I was fortunate enough to have been nominated for the AIB prize 2010. The winner of the prize gets funding to assist in the publication of a catalogue and towards the production of work for an exhibition in the gallery that nominated them. For me, that’s the Letterkenny Regional Cultural Centre. Three runner’s up receive a €1,500 prize. Past winners include Anne Cleary & Dennis Connolly (2009), Jackie Nickerson (2008), Diana Copperwhite (2007), Linda Quinlan (2006), Paul Doran (2005) and Amanda Coogan (2004). The nominations haven’t been announced yet however, so we will have to wait to see whether there will actually be an AIB prize next year.
I have submitted a proposal of work for the prize. Regardless of its future or funding, I need to kick this project off as it’s been brewing in my consciousness for a few years now. By writing this blog, I hope to strip the project to a simple concept. At the time of writing, it is not entirely clear in my own head, but this process may, or may not, enhance that clarity. It also may, or may not, completely bore the readers. In many ways, this is more for me than a reader, but hopefully it will work in both ways.
In summary, the project is centered upon one important element in the exchange of photographing someone as part of an art project – the potential imbalance of trust and power that exists in the photographer / sitter relationship. Personally, when someone gives me their time, their being, their home for a few hours to photograph them, I always feel a little guilty asking them to sign a model release form. I feel that they have not got as much out of the process as I. Photographers in situations like this usually stand to gain something from the process, whether it’s furthering their career, a masters or PhD. Participants in contrast, may not accrue similar benefits from their own participation. From a power perspective, the photographer clearly has the upper hand. I don’t mean to insinuate all photographers take advantage, of course they don’t. What I’m trying to clumsily explain is my own feelings on the matter. Maybe it’s my Catholic guilt, I’m not really sure. Whatever it is, it’s what I’ve decided to build this next body of work on.
I am reading a lot about ethnography at the minute, which is a pretty wide branch of anthropology dedicated to the study of human societies. I will attempt to simplify that definition and narrow its scope to my own photographic practice of representing a set of older people in our society. According to Sarah Pink, ethnography is an approach to experiencing, interpreting and representing culture and society. In other words, it is a process of creating and representing knowledge about society, culture and individuals. The methods by which this is done usually involves the ethnographer living with the people under study, getting to know them, collaborating with them on generating a variety of documents (writing, video, photographs etc.) which represents a culture, society or group of individuals. This knowledge which is represented is of course subjective, as it is based on the ethnographers own experiences but nevertheless should be an honest and detailed representation about a society or culture.
What has this to do with photography? Lots, actually. The photographer in my case, can be seen as a mini ethnographer. By photographing a bunch of people and framing them for a gallery purpose, I am saying something about that which I photograph. In this case: old age. How can I represent old age? I cannot, and don’t claim to. Informed by ethnography and borrowing some of the ethnographic tools however, I can concentrate on a group of people, build a relationship with them and hopefully involve them in the process and in the documentation of that process. In this way, I hope to tackle the issue of trust and the important aspect of leveling of power that I mentioned earlier.
It sounds all very idealistic, I admit.