Body of Work

mickyates Audience, Curation, Ideas, Mick's Photo Blog, Narrative, Photography, Practice Leave a Comment

I am planning a workshop series on creating ‘A Body of Work’ for a local group.

In a way, this is my reaction against the over-focus on single images that we see in so many photographic arenas, and especially competitions at all kinds of level, from local Camera Clubs to Pulitzer awards. That is not to say that stunning, individual photographs are in some way ‘wrong’. But I believe that simply producing single images can stymie one’s attempts to develop a personal style, and can also get in the way when one is considering exhibitions or books.

If one pursues a degree in photography, or attains a distinction at the higher levels in organisations such as the Royal Photographic Society (RPS), then there is a  requirement to create such a body of work, or panel, in RPS terms. (Disclaimer: I have both an MA in Photography and am a Fellow of the RPS).

‘Body of work’ normally refers to a lifetime’s work, but I am going to cheat a bit and use it to suggest a constant and coherent series or sustained artistic effort – think Picasso’s Blue or Pink periods within his overall oeuvre. Importantly, body of bork is not a denial that strong individual images are important – in fact, quite the opposite. A strong body of work needs strong individual images. Nor does it require creating some complex and longstanding project. Rather, it is about developing a personal approach to photography which becomes evident across a range of photographs.  It is about developing one’s practice of photography as a craft. It is about the process and practice of curation of one’s own work. It is about thinking through one’s own ideas about taking photographs to be able to express those thoughts clearly to help self-development. And being clear about one’s ‘body of work’ helps us work through what our work might mean to prospective audiences.

As a thought-starter, I see the creation of a  ‘body of work’ as entailing a little pre-thinking and planning, then a fair bit of trial and error. I offer three thematic areas to consider:

First, what and (and why) do you want to communicate to your audience. We all have audiences, if only social media or family & friends.

Second, how will you execute to bring this alive – is there a  narrative of some kind for your audience to follow?

Third, what’s the tonality and feeling in your work – a consistent and coherent ‘look and feel’?

I am creating an outline ‘curriculum’, as follows;

  1. Meetings every two weeks – initially on Zoom but then as things ease with a mix of Zoom and F2F assuming people want to continue. We could move to monthly once we get going.
  2. Sessions would start with sharing different approaches to bodies of work – visual themes, narratives, audiences. Each session I’d kick off with something new on the subject.
  3. We’d make it as interactive as possible. For example: discussion / questions to get people to think about what they are doing currently; mini projects between the two weekly sessions etc.
  4. We’d look at the importance of editing and curating a series, and how to do it.
  5. We’d look at how to construct narratives – and the difference between ‘story’ and ‘narrative’.
  6. We’d explore what people could gain from e.g. LRPS as a way to build their practice (rather than just get gongs).
  7. Maybe we’d look at doing a group exhibition somewhere …..

In researching the workshop, I found Sasha Wolf’s book Photo Work; Forty Photographers on Process and Practice very helpful. Sasha is an artist, curator, filmmaker and a judge, and she founded a private art space that specializes in contemporary photography by emerging artists. She also has a podcast series which complements the book, available here.

The book is built around twelve questions which Sasha asked all forty photographers to answer, with widely divergent but helpful results. To give you a taster, I have collected quotes representing these twelve questions, each from a different photographer. Unashamedly, the view expressed is reasonably similar to my own, though expressed in every case far more eloquently than I could have done. I’d urge readers to think about their own answers to the questions.

So, here is the selection:

1. What comes first for you: the idea for a project, or individual that suggest a concept?

Paul Graham:

‘They go hand in glove. If you are a photographer who works with life, then you have to put yourself into the territory where that imagery and your thoughts might coalesce, because you need the vital lesson that first key image provides. Not the first image, but the first key image, the one that unlocks the door. The one you stumble over. It might surprise you by coming in from left field, taking things in a completely different direction, but that’s the beauty of working with the world, with the moments that time hurls your way’. (Pg. 80)

2. What are the main things that must be present for you when you are creating a body of work? (Social commentary, string form, personal connection, photographic reference …)

Dawoud Bey:

‘I think the main thing is that each individual photograph has to function in a way that compels a viewer to want to engage with it. Making photographs, for me, is always about how one uses the visual poetics of picture-making and then weds that notion to a meaningful intention and subject. I want each photograph within a project to compel the viewer’s attention through the use of form, color, light, tonality, vantage point, and the other devices that l have at my disposal. All of those things are deployed in the interest of creating an engagement with the subject, whether a person, a community, or a history’. (Pg. 18)

3. Is the idea of a body of work important to you? How does it function in relation to making a great individual photograph?

Katy Graham:

‘Sometimes a “body” of work is important in that it can be a way to orient myself and get specific – specificity allows me to go deeper, and it allows for nuance. But the true body of work is the sum total of a life’s work. Projects are just chapters. Regardless, every photograph has to stand on its own’. (Pg. 84)

4. Do you have what you might call a “photographic style”?

Doug DuBois

‘If people can recognize your work, I guess that means you have a style, but it’s a term I’ve never felt comfortable with and rarely use. l can’t frame my work with a high-concept description of style – maybe that’s snobbish or simply a avoidance of the question – but l think l’ll leave it there’. (Pg. 64)

5. Where would you say your style falls on a continuum between completely intuitive and intellectually formulated?

Greg Halpern:

‘Both ends of that spectrum are important to me. It’s easy to assume that intuition and intellect cannot coexist in work, being that they seem opposing ways of thinking/working, but I believe they can work in tandem and inform one another. I love Sister Corita Kent’s “Ten Rules for Students and Teachers,” which was popularized by John Cage; Rule #8 is “Do not try to create and analyze at the same time. They are different processes.” (Pg. 89)

6. Assuming you now shoot in what you would consider your natural voice, have you ever wished your voice was different?

John Edmonds:

‘The key is nurturing your own talents and abilities. You cannot be someone you are not, and there is no reason in trying’. (Pg. 71)

7. How do you know when a body of work is finished?

Siân Davey:

‘I know when a body of work is finished when the charge drops. and the thing that pulled you along is no longer there. You can feel yourself lose your connection to the narrative. At this point, the story has been told and is now in danger of repeating itself. It’s about knowing when that
time has come and having the courage to let it go’. (Pg. 58)

8. Have you ever had a body of work that was created in the editing process?

Robert Adams:

‘No. But you surely can unmake a body of good pictures with poor editing. Editing is every bit as hard as making photographs. No two pictures are qualitatively equal. Their proper ordering cannot be determined by rule. And, there is often the difficulty of deciding whether a picture should be included at all. Is it faithful to the subject? Some of the problem is in freeing yourself from the memory of standing there when you took the photograph, amazed and hopeful and trying hard’. (Pg. 15)

9. Do you associate your work with a particular genre of photography? If yes, how would you define that genre?

Todd Hido:

‘Not necessarily, though I do think back to earlier in my career when I tried to understand where my work would it into the history of the entire medium. l think it is important for a young photographer to know what has come before them, in order to not be derivative. I often suggest to my students that they ask themselves, ‘Where is my place in this artistic continuum, and how do I make a meaningful contribution to the medium?’ (Pg. 104)

10. do you ever revisit a series that has already been exhibited or published to shoot more and add to it?

Dana Lixenberg:

‘l’ve done this with Imperial Courts. I produced the first series of portraits in l993.The work was presented in an exhibition that same year, and Vibe published a portfolio of the work. Then it disappeared in a drawer. I stayed in touch with the community, but it took me fifteen years to revisit it with my camera, after which I continued for eight consecutive years before I presented the project in book form and as a comprehensive exhibition, which included prints, a three-channel video installation, and a soundscape. And as life in the community continues, a community I’ve become emotionally invested in and visit on a regular basis, I consider it quite likely that at some point I will proceed to make new work in Imperial Courts’. (Pg. 141)

On this question, I’ll add a second answer, from Ed Panar;

‘Absolutely. For me, many of my projects are ongoing and long-term. I’m interested in how time can ‘change photographs, so sometimes it literally takes years to get to the point where I find the right place for certain images. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many photography projects are seen differently after time has passed, and maybe that’s why there’s a lot of effort spent in the photo world looking back at older things, seeing how perceptions have changed, how we’ve changed, noticing things differently. This is one of my favorite parts of photography, the fact that as static as images might appear, they don’t really stay the same’. (Pg. 162)

11. Do you ever revisit a series that has already been exhibited or published and reedit it?

Peter Kayafas:

‘One of the most important facts about finished work is that it cannot be reedited. That said, there’s nothing to keep particular images that I have been included in finished projects from being repurposed or recontextualized in other bodies of work. Sometimes a single picture from a past book or exhibition can be the beginning of a new project’. (Pg. 116)

12. Do you create with presentation in mind, be that a gallery show or a book?

LaToya Ruby Frazier:

Once you find your voice and your vision, you should think about your audience and how best to engage with them. I’m always asking: How will this help an audience member understand what’s happening here? How would a video instead of a still photograph work? Would a panel or public talk add to the audience’s engagement with the material? I’m constantly thinking about multiple platforms and about how to better address my audience’. (Pg. 77)

…………………………………….

WOLF, Sasha (Editor). 2019. Photo Work. New York: Aperture.

Header: Mick Yates. 2016. Dusting.

My Fellowship Journey

mickyates Aftermath, Audience, Cambodia, Dark Tourism, Documentary, Genocide, History, Holocaust, Ideas, Infrared, Landscape, Mick's Photo Blog, Olympus, Photography, Unfinished Stories Leave a Comment

I have just been honoured to receive the Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society (FRPS) for my Unfinished Stories work in the Contemporary Photography category. This project is on the personal stories of friends who survived the Khmer Rouge Genocide. The first and last images of the panel are shown below. The full Fellowship Panel and Statement is here:

 https://www.mickyatesphotography.com/Features/Fellowship-Panel/

Despite all of the tragic issues with the Covid 19 Pandemic, I must admit that my photography has prospered during lockdown. Last Spring I created a daily series of images, which became a book Coronavirus UK published in a  now-sold-out limited edition (details here) and which was featured last summer on the RPS Contemporary Blog.

I was also able to use the time to reflect on how best to move my passion for photography yet further forward. I decided to embark on a Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society (RPS), using my Cambodian work. I was already an Associate (ARPS). The impact of the pandemic and its terrible death toll has been profound on us all. But the horror of a totally man-made Genocide begs different questions.

Between 1975 and 1979 the Khmer Rouge killed 1.7 – 2.2 million people in their attempt to create an agrarian society cleansed of the urban intelligentsia. Forty years later the Genocide’s devastating impact on Cambodian society still resonates. What happened to the individuals that survived those horrific times has largely been left unspoken.

Our collective memory of the Genocide is driven by the images of ‘mug shots’ of victims of the Tuol Sleng torture facility and skulls from the Choeung Ek ‘Killing Fields’. Those accused were meticulously photographed, tortured until they confessed, and killed. The camera was in effect their executioner.

Yet there are almost 20,000 grave sites which go unnoticed and are mainly unmarked.

Prince Sihanouk tried to keep Cambodia neutral, but he allowed Vietnamese supply lines to cross the country during the Vietnam War. US bombs killed tens of thousands of innocent Cambodians in a vain effort to disrupt these trails. This helped push the population towards the Khmer Rouge, which was a tragic error.

The Genocide was stopped in 1979 by the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, although their army only left the country in 1989. Still, very few of the original Khmer Rouge leadership were brought to justice.  The UN backed tribunal only opened investigations in 2007.

The complex story of the Genocide is thus today buried in an anonymous landscape.

From a personal perspective, my wife Ingrid and I have a fairly long-standing relationship with Cambodia and its people.

In 1994 we first visited as tourists with our then young children. Some parts of the country still saw fighting between the Royal Cambodian Army and the Khmer Rouge. In fact, we heard shell fire when we were visiting the famous Angkor Wat temple on a lovely blue-sky day. This prompted our interest in the country and in researching its history.

Until the death of Pol Pot in 1998, parts of the country remained under Khmer Rouge control. Reconciliation with the rest of Cambodia only started then. In 1999, Ingrid and I founded a primary school program in the northern Reconciliation Areas, along the border with Thailand. Working in collaboration with Save the Children, the Ministry of Education and even some ex-Khmer Rouge, the partnership helped rebuild the local education system. Keo Sarath and Beng Simeth led the programs, and these two men feature in my subsequent documentary photography.

My recent Fellowship submission was thus something of a punctuation point in our family relationship with the country, although the work itself is very much about our friends who survived the Genocide. They had not spoken out publicly before.

I joined the RPS quite some time ago and attempted the Associate Distinction in 2010 via a book submission called Smile. It failed. The feedback was that whilst the images were fine, there was a mismatch between my statement and the photographs. Lesson one: seek advice.

In 2014 I went back, with another, much bigger book of street photography called Mobiles, Music and Merriment.  I sought the Licentiateship, which I received.

Mick Yates. 2014. Mobiles Music & Merriment. Available here https://www.blurb.com/b/5554200-mobiles-music-and-merriment

I have always been a photographer to one degree or another and have been lucky to work and live across the world. Travel and street images abound in my archives. I learnt darkroom skills as a student newspaper photographer, and generally shot slide film before moving to digital in 1999.  I still often shoot film, though, depending on the task at hand.

In 2018, I decided to learn more about photography, and I started an MA at Falmouth which I had seen publicised by the RPS. I agreed with our Cambodian friends on a rough project outline and an intensive series of visits to both record their stories (some with video) and experiment with different photographic approaches.

Almost from the first of these visits, it became clear that, despite its power to judge, the camera also has limitations in telling complex stories.  I was also acutely aware of ethical considerations in portraying Genocide, and I did not want to fall into the traps and tropes of ‘dark tourism’. At every stage the effort was collaborative with our friends and various Cambodian experts and institutions.

I settled on the idea of photographing today’s landscape as the visual centre of the work and linking back to the rather anonymous history of the Genocide. These landscapes included sites of atrocities which are rarely visited today. Initial work using portraits or other more traditional documentary techniques just wasn’t creatively ‘cutting through’.

Aftermath photographers such as Sophie Ristelhueber (Fait) and Judy Glickman Lauder (Beyond the Shadows: The Holocaust and the Danish Exception) were inspirational in this endeavour. After much experimentation, I chose infrared for its power to show ‘hidden’ detail in the forest, whilst actually at first looking like ‘traditional’ black and white. I wanted intrigue and not exaggeration.

During the MA, I also researched the use of text with photographs to overcome the camera’s story-telling limitations. Works by people such as Karen Knorr (on Belgravia) and Paul Seawright (Sectarian Murder) were instructive.

In my images, the rather beautiful Khmer script is used to respect the storyteller whilst also anchoring the geographic location of communal suffering. A small English sub-title aids the non-Cambodian audience. The resultant series, in chronological order of events, combines present-day photographs of an historical landscape of death, made real with narratives of personal pain in that same landscape.

I want people to stop and ponder as they saw the work, and frankly it didn’t really matter whether they started with the text or with the image. In the 2019 exhibition at the end of the MA, I watched people’s eyes go back and forth between the two in a gradual unveiling of the story. That and feedback in the visitors’ book suggest that the approach worked.

Mick Yates. 2019. Unfinished Stories: From Genocide to Hope at Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution.

The 2019 exhibition is here:

https://www.mickyatesphotography.com/Events/BRLSI-Unfinished-Stories-Colour/

There is also a short video which accompanied this show, in which Sarath recounts one of his harrowing tales. It is available here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FOhbviL57TU

At the time of the exhibition, I also published a book titled Unfinished Stories; From Genocide to Hope. This is dedicated to our friends and tells their stories in full. There is a foreword from the current Minister of Education. It is not a pure photobook but is more an illustrated history of the Genocide made real with personal biographies.

Mick Yates. 2019. Unfinished Stories: From Genocide to Hope. Available here: https://www.mickyatesphotography.com/Unfinished-Stories

The design is by our youngest daughter Victoria, who is a professional designer, and the book was printed in Cambodia. We opted for an ‘English-only’ presentation after consultation with our friends and booksellers in Phnom Penh. It is on sale in the UK and in Cambodia, and via my website.

My Fellowship submission uses a slightly different selection of the original MA images. Learning from previous mistakes, I sought advice via the RPS online system. I have been very impressed with both the positive changes in the RPS and the way the institution has totally embraced online communications and engagement – whether via the RPS Distinctions group on Facebook or the Zoom-based advice and assessment process. Originally, I was thinking of applying in the Documentary category, but discussions lead to a decision to apply in Contemporary given the complexity of the story and the mix of photographs and text.

I would like to single out the excellent advice (and on-point questioning) from Richard Brayshaw FRPS which in particular helped better connect the Statement of Intent to the work. In my mind, getting that connection right is key to the Fellowship process.

I was honoured to receive the Fellowship on April 22nd. I admit that I was rather taken aback by the positive comments that the work garnered, both at the assessment and subsequently on social media. It has been an emotional but rewarding experience.

In last year’s RPS strategic review it was noted that there are 11,000 current members world-wide – of which there are 3, 300 Licentiates LRPS; 2,3000 Associates ARPS ; 655 Fellows FRPS 655; and 190 Hon Fellow HFRPS (photographers such as Don McCullin, Susan Meiselas etc).

Stepping back from the photography, I would also like to say that Ingrid and I are very grateful for this platform to enable us to continue to reach new audiences about the Genocide, and most importantly to tell the stories of our friends.

Thank you, RPS.

Again, the full Fellowship Panel and Statement is here:

https://www.mickyatesphotography.com/Features/Fellowship-Panel/