Photographs ©Shane Lynam
Based in Paris, Shane Lynam is a Documentary Photography Student at School of Art Media and Design, Newport, Univeristy of Wales.
As a current student, how do you balance what you’re learning in the classroom with what you’re learning by participating with the online photography community? I’m not familiar with the curriculum at photography school’s, so I’m curious how much what’s happening on the web is discussed.
A few years back I reached a point where I was finding it hard to progress with the aid of online photography resources alone. I had a few project ideas in mind, however I wasn’t sure how to execute them. I needed some sort of regular feedback framework that would accompany me as I embarked on a two to three year project. After interviewing for a few different courses in the UK, I settled upon the MA in documentary photography at Newport School of Art.
The most important difference between interacting in a classroom and an online setting is the simple act of regularly putting prints out on the table and discussing them with fellow students and lecturers. Talking about sequencing and looking at the work as a whole and not as single photographs was lacking from my process, I have yet to find anything that comes close to simulating this exercise online. My project work has developed around these feedback sessions, I look to put a new edit together ahead of each class.
The course is divided between these ‘crit’ sessions and a lecture/seminar programme. Are the lecturers talking about what’s going on online? Probably not enough, although we’ve had lectures by Mark Durden and Charlotte Cotton which dealt directly with some of the new parameters and I don’t believe this only applies to my University. There’s huge scope for improvement, for example I think that all programmes should now be offering a course or module on ‘validated photography Internet resources’. This should be an essential part of learning to be a photographer today. The Internet is a minefield of bad photo resources and you can easily lose your way.
On the other hand, the academic route cuts out a lot of the noise associated with the online photo world and seems to deal with the essentials. It sometimes seems that online photography has yet to find its voice and that it might make more sense to incorporate it more specifcally into academic programmes once the chaos of the last few years subsides.
Another difference with the online discussion emerges during conversations about the medium on which the final work will be shown. The conversation generally revolves around how it will look as a show or as a book. How to present your work online or as an iPad application for example is rarely discussed.
The course features plenty of writing and reading, the various assignments serve as a record of how I was thinking at a certain time and the bibliography as a record of resources. I believe that this gives the work more depth which may have been missing from previous online based projects.
I would say that the academic route is not for everybody and a huge amount can be achieved through online resources these days, however in terms of the kick-start that my work required, it has certainly met my expectations. Having the opportunity of complementing the online conversation with face to face exchanges and discussing other student’s projects has added an important new dimension to my work.
I think finding serious feedback online is one of the major shortcomings of the Internet. When discussions do arise about work, they either tend to turn negative really quick, or they’re pretty shallow. How is it for you to sit in group critiques and perhaps hear not so flattering things about your work, either technically or philosophically?
I generally welcome any sort of useful criticism, be it online or offline. My experience is that negative criticism is often more useful than the more flattering comments. It seems to be more a question of how to value each critique. To what point I should take heed of the advice is related to two factors: who the critic is and who I am making the work for. Each critique needs to be analysed and then a decision needs to be made on how to value it. For example, if you only value your fellow students’ or your lecturers’ opinions, you risk making work that the general public will struggle to connect with. There’s also a risk when you’re showing the work on a regular basis that you end of up with lots of contradicting views. In the past this has often left me more confused than when I started out. I think the best approach might be to pick five to six reviewers early on, a combination of: someone who works in the same area as you, someone that makes different work to you and someone from outside the photo world completely. This can probably work as a regular group email to trusted contacts, although complementing online exchanges with face to face exchanges is invaluable.
The dynamic of a group is very different to a ‘one on one’ review. People often look to form consensus or split into large groups. For example, if you have three reviewers in the room with different views, after ironing out differences they’ll eventually tend to follow each other’s point of view. This allows you to simulate how the work might eventually be received when it’s published.
I’m sometimes tempted to respond to criticism or correct someone if I feel they’ve misunderstood what I’m intending to say. I think it’s important to let them form their opinion before responding. I’ve come to realise how useful it can be to put the work out in front of people without supplying any background information and let them come to their own judgments. It’s important to know to what extent the photos can work on their own, without a statement.
Naturally as you study your work is going to evolve, but I wonder what the biggest change you’ve seen in your work and process since you’ve started to have regular critiques?
The biggest change to my work and process since I started the course has been the increase in purpose that I’ve felt as a photographer. I’ve come to have a relatively fixed view of how I want to use photography, whereas before it was constantly in flux. In general terms, this involves using photography to express a series of ideas through long term, well-researched and thought out projects (‘Contours’ being the first of these). I expect to stick with this version for many years. The crits and hand-in deadlines involved have contributed to this by making my work more structured. This increase in purpose has made me more confident in my role as a photographer and increased my sense of (perceived) legitimacy. I’d go so far as to say that by formalising my practice via the course I have made more progress in the last eighteen months than in the previous four years.
You mention that you feel a stronger sense of purpose with your photography. What purpose do you think these type of long term documentary projects serve? In the few years that I’ve been following photography, I’ve come to believe that photography tends to be a bit of an insular medium, meaning that most photography is generally appreciated by other photographers. Some photographers I’ve met are completely fine with, others really believe that strong work can still penetrate mass consciousness. What do you hope to achieve with your photography?
In a previous answer I talked about using photography to communicate an idea. With my current project, ‘Contours’, that idea has sometimes been difficult to pin down, however certain elements have persisted. In summary, I am using landscape photography to document how natural green spaces are used by the inhabitants and the state in the ‘banlieue’ of Paris. I am trying to push past the stereotypes and subvert some of the received notions about the area. I hope that my version of this story will bring something new to the debate.
Although the project is categorised under photography, there are elements of sociology, geography, anthropology, history and politics involved and when I talk about ‘documenting’, I’m taking for granted that there’s no such thing as ‘objective documentary’ and all the other limitations that have come to be associated with the term. There’s a personal aspect too; although I try to hide it, there’s a large element of ‘me’ in there somewhere. It’s not straight up photojournalism either, I’m clearly not solely concerned with the facts, there’s an element of fantasy and storytelling involved. It’s sometimes useful to compare this sort of work to a poem. In the same way that a poem can be based on a true story, a photo series can ‘reflect’ the true state of affairs. Equally, much like a poet has to think about rhyming verses and the type of vocabulary he uses, the photographer has to think about sequencing and editing in order to tell the right story in the appropriate aesthetic way. So it’s closer to a visual story than an academic paper and the purpose of the story is to engage whoever is reading it, or looking at it – in the case of photography.
Who is the work for? I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, particularly with regard to Contours. The edit shifted over the past six months from a focus on typologies and surfaces to a more human centered popular approach and as a result the photos have become slightly more optimistic, while retaining a sense of discord. One of the main reasons for this change has been the social element which has crept in. Although it was an organic progression, it was inspired by photographers such as Xavier Ribas, Mark Power, Simon Roberts and Alexander Gronsky and Steven Hughes who have successfully merged people and landscape photography in the past. Contours is loosely based on the idea that ‘the banlieue’ was once a place of great hope, an alternative, fairer version of Paris, and I’m hoping to show that traces of this exist today. By looking at how people use a selection of natural green spaces, which are often created by the state, I am trying to figure out what remains of the original vision and question the role the state has played over the years. As the work has progressed the story has changed slightly and I expect it take a few more twists and turns before it is finalised next summer.
I’d like to think that there’s a public interest in this type of work and that by pushing myself to create aesthetically interesting photos, the chances of the idea being communicated to a larger audience will be that bit higher. It’s important to note that I am not saying that the target audience will like the work, I am simply hoping that they can connect with it on some level.
Luckily it’s not my job to decide whether it achieves any of these lofty ambitions.
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