This week we’ve been looking at collaboration and participation in photography and the practical and ethical issues arising from these methods of working. This seemed to be timed perfectly to coincide with a developing train of thought about my own project which made the reading and research this week of particular interest.
There are many, like Azoulay (2016) who have moved beyond trying to convince of the need for, or importance of, collaboration in photographic practice, arguing that it’s ‘unavoidable’1 and thus no longer worth anguished discussion. They seek rather to analyse and codify this practice, examining the ethical implications and challenges that arise from creating work with the contribution of others.
Even in my own practice, which I’d previously considered to be a very self-centred and introspective one, I readily concede that I have had a long and very fruitful collaboration with my printer George, at Digitalarte who not only helps me to realise my prints in the way that optimises the visual impact of my work and stays as faithful as possible to my original vision, but who has also had direct and positive influence on my photographic practice and workflow over the years I’ve been working with him. So, I am easily convinced of the inescapable need to collaborate.
What I hadn’t previously considered in much detail, and what is increasingly relevant to my own project, is the dynamic of the relationship between collaborators and how that can influence not only the way that contributions are elicited and made to the work, but also the integrity of the results gained by this collaboration.
Like with anything, there’s always a power play at work and it’s important to acknowledge this as a photographer entering into collaboration, in order to mitigate it if that’s what will serve the project best. To use a topical example, a proposal to highlight the plight of the Grenfell Tower residents by giving them cameras and asking them to document their terrible experiences would be open to a number of very searching questions depending on who was giving them the cameras and what the proposed outcomes were likely to be – a project suggested by the Conservative Party publicity office would be received and interpreted very differently to one sponsored by an independent charity.
So, as the photographer I have a responsibility to consider this relationship with my potential collaborators and how I can create a framework that allows them to contribute in a free and unbiased manner, and that is also sensitive to how their involvement in the project might compromise their own integrity or privacy.
My project, aiming to examine urban solitude, originally planned to interview selected people about their own experiences and use their responses to feed into the work. The more I think about this initial plan the less comfortable I am with it, as it feels too much like simply using other voices to tell my own story, rather than allowing these voices to speak sincerely for themselves, telling their own story in their own words, however divergent they might be from my own concept of the original idea. I will write more about this in a separate post, but there will have to be changes to my project methodology as a result of closer consideration of the implications, and benefits, of a more collaborative approach to the work.
Reflecting on the work this week, I realise that I must work harder to ensure that my collaborators have their own agency and that they are given the right platform on which to add their own unique voice to the project as it develops.
Lapenta, F. (2011) ‘Some Theoretical and Methodological Views on Photo-Elicitation’, in Margolis, EM. and Pauwels, L. (ed.) The SAGE Handbook of Visual Research Methods, London: SAGE.
Chalfen, R. (2011) ‘Differentiating Practices of Participatory Visual Media Production’, in Margolis, EM. and Pauwels, L. (ed.) The SAGE Handbook of Visual Research Methods, London: SAGE.
Falmouth university ma photography critical research journal