a-n member Joanne Coates is a working class artist and photographer who is interested in rurality, hidden histories and class. Based on the border between County Durham and North Yorkshire, she was educated in working class alternative communities, then at The Sir John Cass School of Fine art (FdA Fine Art) and The London College of Communication (BA Hons Photography).

Coates has exhibited in the UK and internationally, and her work is held in the permanent collection of MIMA. She has also created commissions working with Middlesbrough Mela, The Dorman Museum, and Hull City of Culture.

She reflects on a busy 2022, which has included being commissioned as Artist in Residence at Berwick Visual Arts, Centre for rural economy and Berwick Visual Arts. This followed becoming a joint awardee of the Jerwood/Photoworks 4 prize.

What kind of a year has 2022 been for you?
This year I’ve been given opportunities to make work I might not previously have had the cultural or financial capital to make. In spring I had my exhibition ‘Daughters of the Soil’ at the Gymnasium Gallery, Berwick-Upon-Tweed, and was able to take ownership and curate how I wanted the work to look. I’ve also been making work for the Jerwood/Photoworks Award, which resulted in ‘The Lie of The Land’ exhibition that’s on at the moment. It might sound a simple thing, but having support has been really exciting, because it’s enabled lots of things to happen.

What has changed for the better?
I often feel isolated from the arts because of where I live. But this year I’ve met some really lovely folk who’ve come to shows, and been able to expand my horizons by talking about things I’m interested in with curators and producers. I still have my part-time job, I’m still juggling things, still going into my overdraft. But I feel that’s part of contemporary arts practice, and learning how to juggle things better has been a good challenge.

Joanne Coates, Lie of the Land

How does the place where you grew up influence your practice today?
Growing up away from an urban place made me feel like I couldn’t be an artist, and I did try to leave it as soon as possible! But belonging to a small community made me interested in making work about participation, class and morality. I don’t want to be rose-tinted about the countryside: there’s still this farmery stereotype of green fields, pastoral visions, very much David Cameron’s England, when there’s so much more to it. Where I’m from looks beautiful and it’s very easy to see it as idyllic. But for me it’s a bit of a terrifying place. There’s a dark mystery and danger about it even when you’re out walking.

How has your own experience of agricultural labour fed into your portrayal of rural landscapes?
I do shifts around my practice. You get up at four, get changed, it’s still dark and cold, and then you finish at half eight and get on with your day. It’s not the romantic version we see on Countryfile, and a lot of the women I work with do a full day’s farm work afterwards. But working together gives you someone to talk to about your problems, which in the arts you often don’t have. Hearing about the issues they faced really made me want to look at the hidden aspects of women’s work, to see not just the labourers but their stories.

Joanne Coates, Passage to the Present

Your photography uncovers social issues such as homelessness. What led you to document this?
I found it strange how rural homelessness wasn’t written or talked about much, and wanted to convince people why it was important. I was homeless when I was sixteen, and when you say that to people, there’s an assumption you must have done something bad; there’s no understanding of the vulnerability. During COVID I was wondering what happens to people, especially in winter, who stay in barns, or don’t have any support. But I didn’t want to photograph their faces, because with portraits, people instantly make judgments. When you’re applying for jobs, you might not want homelessness to be a part of your life that is constantly brought up.

What are the limitations of photography as a medium?
It’s kind of built into the history of photography that it has strict power structures. Because it came into being as a tool of the middle to upper classes, it can be really hierarchical, with the person being photographed at the bottom – I really don’t like the word ‘subject’. Sometimes it can be hard for photography to challenge power structures because of the way it’s consumed. I’m really aware of those challenges, and I’m still learning how to unpick them.

What do you wish had happened this year that didn’t happen?
I wish people would look at the cost of living crisis seriously, as a wider population, and that they would recognise class as an issue in the arts, and a barrier to practice.

Joanne Coates, Naffisa, Wise, Wanderer

What would you characterise as your major achievement this year and why?
I think the Jerwood Photoworks Award, because it led to development and change in my practice. Before, I had socially-engaged commissions and photography commissions, and they seemed almost separate – so fusing them together in my practice has been a real achievement. It’s hard to say I’m a photographer because I feel like all the work that goes around it isn’t necessarily pure photography.

How will this experience have an impact on your own work?
I’m quite introverted, and sometimes that can seem like a lack of confidence. But with these awards and commissions, I’m quietly confident in my ability and work. I’ve also realised that you can do it your own way: you can be someone who’s an introvert and that can lend itself to your practice and what you’re trying to say, which I didn’t think was possible before.

Joanne Coates, Lie of the Land

Is there anything you’d like to have done but haven’t?
I think I would have liked to be able to just enjoy the achievements more, to take a moment to go outside, swim outdoors, meet other artists, maybe go walking together on fells. I haven’t really had time to reflect in that way.

What are you looking forward to in 2023?
I’m working on a commission for North Sea Artist in Residence with Sustainability First, which will mean having a studio for three months in Hull, and connecting with artists there. I also found out I got a lightbox commission with Baltic in December, so women from the project will be able to see it closer to their area. And just developing my practice more! Part of the excitement of an artistic practice is being open to what it might look like or what it might be, and letting yourself have that intuition when you know it’s right.