Produce a story with a social theme. Your project should combine portraits, objects and spaces to describe your subject matter. You should produce between 8 – 12 images to demonstrate an ethical practice.
I am submitting a project I was invited to be part of, and which is being exhibited from 10th to 29th November 2017. The overall project is called Oxford House, Nexus. My section in it is called Honor’s Dance with Oxford House. Nexus and Honor’s Dance have a social theme, but as an attendee who visited the opening said, my work bridges documentary and fine art traditions. (Good, I’m glad that came across.) My work does combine portraits, objects and spaces in various ways, especially and most obviously if one considers the way it is situated within the overall collaborative project it was made in, next to work by John Umney which is predominantly of objects and Keith Greenough’s of spaces – but perhaps I will need to justify the dominant focus on portraits in my section of the work as well as discuss its potential failings in this regard.
Critically, I needed to give a lot of thought to ethics when considering, planning and executing the work due to the fact I ended up working with a minor and my tendency to work with people. I may also have been unconsciously charged with the responsibility for covering representation in some form within a multi-cultural area.
The below statement describes the collaborative project’s social aspect. This statement was written collectively, prompted initially by Keith, who was the instigator of the project. I will discuss further social themes in more detail, and specifically in relation to my own work separately below after I’ve explored the ethical considerations.
- A central or focal point.
- A connection or series of connections linking two or more things.
Ever since Oxford House was founded in 1884 by Keble College, University of Oxford, it has been a nexus for the residents in and around Bethnal Green. Initially conceived to “alleviate or remove the impact of poverty to the local community”, its history is rich and fascinating, and its connections with the surrounding area remain as significant as ever today.
Oxford House Nexus is a photographic exhibition which explores social relationships between Oxford House and its dynamic community across time. It is a collaboration between Sarah-Jane Field, Keith Greenough and John Umney.
Sarah-Jane Field’s work celebrates social progression and explores underlying assumptions we may have about education in general.
Keith Greenough’s photographs are a quiet tribute to the historic public buildings in Bethnal Green including Oxford House which have helped to shape the community’s collective history for more than a century.
John Umney gathers traces and marks from within the confines of Keble College as evidence of a sense of purpose and re-habituates these within contemporary Oxford House.
The exhibition runs from 10th-29th November 2017. All proceeds from the sales of prints will go to Oxford House to help fund the restoration of its historic building.
Keith asked me to contribute because I am a portrait photographer which fitted well with his architectural interest and John’s tendency to work with memory, photographing objects and spaces to express his ideas. When Keith, John and I first discussed possibilities, along with John Ryan, director of Oxford House we thought about the people who use the centre. There is a wide range of activities for people from all walks of life, including dance classes for children, as well as for a much older generation, sports and exercise classes, religious meetings, and art projects. The building is populated by businesses and has visiting art, theatre, and dance productions. I could envisage the sort of documentary images we are used to seeing of pensioners who attend the dance classes and was quite drawn to that as a possibility. But I had no immediate connection and so such work might have ended up being patronising, voyeuristic, and perhaps rather unoriginal. A very big factor in all of this was time. I live nowhere near Bethnal Green, have a busy life bringing up three children on my own, am working and also studying; so had a limited amount of time to find an idea, make connections, and then make the work. I did not have the luxury of being able to embed myself with a group of people, get to know them properly, unearth their stories leading to such a style of work that avoided being potentially trite, superficial or derivative.
Ethical considerations when working with minors
Keith was quite keen on me working with the ballerinas he had seen when setting up an exhibition at Oxford House last year. The Lisa Gilbert Academy of Dance is based in Oxford House and Lisa runs classes there every day. She teaches herself and employs others too. I wrote to her and said in my email:
I wanted to let you know, I am accutely aware of child protection issues and have worked extensively with child refugees in recent months so my understanding of the issues surrounding imagery and children is fairly solid. As such if you were happy to take any of these ideas forward I would provide you with a set of clear documents such as something about me, a description of the project, and an agreement detailing my responsibilities between parents, children and me, as well as a release form. (28/4/17)
When Lisa and I met she expressed how pleased and reassured she was by the above. I am not sure she would have been so keen to help without it. We talked about the possibilities. She was not entirely comfortable with approaching parents of the youngest children and offered the advanced class where students were 13-15 years old. She also mentioned Honor who is officially ‘home-educated’ and attends a range of classes throughout the week as she has been encouraged to follow her ambition and dedicate her time to one passion. In fact, Honor is educated in reality by teachers at Lisa’s school and another in Bethnal Green, as well as by attending various workshops run by Rambert, Tring and the Northern School of Dance amongst others. The difference between her education and so many others’ is that hers is tailored.
I was immediately drawn to Honor’s story and her education as it contrasted so dramatically with a standardised state education (and private too); and because it was very different to the sort of Victorian education designed to produce able workers and soldiers during the industrial revolution. The following TedTalk by Ken Robinson describes changing educational paradigms and explores how Victorian economic needs dictated the model which we still see in our schools today. It also describes why this is no longer useful and in fact may be quite self-defeating for our society.
A longer version
What struck me about Honor was an obvious sense of intrinsic motivation, and I compared this to the way teachers in mainstream schools aim to motivate children extrinsically with bribes and rewards, which I suspect potentially turns learning into a chore rather than something to enjoy and even love. I wanted the questions I raised NOT to come across as a didactic celebration of home-schooling but rather a prompt to query the way we educate, about how we value economic needs which are changing dramatically with the need and possibilities in relation to living a good or meaningful life. My statement is very important in this regard.
Changing Economic Structures and Needs
At the same time as working on this, I have been developing an interest in the way our social environment is evolving, driven by economic development and in particular the advance of technology. Some notes recorded on my phone:
At a time when the concept of reality is questioned at every level a new generation will self educate themselves via the network that connects them. This work prompts questions about some of the assumptions we have about education. What economic structures do our educational patterns address and are they still relevant today? As we transition away from hierarchy, how should we foster advantageous behaviour in future generations? Does education in the UK in particular require a rethink? How will the younger generation, networked, self educated via an internet that isn’t always reliable or trustworthy, best be served by the institutions that dominate our society? OH is accessed by a wide variety of people from across the social divide. I chose to work with Honor because of the way her family have educated her and her siblings, and the contrast between that and the Victorian academic (batch) ideology which still informs the way schools are run today.
As I worked with Honor, I was reading Post Capitalism by Paul Mason and came across Frithjof Bergmann and his book New Work (not yet published in English but listen to a podcast here)
How will we humans continue to exist going forward, and what and how should we be teaching our young? Allan Grogan sums up the challenges in an article for the Leveller, “For the last 50 years our lives have continually adapted and improved with the advances of technology and automation. During the postwar years this advancement was mutually beneficial to labor and employer. The development of machinery led to higher production, which led to an increase in wages. Yet since shortly before the turn of the century, the advancement of technology has only helped to increase capital, while wages in real terms have fallen. There is now a very clear and present danger that automation and robotics will develop at such a rate that the Bank of England predicts machines may replace up to 50% of jobs in the UK and United States.” (2017)
Mason discusses how young people educate themselves online in his book, and proposes there will be more time to devote to passion rather than donkey work (‘crap jobs’) in future. Frithjof Bergmann suggests working collectively to ensure homes and communities are kept safe and up to scratch, and devoting time to passions and interests too. Honor’s education has been structured so that she is able to devote much of her time to learning dance. Her passion is valued – but as her mother admits, it is a privileged position to be in. (Personal email, 2017) Nevertheless, society will need to address the way humans spend their time as automation does more and more of the grunt work. How will those in power treat the masses now that they are no longer required to make the factories operate? Frithjof and Bergmann envisage creativity and less work. (I am more skeptical and can’t imagine those in power facilitating that.)
When questioned about my thoughts on this by Keith who suggested people in non-western countries can barely survive, never mind pursue artistic endeavours, I wrote the following on my Sketchbook blog:
Mothers and Others, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy – page 162; The AKA tribe, both parents spend a lot of time with offspring, since AKA fathers are in camp often, they remain within eyesight of babies 88% of the time – highest paternal figure for any human society -Hewlett 1998, Tables 16.4 and 16.6 – See also Konner 2005 for overview . Resulting in secure/safe relationships due to amount of time available through leisure = more time parenting, comparative minimal time devoted to ‘economic’ activity (2009)
See also Our Babies Ourselves for references on economic needs affecting social relationships. These references are in response to someone saying that a post capitalist society, where AI takes over the grunt work, leaving citizens to ‘work’ less and pursue passions, seems like a luxury for westerners only. While it is critical and right to be aware of how some non-western societies are struggling to survive, never mind pursue passions, there are two points to consider. Looking at pre-agrarian societies we see a long history of more equalised balance between economic and non-economic activities (in some cases). And also, we might think about the impact western governments, capitalist – based economic policies have had on poorer nations, effectively colonising them through the World Bank at times (Dialectics of Liberation, Verso, 2015)
Also, Frithjof Bergman whose talk I recorded here a few weeks ago, has worked with communities in Michigan, poor though, not rich – people who suffer under capitalism. He has worked elsewhere in non-western countries, albeit societies that have been affected by western economic history -i.e. colonisation. And importantly states he is thinking globally in New Work. Available again here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3lUjZipbwX0
I did not settle on working with Honor exclusively straight away. Practically it was the simplest solution to time and distance constraints but I looked at various options first. I photographed her whole class, minus the people who didn’t want to be included. After meeting the whole class I was concerned by representation or rather lack of it. I did not want to do work which focused only on a relatively privileged group of young women, effectively ignoring the wealth and breadth of cultural diversity that exists in Bethnal Green. I had the idea of creating a performance on the street with Honor and photographing it, influenced by the work I’d seen by Eikoh Hosoe. In fact, we spent an afternoon doing something akin to that but I didn’t think my underlying concept was clear enough and ultimately rejected the outside images, instead choosing to focus on inner images that took place in the building. I will include some of these alternative experiments in a link on the Assignment page. Of course, there are also ethical questions connected to such images where strangers appear in the images – two middle-class females from inside the centre ‘playing at art’ on the streets of Bethnal Green taking pictures of those outside, which include ‘others’ some of whom must work hard, with or without their knowledge might be rather lacking in sensitivity.
Self & Other, power dynamics
When I first saw this work on the wall just the other day, I was really struck by how narcissistic it seemed. The intense exploration of a self, not physically mine, but certainly a proxy for mine; however, also I hope a proxy for all young women who have or who are aiming for something meaningful. So yes, it is narcissistic but in the Lacanian mirror stage sense, as an exploration of separate elements that we conceive of as a whole. I was reminded of a comment which I quoted in A4 of UVC made by Arnaud Claass, an artist who also teaches art history at l’École Nationale Supérieure de la Photographie, in Arles in an article about Isabelle Mège. “It is definitely a project of narcissism, and I do not use that word in a moral or pathological way. Some people have to explore that side of themselves more than others.” (Heyward, 2016) which I followed with “…we must dispense with a layman’s interpretation of ‘narcissism’ and comprehend it in its academic sense, which is about the development of ego and an ability to recognise the self as whole, as well as
seeing (from) separate others” (Field, 2016) For women perhaps we might argue a developing state of presence and significance is emerging in our culture and the intense study of objects, parts of the self, is reflected in the work. Certainly, I intended as stated in the overall project’s statement to “celebrate social progression” in terms of women’s rights here in the west which, despite setbacks and struggle, we have witnessed during the last 60 to 100 years. And which one would very much hope to see continue apace.
If I were to make this work separate to John and Keith’s I would have thought about including images minus any person, only focused on objects and spaces in the final edit. It certainly would have seemed less narcissistic as described above. However, within the context of the whole project, their work covers these elements but I can envisage using inanimate objects to represent me in A3.
Honor, the young dancer in my images and I agreed to work collaboratively and I was immensely thankful for her and her mother’s contribution. But it is abundantly clear to me that I ’employed’ Honor in the way a director might cast actors to perform a specific role. That isn’t to say I behaved in an authoritarian way. I did not. But she was, is an actor in my ‘production’. I asked her for her skills and she generously provided them so that I could make use of her form to express something, a narrative I was aiming to find and tell. She is a significant contributor because it was her work that enabled the expression to take place. I did not have a grand plan. I did not foresee the end result. Without her contribution, I would not have made the work. But I drove the work and put her into situations I thought might result in images that said the things I wanted to say. Sometimes it worked, other times not. I was grateful for her risktaking and enthusiasm. Ethically, I was in a position of responsibility. I needed to be protective of my underage performer, assume the adult position, guide her, and own the work. I might have added her to the poster and indeed Keith asked me if I wanted to. But I felt this encroached on his and John’s position, and also potentially put Honor in a place that felt uncomfortable. I was in a more powerful position that she was and I hope I carried that in an appropriate and suitable manner. I do not think children do well when given too much to carry, as much as I also think sometimes adults don’t give children and young people enough credit. There is a balance to aim for and hopefully, I reached something approximating it here.
This way of working is a continuation of the way I began working in A1 and it is very much about exploring ways to combine my background as an actor, in performance with photography.
I have been struggling to work out if I should be studying photography. As I looked around at contemporary practice and at the sort of work we are directed towards so far in the coursework, I started to feel that perhaps photography was not going to provide a niche for me. Then I came across the following blog and saw that what I was trying to do was different to straight documentary photography, but nevertheless something that IS possible. Andre Lamut discusses the following book, recorded in a blog by Douglas Stockdale;
“Nokturno is a result of my research on performative acts which construct the final artwork as a physical object. I believe that they are the complete opposite of straight photography. What generates meaning in these images are the performative actions made by the artist. This kind of actions have an impact or an effect on visual and physical appearance of the artwork. The essence of performative photography is not what is depicted on an image, but which acts were executed in the process of creating it. Furthermore, the final artwork itself becomes performative by having some sort of impact on the viewer.” From – https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/39957/posts/1584980112 .
Although I don’t fully comprehend all that is being said in this quote, I know I should keep heading in this direction.
Honor’s Dance is presented formally in three Aristotlean acts. There are three larger images, 2 x A2 and 1 x A1, beneath of which are three supporting images all A3. Due to a typo, the larger images are a different aspect ratio to the smaller ones – however, I think this worked well, further differentiating the supporting A3 images. The use of three acts immediately demonstrates a link with history that stretches far back beyond the Industrial Revolution and provides a strict sense of containment inside of which are far less formal, perhaps even chaotic pictures (some but not all). My statement tells viewers straight away, this is a performance and the dancer we see is, therefore, ‘representation’. Images in each act are distinctive from the other acts and presenting it in this way made it possible to bring differently toned images together in one work. I focused on elements in the images that chimed with the other photographers’ work. For instance, in John’s work there is a focus on marks indicating age and so too, in images 9, 10 and 11, patches of paint which have fallen off the walls can be seen. John also focused on signs of history and one of the originators from Keble House who collectively started the Oxford House project, as have I, by including panels in the chapel that commemorate linked men from the past. Keith photographed the stairwell and the chapel in his images and these areas are both seen in my own images. Honor is deliberately situated in the space that is filled with signs of Victorian culture and the social habit of patronage that informed motivation behind Oxford House. In the key image, central to the work in meaning and literally as placed upon the walls, and larger than the rest of them, we no longer see these surrounding signs. Instead, there is only darkness and a blue light.
Here is a short paragraph for each of the adult contributors to the work below, and also the building, a significant (f)actor in the work. These paragraphs were provided in a press release as well as at the exhibition and in an accompanying handout.
About Oxford House
Oxford House is an arts, community and heritage centre in the heart of London’s East End. Established in 1884 Oxford House is a much loved local institution and has served the local community for over 130 years. Oxford House is a Grade II listed building and home to almost 30 charities, community organisations and social businesses. It is open 7 days a week with a range of classes and activities and provides an arts centre and volunteering opportunities. Oxford House is planning a major heritage project with support from Heritage Lottery Fund and Tower Hamlets to secure the future of this Grade II listed building currently on Buildings at Risk Register. http://www.oxfordhouse.org.uk
About Keith Greenough
Keith Greenough is a photographer based in South East England. He views his practice as conceptually based documentary. His work spans both portraiture and landscape and he has a particular interest in East London. His photographs have been exhibited in London, Oxford and Sheffield and are held in private collections and the archives at Toynbee Hall in East London. Keith has a degree in photography from the Open College of the Arts. http://www.keithgreenough.com
About John Umney
John has been a photographer for many years and is a graduate of UCA. He has been published in year books and periodicals as well as written on photography. John’s work has been exhibited in Oxford, Sheffield and Gloucester. His work investigates responses to the disjunctures of memory and the disruption of personal histories. http://www.johnumney.co.uk
About Sarah-Jane Field
Sarah-Jane Field started studying photography in 2014 and works as commercial photographer in and around London. She recently exhibited her work, Portrait of a Pub, in South West London. In 2016 Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie, a series documenting the refugee crisis was chosen as part of a member’s exhibition at Bank Street Arts in Sheffield. Her images were used recently by The Open College of the Arts (OCA), where she is studying, as part of their advertising campaign. http://www.sarahjanefield.com
As I was not aware I’d be submitting this work when I started it I kept a record of my development on the Sketchbook blog which is for non-OCA work. Much of my initial work can be accessed here along with ideas, thoughts, questions, and links.
My oldest friend came along to the opening and one of her comments as we discussed it afterward was, “A girl CAN dream…and achieve too”. In the current climate of moral panic regarding male/female relations, I am glad my friend interpreted it as such.
Featured Image (c)SJField 2017
Oxford House, Nexus content reproduced here with consent from John Umney and Keith Greenough
Field, S. Greenough, K. Umney, J. 2017. Oxford House Nexus, (statement, press release and handout) Oxford House Nexus_Press Release
Oxford House Whats On http://www.oxfordhouse.org.uk/whats-on/ [Accessed 12 Nov. 2017].
Robinson, K. 2000. Changing Education Paradigms Ted Talk https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_changing_education_paradigms/discussion [Accessed 12 Nov. 2017].
Field, S. 2017 Oxford House https://sarahjanefieldblog.wordpress.com/category/work-in-progress/oxford-house/ [Accessed 12 Nov. 2017].
Field, S. 2017 Eikoh Hosoe https://ocasjf.wordpress.com/2017/06/04/artist-eikoh-hosoe/ [Accessed 12 Nov.2017]
Stockdale, D. 2017Adrej Lamut – Nokturno Blog review https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/39957/posts/1584980112 [Accessed 12 Nov. 2017].
Field, S. 2016 Assignment 4 UVC https://uvcsjf.wordpress.com/category/assignments/assignment-4/ [Accessed 12 Nov. 2017].
Field, S. 2017 Email to Lisa Gilbert requesting a meeting and to work with her students,
Heyward, A. (2016). The Opposite of a Muse. The New Yorker. [online] Available at: http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-opposite- of-a-muse [Accessed 12 Nov. 2017].
http://partiallyexaminedlife.com/2013/10/10/ep83-frithjof-bergmann/ [Accessed 12 Nov. 2017]
i. Email sent to Lisa Gilbert of the Lisa Gilbert Academy on 28/4/2017
I was given your details by John from Oxford House (eventually – he at first gave me another Lisa’s details and I spent some time talking with someone who had no idea what I was on about, hence the delay getting in touch with you.)
As you may know, I am one of three photographers who will be working on a project which will culminate in an exhibition at Oxford House in November. Any profits from sales of the work will go towards Oxford House renovation fund.
Each photographer will focus on a different aspect and my work has primarily been about people and in particular, I’ve looked at children, their development and the social landscape in which they grow up, and eventually become adults; and how their world influences who they might become one day. You can see an example of the sort of work I do here: http://sarahjanefield.photoshelter.com/index/G00009CMzWAe8XwU.
John said you were interested in possibly allowing me to work with you and your ballet school in some way. I wanted to let you know, I am accutely aware of child protection issues and have worked extensively with child refugees in recent months so my understanding of the issues surrounding imagery and children is fairly solid. As such if you were happy to take any of these ideas forward I would provide you with a set of clear documents such as something about me, a description of the project, and an agreement detailing my responsibilities between parents, children and me, as well as a release form.
I have several ideas that may worth taking forward. Here are a couple that would involve you.
1. Formal Portraits: My process is about children in their environment. In the past, I have gone to family’s homes and taken images of children. If you were to send out information to your class member’s parents they might choose to volunteer to be included, get in touch with me and I could arrange sessions with them directly. They would be able to purchase images from a selection and the profits would go to Oxford House. I would choose a limited selection t to exhibit in November at Oxford House.
2. Documentary: I document your classes or perhaps focus on just one class. Monday mornings may be the most practical because I could come up to Bethnal green from Wandsworth after dropping my children off. (If I did this, it could even lead to the above idea too as I get to know the families and they become used to my presence ). This second idea may be my preferred option. But it would mean having me hang around regularly. I understand you would have to get permission from everyone in the class we focused on. It may help if you supplied information that links my project to some well-meaning aims (I do hope it has well-meaning aims) so I shall end the email with a couple of pointers that helps you to understand what I’m trying to do. Again people could buy the images and profits would got to Oxford House. Again, I would choose a limited selection for the exhibition.
Context – (draft and merely a starting point)
Oxford House was started with the ambition of helping people in the community by Victorian Christian men. Historically it was a place where local men and boys would be provided for. Over the years as changes to the way we live took hold Oxford House’s objectives have evolved. Today we live in a very different world and Oxford House continues to be a venue that provides space for the local community but in far more egalitarian way. Gender is irrelevant, as is religion, or the colour of one’s skin. The area in which Oxford House exists is a multi-cultural, and terrific example of people from all over the world, or may second and third generation residents living well together. At a time when the world is showing acute anxiety about boundaries, borders and changing definitions, Bethnal Green is a vibrant example of why we should not be afraid. By concentrating on children in this project I aim to explore the future and celebrate these children, who are growing up together, and look forward their positive contributions as adults.
Let me know what you think and if it would be useful to either Skype or I could come up next week and chat with you if you felt that was necessary. Or I could simply come along and observe a class and we could take it from there?
ii Initial email to Honor’s mother sent 14/5/ 2017
I am a photographer. I work commercially and am studying with The Open College of Arts, moving towards a more conceptual practice using lenses and imagery as my medium. A long time ago, before I had my children, I was an actor and so often explore performance in my photography work, one way or another.
Recently I was approached by two other photographers who were asked by Oxford House to create some work for an exhibition in November. If any revenue is raised through print sales the proceeds will go to Oxford House’s renovation fund. Although we all work very differently and will create separate images, our project is collaborative. John Umney is looking at memory and has begun work at Keble House in Oxford, which is where the idea for Oxford House began in the late 1800s. Keith is looking at Victorian architecture and interiors in Bethnal Green, where Oxford House is based. I traditionally work with people and have focused on childhood a lot in various projects, including some documentary work in the Dunkirk Refugee Children’s Centre with a charity called Just Shelter. You can see some of my work at www.sarahjanefield.photoshelter.com – look in the archive for older work not available on the main menu.
I approached Lisa Gilbert to see if there was any way I might document or work alongside one of her classes and she mentioned that your family may be very interested in being involved. When I thought about the links between home-schooling and unschooling and the ancient monolithic structure of Oxford University where Keble and the idea for Oxford House originated I became quite excited by the possibilities.
Finally, so as not to bombard you with too much information at this point, I am very interested in collaborative work, moving away from the idea of master narrators, and wondered if your daughter would be interested in working with me on a project that initially might be a document but may grow into something more. I am not sure at this point how much time we’d need or how the project might unfold and would work around you, but also need to factor in all the many other things in my life such as my children, studies and commercial work. So I suppose in the first instance, if you are interested please get in touch via email and we can take it from there. I’m interested in the imaginary way in which we construct images in our minds so may like to try and bring something of that into the work to begin with. Which is why an email first might be a good idea rather than a call or meeting in person (although of course I’d probably want to move towards that shortly afterwards).
I always work with agreements and would send you something defining boundaries if after some discussion we agreed to go ahead.