Participation, Photography and the Politics of Space: Notes from the Chair

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Notes from the symposium © R.Thibbotumunuwe

Notes and Quotes
Rachel Thibbotumunuwe

I was delighted to chair the afternoon session of the recent NEPAN/ENGAGE Participation, Photography and the Politics of Space symposium after an invitation from Alicia Bruce, an Aberdeen born photographer who’s creative and professional progress I’ve charted since she was a student. I too, was born and raised in Aberdeen, but Alicia’s project ‘Menie: A Portrait of a North East Community in Conflict’ transcends the personal resonance the area and subject holds for me. I’ll go into more depth about Alicia’s Menie project later in this text – for now I shall aim to give an overview of what I noted, observed and discussed throughout the course of the day.

The symposium focussed on participatory art with contributions from a range of artists, curators, photographers and organisers working across a range of contexts including institutions, galleries, community projects, homes and festivals.


Symposium introduction © Nicole Gildea

The presentations generated interesting and lively debate about how participation can and should be a ‘core’ value of the arts and how we harness technology (analogue and digital) for creativity. The nature of photography and its rapid development and diverse applications was also a feature of the discussion and although too large a subject to cover here, we were all reminded of photography’s multiple identities as art, document and tool. Even at the dawn of photographic invention, photography as art was an area of intense debate. This continues today alongside the technological evolution that spurs on innovation in how we understand, interpret and value photography.

There are many schools of painting. Why should there not be many schools of photographic art?
Alfred Stieglitz, 1893

Many contemporary arts projects aim to develop and harness mass participation, such as those which Derby based Debbie Adele Cooper referenced in her presentation about art and audiences in the digital age. In her own work, Debbie explores participation through artworks and research (she has a fantastic blog dedicated to her research). Her project ‘Daily Commutes’ is building an intriguing archive of images gathered via the commuting lives of artists around the world using what Debbie has termed ‘phoneography’; images created using phones with cameras. ‘Daily Commutes’ sets a specific travelling agenda: time is precious, commuting can be creative and everyday moments are unique.

‘How do we make our photos count amongst 40 million uploads?’
Debbie Adele Copper, 2013

Debbie introduced us to range of companion projects that she has uncovered through the process of her research including ‘Focused’ a project coordinated by US photographer Chip Litherland that has been set up in response to the ‘accelerated process of image-making’. The project sends a single roll of film complete with 35mm camera kit thousands of miles around the world to capture a single image from individual photographers from a variety of countries and contexts. It’s a fascinating journey and each photographer is encouraged to make notes, statements and comments about the project and images created. Projects like ‘Focused’ can seem a little odd in the age of digital uploads, facebook ‘likes’ and flickr photo sets but the project invites useful contemplation about what we have lost along with the analogue photography era.

‘Sometimes the backstage is where the actual work is made’
Barby Asante, 2013


Barby Asante talks about Barby’s Karaoke and SLBMA / Photograph © Nicole Gildea

I was fascinated and inspired by Barby Asante’s project ‘South London Black Music Archive’ a project that grew out of her interest in celebrating moments in black music history. The project structure was also driven, to some extent, by failure in an earlier project that didn’t make provision for consultation nor involved people in the creation of a project that was commonly perceived as a representation of a community. This experience motivated Barby to explore how best to work with non-artist participants and how to invite further contributions to create a living archive and map of activity, moments and memories. The project worked with members of the public and long-time collaborators (developed via past projects) and included contributions of music memorabilia to an open archive. An evolving map was displayed as part of the public exhibition and invited contributions from exhibition visitors who sent text messages with messages containing memories of black music in south London. The result is a truly participatory project that values and elevates experience. The project invites us all to explore the stories and the multi layered histories that we each create, spin and inhabit. I love it.


Eva Sajovic presents her work with Dreammakers UK.  Photograph © Nicole Gildea

Eva Sajovic is a Slovenian photographer working out of London who is concerned with socio-documentary themes including migration, belonging and identity. In creating her work, Eva has long recognised the role of photography in countering prejudice and she often works in collaboration with her subjects to reveal the real narratives at work and to encourage meaningful dialogue and understanding. In her project Dreammakers, Eva revisits her ongoing work with Roma and traveller communities, this time focussing her work on young people over four cities across the U.K. The project supports the participants to create reportage direct from their networks and families via training and exploration in photography, video and audio. The works created not only aim to show a lesser seen aspect of Roma and Traveller life but also encompass the identities of the young people which are imbued with British identity and belonging too. As Eva talked us through the images, videos and soundbites created by the young participants, it became apparent that her multiple identities and experiences as Artist, Photographer, Slovenian, Londoner and Mother contribute to the success of the project; both in the eyes of the participants and by those who may wish to commission work to develop better links and cohesion within our intercultural U.K. wide community. This may sound obvious but throughout the day, the identity of the artist and a sensitive responsive approach to working stands out as an important distinction when contemplating how and why a project such as Dreammakers can develop into a transformative experience for participants and a viable route for us all to gain understanding about ideas, people and histories.

‘I’m a photographer, not a terrorist’
Alicia Bruce, 2013

Alicia Bruce’s project ‘Menie: A Portrait of a North East Community in Conflict’ has grown arms, legs and talking heads since it began as a research based inquiry which Alicia herself describes as a project which ‘you think it will take maybe one month.. and then three years later.’ Her project eloquently retells the story of the Menie Estate residents’ protest against Donald Trump’s planned golf course on the Aberdeenshire Coastline where they live. Portrayed on local, national and international media as rebellious, wilful and irresponsible protesters, Alicia Bruce’s portraits of the Menie folks draw us into each story through an imaginative play of narrative, clever referencing of iconic art, pastoral scenes and local heritage. Each of the portraits re-stages a painting – the Menie residents selected a work of art from which to start their conversations about a portrait and so began the collaboration to create a new image, a new history and era in the art of protest. Alicia brought us in on the ‘behind the scenes’ experience and in doing so talked about the rights of the photographer in the context of Menie where she and the residents found themselves up against Trump security and negotiating Police intervention. All of these experiences Alicia described as deeply unsettling and at times frightening, but they ultimately accumulated in her building desire to continue her work with Menie residents.
Recently, while the project was exhibited in the members lobby of the Scottish Parliament, Alicia’s collaboration with the Menie residents was recognised in a parliamentary motion put forward by MSP Patrick Harvie. In a brief meeting with First Minister Alex Salmond, Alicia’s photograph ‘Alex Salmond looking Mike Forbes in the eye’ was created as the two discussed Trump, bully-boy tactics, windfarms and the environment. Alicia’s motivation to make this work was driven by first a natural curiosity to find out more and then latterly by a compulsion to represent a lesser known side to the Trump/Menie story. In taking the photographs to the Scottish Parliament, she has ensured her target audience are aware of the multiple issues this on-going work reveals. In many ways, the project embodies an interesting ethical methodology; working ‘with’ a community rather than making work ‘about’ a place or subject, a model I think we can aspire to support in all walks of creative, political and commercial life.


‘Alex Salmond looking Mike Forbes in the eye’ © Alicia Bruce

All of the projects explored throughout the day reminded me of something I had read recently about the work of leading US photographer Wendy Ewald who articulates the collaborative nature of her work so well. As I learned about the practice of Alicia Bruce, Barby Asante, Debbie Adele Cooper and Eva Sajovic in particular, this quote resonated and echoed the ideology of their diverse projects.

‘Gradually I saw that it was less interesting for me, as an artist, to frame the world wholly according to my own perceptions. I wanted instead to create situations in which I allowed others’ perceptions to surface with my own. The most optimistic thing that’s happened is that as a society we’re beginning to recognize that there are many voices. When I began, thirty years ago, the idea of one author or the artist as being a solitary creature was really the only idea that there was.’
Wendy Ewald, 1998

Rachel Thibbotumunuwe is Assistant Curator (Equality and Diversity) at Talbot Rice Gallery, University of Edinburgh. Rachel graduated from the department of Fine Art photography, Glasgow School of Art in 1998. Since then she has worked to develop equalities, learning and participation in the visual arts at Peacock Visual Arts (Aberdeen) Stills (Edinburgh) and Street Level Photoworks (Glasgow). Rachel is also a practising artist working primarily with photography.

Some questions?

  1. In the Q+A section of the symposium, a delegate asked the panel how they introduced themselves to participants or people they are working with… How does your own identity influence or shape your projects? Is it important to how you are perceived?
  2. Would it be useful to tease out some of the inherit distinctions between analogue and digital in term of understanding how we use and value photography?
  3. Barby Asante and Alicia Bruce both referenced projects that have seen them work with communities over sustained periods of time. How do artists create momentum and sustain participants/collaborators interest over long periods of time?

I would like to thank Alicia Bruce for programming such an amazing day and inviting me into the symposium discussion. It was very enjoyable with lots of valuable insights to creative practice and collaboration.

Thanks also to all speakers for sharing their experiences and work so generously – Eva Sajovic, Barby Asante, Debbie Adele Cooper, Elspeth Winram, Abeer Eladany, Lynne Digby, Lynsey McNab, Katie Bruce, Blazej Markzak and Alyssa Flegg and co-organisers Scott Byrne (University of Aberdeen), Nicole Gildea (NEPAN) and Sarah Yearsly (Engage).

Curators, Artists and photographers

Eva Sajovic Artist Photographer
Dreammakers, Glasgow

Barby Asante Artist and Curator
South London Black Music Archive, London

Alicia Bruce Photographer and Educator

Debbie Adele Cooper Participation Curator at QUAD & Format International Photography Festival
Format photography festival, Derby

Blazej Markzak Photographer/Artist

Katie Bruce Curator/Producer GoMA/Glasgow Life
Atelier Public at GoMA

installation 004

Rachel Thibbotumunuwe Assistant Curator (equality and Diversity) Talbot Rice Gallery; Artist, photographer

Links to useful references, projects and artists

Article 31- the right to play

Photographers Rights

Daniel Meadows

The 100 – 100 disposable cameras to 100 people aged between 1 and 100.

Focused – one camera • one click • one moment

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1 Response to Participation, Photography and the Politics of Space: Notes from the Chair

  1. Pingback: Participation, Photography and the Politics of Space: Key Speakers’ Presentations | NEPAN

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