Work placement – Shoair Mavlian interview

Shoair Mavlian Photo: Photoworks

I am continuing my work with Photo Meet, and my latest interview was with Shoair Mavlian, director of Photoworks.

As with previous interviews, it was conducted in a conversational style over Zoom and I then transcribed it for publication on the Photo Meet website.

You can see the interview online here:

https://photomeet.org/shoair-mavlian-interview

or as a pdf here:

Feedback on Streams of Consciousness Replica book

This post is a place to gather the feedback I receive on my book and reflect on it.

From Facebook:

‘I just received a copy of David Fletcher’s limited-edition photobook on the story of the Irish border. It is extremely well done – concept, photographs and text. Beautifully made.’

@mickyatesUK, Visiting Professor Leeds University Business School.

Not much I can say about this one, other than to say it was completely unsolcited.

‘A very impressive and highly original approach to a carefully researched documentary project. The quality of production for such a unique book is very high. The text draws the reader through the story and I was left feeling that I knew more about the history of the issues with the border than I had before without having the sense that I’d been taught anything. A thoroughly good publication that I shall be pleased to have on my shelves.

Two thoughts to store away in my own reflective journal;

(1) I was left feeling that the photographs were really just illustrations for a text-based narrative.

(2) A related point, I’d have liked a list of the photographic locations and even a map to see where they were. Purely for my own interest and not necessary for the project.’

@drgrahamwilson, Tutor – Psychology & Counselling at University of Oxford 

This feedback is in two halves really. I appreciate the comment about knowing more about the border after reading the book. The text was meant to be absorbed rather than studied. The follow-up thoughts offer a more critical view, which is equally welcome. I am surprised at the idea that the photographs week ‘just illustrations for a text-based narrative.’ This is certainly not a view I have heard from anyone else, but it does raise a point worthy of consideration.

The text was always an important part of the project for me, but I certainly don’t think it stands on its own, which is what would be implied if the photographs were illustrating the text. I consider my text to be what what Barthes would call ‘relay text’ or what Nancy Newhall would call ‘additive captions’- the images and text complement each other, but neither seeks to explain the other. This comment perhaps represents the view that images should speak for themselves, and that text is somehow a transgression of the documentary ideal.

The use of text in parallel with images is an area of my practice which I want to develop further. Allan Sekula and Duane Michals are references which I return to, although I think that the handwritten texts used by Michals need to be used with caution.

A map of locations has been a feature of various books which include a series of geographical features or a journey and it is something which I considered at an early stage of development of the work. Indeed the first work I produced from my trip to the border included details Google maps showing the location of each photograph. Stuart Franklin suggested a map when he looked at the work. In the end I decided that the location of the photographs was not relevant – the streams represent the nature of the border rather than any specific part of it..

Bristol Photo Festival

Bristol Photo Festival is a new biennial photography festival which has its first edition this year. The Director of the festival is Tracy Marshall (now Tracy Grant since she married her partner photographer Ken Grant) who I know from interviewing her for Photo Meet.

I have volunteered to help with the festival, and the job that Tracy has assigned me is to run the print auction. The idea is to request signed prints from well-know photographers and auction them in aid of the festival. The auction will run online, and then finish with a live auction at the Arnolfini in Bristol.

This is in essence what I the project will involve:
Logistics and admin:
Contact photographers
Obtain files
Print photographs
Get photographs signed
Set up and run online auction
Hang exhibition
Run live auction
Distribute prints
Clean up
Interface with third parties:
Photo printers
Arnolfini for exhibition, book stalls and auction
Marketing : promotion of the auction and recruitment of potential bidders
Accounts : setting up payment system and managing receipts

I will be handling the logistics and admin tasks and interfacing with the intern who will be handling marketing. Since she is Bristol-based, she will be available to do any hands-on work in Bristol.

The great thing about this for me is that I will have a dialogue with many well-known photographers. Even if it is a limited one, it gets my name into their orbit. I will also be dealing with printers, looking a file specs and the technicalities of printing. I will be involved over a long period with the vibrant photographic community ib n Bristol.

Book promotion

The idea of producing an affordable version of my book Streams of Consciousness is to reach a wider audience than is currently possible with my artist’s book. To achieve this I do need to sell it of course. The way I have chosen to promote the book is via social media, namely Facebook and Instagram.

I have watched the way photographers promote their publications on Facebook and Instagram, and the usual approach is a series of ‘teasers’ – short posts with an image from the work and some background about the work and the title and proposed publication date. Many of these publications are funded via Kickstarter, but that is because they have significant up-front costs due to commercial printing and distribution. My approach was different – print the book myself and keep the costs as low as possible. Effectively I could operate a print-on demand service but without the high costs of one-off printing. I could group the orders received, printing the books and then take them to my local bookbinder in batches. So I used the build-up approach but without asking for any financial commitment in advance.

Before this project my Instagram presence was minimal. I made few posts and followed few people, so inevitably I had few followers. So I did some reading on building up followers and then adapted what I read to my own needs. I wanted to avoid simply following huge numbers of people and then hoping they would follow me back. Followers acquired in this way would be unlikely to buy my book I think. So I spent time following up all connections I have made through photography, including : OCA; photographers and photography professionals I have worked with through Photo Meet; the RPS; and my local camera club.

The rough rule I made for myself was that I would only follow people who showed some serious interest in photography. These people would be more likely to buy my book I thought. Once I had followed someone it was important of course to show some interest in their work. Again, I didn’t want to apply blanket ‘likes’ to everything, but if I did not demonstrate some engagement I could hardly expect them to show an interest in my work. I also need to share interesting work of my own. There was a process of trial and error in posting and assessing the response. I also need to build a series of posts which showed some coherence and provided context. Then I could begin to publicise my Streams of Consciousness work and my forthcoming book.

Over a period of a few weeks I increased my followers from around 40 to over 140. Still not a huge number, but a significant percentage increase, and still increasing.

On Facebook I followed a similar approach, but this platform lends itself to including more text, allowing more contextualisation of the work. So it was here I chose to launch the book. There is of course an overlap between my Facebook ‘friends’ and my Instagram followers, so I followed up with launch info on Instagram and cross-referred.

I announced the book as a replica of my linen artist’s book, with a video of leafing through the book on Facebook. It is in a signed edition of 100, and I sold 13 copies on the first day.

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/davidfletcherphoto/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/davidfletcherphoto/

Alternative book publication idea

One of the things which has been bugging me is how to get an audience for my linen book. Although I have been able to produce a lower cost version of the book, my original idea of placing copies in tourist office along the Irish border is now a non-starter due to Covid-19 restrictions.

I am trying to think of something other than just an online presentation of the book via video. Apart from the impossibility of representing the haptic qualities of the book, everything seems to be online at the moment. There is a risk of online presentation fatigue I think, and with so much work online it would be difficult to get noticed.

One thought I had was to make a zine. This has the advantage of being a physical object but, unlike a book, it could be produced cheaply enough to selll cheaply or even give away. The downside of course is the quality of reproduction of the photographs. I have been wedded to the idea of reproduction of the photographs on linen because it is part of the concept: the linen industry serves as a metaphor for British colonial domination of Ireland. But printing on linen is expensive and the books have to be hand-made.

I was talking to my bookbinder when I picked up my linen book, and asking her about possibilities and what kind of bindings she could do. We talked about perfect binding, and I was surprised how cheap it was in reasonable quantities – say 100 books. This gave me an idea. If I was to print the photographs myself I could achieve a better quality compared to a zine. The the text pages I could print myself because I was already doing that for my linen book.

I went through an exercise of sourcing low-cost paper for a book – photo paper, translucent vellum and plain paper. For the photo paper I chose matte as it would produce the highest level of detail – my images are high resolution for printing large, so if I print them small I want to take advantage of the level of detail present. Size-wise, I decided on A4 because this is a standard size, likely to be fairly low cost because it is produced in high volumes. This would also be a practical size book for posting while allowing reasonably large images to be included.

This concept still left out the factor of printing on linen. How could I include this metaphorical aspect in the book? I hit upon the idea of positioning the A4 book as a replica of the linen book. This has three advantages: a) it allows me to refer to the linen book and therefore include the introductory text about the linen industry which much have seemed superfluous otherwise; b) it allows me to point out that the original book was printed in Ireland on Irish linen – again maintaining the metaphor; and c) by referring to the existence of the linen book it provides publicity for that book.

For the cover I managed to source a card with a linen finish, so that there would at least be a. nod to the haptic qualities of the original book.

The result is that I have been able to produce a low-cost version of my book which retains the metaphorical references of the original and has a high quality of reproduction.

Fig.1 Replica book
Fig. 2 Interior of replica book showing text overlay and photograph

Linen book V2

At the end of the Body of Work course, I rather rushed into creating a book from my linen prints. As it happened, that was fortunate because when the lockdown arrived in March I was just able to collect my book from Bristol Bound before travel restrictions would have made it impossible.

I say that I rushed into it because I more or less just created pages like the ones I had made for Body of Work and had them bound into a book by Bristol Bound. I did spend some time working out how to make the linen pages but I did not give the book as a whole much thought – it was little more than a collection of pages. I concentrated my efforts on the technical aspects of the book – linen printing, page construction and binding. At the time, I was still envisaging an exhibition as the final outcome of this course, so the book was more of a means to an end.

As it has become clear that an exhibition was not going to be possible, I have gone back to the idea of the book, which will now be the main resolution of my body of work. The original book was an important proof of concept – although Bristol Bound make many specialist books, including photography books, they had never made one with linen pages. Now that I know it is possible, I can give some more thought to the design and take into account feedback I received on the work.

One of the main comments I took away from portfolio reviews and then showing the work to people as it progressed into a book was the amount of text. Some people could see the point of the text as a kind of reference – you could skim through the text at first reading and then return to read it in more detail later. Others, notably Martin Parr, thought there was too much text. Martin felt it would be better with just one headline per page.

The text has always been an integral part of the work to me. The challenge I gave myself was to put across the significance of the Irish Border now that there is so little visual evidence of it. I had in mind Sekula’s view that a photograph always requires cultural connections in order to be understood. Sekula writes of a ‘hidden’ or ‘implicit’ text, but for my purposes I need to make the text explicit.

In researching newspaper articles through the history of the border I tried to capture the mixture of politics, tragedy and humour in everyday life on the border. A single headline per photo would just not work for me. So the challenge was to retain enough text to tell the story but t integrate it better with the photographs.

I had the idea of printing the text on translucent overlays, so that the image would be visible through the text – in a literal as well as a metaphorical way. I sourced several different kinds of paper to experiment with printing on them and assessing the degree of transparency and the feel of the pages. I was pleased with the results, so I continued to experiment with editing the text and trying different layouts. Hopefully this will lead to a better version of the book.

Having established that I can use a translucent material for my text overlays, the next stage was to design the pages. As I have shared the work with various people through portfolio reviews, one aspect which I have kept under revision was the amount of text. Resisting some views that that I should have only one piece of text per page, I have nevertheless reduced the amount of text from my original design.

One of my concerns has been the way that the text breaks up the visual flow of the book. Now that I have come up with the idea of translucent overlays, I feel that the text is more integrated – it floats above the images rather than being completely separate.

I now need to consider an additional aspect of the text layout – the image is visible behind it. Rather than stick to a kind of scrapbook aesthetic, which is where I started, I could make the text follow the form of the stream in the image behind the text.

Figure 1 Text overlay from book with image behind

Sicily Workshop and portfolio reviews

http://www.mimimollica.com/workshopdates/september2020

Lat week I attended a six-day workshop in Sicily run by Mimi Mollica. This was similar to the workshop I attended last year but I was tempted to attend again by the fact that Martin Parr would be the guest tutor and would not only be reviewing the work produced during the workshop but would also be doing portfolio reviews of existing work at the beginning of the week.

At the initial portfolio review I showed Martin Parr three pieces of work:

  1. My short book A Slice of life…and death which includes the work for which I won the 1997 RPS Documentary Photographer of the Year and the British Life Photography Award for documentary series.
  2. My book 100 Women 100 Years which I produced during the OCA Level 2 Documentary course.
  3. The work which I submitted via a video for Assignment 5 of OCA Body of Work Here I was able to show the physical work, which was a great opportunity.

Martin Parr was complimentary about all the work, but of course the main discussion was about my current body of work as a work in progress. He felt that the work on the New Forest in A Slice of life…and death showed plenty of scope for development, both around the Commoners and around the gentrification of the Forest.

We had a long discussion about my body of work, Streams of Consciousness. At first he was slightly sceptical about the printing on linen, but after my explanation of the link to British colonialism he was convinced. “Why didn’t I know about that’ he said. He suggested I contact the Seamus Heaney Gallery and Belfast Exposed about potential exhibitions and gave me contact details for the directors.

Martin Parr and Mimi Mollica reviewing my Body of Work (photo Jonathan Lamb)

On location

The brief for the work we made during the week was to contribute to the ongoing project Fracture about the consequences of the redevelopment of the Belice valley in western Sicily after the huge earthquake in 1968. The earthquake virtually destroyed the villages of Gibellina, Salaparuta, Poggioreale, Santa Ninfa, Partama, Montevago and Santa Maria di Belice. (Haas, 1969) The government saw this as an opportunity for an urban experiment, invite famous architect to design completely new villages from the ground up, in some cases such as Poggioreale, some miles away from the original village (Tondo, 2018). These modern, concrete settlements now seem empty and soulless. It appears no-one thought to ask the villagers what they wanted.

A word or two about the workshop itself. It begins with a portfolio review with Mimi and the guest tutor. This was very friendly and non-judgmental, and Martin invited comments from everyone in the group. The next few days are spent on location, photographing for the Fracture project. Each day you return to the comfort of the shared house and the culinary delights provided by Mimi’s sister Paola. Food for the body as well as the mind is provided.

During the week, Mimi continues to review the work you are making, and also any personal projects you are working on. Mimi is a generous reviewer but equally he is focused and direct in his comments. He will always make the time to discuss your work with you. He is keen to talk about selection and sequencing as well as content.

By the end of the week, everyone has prepared a sequenced selection of the work they have produced. Mimi presented this to Martin and the group, and Martin offered a critique. To anyone who has not had Martin review their work, I can say that he is amazing knowledgable, insightful and thoughtful. He is direct but never harsh. I guess he has done this before…

It is worth saying that the idea of a common project works well, I think, rather than each participant pursuing their own ends. Of course, it is challenging, as the subject is chosen for you and is not one that everyone would choose for themselves, but each participant can find their own approach. It takes you outside of your comfort zone. Reviewing everyone’s work at the end of the week is revealing as you see how everyone had a different take on the same locations. It is also satisfying to see the project grow on Mimi’s website.

I had already made a series of work for this project last year, and now I had to decide whether to continue to develop that work or to produce a different series. During the week I explore various ideas, having in mind both of these possibilities. In the end I decided to go with a series which included some of last year’s images but expanded and developed the theme I had begun.

This is the series I presented at the end of the workshop. Martin said “I think you are on to something’ and awarded me best image of the week, jointly with one other participant, for the final image in the series.

References

Haas, J E and Ayre, R S (1969) The Western Sicily Earthquake of 1968: A Report USA: National Academies Press

Tondo, L (2018) ’50 years since Sicily’s earthquake, an urban disaster of a different kind’ in The Guardian 15th January 2008 online at:
https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/jan/15/sicily-earthquake-1968-50-years-belice-valley-poggioreale

Work placement – Dewi Lewis interview

Photo: Dewi Lewis

For the second interview in my series for Photo Meet, I interviewed the photo book publisher Dewi Lewis. Was fortunate enough to spend a few days with Dewi last year during a workshop. He was very complimentary about my book 100 Women, 100 Years, which I showed to him as part of a portfolio review.

This meant that I felt able to approach him to ask for an interview and I am pleased to say that he agreed. As with the procedure I established in my previous interview with Tracy Marshall, I interviewed Dewi via Zoom, recording the session and transcribing it later. I sent this text to him for approval and he returned a clarified and expanded version with the benefit of hindsight.

Not having the benefit of any training in journalism, I am approaching these interviews as essentially a conversation. I have a list of prepared questions as a starting point, but I let the conversation develop as we talk. I asked Dewi fro an hour of his time but in the end we talked for two and a half hours.

Although it may seem obvious, one thing I am conscious of is that not everything said in conversation can be included in a published interview. There are also differences in tone between the spoken word and the written word, so in transcribing the interview I try to steer a line between accuracy and adulting to the slight more formal language of a written text. For these reasons I prefer to get the final text approved and adjusted if necessary by the interviewee before publishing. These interviews are a collaboration, not investigative journalism.

The interview can be seen online here:

https://photomeet.org/dewi-lewis-interview

and in PDF form here:

I was pleased to see that Dewi wrote about the experience of the interview on his blog:

https://www.dewilewis.com/blogs/news/looking-back-003-martin-parr-the-last-resort

Work placement – Tracy Marshall interview

Photo: Ken Grant

I have worked on a few projects with Photo Meet now, and the work which stood out for me as most interesting was the interview I did with Ilias Georgiadis. It occurred to me that I could propose an interview series with industry insiders – not photographers but those with the power to get work seen.

This would be a win-win situation: Photomeet would get content for its website and I would get to talk to some movers and shakers in the business.

This was my pitch for the series:

‘Making a body of work can provide great satisfaction, but the process is not finished until the work is in front of an audience. In this series of interviews, Photo Meet talks to the influential insiders who make this happen, be it on a gallery wall, the pages of a book or magazine or a website.

What makes them tick? How did they get into the business? What advice do they have for photographers? Read on to find out.’

My idea was accepted, and for the first interview I proposed Tracy Marshall, the director of the new Bristol Photo Festival. I felt this would be a timely interview since BPF is in the launch phase and therefore presumably keen on publicity. There was also an existing link between Photo Meet and Northern Narratives, the photography organisation founded by Tracy and her partner, photographer Ken Grant. During the Covid pandemic, Photo Meet and Northern Narratives ran a joint open call for photographers whose work had been interrupted by the lockdown. Thus there was an ideal opportunity for mutual promotion of BPF and Photo Meet.

This assignment was a big step up for me as I was left to organise the whole feature myself – contacting Tracy, asking for an interview, writing the questions, conducting the interview and supplying the final text to Photo Meet.

I contacted Tracy and asked if she would be willing to do the interview, and she graciously accepted. I conducted the interview via Zoom, using a prepared list of questions as a starting point but letting the conversation take its natural course – for that reason I did not send the questions to Tracy in advance. The interview went well – I had suggested a one-hour session but in the end we spent nearly three hours talking.

Instead of taking notes during the interview I recorded it and then wrote up the interview afterwards. I sent the draft to Tracy and we agreed a final version after some small changes.

I have proposed to Photo Meet, and they agreed, that we publish this interview as the first of a series of interviews with curators, publishers and anyone responsible for getting photography seen. The series will be called Meet the Experts.

The interview can be read online here:

https://photomeet.org/tracy-marshall-interview

Or as a PDF here:

This is the publicity for the interview on the Photo Meet Facebook page:

and Tracy’s mention of the interview, with comments, on her own Facebook page:

Work placement – Photo Meet ‘Body’ feature

My latest work with Photo meet was on the latest feature from the Photo Meet / Northern Narratives open call, entitled ‘The Body’.

My job was to work with Mimi on the selection process and the page layout, request high-res images from the selected photographers, finalise the list of questions for the photographers and contact them for their answers.