I know what you’re thinking: Where the hell have I been this past few months? Have I quit? Have I been ill? Am I dead, and writing this from some conceptual afterlife? Well, the answer is none of them; I’ve just been incredibly busy getting my latest university project ready for assessment this spring. Those of you who read this blog regularly will know that I’m studying for a degree in photography, or more accurately art that has photography as its medium. The course is part-time distance learning and goes on for a very long time, which always begs the question “Why not just go to a traditional university for 3 years, instead of spending 9 years doing the same thing?” The principal reason for this apparent lunacy, apart from the previous lack of time available during full-time employment, was that this way the journey (isn’t everything a bloody journey these days?) is much more enriching. I can honestly say that I’ve evolved as a photographer over the 5 years or so that I’ve been at this, with my interests and artistic ‘voice’ beginning to become more clear. I don’t believe a standard course would have given me the same.
At the end of each module, we have a Self-Directed Project, which is precisely as the title suggests. Our choice of subject, approach, interpretation of a story etc. is entirely up to us, as long as we can demonstrate the learning from the coursework. This year’s learning was all about Ethics and Representation, which I’ve written about before, and this year’s project was the most challenging yet.
The idea for The Only Choice I Made came about after reflecting on a photo assignment that I did in 2022, which was to shoot Malvern Pride for its organising committee. Ethical behaviour and representation in photography is all about being respectful and honest in our decisions about taking photographs of people and aspects of their lives and identities. Many of those aspects are protected, e.g. race, sexuality, disability etc., and in working on a photographic project about people there is a need to take an ethical approach. When I considered those images of Pride, I realised that I had represented LGBTQ+ in a fairly one-dimensional way, that is to reveal the ‘big party’. What I’d overlooked was the continuing struggle that LGBTQ+ people have in preserving their rights as human beings in an ever-changing, polarised society. My photographs were all bright colours, rainbow flags and inflatable unicorns, which I started to realise wasn’t an honest or respectful representation. Why did I not see it at the time? Simple, I’m a middle-aged, heterosexual white male. What this means is that I have an unconscious bias or preconceived perspective on what it is to be gay, based on my age, my upbringing, and my environment. In my case, it’s not a hostile bias as it is with some people, just an association of aesthetics that become almost a reflex response. While I have many friends who are LGBTQ+, my unconscious bias means that I cannot fully appreciate or empathise with how their lives are.
In an effort to ‘do better’ with regard to Pride, I decided to make this year’s SDP about the whole movement and its importance to LGBTQ+ people. I’d been fortunate to be asked to shoot the 2023 event, so this time my plan was to approach people to be part of a wider collaboration to tell the story from their perspective. I would use interviews with my subjects to gather their thoughts on Pride and be able to make photographs that related to their own words. I thought this was a great plan, until I started to do the interviews. The first hurdle was being called out on my use of the phrase ‘LGBTQ+ community’, which I was told was a flawed description. LGBTQ+ people, it turns out, don’t see themselves as a community because that word conjures up an idea that people of every gender identity and sexuality being a big happy family, or some kind of small town. They were keen to point out that this wasn’t the case and that in fact the different groups often dislike each other. What became clear from these conversations was that ‘LGBTQ+’ was essentially a label applied to everyone who isn’t heterosexual and used by both ‘sides’ to identify or classify the people. This got me thinking about the project in a different way as here I was, talking to people who were seen as different simply because of one aspect of their lives that doesn’t fit some idea of ‘normal’; a thought that fascinated and horrified me in equal measure. I hadn’t noticed it because of my own bias. When we think about it rationally, of course, most people can pass each other in the street without ever knowing about the sexuality or gender identity of the other person, mainly because it’s irrelevant in that context and not worth devoting mental energy to work it out. Of course, none of this is a new phenomenon in the same way that racism isn’t a modern concept. Differences between people have always led to division, which causes almost all of the social problems in society. As I started to rethink the project, I became more aware of, and more depressed by, the way that society has become so increasingly polarised in the past 20 years or so. We now appear to have to take one side or another on virtually everything from gender to immigration, conflict to climate change, to the extent where there is no longer a middle ground. I started to feel like my project needed to be less about being LGBTQ+, and more about the people I had met who happened to identify differently to me or not be heterosexual; that we are still all the same when we disregard those perceived differences from being ‘normal’ as some might see it. So, that is what we did collaboratively. My series incorporates stories from different parts of LGBTQ+ and quotations from those stories acting as chapter headings in a wider narrative about people. The lovely people that I worked with couldn’t have been more engaged or supportive, bringing ideas and props to the shoots, helping me reach a point where their representation was both respectful and intimate, and giving me some great feedback on the final output. As I said, it has been the most challenging work to date, but also the most rewarding. I’ve shifted from being someone uncomfortable shooting portraits to a photographer interested in social documentary and building collaborative relationships with my subjects. I also had the opportunity to work in a directional style, similar to that of movie directors, using mis-en-scène to give the viewer just enough information for them to form their own narrative about what each picture contains. This is something that has interested me for a few years now, so being able to bring it to this project was a bonus. Most importantly, though, is that I’m very proud of it as a body of work. It won’t be for everyone, for the reasons that I’ve already alluded to, but for those who are willing to be almost reset in the way they see people they perceive as somehow different, I think it will resonate. I’m now considering how best to present the work, whether as a book or zine, or an exhibition. I’m also thinking about how it could be developed to consider LGBTQ+ in other cultures as well as the etymology and psychology of applying labels to anything we want to classify as different. It could become a much larger project.
For now, though, all that is left for me to say is that you can see it as a slideshow on my website at this address:
The Only Choice I Made. (Best viewed by clicking the Slideshow button).
Please get in touch and let me know what you think and whether it resonated in some way or not. In the meantime, the blog is returning to normal, starting next time with a new series called Camera Stories, in which I’ll be talking about the cameras in my collection from the point of view of their place in history and what they mean to me. Watch this space!