The week before Easter I listened to a fascinating seven-part podcast called S-Town.
I discovered it via this review in New Statesman – put the text aside after the first few paragraphs as there’s a spoiler alert, listened to the first three podcasts, then went back to the review because I was intrigued to read the rest and compare it to my own impressions. Which is how I came to eventually read the following (slightly shortened):
Woodstock is exactly the sort of proverbial southern shithole that most other Americans look down on, and which most self-respecting Europeans would be terrified of. The police are mildly corrupt; the people are hugely racist. […] This place is exactly what you think it is.
Except, S-Town reminds us that it’s not just what we think it is: time and again, it shows us a stereotype, then reveals a human being. […]
S-Town is like one of those huge Victorian social novels […]: one of those books that constantly persuades us to sympathise with people we might otherwise dismiss.
The middle sentence is the particularly key thing for me (and please, don’t read too much into the para above it, which is there for context only). And the timing is perfect, as I came across it just as I was about to begin editing a body of work that has as its subject matter one sub-section of a group of people whose appearances and lifestyle choices reflect (sometimes even to the point of parody) some societal stereotypes that can be perceived quite negatively.
I know this from personal experience, if I’m honest. The very first biker rally I went to, I instantly knew there was a project in it for me but I was too terrified to take any pictures: it didn’t matter that I knew plenty of people who were bikers – e.g. one of my uncles, my own brother, the bloke I was there with – media coverage of the subject, that before that point I wasn’t consciously aware I’d absorbed, really affected how I felt. And it’s perhaps not surprising that, with just two exceptions so far, photography professionals I’ve shown my work on this subject to at portfolio reviews have seemingly tended not get past similar prejudices of their own – though to be fair I may be wholly or partly responsible for that, in the sense that the style, edit and sequence of images I presented them with lacked the degree of nuance necessary to see anything beyond the stereotype?
The task I’ve set myself is not an easy one. The attempt will hopefully be interesting, but the difference between visual imagery, especially photographs, and storytelling in other media, as in the S-Town radio/podcast format, is that people are much quicker to judge on appearances. And who are these ‘people’? Another complication… Over the coming months I should be able to share edits of this work with different peer groups – but I also have ongoing access to the rallies I’ve photographed for this project and it’s occurred to me I can try to get feedback from that source as well?
Anyway, over the past couple of weeks I’ve made a start on tackling the first broad edit of all the material (bearing the above S-Town quote in mind as much as possible). I’ve also arranged a first meeting with the photographer who’s agreed to act as consultant with the editing and sequencing of my dummy. And I’ve bought some materials – a couple of 40m long rolls of Epson singleweight matte (for starters, I’m guessing I might need more), plus some sample packs of other brands of paper to play with (I’m thinking of using a bit of transparency in the dummy so need to find something thinner than I’ve ever used before).
I think it’s a good start?
On 24th March I hitched a lift to Derby (only a 3 hour drive away from where we’re based in County Durham) with Lostness Club / Wideyed colleagues Richard Glynn and Louise Taylor for the launch weekend of FORMAT International Photography Festival.
FORMAT is a biennial festival, and this year’s edition is the 6th since it began in 2005. With Wideyed, I’ve exhibited in three – 2011, 2013 and 2015 – so this was the first time I’d been to the festival without having to do any work there, and it was nice to just be a punter for a change. Bumped into lots of friends, met some lovely new people, and saw some interesting work here and there.
The point of this post is not to write a detailed review of the festival as a whole, but to mention the bits of it that are relevant to the project I’ve been awarded an a-n bursary for. One reason for being at the launch weekend (rather than any other) was the Photobook Market, which had some well known publishers in attendance (e.g. MACK, Dewi Lewis and so on), and a set of last year’s Kassel Photobook Dummy Award shortlisted entries on show. Scattered on a couple of (post-ironic?) coffee tables, there were 50 dummies to look at, and I think I managed to examine most of them – an incredible variety of content (subject matter, photographic approaches and sequencing) and book-making techniques, with some books easier to handle and more seductive than others. Without realising it, the only one I ended up sitting down to really read cover to cover (though the cover was not the most appealing at first glance) was the Kassel Award winner: Monsanto, a photographic investigation, by Mathieu Asselin.
Another part of the launch weekend I found particularly interesting and enlightening was the Portfolio Walk. I haven’t been able to afford a portfolio review at FORMAT since 2011, but wandering around during the public viewing afterwards and looking at the work – and the variety of ways peers are presenting it, including lots of photobooks, self-published and otherwise – can be really instructive. Plus it makes it easier to meet photographers and speak to them about their projects, the stories behind some of their photos…
Apart from discovering that I might intuitively know a bit more about photobooks than I thought, the thing that I brought away from FORMAT – from the Photobook Market experience, the festival exhibitions generally, and from conversations with many of the people met over the weekend – is the importance of storytelling. And when I begin work on my dummy, this is something I really must remember to bear in mind.
It’s all about the development of a self-financed body of photographic work called ‘DILLIGAF’. The project began in 2005 and, in terms of image creation, was completed in 2016, but now needs a big push to begin transforming the material into a finished object, as a book.
I have enough experience of basic bookmaking techniques to feel confident about putting together a good quality dummy, but not enough experience of editing and designing to pull together an object as complex as the book object I envisage for this body of work: the number of images to edit (thousands of the things) and sequence has seemed petrifying, and at the end of 2016 I realised that I would need help breaking through the fear barring my progress.
The bursary a-n has generously awarded me is going to make it possible to buy the materials I need to produce dummies (the price of inks has gone up significantly since EUref… plus I’ll now be able to experiment with papers and layouts that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford), and get much needed advice and feedback from some experienced photography and design professionals.
And then, getting a bursary like this just feels hugely encouraging generally, of course – thanks so much a-n!