

Then when it comes to showing work, you can print it, you can frame it, you can use light, sound, film, VR, get a troupe of performing monkeys in to liven things up when it gets a bit dull, and pay for people to help you make it good.

You want to print something, you can choose whatever ink, paper, printing technique you can imagine. You want to sell books or prints, you have a ready made network of people with just the right money to buy it.

There's an opening or a talk or a festival you want to go to. You can go. You don't need to think too much about work, or worry about accomodation or airfares. you simply go.

And because you're going to all these festivals, you're meeting all the other people who go to them. You're part of the networks, at one with the publishers, the gallerists, the curators, the buyers
 - and they are in some ways self-selecting. You know what's hot and what's not (and it changes very quickly) so you're up to date with the latest trope (should your hand be holding a rock, a stick, an owl or a stick of asparagus? )Not everybody who is there is minted, but if you're minted you are. You are literally buying access, buying the social and cultural capital that will match so nicely your economic capital.

You get lots of wealthy people in photography who support photographers, writers, publishers by buying work and generally helping people out. They recognise their advantage and use it for the common good. Very rarely do you get a photographer who says, yes I'm minted, it has been an advantage to me. You get the same lack of social awareness repeated again and again. I have friends who send their three children to private school at a cost of £40,000 a year (the grandparents pay), then pretend it gives them no advantage. It's not too different from the Monopoly Effect, an experiment where some players were given a massive advantage in the game, bankrupted their opponents, ate all the snacks, took up all the table space, then said the advantage was nothing to do with their winning.

The reality of it all is that most people in photography exist in some kind of non-recognised, respectable genteel poverty. So many people  are really skint and can't afford all the things that have been mentioned above. They have family responsibilities, are carers, are single mothers, they might appear visibly successful but financially they're not.

I was talking to somebody (who appears extremely successful and makes genuinely great work. But is actually broke) a couple of months ago and she wondered if there shouldn't be a consideration of the wealth of the photographer in evaluating work. If you are stinking rich and can afford that army of assistants and those high production values, should there be a little cross against you was what she was saying. Should there be a red mark of wealth against you.

It's a valid question and one lots of people ask - but not too loudly. Because if you are wealthy, there is a definite advantage (and don't get me started on wealthy people crowdfunding. Don't be so tight!). Not only do you have the advantage of being able to make, install and show work at your convenience, with an army of assistants, and nary a financial worry in the world, you also have all the connections that make life go that much more smoothly. The rich are a different breed, they do look after their own and that's in photography too. That was the case in the past, it's still the case now. The difference was in the past, the rich looked different - they spoke different, they dressed differently, they lived differently. Now they have the ability to look, speak and act the same as everyone else. They live among us! Until it comes time where it is convenient not to live among us. You can pretend it's not the case, but it is.

Oh dear, I'm getting carried away there. I don't know if it should be the case or it can be the case that there should be a red mark against the wealthy. I'll do the same as everyone else and sit on the fence on that, wait to see which way the wind blows, pause a moment till the revolution gets closer.

What I do think is there should be much, much more of a balance for those who are not wealthy, for those who struggle to afford all the things mentioned above.

This post started with me congratulating myself on getting in the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize. I paid £28 for the privilege, then some money for printing, and then some more for getting it to London. I paid to enter two prizes this year, none last year, one the year before. I enter the Taylor Wessing because it's at the National Portrait Gallery which comes with highbrow cultural capital which I shouldn't care about but still do. And 2) there's a big cash prize and how come I'm not on the shortlist for that. How fucking dare you!

I'd enter more prizes if I had the money. Other people would too. Jim Mortram (who is genuinely poor) has written about the barriers in photography in relation to prizes, exhibitions and various opportunities. It's not just a barrier for him, it's a massive brick wall with razor wire fencing, so broad and wide it crosses, Mexico, the Atlantic, and the Sahara before ending up in an expanse of concrete somewhere on the West Bank. That's how big it is.

For prizes like the Taylor Wessing, there is a kind of transparency in the cultural arena you're working in, a transparency that is manifestly non-transparent. It doesn't pretend to be anything it isn't, it just hides it a bit. Or a lot. Or I'm just rationalising because I'm being exhibited. I think that's probably the case.

Paying for exhibiting, or publishing, or workshops, or portfolio reviews can be really destructive  when the payments become income generators for festivals, or organisations beyond all else. This is especially the case when that income generation goes hand in hand with the rhetoric of collaboration, witnessing, making-a-difference, and general concerned-ness.

The hypocrisy can be staggering. If you are charging solely for showing work, if you don't address equality of access or opportunity to any degree, then you are full of neo-liberal caca. Which is fine if you're honest about it. Don't pretend to be some kind of concerned, critically engaged, community-centred organisation. You're not.

Fortunately you do get some individuals, organisations and festivals that are beginning to have bursaries, free places, open access to provide opportunities for people who fall outside the totally minted categories. Gazebook festival used to be free and generous: free talks, free portfolio reviews, and even some free workshops. It's never enough but it's something. There's free mentoring, free places on workshops, bursaries, or even affordable workshops. It's more individuals  I think - I know Natasha Caruana has offered free mentoring, Laura El-Tantawy has offered free workshop places and Sohrab Hura is running accessible workshops in Kolkata - but I hope more festivals are going to follow suit.

Anyway, Broken Camera Pictures. They are in a strange way a celebration of being skint, of not having everything perfect, of being able to make something with personallity from a happy accident that no amount of money can buy.


Stan B. said...

It's always been the case. But now people actually say that you can shoot "for free-" as if cameras, computers and the whole digital litany is, in fact... absolutely free!

And that, of course, doesn't take into account everything then needed to get your work out there and seen by the monied folk who count at: seminars, reviews, festivals, galleries, etc.

Not even gonna get into having to pay a hefty amount of the actual publishing costs should you be lucky enough to be selected by a book publisher.

And now that everyone's a photographer, $$$ counts more than ever to make the difference...

Lucy Carolan said...

FFS why are you so embarrassed - enjoy being selected, and congratulations!

amolitor said...

It does not help that the industry is, apparently, rife with people who want to make a living off you.

"Artist driven" book deals.
For pay portfolio reviews.
For pay competition entries.
For pay galleries.

all with a depressing lack of references. "So I have to raise $20,000 before you can print my book, but it will open SO MANY doors for me, eh? Perhaps I could talk to some of your other authors who have rocketed to success? No? Hmmmm."

colin pantall said...

Thanks Stan - yes, the myth of digital making things cheaper and opening things up. It doesn't as you mention.

Amolitor - you can still make things cheaply and that should be valued and is valued in some places. Check out Mc Hotel which is a book that cost 2 euros.

Ha ha Lucy - I'm not the least bit embarrassed. I do often want to write posts that say fuck the rich (in their various guises - and I probably fit into some of those guises) and that is hidden away in this post somewhere. I like the contradiction of that and the NPG - the attraction of which is due to... well it's a bit contradictory.

Justyna Neryng said...

Well observed and bloody brilliant, i too was short listed for the taylor wessing in 2011 and am still in the skint arena of photography, not even able to afford applying for exhibitions competitions etc. Thank you for expressing frustration so well and reminding me that i am not alone in this leaky broken rudderless boat!