What next for photography in the North East?

There is a rich history of photographic practice in the North East. A vital seam which continues to animate the visual arts in the region, it is marked by the work of individual artists which invariably transcends art-making alone to encompass grassroots organising and artist-led facilities. But where DIY culture persists, the framework for support is more fragile.

With Newcastle’s Side Gallery closed indefinitely and no other space dedicated to photography, what’s next for photography in the region? Who’s working with photography in the North East, and what are their needs? And what exemplars exist – here or elsewhere in the country – which might help us imagine a better-resourced future?

Amanda Ritson, Programme Manager at NEPN joins artists Victoria Louise Doyle, Mark Duffy and Jade Sweeting and Adam Pugh (ANNE) to discuss some of the complexities, and opportunities, around photographic practice in the region.

Adam Pugh, Art Network North East: With several prominent photography shows and significant developments in the region this year, this seemed like a moment at which it might be interesting or useful to talk about photography.

I’d like us to think about needs. What does it look like in the region at the moment for people working with photography — for artists, for curators, for researchers? What does it look like in terms of teaching and training, facilities and so on? What exists already — and from there, where are the gaps, and where are the opportunities? It would be useful to think about what this might mean. Do we need a space – does this need to be about bricks and mortar – or is it about something more intangible? (even if that already exists, in part, in NEPN).

It would be interesting to go onto think about what exists nationally and internationally: to look at good (and bad) practice? What’s good? What’s worth looking to as exemplars nationally or internationally, and could we in the North East steal a march on what’s happening elsewhere: in London, for instance? What’s not happening that the region could be well-placed to deliver? Because it seems to me that – and this is where this session arises from, of course – that there’s a really strong seam of photographic practice in the North East, both historically and in terms of contemporary practitioners. But how might we activate that history and link it to contemporary work — and, most importantly, support what’s happening in the region around photography now?

So it feels as though there are opportunities; there’s work to be done; things to be grasped. How do we grasp them? What do we do with them? 

Let’s start with needs, though. Amanda, thinking about this first of all from the point of view of your work at NEPN, and how you perceive the lie of the land given you’ve been running NEPN for so long, what do you perceive to be the biggest gaps, but also possibilities?

Amanda Ritson: One of the things I’ve always done is talk to photographers about their work; about their practice and their development needs. Over the last couple of years, up until the start of this year, we ran an Arts Council-funded project, SHIFTS, which focused on professional development: this generated quite a lot of suggestions around tools, experiences and support. For context, the project was designed to listen to what photographers’ needs are. I was keen to go out and ask photographers about their needs around professional development. 

We offered four bursaries. I used the application process as a means to gather information about what people were looking for, but also as a way of picking up on what they weren’t saying. We rolled this out as a workshop programme on the back of what the applications and a survey we’d run said. I also offered 24 one-to-one sessions for photographers. Sometimes these were quite lengthy sessions, talking about practice development, sustainability of practice, or about a particular project, and using that as a vehicle to think about exhibition or other outputs, what it looks like in terms of presentation, what the audiences for the work might be, or how they would fundraise for it; who the partners might be. Or it could involve looking at their work and talking about their visual strategy: is it doing what they want it to?

Lots of different insights arose from that. One of the major things was access to facilities, particularly specialist darkrooms, but also the critical context and support that accompanies that. There was a massive appetite to access Northern Centre of Photography, where we’re based, but also around the AA2A scheme [accessible via the University of Sunderland but no longer any other universities in the region]. 

I think maybe we could highlight the work of community and artist-led darkrooms, like the one led by Janina Sabaliauskaitė and Phyllis Christopher at Newbridge, Darkroom Kitchen and Tanners Bank, in some way.

In terms of the business of photography, there was a lot of focus  on communicating who you are, and people expressed a desire for more support around ‘pre-pitching’: articulating why you do what you do, how you talk about it, who would be interested in your work, and so on. Obviously there was a lot around sustaining your practice financially, and environmental sustainability. 

As ever, there was a lot of interest in peer-to-peer support: sharing methodologies, approaches, showing and sharing work. 

AP: Peer support, I imagine, is really central in galvanising a community of people, but it depends on people being able to train in the first place, whether they’re coming into the region or from within it. So I wonder what it looks like in terms of study. Vicki, do you have a sense of what it looks like from a student perspective?

Victoria Louise Doyle: Yes and no. I have a partial view of the student perspective, from the position of someone working within a university context, alongside this I am afforded another fragmentary view via my engagement in alternative arts education programs (as a facilitator and student) … However, I feel conflicted, because I didn’t study here, but specifically moved out of the region (to London) to further my photographic studies. What photography looks like there is very, very different to what it looks like in the North East, for a whole range of different reasons.

Reflecting upon my own experience as a student and the glimpses of student experience within the region I’ve gleaned from the orbiting positions I occupy, I feel it’s quite opaque for students: the parallels between their study and application in a professional context is murky, not as a result of their learning but as a by-product of the way photography is represented this region.

I’ve thought a considerable amount about what a dedicated photography space could look like, function like — but I don’t want a dedicated photography space. Why can’t more photographic works be shown in the galleries and museums that already exist? For me, there’s a distinct lack of photography and its expanded practice… and it’s hard to set things up. I’ve tried and failed to set up many, consistent and regular, spaces to engage with photography, most recently Mark and I co-organised a ‘photo meet’ where people could hang out, talk about photography and so on…

AP: Yes, what happened to that?

VLD: Life got in the way, you know… I have to prioritise work based on my need for money, as such the work I want to do, the work that brings me joy, usually ends up at the bottom of the to-do list, and if/when I do/can reach them, I often don’t have the energy to give.

I’d quite like to set up a student version of it at Sunderland University though: maybe some informal project space where people can show some work one night a month or something, and create a space for people to talk with one another about their work. Students aren’t that comfortable discussing their own work, and I wonder how many other photographic practitioners in the NE also feel like that: when you say, ‘we’re having a crit’, they freak out. They often query what a crit is: what does it do? Why would we want to talk about our work? I wonder what benefits could come out of doing this with the photographic network in the region? Or what could germinate from fusing the two, the student body and the practitioner body…?

AP: Is that because the way that photography is taught differs to an extent from Fine Art: that model of the crit isn’t baked into photographic courses in the same way as fine art?

VLD:  I really don’t know how the two compare yet… I didn’t study Fine Art, and whilst over the course of the last year I worked with BA Fine Art, the area of focus was that of Contextual Studies, which sits slightly outside the rest of the programme, outside of the atelier… I’m hoping that the more time I spend as part of the University of Sunderland, the clearer this will become to me. 

Crits were (and still are) deeply embedded in my learning when studying in both formal and informal settings. Focusing on my time enrolled at university, they were an integral part of the programme. Critiques took many forms: they were often peer-to-peer and self-initiated, and though there was time dedicated to the practice within the curriculum, these sessions often descended into being tutor-led. They occurred across disciples, in group and one-to-one settings. They were ruthless, but invaluable. 

The practice is rooted in honing visual literacy skills, developing critical thinking, enhancing the capacity to talk about artworks, exploring approaches to engage with artworks, bridging the gap between what you want for and from the artwork and how audience/viewer/reader receive the artwork… the list goes on! It’s hard at first to be receptive to feedback, to recognise where it is coming from, how to receive it and what to do once you have. The responsibility falls on both the critic and the critiqued to be clear from the outset about what they want from the practice and how they wish to structure it. In my experience, the critique is a misunderstood learning opportunity. They provide an incredibly rich space where you can challenge, change, and surprise yourself. 

One of the reasons I don’t want a dedicated photography space is because I’m interested in expanded photographic practice. There are so many things that could be photographic: I met an incredible artist who is part of the current The NewBridge Project’s Collective Studio cohort, Rosalind Duguid. She works with drawing, sculpture, collage but it’s all photography — and I desperately want to facilitate an exhibition for her. I want to spend time with this work in situ so I can learn more about photography through it (selfish I know), but also so that others can engage with this work – it is sensational! But I have no money, so I’d have to make some in order to pay her. I can’t be all, you should do all this free labour. I’m doing all this free labour, and I can’t survive! I don’t want to perpetuate bad practice, I want to be the change I desire, that I need.

AP: Jade, at this point could you delve into your experience of studying — because you came to photography from printmaking. That is, you came to this not from having studied photography on a photography course, so how did you find your way to it — and was it useful, in fact, coming to it sideways like this?

Jade Sweeting: Yeah. I think printmaking and photography have a lot in common. Print has always been the underdog, coloured by its commercial applications — newspapers, advertising. I studied printmaking at Northumbria University. When I’m trying to teach students to print, I’m like, “Everything’s dots”, and they say, “What are you on about?” I explain that everything is made of dots: pixels on your screen, and that’s resolution; grain in a photo is dots. It’s all made of dots. In screenprinting, it’s halftones. To make an image, you need to reduce it to dots — and it’s just tones. Which is cool… it blows my mind a little bit!

Photography has always been an interest of mine. When I was at Cleveland College of Art & Design [now the Northern School of Art’s Middlesbrough campus], for the Fine Art course you had to take a side course in craft, making objects. I asked whether I could do photography, and they were like, no. But I didn’t understand why: that didn’t make sense. So I whinged and whinged, and finally got them to agree — and then everyone wanted to do it. 

I studied photography at college, but then when I went to Teesside University, I studied Fine Art with an interest not so much in print, but at that point it was more about painting. But then I realised there was a darkroom. It seemed to be slightly forgotten about: nobody really ran it. It’s changed now – this is a long time ago – but I just found my way in, without much in the way of mentoring, but I just liked being in the space. I didn’t really know what I was doing: I was documenting; making studies. Now, in the last months, I’ve realised that my work from ten years ago, when I thought, oh, what am I doing, has come straight back. And it’s so significant: I’m still looking at why zips are so sexy, etc. 

I worked in the higher education part of CCAD in Hartlepool. They have a photography course, and the facilities are excellent. Not many people know that though: it’s a bit hidden. Northumbria didn’t really have the photography facilities, but the print department was amazing. I think photography got forgotten about. But I think now, people have realised, and there’s been an upsurge in people being interested in photography.

As things get more digital, people are seeking these analogue means out, and that’s the same with printmaking. The students that are coming into study print all want to be in the darkroom. But again, I’ll run the darkroom and do inductions; I’ll teach – sorry, technically demonstrate them (again, we run into problems with language there: what can I actually give, what should I give for what I get paid — and the hierarchy in education and the politics of that, which gets frustrating because I know there’s a lot of students who want more). 

AR: I think it’s really interesting what you were saying, Jade, and Vicki, about the use of those spaces. Photography has always existed in lots of different spheres. 

Jade, you mentioned the relationship between print and industry — the commercial side of things. I think students want different things from a photography degree now: employability is a massive thing, particularly, for all universities. Students also have so many commitments — there’s the financial stress; their lives are complicated; they often have caring responsibilities; they work multiple jobs. And I think the education system has changed in a way that makes less room for creativity and experimentation; for anything that’s not ‘core’, I suppose.

AP: My perception is that that’s always been photography’s problem, certainly in terms of photography courses, as far as I know – and I don’t know that much – because it’s a medium, but also a technical process, so it always becomes instrumentalised. Courses often tend to focus on the commercial applications of photography, and I suppose I’d be interested to know to what extent it can be foregrounded by experimentation and criticality — but as you’re saying, everything’s becoming more transactional, so it’s probably less and less possible, even in fine art. 

Mark, how does this all chime with your experiences? From your studies, how did you find it, becoming an artist, navigating this world post-college?

Mark Duffy: I gave up photography very quickly after studying it. I was very young — but also, the head of my course sat me down in my final year and said, “Mark, you know, photography, it’s not for everyone”! So very quickly I decided it wasn’t for me, and I walked away from darkroom practice at the time, as well. I came back to photography, but purely as digital practice. In terms of developing my professional practice: I’ve thought about it a lot since moving up to the North East, because I was living in London and basically said, well, I’m making this work; I need to do something with it. I decided I needed to meet the gatekeepers, and so without knowing virtually anybody in the London scene started going to exhibition openings I wasn’t invited to, very uncomfortably. People who know me now don’t really buy it, but I was very very quiet when I started this, and very shy. 

That became a big part of my social life. I’ve noticed since moving up here that a lot of my life was going to exhibition openings, and wasn’t just about saying hey, I’m Mark and I do this, but it was the constant exposure to people – no pun intended – who were making things with cameras, and that was enlivening, and something I do miss here: the casual chats with other practitioners. Vicky and I did try to set up an informal gathering but we lost momentum with it. 

Newcastle has lost its one and only space for photography, but the UK in general is so deprived in terms of spaces for photography. Look at London, a world capital: there are maybe four spaces dedicated to the medium, and aside from The Photographers’ Gallery’s print sales room, virtually nowhere dedicated to the selling of photographic prints.

Obviously Side Gallery is a very specific sort of gallery showing a very specific sort of work, but it didn’t really offer that sort of meeting place in my limited experience. In terms of an actual space, say we did have a pot of money to start this photography space tomorrow, I don’t know if that’s a good idea either. There are so many pitfalls with having one singular space. I was talking with someone recently about National Portfolio status, and the spaces that exist across the region: we were talking specifically about the funding for somewhere like Baltic. All this money goes to a space like that, and you could have 20 small-scale galleries with that funding. 

What would the arts scene in Newcastle look like if you had 20 experimental spaces — and 20 spaces all employing the amount people they’d need? As well as a space for people to bump into one another, these type of spaces would have programmes with the short lead-in time that would allow experimentation in curation. Vicki, I know you were talking about free labour, but if there were these spaces you could contact to say, I’ve this idea for something completely mad, but I’m going to realise it cheaply with commercial vinyls and so on, it’d be so exciting to be able to play around, even if it was your own money you were using to present the show. That is a strength that Newcastle could actually draw on, or the North East in general: we have a lot of street-facing empty commercial units. To have these sorts of pop-up spaces on a regular basis could be quite exciting: access to present experimental, playful, fun projects; that could be really beneficial. 

The other thing I see which is tricky is that if you put on a show in London, you might be able to convince some curators to come to it — might be able, if they live on the same side of the river as you. But if you put something on in Newcastle, you’re never going to convince anyone from any London institutions to come to it. Look at the recent retrospective of Chris Killip’s work at Baltic as an example: the exhibition originated in a London institution and to the best of my knowledge no representative from there came to the launch at Baltic. If curators aren’t coming to their own shows up here what hope do you have of enticing them up to independently produced exhibitions. 

AP: I think you’re absolutely right, and this is something that cuts across everything: writing, too. From the discussion we had about the state of critical writing in the North East, I have the real sense that we need to build it ourselves: we can’t constantly rely on having to bus people up from London who don’t really care. I totally agree with you about commercial units, and the relative availability of space; and what you said about spaces in which to experiment. I’ve been thinking a lot about the need for project spaces, too. The provision they’d make possible for risk-taking and experimentation cuts across more than photography alone, of course.

To go back to the question that Vicki posed, that you’re not convinced that there needs to be a dedicated space for photography: I think that’s an interesting position. I can see both sides of it: on one hand, photography does come with a specific set of conditions, like the moving image, that are very particular to itself. But on the other hand, if you draw a ring around it and say, this is only for this particular area of practice, it might only ever reflect back into itself. That’s not necessarily that helpful — and it’s true that having a relationship with wider practice can help to activate even the medium specificity of photography.

Does anyone have a take on this? Would anyone advocate for a dedicated space or function — that actually, there does need to be something set aside for photography because of these specific conditions, and because there is a certain set of technical processes to consider too. Or is it just that we need to fold photography in much more to a wider arena?

JS: All three! Why can’t you have both? It doesn’t have to be a clean distinction. A specialised space is nice. For printmaking there’s nothing — maybe Jealous Gallery’s studios in London, but there’s nothing else. With photography, I like going to Side Gallery. I know there are loads of politics behind it. But I knew what I was going to get, and I like that. I always felt that I was learning when I visited. 

Since Phyllis Christopher’s exhibition at Baltic, for ages I was saying, I just want to see a nice photograph; just a photograph. Sometimes I’m not bothered so much about figuring out what’s going on; I just want to go to see something flat against the wall! But that’s my personal thing: I’m not saying that’s how art should be, because that’s mental. But I like flat things against the wall that are really well executed. 

Janina Sabaliauskaite’s show Sending Love at the NGCA was refreshing: just the chance to see a lot of photos. 

Anyway, both! We need both.

MD: As with Vicki, In my own practice, I’m moving away from prints on walls, so I definitely like the idea of more mixed spaces, but I think photography is relatively under-represented in the fine art world, so if you had spaces that are mixed-use, you will find that photography slips down the pecking order. So while it is boring to have medium-specific spaces, with photography, it’s sort of necessary. 

JS: I know that I can be a nerd about certain details when I look at a screenprint, because I specialise in printmaking — and that gets me excited, you know. And there are loads of people when you’re into something: it doesn’t mean that you don’t have other things you enjoy, but just being a real nerd about it sometimes. And then there are books, and it’s just photography, and you can look at them; you can introduce yourself to a new artist. Like Rauschenberg. He does photography. He does everything. But it’s his prints and photography that’ll speak to me. 

AP: That’s persuasive — the idea that no-one wants to see a street with a photography gallery, a painting gallery, a sculpture gallery.

JS: I think yeah, I would like to see a street like that. But also, I don’t want to walk down a street with 20 galleries on it. That’s sad as well, because where’s everything else? There are a lot of empty shops not getting used. That’s sad. That’s because things are…  ugh. 

Thinking about a space you can go and create, there was that in Newcastle: it was The NewBridge Project. Not The NewBridge Project as it is now, because it’s changed — and things have to change; it’s down to funding and so on – but when The NewBridge Project first started, you were paying £30 for a studio for a month, and you could do whatever you wanted in it, as long as it was safe. 

There was this kind of, “I want to put this work up” – and you just do it. “Yes, the space is free, go on.” And yeah, you’d have to put some pocket money in, you’d have to paint the walls, and you’d be putting in all this labour. But it’s because you want to do it; all your friends will come, who are also studio members. And people didn’t just come for the work, they’d come to socialise, come for a drink for 50p. It’s about the networking, and that’s how I made my contacts. And yeah, it’s helped me get advice, get to where I want to be. So these places do, or did exist. But things are hard; funding’s hard to get: it’s all about money, and it’s just really sad.

AP: It’s about simple ingredients, isn’t it: it’s just a space that’s affordable that allows there to be a sense of freedom.

JS: Yeah, it’s an empty room really. That’s all you need.

VLD: A proper project space where you can spend time and engage with photography both on your own and with others. I really miss that. Since moving back to Newcastle, I don’t have the same opportunity to be with photography as I once did, and that has had, and continues to have, a negative impact on me… it’s causing me to be miserable and I’m fucking fed up with that!  

My life is photography. It’s the lens through which I feel able to engage with the world, to navigate it, investigate it, etc. Though I can’t place all of the responsibility for my misery on moving back to the region, because in truth that was the best decision I may have ever made! Holding my practice at the centre of my being, and organising my life in relation to that, has enabled me to sustain a relationship with photography that is vitally enriching. But I want to share in this. I can’t be the only person who adores it, is obsessed with it! Evidently not: we are all here right now, doing the very thing I feel is missing… engaging!

When I moved back, I secured myself a place on the Collective Studio programme, I got a studio space, and I thought, this is it! But no one wanted to engage in the way I did, or more fairly I should say I didn’t find anyone who wanted to. I desperately want to have critically engaged conversations about photography and art practice, and it just didn’t happen. In some ways it still isn’t happening. 

Upon reflection this is maybe a me thing as much as it is an other people thing. I remember thinking, is there a very small selection of people who exist and want to operate in this way — and did they all decide to go to London? I suppose this opinion is formed and rooted in my experience, and is mired in a lot of other factors. I found my people in London, the people who live with photography how I do, not entirely the same way but there is a commonality. We would find ourselves in the words, the thoughts of each other, and photography would be passed between us… something very special happens in these moments for me, a feeling like no other radiates in me, and this would happen all the time, we made space for this in our lives. We didn’t have a dedicated space in a physical sense, but the space was still there.

JS: When I worked in CCAD, I taught illustration. It was so hard to get through to some of the students. I thought, you’ve chosen to pay nine grand to be on this course: can you please be interested in it?

AP: The flip-side to a tight-knit artistic community is that if it becomes too hermetic, and its members too easily satisfied with what they’ve accomplished, it then reflects back on itself. That can be a problem as well. It’s not just enough, I’d say, to have a space and a community to come together in it: it also needs exchange; it needs people coming in to shake things up; to challenge people and say, this is lazy work. 

But it’s sad that you felt that way, Vicki, and there’s a really key question, actually, at the heart of all this, which is about criticality. It’s all very well being able to maintain a practice, but where are the opportunities for people to come together to discuss? Where is research happening? And that idea of exchange, as well: how is that going to be made possible — is that something that NEPN could take on, for instance? Amanda, you’ve brought a lot of people into the region, commissioning. Can you see that you could take a wider role in that — and on the back of that, it would be interesting to think about the idea of a festival, as well. Is that a structure that could be useful?

AR: That’s one of the reasons that NEPN was established, because of the desire for criticality. There were alumni who wanted to maintain a connection and to continue conversations about their work. But that was one of the key reasons to bring practitioners and researchers together: to have access to facilities, but really around critically-engaged discussion — where your work sits in relation to the ideas you’re exploring, in relation to practice, positioning and talking about what you’re doing. In the early days we used to talk about a ‘culture of opportunity’, to get funds so that we could invest in practice, in commissions, but commissions which didn’t necessarily have outputs. I think that’s one of the things that’s missing, almost entirely: that space-and-time money to generate new ideas.

To go back to the question about space, I think any gallery needs to be funded to an appropriate level to be able to offer development opportunities, so there is an investment in new work as well as opportunities to exhibit. But exhibitions are only one form of presentation for photography: as everyone has already mentioned, there are many contexts and platforms, and one body of work can have different iterations. Some choose to only work in publishing, or only online or only using public space, for instance.

We’ve talked about accessibility, and a festival naturally lends itself to the use of public and non-arts spaces. Photography has always occupied those spaces. I don’t know whether the pandemic is relevant here or not, but I think people have shifted their practices for many reasons: to be more accessible, to work outside of the usual spaces and to be based in those communities they’re working with. I think the festival conversation is one that’s worth having.

AP: Yes! If a gallery is a structure in space, a festival as a structure in time is slightly more fleet of foot: it can do things differently. Can you say something about The Social, the festival NEPN produced in 2012?

AR: NEPN is not regularly funded, so we approach fundraising on a project-by-project basis. The Social was one way in which we could talk about practice and provide development and exhibition opportunities. A lot of the work happened in the one or two years before the festival, working with artists. Some of the projects we led but some were initiated by other people — but it was important that it emerged from early conversations together about what the festival could be. 

It was partly about helping people get to a point at which they were ready to exhibit — for emerging practitioners, at least; giving people plenty of time to think about their body of work or something they were interested in developing in the intervening period before the festival. It was just about providing a context for people to come together, really. 

AP: Did you find it was a useful structure, then? I can see that one of the benefits of a festival is that it can navigate space in a very different way: private and public space;  existing institutions that would never normally show photography, too. But I suppose the other side of that is, well, what happens afterwards? Does it help to galvanise a community? What’s the long tail of what it’s achieved? 

The Social was a one-edition project, wasn’t it? Do you have a sense of what happened afterwards? Did it effect a shift of some sort — and would it again if it were to take place another time?

AR: I think there were always people using public space, but the strategy was very much about inside/outside – trying to get people into the spaces that existed for photography and visual arts, but also using non-arts spaces. People certainly talked about the idea that a community of a practice was strengthened, and providing a profile for people’s work where working individually wouldn’t have done so. It allowed artists to work in non-arts spaces because there was the sense that support was coming from elsewhere. 

It was exhausting, to be quite honest. 

VLD: You are NEPN, you’re the only person running NEPN on a day-to-day basis, in effect. How do we get the university, the arts council, the local authority, etc, to put money towards this? To recognise the value of what we have, and the potential of what this can become. It is an incredible resource for all who study photography at Sunderland University, and more broadly for all photographic practitioners in the region. It’s part of the Northern Centre for Photography, yet I have absolutely no idea what that really means (nor in truth do I know why it is called the Northern Centre for Photography — is it for or of?).

Quite a lot of the time I feel a lack of transparency is the biggest problem. From where I stand there are all these great things happening; events, exhibitions, workshops, it is all going on. But to build on what you said, Jade, I can see all the dots, alas I cannot seem to connect them together. Why can’t I connect them? Why can’t they connect themselves together? What am I missing?

Side note: I was thinking about the idea of a space — what if it’s a programme? What if it’s not a literal space? That raises a lot of questions about access needs, because not having a fixed space to go to means your community is constantly being uprooted and has to remain very fluid.

Now jumping back to Side Gallery, for me, it could have been more (and has the potential to still be more): it could have opened itself out, been responsive to the region in time. I’ve nothing against documentary photography, but I realise that it isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of photography in this region. It has strong ties to it, but how have those ties bound us and impacted future photographic practitioners working and living in the region.

I was born in Newcastle, brought up in South Tyneside, and now work across the North East. How has my experience been affected by the representation of photographic practice in the region, has it influenced how I work with photography, or the development of my relationship with it and preconceptions about and around it? Recognising photography has changed: it has grown, developed, advanced and retreated; it has moved in some many different directions. 

Often when asked if I am a photographer, I respond no. I don’t feel like a photographer, but where did this ‘feeling’, this idea of what a photographer is, come from… I get a lot of ‘you’re not quite this and you’re not quite that’ and it makes me feel disconnected from photography, the more I am disconnected the more I feel I don’t quite care. I’m still engaging with photography. Photography is a massive body built of smaller bodies, and when you keep negating all of these other bodies you’re kind of killing it. 

It’s all not funded enough. Amanda, you’re having to do everything yourself — and fundraise. There should be a team of people dedicated to working at NEPN. 

AR: To be fair, I didn’t mean to suggest that I work in isolation; I work with other people. Obviously we need more money! 

Just to jump back to the festival idea, one of the difficult things with festivals is that they’re seen as not being visible or active in between their ‘big bang’ moments’, the public (and the funders) don’t always see the huge amount of developmental and production work, and I wonder whether it’d be better to have some sort of dispersed model to mitigate the month of exhaustion after 18 months, two years: something which focuses on weekends, perhaps. 

I think it’s really difficult to argue the case for support for a festival: it’s difficult to articulate or evidence the fact that there’s a lot of developmental work going on behind the scenes; to assert that this is really important work.

MD: The tricky thing about expanding or spreading it, though, is that you lose the focus. One important function about a photography festival is bringing together curators, publishers and so on, and it helps to give them one focused time to be there together. Photography festivals also often bring in a portfolio review element, and that solidifies the access opportunities that artists have to these people: you’d lose that a little bit. Also, though, look at Middlesbrough Art Week: it’s now expanded from a weekend to a week.

AR: I thought it was great that Baltic offered a portfolio review session recently.

VLD: That’s a start. I want more of that. Let’s do it every four months: some portfolio reviews, some refreshments; we get to chat. How hard is it to programme things like that? Seriously though, is it difficult? And if so, why?

JS: When you have a practice centred in analogue photography, you end up sharing things: you meet people in the darkroom. It’s fantastic. It’s a conversation that costs no money: you’re just meeting up, having a cup of tea, and it just feels mint. It’s the social connections; it’s networking (though get rid of that word — it’s so businessy). But whatever you’re into, you need to talk to other people, and you need to be a nerd about it.

AP: And what do you think that requires?

JS: Space. It needs to be accessible. That word is used so much. But paying £10 per session to use a darkroom, and then for all your materials. Sure, you can say, “you chose to work in analogue photography”, but is it really a choice?

VLD: It chose me!

JS: It’s like saying you choose to be gay. It’s expensive: it’s £6 a film, then there are all the chemicals. If you’re not born into money or don’t have the privilege of having money, you can’t choose analogue photography, because you don’t have the money. It’s Victorian!

I know when students leave, it’s going to be hard for them to make work. I can’t let them back into use the facilities because of health and safety requirements.

I was lucky to have been on a graduate fellowship in printmaking for a year at Northumbria University. Without that, I’d have no experience in workshops: that got me into being a technician. Also, if you can’t write a decent funding application – whether that’s down to dyslexia or whatever – it’s impossible. You just get put off because it’s so difficult and draining. I don’t feel that everything should be easy, but I’ve never ever got any funding.

VLD: I put most of my disposable income into making work, and I’m slow at it. It’s really worth it to me. But there is something to be said – I can’t believe I’m about to say this – for a dedicated photography space. Fuck! The more I listen and think about it, it’s so up-ended; it’s so all over the place. Can we just take over Side?

AP: Well, this leads onto a question I had for you all. What would an ideal photography-based organisation look like to you were you to invent it?

JS: There could be a studio. It could be a darkroom. A darkroom in a photography space…!

I went to Stills in Edinburgh. There was a Jo Coupe exhibition on. I’d heard they had a darkroom. Brilliant! It’s like, why didn’t anyone else think of that?

AP: So a studio space; a darkroom…

JS: A darkroom that would be the studio space: a space where you make work

AP: But also one that could function as a space for residencies. You could bring people in from outside of the region, to teach…

VLD: Learning programmes, too. There’s a lot to be said about learning outside of a formal setting, in an Institution, (with a capital I), let’s say. I spend a considerable amount of my time attending free workshops, talks and events on writing, performance, education, and so on,  taking a Build-a-Bear approach to developing my own programme of study via the alternative arts education provided by the range of organisations and charities in the NE. I want that… but  distinctly photography focused. Somewhere where people can come to learn and trial things. 

It’d focus predominantly on photography, but including its outer edges — so rather than a regular gallery which shows photography once every 500 billion years, it’d be a lot of photography, but also there would be  work from a variety of disciplines. I want to see some painting, I want to see some sculpture, some performance work, with photography!

It’d need a library, too; a library of photobooks. Sessions about how to read photographs. What might that operate like? You could take the books out and bring them back…

JS: An archive as well.

VLD: Handing it over to people: the people who use the space should decide. It’d be artist/practitioner-run, like NewBridge but primarily for photography. Does that exist yet?

AR: I like the idea of a public programme as well, that discusses the ideas that the work is exploring but gives people the opportunity to talk, to develop their confidence discussing work.

AP: Yes, and one that isn’t defensive or introspective; one that can be generous enough to say, we don’t know everything but together we’re going to bring people in to discuss it, and we’ll learn together what x or y means. 

And perhaps as well, wouldn’t it be interesting for this not to be a binary and say, this is either about the canonical or it’s about contemporary work, which is perhaps how it ends up playing out at a lot of spaces, but rather about having a conversation between the two, and acknowledging that an archive is amazing and rich, but what does it mean now — and how can you activate it in a way which brings the work back out of the archive, in a way which enables conversations, essentially; which brings people together?

How would you support emerging or early-career artists in this space? How would they gain access? I guess it’d be through these spaces, these structures you’ve outlined?

VLD: Through events. That’s how I first got access to anything. You feel out the space: is it for me or not for me? Where are my people in this? Are there any people here I want to talk to? I still think I’m an emerging artist. I’m going to be emerging til the day I die at this rate!

JS: Yeah!

VLD: And let’s get back to commissions for these emerging artists, put them with established artists and they work on collaborative, co-production stuff. There is still an obsessiveness around doing it alone… ‘my big solo show’. I don’t give a fuck about your big solo show. I want to know about all the other people who assisted you to get to this point. I want to know about their work. All this stuff behind the facade: that’s what I want in the space.

AP: That’s a really good articulation, I think. But also to think about the curatorial as well: it’s not just about people making. Where are the opportunities for people who want to engage – as you’re saying, Vicki, it’s wider than practices of making – who want to investigate putting things together; showing work.

AR: There aren’t any really, particularly for group shows. We rarely see group shows put together these days. 

VLD: I feel that Newcastle University’s degree shows are a really great example of this. People produce the work in the space they exhibit in, and in doing so the studio becomes the gallery. I have in mind one room I experienced during this year’s degree show which was particularly good, exceptional even. They started referencing each other in their works, and their individual practices benefited from this. It was glorious! That: I want some of that.

Why is it that we’re always being put in a box? I want to be in every box. I am in every fucking box! When I think about photography at the moment, a lot of my thoughts coalesce around curation. I am coming to understanding photographs via their curation and am beginning to expand this out into the realm of choreography; and these things, these areas of study, feel impenetrable. I can’t gain access to them because (I’ve found) people tend to be protective about their profession, about the knowledge they have. I want to break down the boundaries between these practices but need access to do so.

MD: Maybe the idea about not thinking about a single space, because a single space will offer a single opportunity at any point in time. Adam, I talked to you about potential locations for things, but as an outsider I think one of the best spaces available is Eldon Garden, which is an absolute joke of a shopping centre, is now almost completely vacant but you have these amazing spaces with great lighting and massive footfall. 

For funding applications you’d have guaranteed footfall, and not the traditional arts-going population. There’s no threat of anything new opening up in those spaces any time soon. And there’s something beautiful about these continually-lit spaces – they haven’t had shops in them for ages but they’re fully lit. So there are all these retail spaces that are never going to be filled.

AP: I suppose the last thing I wanted to ask you is whether, anecdotally, you have anything nationally, internationally – structures, networks, spaces – that you’ve come across that you think, that’s a good thing? And also, is there anything that you feel is very much not a good thing? But that might take too long: let’s just stick to the good things. 

In your navigations, online as well, are there structures that exist that you think (a) could be useful to people here and help to build new things, or (b) that point to gaps nationally or internationally that do something different that we could be thinking about here?

MD: In contrast with the status of artists in the UK, and how there’s no special treatment or understanding of the precarity of the profession, Ireland has a good number of interesting things to offer. One, you’re tax exempt up to about 125,000 EUR. It used to be unlimited, which is why U2 used to be based in Ireland. Aside from that, you’re allowed to go on the dole for two years with no obligation. And just last year, they introduced a pilot Universal Basic Income scheme, which was massively undersubscribed in the application process, but these are just three things, and as far as I can see the UK offer is basically nothing, apart from direct arts council funding.

AP: So that’s about the structural conditions of how you could be enabled to be an artist. And about the dole, people have pointed out in the past, in those days you could be on the dole and not mercilessly hounded every five minutes to go and work in Tesco, a lot of good work was made then.

MD: There’s also this attitude, isn’t there, that we should back to the 80s and 90s when artists were just doing it for themselves — and well, they were, but they could squat, and Thatcher had very liberal business start-up grants, so there was money to be made and free spaces to be had. 

AP: It takes the right framework to think about things as a city or region. It goes to show how different things can be in different places. Across the North East, per capita Middlesbrough is successful in terms of the visual arts to a large extent because of the efforts of one person, Charlotte Nicol, who was Head of Culture at the council and who made it her business to know artists and art spaces and to advocate with and for them.

JS: Middlesbrough is doing really well at the moment. It’s a hot spot. And it’s my hometown! I have some friends working there. Boro’s doing class. 

AP: It’s interesting, isn’t it, because it’s managed to articulate a vision for itself. It’s a simple thing – it wants to be the ‘most creative town’ – which I know is just a marketing hook, but actually it’s kind of trickled down. Rather than being applied from the top, where they’ve applied some branding, it’s come from below and they’ve realised, all these things are happening: the sum of those things means we could call ourselves England’s most creative town. And why not?

JS: Yes, there are plenty of empty shops. It’s cheap, too; so much cheaper there. And the community that has been built there is important, too.

MD: In terms of other models, I’m not suggesting this is one for the North East, but there is a very well-respected photography festival that is run by a town council, Landskrona Festival in Sweden. Their chief curator, who’s very clued-in, works for the council directly. The whole thing is run by the council, which sounds mad but it’s very impressive.

AR: I just partnered with Open Eye Gallery. They have a really interesting model in terms of the development offer, but also exhibitions, and the fact that they’re very active in terms of socially-engaged practice. We just ran the North East version of a project called Reframing Culture which is about socially-engaged photography: what is it, why would you commission it, what does it look like and mean?

I think that’s one of the areas that came through regarding development, but also because there are loads of opportunities there in terms of the charities already working in this space, but also clinical commissioning at local authorities who are looking for these kinds of projects, so I suppose it feels like there’s a lot work to do in terms of identifying the opportunities for partners to work with in a health and wellbeing context, but also other non-arts areas of life: social care, for instance. 

VLD: A massive factor of this, for me, is about striking a balance of focus between highlighting photographers in this region and those outside of it. This is where I feel commissioning can play an important role. Increase commission opportunities for local practitioners and offer photography-focused residency opportunities for those practitioners outside of the region. Invite practitioners in, invite them to live here, to experience this region and all it has to offer, to be inspired by it, draw from it, and practice in this context. We could then share what has been created/produced, exhibiting it both inside and outside of the North East. Showcasing the work generated could open out a viewing-position from which we can explore the relationship between photography and the region. This could be a method of promoting current working practices and the history of photography in this region, beyond the region. 

I admire the work of Eastside Projects. They do Digbeth First Friday: every first Friday of the month, all the galleries have openings; you get to walk around the city, engage with it; meet the community, become a part of it. I know there are The Late Shows, but I want more than that. I want regular stuff… more stuff, all the time!

It feels like one thing happens every couple of months, and that’s fine, but I want more, more, more! My love of going to private views was all about the free refreshments when I was younger, however, now it has become my tether to maintaining some semblance of a social life. A private view functions as a place to see and meet people, to talk about art, which is wonderful! 

That being said, I have found that the level of engagement doesn’t really happen the same way in Newcastle as it does in London (for example). It’s less critical and more comical… I’m going to put this out there: can we actually talk about some goddamn art? Don’t get me wrong, I can drink aimlessly, and chat shit, in fact I am very good at that, but I’m bored of this aimlessness. I want the feeling I mentioned before, the one that gives me life! And drinking in the presence of artworks really isn’t enough for me: I want drinking with artworks. Why do we use this format as a backdrop rather than a stage?

Maybe we co-opt a different gallery — take over that space, make a programme of photography and disperse this into all the other programmes that already exist? It doesn’t have to be directly built into another thing – and probably shouldn’t, because photography is never going to be prioritised in those places, is it? So, we respond to the existing programmes, and infiltrate them in another way, making space, no taking the space we need. Surprise! Everyone who was there for painting is now experiencing photography and plot-twist, they realise the biggest mistake they made in their lives was not doing photography. ♣︎

Main image: The Social, NEPN, 2012

About the contributors

Victoria Louise Doyle (b.1993) is an artist and creative learning collaborator-facilitator originally from South Tyneside and now based between Newcastle upon Tyne and London. Her practice stems from a fascination with photography, which she works with and against, frequently turning away from the medium towards another as a strategy to come closer to it. Victoria is a member of Revolv Collective, an organisation that seeks to champion emerging artists; and since 2020 has worked as an Academic Tutor at Sunderland University across BA Fine Art, BA Photography, Video and Digital Imaging, and the Integrated Foundation.

Mark Duffy is an Irish artist based in the UK. Duffy’s artistic practice explores issues of politics, power, national identity and media in the public sphere. His recent ongoing work documents the aftermath of the UK’s fractious Brexit referendum, framing these themes with absurdity and satirical humour. Duffy formerly worked as photographer for the Houses of Parliament (2015-2019) during which his photojournalism characterised many memorable front pages.

Amanda Ritson is Programme Manager of NEPN, a research and development agency for photography based within the Northern Centre of Photography. Amanda has over 15 years’experience of working with artists as a commissioner and producer, working at NEPN since 2011 and with previous roles at Arts Council England, Creative Partnerships and freelancing.

Jade Sweeting, originally from Middlesbrough, is an artist based in Newcastle. Her recent projects include Still Moving (with Phyllis Christopher and Kuba Ryniewicz), Workplace Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne (2023); Hip Reading (with Jenni Mac)Curious Festival 2022, Northern Stage, Newcastle (2022); co-curator of the On Our Backs: An Archive (with Janina Sabaliauskaite), The NewBridge Project, Newcastle upon Tyne (2018); First Bowie, Now This!, The Gymnasium Gallery, Berwick-upon-Tweed (2017). Her solo exhibition 900 Miles (From Home) is currently showing at the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art.