Resident Artist | Gemma-Rose Turnbull
Gemma-Rose Turnbull is an artist, writer, Senior Lecturer in Photography at Coventry University and PhD candidate at The University of Queensland, Australia. She was a Scholar in Residence in the Art and Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University, Oregon USA 2013-2014. Turnbull’s research interests lie with the ways in which photographers integrate co-productive methodologies into their projects––particularly when authorship structures are revised so people who may have previously been ‘subjects’ of photographic texts become co-creators. She has collaborated with street-based sex workers, elderly people who have suffered from abuse, and children. She writes about her research at Photography as a Social Practice (www.asocialpractice.com).
“The Taking Part residency is an extremely exciting opportunity, which acknowledges a rich history of community-based photographic practice within the UK, but also highlights the way in which methodologies of participation and collaboration––making work with people, rather than taking photographs of people––is becoming an increasingly refined and innovative contemporary practice.
I plan to work with Photofusion to set up a community-based photographic studio in central Brixton––using portraiture and conversation to explore what community might want from photography, and what photography wants from community. This process seeks to produce a layered body of publicly visible work, which reflects a diverse community.” Gemma-Rose Turnbull
What is Free Photo Portraits about?
To create Free Photo Portraits, I invited my friend Eliza Gregory, an artist from San Francisco who I have collaborated with for the last five years, to work with me to set up a temporary photographic studio in central Brixton. The portrait project aimed to explore what an over-represented community like Brixton might want from photography, rather than engaging in traditional practices of outsider depiction. In this way we acknowledged our status as people visiting the community with limited capacity to share the rich history and social contexts of the area in the images we could make there, rather than trying to speak on behalf of the people who live in a diverse area.
Over four days in October with assistance from two of the photography students I teach at Coventry University, Georgia Hutchins and Laura Dakin, we photographed 77 people and one stuffed rabbit at Brixton Pound, on the site of the old Mr. Biggs family portrait studio. Each participant left with the images made of them, via our onsite printer, and the final body of work represents those people who chose to take part. The stuffed rabbit represents a little girl who did not feel comfortable having her photo taken and sits next to a portrait of me and Eliza that she and her Dad made while we were trying to get her to feel comfortable with being photographed. She visited the exhibition and loved seeing her bunny on the wall.
How did you engage participants?
We took a deliberately soft approach to canvassing participants. We used the visuals of the Mr. Biggs studio sign (which is still visible under the Brixton Pound signage), and printed a series of posters and flyers, which were distributed in some places around Brixton. But we really wanted to see what would happen if we set up shop in the front window of a community-focused social space and just chatted to people as they visited or passed the space. Occasionally that soft approach to canvassing felt stressful, it’s hard to detach from the idea that a project could only be successful if it is significantly productive, but mostly it felt like a relief not to be charming people into participating.
Some of the people who participated were friends, or people who knew of us, or who knew our assistants. That was okay in the parameters of the installation, because we weren’t seeking to represent Brixton per se, but who happened to come along to have their photograph made over the four days, at the site we were positioned on. But, because we were in a Brixton institution we had many locals who were passing, or who worked in Brixton Pound, or who visited the café too. Some people who came past and had their portrait made weren’t typically patrons of the place, and that was cool too. We did one photograph completely independent of the space, when we went and photographed the workers at the local butcher, but that felt less comfortable to me (although they were great), because it was explicitly approaching community, rather than letting community approach us.
Tell us about the methodologies or approaches you used to work with participants?
Once we had explained the project, and that we were there to make portraits for people, rather than collecting work for our own purposes (though many of the people we photographed were happy to have their image shown as part of the collection representing the project), the process was pretty traditional. Although we would both consider ourselves as making work under the banner of Social Practice, or socially engaged art now, I used to be a newspaper photographer, and Eliza was trained as a fine art photographer. We made images of people both in the space (the shopfront of Brixton Pound has great light in October), as well as out in the street. We alternated roles as photographer, and assistant, and we focused on each person who came to have their photo made and sought to make an image that they might want.
Some of the participants had very specific requests for their images: one man wanted headshots for his acting portfolio, another wanted to make a drawing of me, while I made an image of him (the drawing is in the show too), two women had just formally set up their own business the day they came in and wanted a portrait to commemorate the moment. One woman from Vietnam who was studying in London, came in on her birthday and had a photo made. Lots of families came in and wanted a family portrait.
It was important to us to print the work on the spot, so people would walk away with a couple of images that we had made of them, and within the week of the studio finishing we emailed all the files from each of the portrait sessions to the participants. We tried to make it as clear as possible that the images were primarily for them, and that the exhibition was secondary, and not at all necessary, but one of my reflections on this work is to refine that conversation. There were some times, particularly when the studio was busy were it felt not as well articulated as it needed to be, regardless it was a good practice in communication, and understanding how to frame generosity in photographic practice without prompting participants to feel the obligation of reciprocity.
What has surprised you about the work created during the residency?
How fun it is to make portraits! While Eliza still photographs pretty consistently, I have transitioned away from image-making over the last couple of years. It was so great to remember those skills, and to produce images that people liked, and that I liked too! That was really satisfying, because I can be dismissive of the way in which people idolise photography, and it was important to remember its value.
The visuals of the Mr. Biggs studio, which included the blue and yellow colour scheme, and the hand-painted words “PHOTO” and “FAMILY PORTRAITS”, became a really successful part of the visual identity of the project. I was responding to the history of the site, and the symbolism of repeating the process of image making there, but I didn’t really know how much using the sign would both anchor the work in the space in which it was created but also allowed the images to become a series. Particularly as each portrait was responsive to each participant, there was not necessarily a coherent visual language when they are brought together as a representation of the process.
What challenges did you face and how did you deal with this?
We had some printing challenges! It was probably not a great idea to buy a printer immediately before the installation, and not take some time to get familiar with it. But I am comfortable with that sort of challenge being part of the process of learning, and of collaborating––Eliza a meticulous printer, and while I think it’s important to print good quality images for participants, I don’t care as much about the perfection of the print. The collaborative relationship is both tested and strengthened by figuring out where we can compromise and where we can make space for what is important to each other’s practice while we work together. I like that process, because it means we know each other better by the time we have finished a project, and in this case the participants benefit from Eliza’s printing skills!
One of the other reflections of this installation of the project, was that while the Brixton Pound space was an ideal location, it would be great to be able to install in a space that doesn’t require a daily setup and takedown, but that still had the vibrancy and attracted the diverse community that Brixton Pound does. I think for next iterations of this work we will look to spaces we can settle in to like that, so the studio becomes more of a permanent fixture, regardless of the duration of the project. I am particularly conscious of how people experience different spaces, and I think being able to hold a space that allows people to feel safe while experiencing the often vulnerable-making process of being photographed is a priority for this kind of project. It’s harder to focus of the importance of that in a flexible space like Brixton Pound (but also wonderful to be making a portrait with someone, surrounded by people having their coffees).
How do you think you will take your experience of Taking Part into your future work?
Eliza and I had performed an iteration of this project in Portland, Oregon, in 2013, in a much-reduced capacity, and will repeat the project again in Cincinnati, Ohio at the end of 2018. Each time we experiment with the duration, approach to inviting participants, and structure of the temporary studio. The basic premise remains the same, but the diverse iterations allow us to refine the methodology of the project.
In the Brixton project I introduced the idea that people might paint or draw on their printed portraits, in order to think about what representational elements might be missing from any portrait we could make in the time allocated, in the space we were in. This was somewhat successful, and a number of participants did add to their images, but hard to manage when focusing on the process of making photographs at the same time. I really love the photographs which have been added to by participants and will look to refine the process in the next iteration, perhaps making responding to portraits a featured workshop of our next pop-up studio.