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My last status update on Facebook read ‘Had best day in Bradford with best family and best boyfriend’. And I was not kidding! On Saturday 5th September, I spoke at an event called Photocamp at the National Media Museum in Bradford. It has been running now for three years at different venues in West Yorkshire, but it was my first time at the event. It was quite random how I got involved – one of the organisers, Louise Miller – or kanpai girl on Flickr – funnily enough spotted me in a Japanese restaurant with sister in Leeds just before we saw Drag Me To Hell at the cinema, back in the summer. I did not know I’d been recognised till Louise emailed me the next day to say hi, and propose the idea that I speak at Photocamp!
Photocamp seems to be quite a popular event, this year it sold out its 150 tickets (£7.50 each) and rather quickly too. It aims to bring together a collection of workshops and sessions for people with/developing an interest in photography. I was there all Saturday and was astonished at how much people got for their ticket price. There was a great variety of topics through the sessions, from male portraiture through to strobism and building your own camera (too many to choose from!) and it also made use of the Museum venue with talks and tours around the various exhibitions and archives.
I had only been to the National Media Museum once before. That was back in 2004, when I had taken part in a local photography project called Leeds in the Picture, and my friend Hannah and I (who I met on the project, and is now a very close friend) volunteered to be interviewed on the radio on behalf of the project. That was one of my first experiences with photography, and here I was again, this time giving the keynote to a photography event. Nice!
The keynote was for 30 mins in the cinema of the museum, to all 150 attendees, and then later I did a 70 minute session in a conference room, themed on composites.
I have done several presentations to date now: Microsoft Pro Photo Summit, Photokina, live photoshoot in Seattle, Focus on Imaging and Palm Springs Photo Festival, over 20 presentations that have been slightly different each time but with similar general themes. In preparing my keynote for Photocamp, I wanted to give a rundown to my ‘story’ in the fashion I had previously introduced myself, with the usual references to Flickr, photo-sharing, and how digital technology had triggered everything for me, but I wanted to bring in some new topics following recent thoughts on art and photography. I was aware that the presentation, being a keynote, needed to touch upon issues that weren’t entirely personal and anecdotal, but which had some universal relevance to photography and were observational of a wider picture, not just of ‘Miss Aniela’ herself.
Now – what was very different about this event? The presence of all my family! My mum and two sisters were in the audience. Being so local to where my family home in Leeds (I travelled up from Brighton the day before), they could all join me.
It was really good to have them there, and made the whole day really fun. It was a first-time opportunity to have them watch me talk in-depth about my work, as it’s probably the most detail they’ve been subjected to, and offered a unique context as they were (at last) captive audience to my thoughts and opinions! Heh… Also, thanks to Matthew, who took most of the pics you see here on this blog.
Jon Eland opened the event, and amusingly started the intro to my keynote with the question, ‘do you have a set called 600 faves’?
After introducing myself, I described how the exhibitions started, how I was approached by Microsoft last year, and what opportunities with other companies and individuals have ensued, along with the surrealism of being on the cover of American Photo. I emphasised how my beginnings in photography had been unconventional and ‘off the cuff’. I started with little equipment, not even a tripod, did not formally study art, and have made my livelihood so far through impact made on the internet. I wanted to convey to the audience how it was simply my passion and curiosity for photography that got me started, and how I’d like to inspire them with that notion today: of the power of ’self’.
Regardless of people’s taste in photography, and whether or not the huge cinema-screen-sized self-portraits before them were their cup of tea, I wanted them to consider me an example of ‘someone who has utilised the tools afforded to us by modern technology’, basically a speaker-friendly way of saying what Louis Lesko said in a well-worded testimonial about me which appears in my book: ‘an example of what happens when an artist has the temerity to ignore established paths and create herself from nothing, by utilising all of her own assets in synchronicity with the opportunities afforded by a modern-day global network’.
I then proceeded to try and further break the ice by saying I don’t think I stand here giving the keynote necessarily because I have bags of talent – ‘that is for you to decide’, but because I have done things and got them out there. I proceeded to call the word ‘talent’ redundant, not just because it is thrown about so much on the telly at the moment to describe anything and everything, but because success in any field depends on skills and applying oneself, and that if such thing as inherent talent, or an ‘eye for photography’ exists, it’s not enough by itself to get you places, just as a state of the art DSLR doesn’t take great pictures by itself.
Whilst I do believe to some extent that being an ‘artist’ is inherent, maybe because I’ve seen several young photographers with a visual eye that could not yet have been ‘learnt’, and the notion of ‘learning’ art seems very problematic to me, what is more important is being resourceful.
To add here: there are photographers who I personally think have ‘talent’ insofar as they seem to have a magic appeal in their images, and there are some who also have great interpersonal skills, ambition and confidence, and those who don’t. The former are the ones who will be successful photographers. Likewise, I have seen photographers whose work I don’t personally think is good, or maybe just isn’t my cup of tea, but they have fantastic skills which may include excellent articulation, PR skills, business skills or simply confidence, and they will do better than the ones who don’t get themselves out there, however much talent they might (subjectively) have.
I continued to elaborate: when I first started on Flickr I didn’t have any goal, nor was I aware what it would lead to. At the start, I just created images because I enjoyed it, and wanted to create more and more, and because I was sharing it at the same time, and not keeping it hidden, it got out there, and had an impact. In that sense I do encourage the use of the internet to share your work. However, I also wanted to share with the audience some mixed feelings about the net. Recently I’ve become a little jaded with all the self-promotion from other photographers on the net: on Flickr, Facebook and Twitter, as it’s easy to put across a distorted and complacent image of oneself. That is why it’s great to physically talk to people as I did at Photocamp, and break through the often-misunderstood veneer of the internet!
I then went on to describe why I take self-portraits, and how it’s been a way for me to seize those ‘tools’ I had been previously harping on about: a way for me to jump up and take pictures without relying on anyone else, or having anyone else’s permission or interception. It’s also been a way to build my confidence with a camera, and to try and hone a style. I mentioned how a lot of people are taking self-portraits, from what I can see on the internet, and that the appeal of using oneself as a model must be an attraction for many; being cheap, easy, and not requiring confidence or know-how to get started.
As in previous presentations, I broke ‘Miss Aniela’ down into her component parts of ‘control’: digital camera, digital processing, photo-sharing and self-portraiture, I showed how we have easier access to creating art and going from amateur to ‘professional’.
This is where I wanted to make this presentation different, however. I wanted to question words like ‘photography’ and ‘photographer’; ‘art’ and the ‘artist’, and ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’. I wanted to argue that many of the labels we feel obligated to give ourselves are starting to defy meaning. Like the word ‘talent’, I want to question some words of which our pre-conceived notions are beginning to become outdated. I said to the audience that although I stand here introducing myself as a ‘professional full-time photographer’, I want to disect exactly that means, because the conventional notion of a full time photographer is something that is being challenged.
When I hear those words, I get an image of someone with lots of equipment, maybe even using and developing film, taking lots of pictures every day, verbally directing other subjects to his gaze. The word ‘photographer’ strikes an immediate image that I don’t fit.
In that sense, you could encourage me to use the label ‘artist’. I produce work that is made up of individualised pieces, to my own brief and whims, which I intend to then exhibit and sell. I don’t take pictures every day, and some days I even get fed up with photography. So, you could say it’s more like my chosen medium as an artist, for the moment, and is one of several media I could choose to express myself in.
On the other hand, I can be described as a ‘photographer’, because I also have a foot in the photography industry itself – speaking at events like Photocamp, about, specifically, my photography; promoting photography products, being featured in more photography magazines than general ‘art’ magazines.
We are all aware, however, that there are many different types of, and jobs in, photography. The two I am concerned with here are ‘art photographers’ and ‘commercial photographers’. The ‘art photographer’ we tend to know as someone who works on individual photos as ‘art’. The ‘commercial photographer’, be it fashion, advertising or catalog, tends to churn out a high quantity of images, to a specific brief, and generally with a focus more on aesthetics rather than concept.
So therefore I might want to describe myself as an ‘art photographer,’ and yet, I don’t fit all those qualities that one conventionally sees in accepted ‘art photographers’, as someone who has not studied art, and who embraces digital technology and the internet as a photo-sharing space. I’m usually mentioned with the word ‘flickr’ in the same breath, and like it or not, it’s sad to say that some galleries still have a somewhat snobby attitude toward the modern: toward artists who share their work on photo-sharing sites and who don’t have art degrees – or, who don’t have a certain kind of traditional style. This is where I went on to get specific about the type of images you normally see in galleries.
I gave a little brainstorm of the qualities I see in the work of a typical ‘art photographer’ and a ‘commercial photographer’, and the rules they are taught to adopt. I emphasised that these are just my observations and are a very general statement about either side of the spectrum, certainly nobody will follow one side only, there will be exceptions and overlaps and just intended to be a quick exercise.
I showed some examples of work I consider typical ‘art photography’.
The conventional ‘art photographer’ produces photography that is: often sober, sombre, subtle, very minimally processed, most often taken on film, not digital (or appearing to have been taken on film). They will follow fewer technical rules, maybe even be badly composed, blurred or strangely cropped, overall, not looking, on face value, to have been that ‘difficult’ to take. You will conventionally see images like this in art magazines like Foam and Photoworks. The focus seems to be more on the concept or narrative, which will often be given textually alongside – as in the work of Brighton artist Eva Kalpadaki, whose images in her series/exhibition ‘Empty Space’ are accompanied with a verbose explanation telling us what we should be seeing in the images of blank walls.
Then I went onto show some examples of work that I consider more akin to that of a ‘commercial photography’. The images are: dramatic, colourful, polished, staged (or are staged as candid), visually-led (with a varying degree of concept or narrative), have instant impact, have followed more technical ‘rules’ of photography, and often in celebration of beauty or colour. The images might well be taken using digital cameras and processed with high degree of post-production e.g. Photoshop.
I then expressed an excitement at the fact that work like mine, which has traits that people have previously labelled as ‘commercial’, ‘beautiful’, even ‘fashion-like’ is being accepted as ‘art’ by galleries who would normally accredit artists producing work in the former category as the norm. Since gaining interest from galleries in Madrid, Miami and Chicago, I feel more encouraged to believe that my exhibitions so far have not been novelty one offs. By sticking confidently to our own tastes and aesthetic style, we can hopefully pave the way for more modern digital creativiity to be accepted, but crucially, to be accepted as valid ‘photography’.
What we see on the web, on sites like Flickr, are lots of people becoming active in sharing work with similar qualities of an art/photography hybrid.
However, I wanted to construe exactly what role photo-sharing plays in the production of modern photography, because I think it is more than a ‘role’, but a shaping force. The new ways that people are sharing their work is having an effect on the nature of the work they produce.
I see my work more onscreen than I do in print, seeing it most often postcard-size on a screen. I would describe myself as a ‘web born artist’, someone whose work is different because of the medium through which I’ve shared it from day one.
When you look at people’s work on flickr, or any website, the most popular images are those which look good at small or thumbnail sizes. In fact, some people might specifically, maybe even subconsciously, gear their work to have a composition impactful enough to draw attention at thumbnail-size, to increase likelihood of internet hits. So, this new space, and the way this new space acts as a route into an art or photography livelihood, changes the art itself.
I don’t believe this is necessarily negative, or inferior to art as we know it, but simply indicative of a change.
As I’d done in my first presentation, at the Microsoft Pro Photo Summit, I cited the example of the Tate Britain collaborating with Flickr in 2007 to invite submissions from the photo-sharing public on the theme of Britain, in ‘How We Are Now’. One of my images was chosen for the final 40 that went on digital display in the gallery. This is interesting as it shows how the modern photo-sharing phenomenon is meeting the traditional art world and blurring the boundaries. The Tate showcased not just photography, but the photo-sharing public, suggesting a change of traditional routes into the art scene.
I went on further to describe commissions and projects that have come my way through building my persona on the web, and then also mentioned how the inundation of praise on the web can on one hand encourage complacency, but on the other hand, can reveal certain societal attitudes that people would not get such a chance to reveal in other contexts. One of the biggest issues raised is my sex.
I have often been asked whether I think my images would have caught so many people’s attention if I weren’t, as they claim me to be, a young female who comes across as attractive in the pictures. I was asked this recently in a magazine interview, and I gave the answer I am about to give here.
My answer is that most likely not, my pictures wouldn’t be so popular.
However, my response is that we all have the free choice of what subject to use in our picture, be it an appealing landscape or model, or a pretty cat.
The issue is that we are not used to those subjects being in control of their appropriation.
The more I see female self portrait artists like myself asked these questions, the more I am aware that the need to ask it tells us a lot about the place of women and men in society, what we are used to seeing and by whom. When other photographers use models in their images, especially appealing and beautiful models, the pictures grab people’s attention without the photographer being queried or probed about how much interest their images have roused.
A woman who takes pictures of herself gets the credit for the work, which some people are uncomfortable with, because usually women in images do not ‘speak’ or have any kind of presence beyond their superficiality. Moreover, self-portraiture is difficult, and not to be undermined, which is why it can be so rewarding, and why so many people (men and women) do it. In particular, I think it is good that more women seem to be taking it up. Whilst the content of women’s self-portraits can never meet feminist ideals (as there are so many ideals, but not to get into that minefield here), to produce images of oneself, I think as a woman, is particularly satisfying as we can single-handedly challenge the many images of women we see around us in the media who are usually photographed by a male-dominated industry.
In that sense, I like to think that my work can offer something to women, and to everybody, in terms of encouraging you to seize hold of your own image and represent yourself how you want.
And that was it. I was going to give a detailed rundown of what I did in my Composite session, but this post is long enough already! The session took some of what I mentioned in my Focus On Imaging presentations, in terms of the ‘categories’ into which my work falls according to its level of processing, and unpicked the process on how to do a clone or levitation image.
However, I then went onto describe all the different levels of compositing beyond those: the more subtle ways you can combine more than one image from one shoot, or images from different shoots, or using stock images (preferably one’s own), textures, and also talking about complex compositing jobs I’ve done: ‘knowing where to start’, as here, and ‘knowing when to stop!’ as here. I also cited some examples of great other compositing work: Quizz, Mattjin, Oladios.. Better to have been there, really.
Snaps round the building:
Above and below: With organisers Jon Eland and Louise Miller. Thanks Teresa for taking these snaps.
With the family:
Above: having a prolonged tea break after giving my keynote
Above: Joking to my sister that I was going to pose like this, to my mum’s disapproval
…then realising there was a class full of people behind the glass window just ahead
Thank you to the people who bought a signed copy of my book ‘Self gazing’ (which was available after each talk).
A big thank you to the organisers, and also to my family, Matthew (and Louise!) for putting up with me all day and for being my trusty assistants, helping to lug boxes of books about!