Friday, 29 March 2013

OCA study day: FORMAT Festival, Derby: 16 March 2013

So, it’s a fairly grey Saturday morning in Derby, and I’m walking from my car to the prearranged meeting place at the University of Derby’s Markeaton Campus. I hazard a guess that the solitary figure I’m following might be heading the same way – say hello and it turns out to be RobTM. And there’s the first benefit of a study day instantly on show – we get to meet the otherwise largely unknown people behind the posts we agree or disagree with, and we get a chance to feel part of the organisation we all signed up to.

Next up in the line of benefits is we get to meet the tutors – in this case Gareth Dent, Jose Navarro and Andrew Conroy - and hear them talking about things they clearly have a genuine passion for. Before they can start on this though they’ve clearly had to go through the unenviable task of whittling down the huge range of material on show to a selection that they can all agree on as worth seeing. They admitted themselves that this was a far from simple job but they obviously agreed on a short list because we were asked to check out 5 artists in advance the day: Daniele Cinciripini, RJ Fernandez, Caroline McNally, Ken Grant and Chris Coekin.

Daniele Cinciripini – the series on show “Ten Minutes” features portraits of workers in Italian factories on their ten-minute breaks. Overall I felt the images chosen for the display were fairly cohesive. The overwhelming sense is one of isolation - or at least a determination to get away from others – and tiredness. Beyond that I’m not sure what they said. Perhaps it’s enough, but I can’t help thinking that somewhere the link between the way they are in their break and the process that put them there is missing.

The other artist in this part of the exhibition we were asked to bone up on was RJ Fernandez, and his series about gold mining in the Philippines. In spite of the relatively large prints the images were quite “snap-shottish”. Jose made the interesting suggestion that this was in fact deliberate – mirroring the lack of care being taken with the landscape, but expressed a reservation that the series did not really reflect the content of the artists statement. It is hard to disagree with this analysis – although the statement did cover quite a broad sweep of issues and there were only 5 images on show. The inclusion of a photo of a diorama seemed to compound this difficulty. On the other hand I found this an interesting series, because in some senses it mirrors the subject matter the limestone quarry photos of Hatkeyama while offering an entirely different treatment, and it does benefit from the extended series on the artists website.

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Elsewhere in this part of the exhibition Louis Quail’s “Desk Job” attracted a lot of discussion. I was particularly taken by the presentation – with each of candid prints of office workers being suspended with office stationery clips – perhaps referencing the walls of the typical office pod. Sandra Hoyn’s “Poisonous Business” attracted a fair amount of negative comment for its portrayal of Indian leather workers – yes their conditions are appalling, yes some of the workers are very young and yes it’s an unpleasant and pollution business – but what are we , the viewer, supposed to do about it? I’m unclear how this kind of victim tourism helps anyone – not least because we’ve seen this type of image so many times. Callous? Maybe – but I can’t help feeling that the photographer told her story not their story.

Oddly though, the exhibit that produced the most discussion – initially of the “Is it photography?” type and subsequently about it’s meaning – was the 4-shot sequence produced by Christopher Steel in Lower down the value chain. Documenting just 4 pieces of office trivia it raised a whole series of issues about the way that modern commerce has affected our relationships with others and our need to establish our own identity.

After the University of Derby we moved on to the Deda Dance Centre where we saw Ken Grant’s images of Liverpool families at the seaside. For a variety of reasons I missed most of Andrew’s commentary on these although we did swap thoughts on the possibility that there was some stereotyping in some of the images.Overall though I find this kind of photography hard to engage with – which wasn’t helped by the slightly aged feel to the images.

Else where in Deda we had a solid discussion about Moira Lovell’s We Still Standa series of photos of men affected by the miner’s strike of 84-85 (does anyone know why the Format website insists on capitalising this?). The images are very simple small groups of men flash lit against a very dark background. Initially the discussion assumed that these men were strikers, but it soon became apparent that we were bringing our own assumptions to the debate – perhaps because of the simplicity of the images. In fact, the blurb does not even say that they are miners – leave alone ex-strikers. It does say that underlying her practise is an “investigation into awkwardness”, and there is certainly a sense of that in the images. Sometimes there are small groups with one or two standing a little apart – hinting perhaps at unhealed damage to past relationships, or hierarchies that time and change have not overcome.

One artist which caught my eye, but who we didn’t discuss was David Shepherd, with Discarded  - his series of photos on discarded objects recovered from the bottom of Wolverhampton waterways. The essentially random collection of intentionally and unintentionally discarded objects provide a direct link to the people who have worked the waterways over the years and also tell a story of the impact of time on man’s possessions and by implication his works. This was my favourite collection of the whole day.

A bite of lunch and we were on the move again – this time to Quad to see Caroline McNally’s Earth is Room Enough. Coincidentally (or not) this is also the name of a collection of Asimov short stories. It is so long ago that I read them that I can’t say if this has any relevance although the accompanying statement does reference her inspiration by sci-fi films and literature. Whatever – the series presents us with a series of shots of the capping layers on one or more landfills coloured as though they have been cross processed oin some way. There was quite a bit of inconclusive discussion about the reasons for this and even more about whether she suffered from the same problem as RJ Feernandez – ie the pictures did not reflect the aims of the statement. It would certainly take a leap of imagination to extract a critique of consumption based culture. In some ways this is a shame as there is much more powerful and interesting work available on her website.

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On with the fairly relentless pace – this time to the Chocolate Factory to see Chris Coekin’s The Altogether in which he takes a series of portraits of the employees of a copper wire factory based on poses from old TU banners. The images are made more poignant by the knowledge that the factory was about to close when the images were taken. I enjoyed this set – along with David Chancellor’s Pelepele it was one of only two sets I recall that presented people in difficult circumstances with any real dignity. Ian Teh’s Dark Cloud’s elsewhere in the Chocolate Factory takes the familiar route trodden by Sandra Hoyn.

What particularly appealed about The Altogether was that although the idea could have across as a bit po-faced the workers were clearly enjoying themselves and hamming it up for the camera – they were equal participants with the photographer.

And so it drew to a close. It was my first photo festival – and certainly wont be my last. The sheer quantity of work on view was something of a challenge and it was certainly helpful that the tutors picked a few for more detailed study – even if their choices did not necessarily coincide with my interests/tastes. So thanks to them for their efforts in making it a thoroughly interesting and enjoyable day.


  1. A very interesting summary - I do wish I'd been able to get to this year's Format. There seems to have been a lot of interesting work and having such a clear theme running through really helps give an overall coherence.

    I'm not sure I'm with you on Earth is Room Enough. For me at least the fact that we can't see what is underneath those piles is rather sinister and the overall feeling of the images is dystopian and unsettling. It quite easily brings to mind fears of the destruction of the planet's ecosystem. In some ways I find it more powerful for not showing the discarded stuff. I wonder if the pictures were taken on infra red film - the curious pinkness brings to mind Richard Mosse's work - but much lighter and softer, possibly reflecting the Irish climate in comparison to Mosse's African images?

    I found Sandra Hoyn's work more restrained than I was expecting from your comments, though of course I am only seeing the selection that Format put on their website. I couldn't help wondering if your response in part at least reflected distress at the painful lives these people lead. Would it really be better not to document this, or are you suggesting a different take?

  2. Hi Eileen and thanks for the comments. I think my reply is going to be quite long because your questions and reflections have touched on an issue I need to work through in writing - if only for the sake of my conscience.

    Perhaps the answer to my rhetorical question was "Yes! I do sound a bit callous" but it was not my intent. My difficulties with the work - and the unending others just like it - are several fold. It is hardly original - and the plight of this particular group of third world workers is little different to many others - so what am I'm being told that I don't already know? It also brings first world values to bear on a third world situation. One of the group pointed out that the people pictured may actually consider themselves fortunate because they have jobs and incomes. I also find this kind of imagery slightly sanctimonious - turn up with our expensive cameras, get some victim shots and return to our comfortable hotel rooms. You may well be right that I get so cross about this because of the obviously painful lives that these people lead - but I get equally cross because the photos offer no hope. "These are people to be pitied" is what the images say to me - and pity is quite a difficult emotion. I think it dehumanises the object of the pity and ultimately results in us taking control of their lives in an attempt to make them better (in our image of better) irrespective of what is actually required.

    In showing us only the symptoms the photographs also make it difficult for us to act - the situation is so hopeless what can we do? If we only buy western tanned leather goods will the lot of these people improve. Probably not because they'll be un-employed which has its own health implications. Maybe Fair Tade, or simply being prepared to pay a realistic cost for goods would help but the series provides us with no clues.The end result is that we conclude that the money we give to charities and in aid have achieved nothing and so we give up. I feel there are very few cases where this is not true - perhaps Kevin Carters Child with Vulture is a rare exception of a photo from a lone photographer of suffering without hope making a real difference.

    By contrast David Chancellor's Pelepele series offers hope. The women featured clearly work harder and have harder lives than I can begin to imagine and yet they retain a basic dignity and control of their situation - the result is that the viewer can make a link - they are people not victims. I happen to sponsor a child with Plan International and their publicity well understands this dilemma. They show the results of their support while talking about the hardships - I am offered a solution and as a consequence I continue my support.

    So I think the answer to your final question is yes - I'm suggesting a different take. Photographers have a role in documenting suffering but they also need to consider documenting positivity. Unless they do so I will always retain the suspicion that they are as much interested in their own "socially aware" status as they are the plight of their subject.

    I said it would be a long answer :)