What we’re reading #1: Summer 2024

Introducing What we’re reading, our new column where we set off on a literary journey to discover writing that intersects critical thinking and visual culture. Each instalment features a selection of recently published titles, articles and interviews from around the web and world of print, offering a spotlight onto a myriad of contemporary concerns. Kicking off the series, Editorial Intern Thomas King writes about Anne Carson’s thoughtful Paris Review interview, Fatos Üstek’s blueprint for new institutional horizons, Holly Connolly’s assessment of social media protest posting, and more.

Thomas King | Resource | 27 June 2024 

‘What Is The Purpose of Protest Posting?’ | Holly Connolly for ArtReview, March 2024 

Holly Connolly’s words for ArtReview carry urgency as she questions how we can give ‘the correct weight’ to images of genocide, in light of the ongoing bombardment of Gaza and ‘recurring condition of objectification’. The article underscores the paradox of social media activism, wherein the boundaries of “meaningful” political action are often blurred. Connolly cites recent images of stripped and blindfolded Palestinian men presided over by IDF soldiers, drawing a parallel with the infamous Abu Ghraib photographs taken by US soldiers in 2004. She goes on to condemn perpetrators who broadcast their atrocities committed upon others and notes that, even when they wield the camera, it lets the subject address a possible future viewer beyond the present horror, making us, the onlookers, accountable to them, and in turn witnesses, ‘part of a kind of citizenry of photography’ (what Ariella Aïsha Azouley refers to as ‘transit visas’). Ultimately, Connolly asks: ‘does an image reshared in opposition to its original intent perpetuate the initial violation of its subject?’. Connolly concludes by applauding the fastidious work of Forensic Architecture, whose crucial efforts to document the destruction of medical infrastructure in Gaza – through cross referencing hundreds of reports alongside photographs from numerous social media sites – prompt us to question our role as witnesses to genocide in a digital age.  

‘Throwing Yourself Into the Dark: A Conversation with Anne Carson’ | Kate Dwyer for The Paris Review, April 2024

Kate Dwyer interviews Anne Carson, the erudite essayist and poet, on the release of Wrong Norma (2024), her first work in eight years. When asked about the book’s title, Carson refers to academic life as a constant balancing act on the brink of ‘wrongness’ and ponders how contradiction might serve to loosen the mind. Having translated numerous Greek tragedies, Carson describes how the translation process interacts within a space she likens to a ditch filled with floating possibilities. She cites Emily Dickinson’s works as a form of self-translation, with poems existing in their ‘untidy, unresolved entirety’ – those that confront the space, or nothingness, as John Cage would put it, between dialogue that Carson advocates. Her latest work – ‘a collection of disparate pieces, not a coherent thing with a throughline or themes or a way you have to read it’ – represents her newest self-translations that continue to explore the emptiness of a page and absence-as-presence. As for the creative process, Carson explains that sometimes, she chooses to simply focus on writing about the light in her apartment. This engrossment illustrates our willingness to halt time, to immerse ourselves in ‘total attention’, to be fully present and unaffected by its passage. The poet concludes the interview by lamenting that she only has fleeting minutes to experience this state of being, and so, while it may be some time before we receive another work, in the meantime, we can gain so much from what she articulates in this interview, or, as she would argue, what she doesn’t. 

‘The Automation of General Intelligence’ | Matteo Pasquinelli for e-flux Journal, December 2023

In Issue 141 of e-flux, Matteo Pasquinelli expands on the release of his book, The Eye of The Master (2023), which probes into the intricate relationship between labour, automation and AI. Linking historical developments in labour theory and contemporary technological advancements, Pasquinelli argues that ‘technical artefacts reveal the form of the society that surrounds and runs them’. Pasquinelli meticulously traces how AI represents less a revolutionary departure from previous modes of automation but rather the culmination of a lengthy history of labour quantification, social hierarchy and technological evolution. He details the transition from the industrial division of labour to intricate systems like AI, revealing the role of cybernetics, psychology and economics in deciphering social dynamics. Advocating for a transformative political approach to reimagining AI, Pasquinelli underscores the imperative for collective action to challenge existing power structures and reimagine labour and social relations. He advocates for a culture of invention and design that prioritises community wellbeing over technological determinism, stating: ‘in confronting the epistemology of AI and its regime of knowledge extractivism, a different technical mentality, a collective “counter-intelligence”, has to be learned.’ Recognising that ‘the first step of techno-politics is not technological but political’, Pasquinelli urges us to challenge prevailing modes of thinking and empower communities to shape the future of technology in alignment with their values and interests, thereby inspiring a new vision for the role of politics in the AI era.

Fatoş Üstek, The Art Institution of Tomorrow: Reinventing the Model Lund Humphries, April 2024

The Art Institution of Tomorrow: Reinventing the Model (2024) by Fatoş Üstek is a manifesto advocating for the urgent transformation of art institutions in order to adapt according to contemporary social, economic and environmental changes. This book is part of Lund Humphries’ ‘Hot Topics in the Art World’ series and serves as a call to action for art institutions worldwide to break free from stagnation in favour of embracing a new model centred on artists and inclusivity. The current stagnation, Üstek argues, is exacerbated by financial constraints, underpaid staff and outdated operational frameworks, resulting in a lack of innovation and relevance. She writes that current art institutions lack ‘the resourcefulness to imagine new horizons’ and risk losing relevance unless they refocus on their core purposes and undergo significant structural and operational transformations. Declaring an institutional crisis that ‘manifests itself in stale and populist programming that lacks curatorial rigour and artistic nuance’, Üstek argues that this results in ‘a cultural offer for everyone that is about everything and nothing in particular’. In reinventing the model, she then lays out a two-pronged strategy to rejuvenate art institutions: focusing on an artist-centric model and implementing radical decentralisation. Firstly, she emphasises the importance of centring artists in all institutional activities, from commissioning to structuring budgets that comprehensively support the artistic process. Secondly, she argues for removing existing institutional hierarchies in favour of cross-disciplinary teams, aiming to foster commitment and engagement among staff and create a supportive environment conducive to superior creative output. While there are questions about the feasibility of creating such committed and decentralised teams, Üstek presents a blueprint for restructure that we must imagine is possible to foresee a new institutional horizon.

‘It’s Not What the World Needs Right Now’ | Andrew Norman Wilson for The Baffler, April 2024

Andrew Norman Wilson offers a raw, humorous and harrowing account of his life as a contemporary artist within an ‘echo chamber/conference room where overeducated try-hards compete to display the most perfect politics.’ Wilson writes to his resourcefulness and internal struggles as he competed (and competes) with a system often indifferent to individual plight. Despite exhibiting in prestigious biennials, financial stability eluded him as only a windfall from FedEx losing his sculpture allowed him to buy an old Volvo and travel West, seeking the role of an ‘LA Artist’. Fast forward a few years, Wilson precariously navigates life, staying in an Airbnb themed like a medieval castle, undergoing medical procedures at the shadowy Airport Endoscopy Center, while witnessing the Capitol riots under a Trump administration that deemed art as less ‘urgent’. Here, he begins to grapple with his artistic identity and the harsh realities of his career. His ‘success’ is imbued with chronic health issues, drug abuse, suicidal tendencies, financial instability and isolation (albeit punctuated by the companionship of his mother’s rabbit, Ziggles). Wilson reflects on his lifestyle, stating: ‘The maxim “money doesn’t buy happiness” starts to ring in my head. Not because I actually have money, but because I’m living with the material comforts of someone who does, and it doesn’t seem to make me feel any better.’ For Wilson, as for many outside society’s elite, the entrenched immobility within social hierarchies – an institutionalised issue perpetuated by the myth of meritocracy – fosters a profound sense of impostorism, felt intensely on the fringes of the art world. Describing the world as caught ‘between the demands of yacht owners and delusional incompetents with advanced deskilling degrees’, Wilson says he will defect and let others ‘get bullied’ into shallow pursuits and deceptive practices, as he avoids gallery openings and talks. In 2024, as Wilson gets closer to shooting a romantic thriller long in the pipeline, we can say that the art world does not need more governed voices. It has plenty of them. Instead, it needs the vulnerability of artists like Wilson, who expose the ‘cottage industry of critical art’ from within, not least through the voice of a defiant outsider.♦

Thomas King is Editorial Intern at 1000 Words and a student on BA (Hons) Culture, Criticism, Curation at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London.


1-London March for Palestine, 28 October 2023 © 1000 Words

2-Anne Carson © Peter Smith

3-Cover for Matteo Pasquinelli, The Eye of the Master: A Social History of Artificial Intelligence (Verso Books, 2023)

4-Cover for Fatoş Üstek, The Art Institution of Tomorrow: Reinventing the Model (Lund Humphries 2024)

5-Andrew Norman Wilson © Emily Berl

1000 Words favourites

• Renée Mussai on exhibitions as sites of dialogue, critique, and activism.

• Roxana Marcoci navigates curatorial practice in the digital age.

• Tanvi Mishra reviews Felipe Romero Beltrán’s Dialect.

• Discover London’s top five photography galleries.

• Tim Clark in conversation with Hayward Gallery’s Ralph Rugoff on Hiroshi Sugimoto.

• Academic rigour and essayistic freedom as told by Taous R. Dahmani.

London city guide

Top five photography galleries

Selected by Tim Clark and Thomas King

As the dust settles on Photo London 2024 and Peckham 24 – the capital’s two key points of reference within the UK photography calendar – we benchmark five leading London galleries and museums who are making a sustained effort to create productive and welcoming spaces for the encounter, use and consideration of photography today.

Tim Clark with Thomas King | City guide | 14 June 2024 | In association with MPB

At a time when the funding climate in the UK is at its least favourable in decades, setting up – let alone sustaining – a gallery dedicated to the art of photography, public or otherwise, is far from straightforward. The sector is currently groaning under the weight of government funding cuts, exorbitant energy bills, messy logistical and bureaucratic ramifications arising from Brexit, the fallout of the pandemic and cost of living crisis; not to mention the constant undermining of the arts in education in favour of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects at the hand of the outgoing Tory party, allied with pedalling culture wars and all round anathema.

Yet, despite – and even in spite of – these significant challenges, the UK government’s own estimates show that the creative industries generated £126 billion in gross value added to the economy and employed 2.4 million people in 2022 alone. A global leader clearly, but one that is woefully underfunded, leaving an increasing amount of arts organisations out to dry as they struggle to thrive in one of the world’s most expensive cities. In a parallel universe, the city of Berlin’s culture budget for 2024 is set at €947 million (with a population of 3.56 million) while the entire culture budget for England in 2024 pales in comparison at £458.5 million (with a population of 57 million): two wildly different per capita spends.

Meanwhile, in March this year, opposition party leader Kier Starmer spoke at the Labour Creatives Conference claiming he would “build a new Britain out of the ashes of the failed Tory project” and restore, what he called, the UK’s “diminished” status on the global stage. His top line pledges were as follows: getting art and design courses back on the curriculum, supporting freelancers’ rights, cracking down on ticket touting and improving access to creative apprenticeships. Essentially, promising to ensure creative skills are a necessity, not a luxury. To use the creative industries as a form of soft power. But it will require a detailed arts strategy coupled with fierce and charismatic advocates, and, crucially, increases in funding for the arts to European levels to get the UK’s cultural infrastructure back on sturdier ground. It is nothing short of a miracle, then, to have London gallery and museum spaces fully participating in a civic society at such a high calibre level.

What follows is a rundown of five leading London galleries and museums who are making a sustained effort to create productive and welcoming spaces for the encounter, use and consideration of photography today. It should be noted that there are a handful of medium specific spaces that haven’t been included, but doubtless could be. Among them: the ambitious British Centre for Photography currently looking for a permanent home; Tate, whose new Senior Curator of Photography and International Art, Singaporean Charmaine Toh, is just a few months in post; beloved and sorely missed Seen Fifteen (its founding director Vivienne Gamble now channels her energies towards growing the annual photography festival Peckham 24); Webber Gallery, which has seemingly shifted the emphasis of its exhibitions’ focus to a vast Los Angeles space; not neglecting to mention stalwart dealer Michael Hoppen whose eponymous gallery no longer operates from its multi-floor premises on Jubilee Place, instead opting for a location in Holland Park. Hopefully that goes some way to account for their omissions. There are other bricks and mortar spaces too: Hamiltons, MMX, Atlas, IWM’s Blavatnik Art, Film and Photography Galleries, TJ Boutling, Huxley-Parlour, Leica, Photofusion, Albumen, Purdy Hicks, Camera Eye, Augusta Edwards Fine Art and Doyle Wham, all worthy of a mention and giving much cause for celebration.


Rivington Place, London, EC2A 3BA
+44 020 7729 9200

Every exhibition that Autograph stages is unmissable. The organisation’s remit is to ‘champion the work of artists who use photography and film to highlight questions of race, representation, human rights and social justice’, and it offers opportunity after opportunity to see powerful and vitally important work. Far from jumping on any bandwagon, this mission has long been embedded within the organisation, its practices and via ambitious work. Autograph was established in 1988 to support black photographic practices, and began in a small office in the Bon Marché building in Brixton, when it was known as the Association of Black Photographers (ABP). It applied for charitable status and moved to a permanent home at Rivington Place in Shoreditch in 2007, the first purpose-built space dedicated to the development and presentation of culturally diverse arts in England, decades before museums considered it necessary to start rethinking themselves.

Autograph punches significantly above its weight, and has long been an essential port of call for any photography lover living in or coming through the city, not to mention the impact on the capital’s culture at large. Largely owing to the skill and determination of visionary director Mark Sealy OBE – in post since 1991 – and talented and rigorous curator Bindi Vora, exhibitions at Autograph are born out of a professional methodology that is fundamentally interdisciplinary and grounded in both real-life research and experience. Yet it also moves past cultures of “them and us” to routinely bring to life transgressive and inclusive commissions, projects and publications.

As one of Arts Council England’s National Portfolio Organisations (NPO), Autograph saw a 30% uplift increase from £712,880 to £1,012,880 a year to support its work for the period of 2023–2026 (as per the last round of funding decisions announced in 2022). Stuart Hall once served as a chair on the board and Autograph’s unique collection contains works by Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Zanele Muholi, James Barnor, Lina Iris Viktor, Yinka Shonibare, Ingrid Pollard, Joy Gregory, Colin Jones, Phoebe Boswell, Raphael Albert, Ajamu and others.

V&A Photography Centre

V&A Photography Centre
Cromwell Road, London, SW7 2RL
+44 020 7942 2000

Two transformative moments in the recent history of the V&A’s longstanding relationship with photography have been, firstly, the appointment of scholarly curator Duncan Forbes as the inaugural Director of Photography in 2020, who came from the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, and then the launch of The Parasol Foundation in Women Photography Project in 2022, spearheaded by the prodigious Fiona Rogers. Dedicated to supporting women artists though acquisitions, research and education, augmented through a commissioning programme with support from the Parasol Foundation Trust, Rogers’ programme also features an increasingly important prize established to identify, support and champion women artists. It attracted over 1,400 submissions for the 2024 edition produced in partnership with Peckham24.

Prior to this, its vast photography holdings were bolstered when the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) Collection was transferred in 2017, and the collection now runs to over 800,000 photographs that span the 1820s to the present day. Programmes have evolved amidst a backdrop of institutional accountability and inclusivity during the dramatic changes we’ve witnessed in recent years and has embraced dynamic contemporary practices as well as pivoted to account for the medium’s many histories. It’s now the largest space in the UK dedicated to a permanent photography collection, with a total of seven galleries, three rooms of which focus on contemporary international practices with Noémie Goudal and Hoda Afshar commanding ample space, the mighty impressive resource that is The Kusuma Gallery – Photography and the Book, and The Meta Media Gallery – Digital Gallery. Fledging curators: take note of The Curatorial Fellowship in Photography opportunity, supported by The Bern Schwartz Family Foundation, aimed to facilitate in-depth research into under-recognised aspects of the photography collection.

The Photographers’ Gallery

The Photographers’ Gallery 
16-18 Ramillies St, London, W1F 7LW
+44 020 7087 9300

While the restrictive nature of its building – a converted, six story former textiles warehouse situated off Oxford Street in the heart of Soho – doesn’t make for an optimum exhibition experience, The Photographers’ Gallery remains an important and well-visited public gallery for photography in London. TPG spaces are tricky given the premises’ vertical orientation and warren-like galleries, but recent exhibitions such as the exemplary Daido Moriyama: A Retrospective, guest curated by Thyago Nogueira of São Paulo’s Instituto Moreira Salles, did well to turn the entire gallery into something coherent.

Founded by the late Sue Davies OBE (1933-2020) in 1971 as the UK’s first public gallery dedicated to photography, TPG has a strong legacy and recently saw is funding maintained at £918,867 per year as one of Arts Council England’s NPOs during the 2022 announcement, the same year it launched its outdoor cultural space, Soho Photography Quarter – a rotating open air programme with much potential. It’s the world-class education and talks offer, programmed and curated by Janice McLaren and Luisa Ulyett, that are among its standout qualities. Workshops and short courses are just some of the events that broaden access and steer conversation. At street and basement level there is an innovative Digital Wall catering for photography’s increased automated and networked lives, a print sales gallery, well-stocked bookshop and much-loved café area providing a condensation point for a range of different publics. TPG’s annual exhibition, The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize, an award of £30,000, has also entered a new phase since 2020 to include a broader range of voices as evidenced by the past five winners: Mohamed Bourouissa, Cao Fei, Deana Lawson, Samuel Fosso and Lebohang Kganye.

Former Photoworks director Shoair Mavlian took the helm in 2023, positive news given her curatorial background, NPO experience and canny thought leadership. Of course, it takes a couple of years for a new incumbent to put their stamp on a place like this but TPG is primed to reap the benefits of Mavlian’s ethos – contemporary, generous and diverse – and question what the space can be and who it can be for in order to thrive into the future.

Large Glass Gallery

Large Glass Gallery
392 Caledonian Road, London, N1 1DN
+44 020 7609 9345

In 2011, former director of Frith Street Gallery, Charlotte Schepke established a contemporary art gallery that leans heavily into photography: the innovative and elegant Large Glass Gallery based near Kings Cross on the edge of central London. Large Glass bills itself as an ‘alternative to the mainstream commercial gallery scene’, a description that is wholly warranted in light of its original and inquisitive approach to exhibition-making. From the inaugural exhibition, a precedent was set: channelling the energy of Marcel Duchamp by way of eclectic presentations of artworks, design pieces and found objects that take inspiration from the father of Conceptual Art, not only nodding to his famed work The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915–1923), more commonly known as ‘The Large Glass’, but through embracing experimental juxtapositions.

Playful use of concepts and materials are still to be found and the current “rolling” exhibition is in case in point. Staged in three parts, After Mallarmé is curated by Michael Newman, who is Professor of Art Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London. The heady thematic exhibition riffs off the works and legacy of French poet Stéphane Mallarmé to reflect on ideas of spaces, the page, the book, chance, mobility and contingency. Whereas, previously this year, Francesco Neri: Boncellino offered a more classic take via a selection of quiet and meditative, mostly black-and-white portraits of farmers and the farming community in the countryside around Modena in northern Italy, ‘a census of a village’s population’. Large Glass’ represented artists are: Hélène Binet, Guido Guidi, Hendl Helen Mirra, Francesco Neri and Mark Ruwedel.

Flowers Gallery

Flowers Gallery
21 Cork Street, London, W1S 3LZ
+44 020 7439 7766

82 Kingsland Road, London, E2 8DP
+44 020 7920 777

Heavyweight Canadian photographer Ed Burtynsky may occupy much of the limelight at Flowers Gallery and their presence at art fairs such as Photo London and Paris Photo (Burtynsky was recently the subject of back-to-back exhibitions at the gallery’s Cork Street space which coincided with Saatchi Gallery’s major 2024 retrospective, BURTYNSKY: EXTRACTION / ABSTRACTION, the largest exhibition ever mounted in Burtynsky’s 40+ year career), but it boasts an impressive roster of photographers. This has been built up over years, first by Diana Poole then Chris Littlewood who established the department now run by Lieve Beumer. Among them: Edmund Clark, Boomoon, Shen Wei, Robert Polidori, Julie Cockburn, Gaby Laurent, Tom Lovelace, Simon Roberts, Esther Teichmann, Lorenzo Vitturi, Michael Wolf, Mona Kuhn, Nadav Kander and Lisa Jahovic, all recognised for their engagement with important socio-cultural, political and environmental themes. Aficionados of the medium may hope for further in-depth and major photography exhibitions in due course from the esteemed gallery, but despite Flowers’ deep commitment to photography, it works across a range of media within contemporary art.

Flowers has presented more than 900 exhibitions across global locations, including from New York and Hong Kong outposts, and lists a total of 80 represented artists. Established in 1970 by Angela Flowers (1932–2023), Flowers has long held East End venues, initially in the heart of Hackney with Flowers East on Richmond Road, set up in 1988, before moving to Kingsland Road in Shoreditch in 2002, a 12,000 square foot venue spread over three floors of a 19th century warehouse, arguably London’s most elegant white cube space within which to view photography. ♦





Tim Clark is a writer and curator based in London. He is Editor in Chief at
1000 Words, Artistic Director at Fotografia Europea in Reggio Emilia, Italy, and teaches at The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University. 

Thomas King is Editorial Intern at 1000 Words and a student on BA (Hons) Culture, Criticism, Curation at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London.


1-Autograph, London. © Kate Elliot

2-Hélène Amouzou: Voyages exhibition at Autograph. 22 September 2023-20 January 2024. Curated by Bindi Vora. © Kate Elliot

3-Wilfred Ukpong: Niger-Delta / Future-Cosmos exhibition at Autograph. 16 February-1 June 2024. Curated by Mark Sealy. © Kate Elliot

4-Gibson Thornley Architects, V&A Photography Centre. Installation view of Untitled (Giant Phoenix), 2022, Noemié Goudal, Photography Now – Gallery 96 © Thomas Adank

5-Gibson Thornley Architects, V&A Photography Centre – Photography and the Book – Gallery 98 © Thomas Adank

6-Gibson Thornley Architects, V&A Photography Centre – Photography Now – Gallery 97 © Thomas Adank

7-The Photographers’ Gallery, London. © Luke Hayes

8>9-Daido Moriyama: A Retrospective exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery. 6 October 2023-11 February 2024. © Kate Elliot

10-Ursula Schulz-Dornburg: Memoryscapes exhibition at Large Glass Gallery. 13 May-1 July 2023. © Stephen White and Co

11-Francesco Neri: Boncellino exhibition at Large Glass Gallery. 19 January–16 March 2024. © Stephen White and Co

12-Guido Guidi: Di sguincio exhibition at Large Glass Gallery. 3 February-11 March 2023. © Stephen White and Co

13-Flowers Gallery, Cork Street. © Antonio Parente

14-Edward Burtynsky, New Works exhibition at Flowers Gallery, Cork Street. 28 February-6 April 2024. © Antonio Parente

1000 Words favourites

• Renée Mussai on exhibitions as sites of dialogue, critique, and activism.

• Roxana Marcoci navigates curatorial practice in the digital age.

• Tanvi Mishra reviews Felipe Romero Beltrán’s Dialect.

• Discover London’s top five photography galleries.

• Tim Clark in conversation with Hayward Gallery’s Ralph Rugoff on Hiroshi Sugimoto.

• Academic rigour and essayistic freedom as told by Taous R. Dahmani.

A tribute to Brian Griffin (1948-2024)

Leading figures from the UK photography community – including Photoworks Director, Louise Fedotov-Clements, and founder of the Centre for British Photography, James Hyman – remember Brian Griffin, who died 27 January 2024 at the age of 75.

Louise Fedotov-Clements, David Moore, James Hyman, Peter Bonnell, Ravi Chandarana, Graeme Oxby | Obituary | 8 Feb 2024

Widely acknowledged as one of the most prominent photographers of his generation, Griffin was born in Birmingham and left school at 16 to work as trainee pipework engineering estimator for British Steel before going on to study at Manchester Polytechnic where he met Martin Parr. Moving to London, he started out as a freelance photographer in 1972 and was first commissioned by Roland Schenk, shooting playfully subversive black and white portraits for business magazine Management Today. His inspirations ran the gamut from Renaissance painting to Surrealism and German expressionist cinema. Golden years in the music industry saw him produce countless iconic album covers for Depeche Mode, Iggy Pop and Kate Bush, and others, alongside work for various design and advertising agencies.

Constantly pushing at the boundaries of artistic and corporate photography, the Guardian named him as the ‘photographer of the decade in 1989’. Seminal exhibitions at The Hayward Gallery, London, and Les Rencontres d’Arles, curated by Paul Hill and François Hébel respectively, brought international attention. Griffin subsequently produced over 20 photobooks and was the subject of more than 50 exhibitions across his career. His work is held in collections at Victoria and Albert Museum, London; National Portrait Gallery, London; Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery; Reykjavík Art Museum, Iceland; Mast Foundation, Bologna; Museum Folkwang, Essen; and the Museu da Imagem, Braga, Portugal. In 2009, Brian Griffin became the patron of FORMAT Festival and in 2013 he received the Centenary Medal from the Royal Photographic Society in recognition of a lifetime achievement in photography.

Brian was a very dear friend and colleague. He will be deeply missed as a member of the photography family. Our thoughts are with all who loved him. The memory of his wonderful, playful and surreal energy, curious mind and generous spirit will forever be a source of inspiration. He was one of the most influential and subversive photographers of our time. I had the pleasure of working with Brian as he became FORMAT Patron after we met at our first edition in 2005, since then we collaborated on many editions of FORMAT including commissions, films, events and exhibitions in Derby, the UK and internationally.

Always critical and unique in his avant-garde approach to photography, no matter what context he worked within – from business men to construction workers, musicians to aristocracy, the street to still life – Brian sculpted light and composed his images in his own recognisable innovative style. His knowledge of, and passion for, photography and photographers was unending. He was always enthusiastic to support new talents and never slowed down with his own ideas and future plans. Brian was truly one of a kind, a legendary image-maker and genuine artist. His memory and influence lives on.
Louise Fedotov-Clements

The first time I knew of Brian, without knowing who Brian Griffin was, was through my dad’s subscription to Management Today magazine during the mid to late 1970s. Looking through the magazine and finding Brian’s extraordinary, and at that time, bewildering images, I had no idea that I was witnessing a truly innovative and influential collaboration that was to significantly shape a particular history of British photography located between art and commerce.

Over the last 15-20 years we became good friends. I was always “young David” of course. We had conversations about photography and life, and occasionally ageing. “I look at my hands and can’t believe they’re 75 years old”, he said to me last year. I regularly got to tell him that I genuinely believed that he was the most imaginative photographers the UK had ever produced. There was also a gloriously subversive element to his photographs that honoured his origins, and the idea of work as physical labour. Expressed subtly within his practice, the working man and woman were often elevated and heroic.

Brian’s constant presence, ongoing commissions, initiating Kickstarters and public appearances, talking about his photography only the week before he passed, makes it harder to imagine his death and sudden absence. He left us on a high, busy and in demand.

There is so much more to say, we all have stories and warm memories of the man. RIP Brian, friend and innovator, we’re all going to miss you.
David Moore

We were shocked and saddened to learn of the sudden death of Brian Griffin. Just recently we were celebrating with him his latest project: he was in great form and gave a characteristically exuberant speech about his inspiration.

Brian was a brilliant image-maker with an incredible imagination. He was a creator of genuinely iconic images. Building from the surrealism of his 1970s work, including celebrated images for Management Today, in the 1980s he became the go-to person for record covers. This genius is celebrated in the book and exhibition Pop and the recent launch of Mode which presented his photographs for Depeche Mode. This may be Brian’s most celebrated work but wherever he turned his gaze he created something extraordinary. As recent commissions show, in his mid-seventies his brilliant imagination remained undimmed. 

As well as his unforgettable images, I will remember Brian as a generous friend, a caring person, and someone with the gift of transforming kind words into practical deeds. When I mentioned the difficulties of fundraising for the Centre for British Photography, given the present economic and political climate, he really stepped up. The recently launched grants programme owes much to his help. 

I will also remember Brian for his passion and enthusiasm and wit. He was always busy, always making plans for the future. He was delighted that in his mid-seventies he was still in such demand and he enjoyed his recent collaborations with a watch company and a wine maker which brought his creativity to new audiences. He was also looking forward to new collaborations that included an unexpected project that he’d recently received that involved him going on a cruise liner! 

At our most recent meeting we discussed staging a solo show of his work. I am sad that we will no longer be able to work together on this exhibition but hope that it will still take place as a tribute to him. 

I firmly believe that Brian is one of the greatest photographers this country has produced. He had a remarkable career filled with lasting images that span half a century but he still had so much to give. His death is a huge loss.
James Hyman

I first met Brian Griffin in 2012, not long after I had begun working as Curator at Derby QUAD. Preparations were underway for FORMAT 2013 and Brian’s passion, energy, humour and dedication to the FORMAT cause as our Patron was both thrilling to watch and displayed a deep and lasting commitment to the aims and ambitions of the festival. In essence I was in awe of him; this legendary figure had seemingly effortlessly created a body of work that will stand the test of time. I often asked him about the almost mystical way in which he created his images and film works. His was truly a ground-breaking practice, but also one that was built on the real and true foundations of photography.

I witnessed first-hand the way in which he constructed an image, or an outstanding set of images, on two occasions. The first was his project Tram Man, shot on location at Crich Tramway Museum in 2019. Working with his talented assistant Ravi Chandarana (and I think there is a long list of former assistants who learnt so much from Brian), I watched the ease in which Brian marshalled, directed and cajoled the models during the shoot. But I also saw the huge amount of work and patience it took to get just one magnificent image. The resulting set of images had an almost ‘old-school’ glamour to them, shot through with that unmistakable Brian Griffin style and substance; and ‘otherworldliness’. Another instance was when I had the opportunity to curate his exhibition, Black Country Dada 1969 – 1990 in QUAD Gallery in 2021. Handling each framed image was like handling a precious, iconic object. During the install Brian showed me his iPhone, where he had taken a photograph of one of QUAD’s technicians from the side, the bright red of a laser level outlining the contours of the tech’s face in profile. This astonishing image alone, opportunistic in a way, marked out decades of experience and knowledge of how to take a picture; but also spoke of a deep and enduring talent. He was one of a kind. I’ll miss our phone calls and laughter-filled chats face to face; and I’ll miss Brian’s signature goodbye: “love ya Pete!”. And we all at FORMAT and QUAD, myself very much included, loved him. Thank you Brian.
Peter Bonnell

Brian Griffin we’ll miss you dearly. Above all a friend, mentor and father figure over the last 8 years. 

I was fortunate to be part of his surreal world lighting his sets and was able to dive into his weird and wonderful imagination. His mastery firstly was psychological: he played the perfect game to get exactly what he wanted out of a subject. Like a dance, intuitively I’d manoeuvre the light whilst he probed away with the subject, observing them in the upmost detail. I learnt the power of grids, channeling that light so precisely…often leaving the retoucher very little to do. 

He could make a man working in an office dip his hands in Swarfega and a teacher wear a butcher’s glove. It was incredible to witness the use of props unfold into the portrait. The subject felt so intrigued, they always want to play ball to understand where he’d take the final result. 

I’d describe Brian as neuroscientist; his precision had zero tolerance. I’m extremely lucky to be a close part of world in his later years. He was one of the great portrait photographers of our time. 

Brian passed away very peacefully and has left a permanent imprint on my soul… he called everyone “young”… your legacy lives on and young Rav will do you proud. Big love and condolences to the family. RIP Mr Griffin.
Ravi Chandarana

I was very sad to hear that legendary British photographer Brian Griffin has passed away. As a working-class person who achieved fame and fortune in the 80’s with his effortlessly creative work, Brian was an obvious inspiration to myself and many others starting out at that time. He had developed a very distinctive visual signature, and his images were instantly recognisable; the Management Today pictures were deliciously bonkers.

I got to know Brian much later, mainly at festivals and fairs in Arles, Derby and Paris. They say “don’t meet your heroes”, but meeting Brian was one of life’s greatest pleasures. Warm, supportive and very, very funny, it’s hard to imagine being at those events without him there. There will forever be a seat in the corner bar in Place du Forum in Arles with Brian quaffing petit Leffe beers and greeting scores of friends old and new, talking about photography, having a gossip and sharing his latest plans for a new book or exhibition project. Rest in peace, Maestro Bri. ♦
Graeme Oxby

Brian Griffin (1948-2024)


1-Brian Griffin, Carpenter, Broadgate, City of London, 1986. Courtesy MMX Gallery, London © Estate of Brian Griffin

Andreas Gursky

Visual Spaces of Today

Essay by Urs Stahel

Andreas Gursky. Visual Spaces of Today at Fondazione MAST, Bologna, marks the first extensive anthology in Italy covering four decades of the artist’s oeuvre. Known for his large-scale photography, Gursky’s iconic representations of the contemporary world have contributed to elevating the status of photography to an art form, turning it into a collector’s item for museum and private collections internationally. Here, exhibition curator Urs Stahel outlines the continued importance of his work arguing that its enormous visual power is such that entering into the universe of his images becomes each time an experience and a step towards awareness – the opposite of the new world of miniature, ultrafast images we consume daily through smartphone technologies and social media.

Andreas Gursky is a photographer, a successful artist using the medium of photography, who lives and works in Düsseldorf. He is 68 years old. “Andreas Gursky,” on the other hand, signifies far more than that, embodying an art form, international fame; a brand that, since the late 1980s and early 1990s, has stood for “large-scale photography,” for “photography and art,” for record auction prices, and, with that, for a whole new era of photography: photography in art museums, photography in art collections. At long last, following an ongoing struggle throughout the lifetime of photography. Elsewhere, I once wrote euphorically: “Waving flags, our rallying cry is: Yes, photography is art! Yes, photography has a place in art museums and art collections! Yes, photography can be an autonomous image and not just a mechanical-electronic record of reality. At last! The goal has finally been reached.”[i]

This new status was most clearly evident in the development of the market – a market for photography that began to emerge in the 1970s, gradually at first, and step by step. Until then, the photographic print had been regarded primarily as a printing template and if one or more prints of the same photo were made, then that tended to be a matter of personal choice or was based on the popularity of the subject matter, rather than any marketing considerations. In the early 1980s, however, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico – one of the most famous photographs by Ansel Adams – fetched the previously unmatched record price of $71,500 at auction.[ii] In the 1990s, it was historical works that tended to dominate, such as Gustave le Grey’s cloud study La Grande Vague, which was auctioned in 1999 for around 900,000 Euro (the equivalent of 5.5 million French Francs at the time). After the turn of the millennium, works by Andreas Gursky began to achieve record prices, initially for multiple prints of his 99 Cent and 99 Cent II, and culminating in a record-breaking 4.3 million dollars for his work Rhein II in 2011, which remained unsurpassed for the next eleven years.[iii]

These record prices provided ample media fodder, yet at the same time they were a clear indication of how strongly photography had evolved and established itself as a medium and collector’s item in its own right since the 1970s, and how intensely the image itself, both in painting and photography, had made its comeback within the context of the art world. This resurgence, which seemed like a new beginning, was so unexpected, so overwhelming, and such a pivotal moment for photography, that it is worth taking a closer look here at how it all began.

The 1960s and 1970s are regarded as iconoclastic decades in Western art, which saw an adamant rejection of the panel painting and a departure from the classical notion of the image, as well as an emancipatory release from the immobile, fixed, framed object in favour of the mobile and the thought-provoking, such as Happenings and Performance Art, and the conceptual, including Land Art. These two decades also represent a critical view of the museum as institution and a questioning of the attendant bourgeois institutional codes that evaluate and sanction art. So the dual return of artists and their pictures to the museum seemed astounding. Following the “linguistic turn” of the 1960s, the linguification of art and the advance of structuralism in the discourse, art theory was full of talk about the “image turn,” the “pictorial turn” and the “iconic turn.” And many, in their astonishment, began to ask, as Louise Lawler did so elegantly and succinctly: “Why pictures now?”[iv] Why had they come back, and why with such force, and what did these images of the 1980s actually do and mean?

In his 1983 text Why I Go to the Movies Alone, Richard Prince imbued this question with substance and desire:

“The first time he saw her, he saw her in a photograph. He had seen her before, at her job, but there, she didn’t come across or measure up anywhere near as well as she did in her picture. Behind her desk she was too real to look at, and what she did in daily life could never guarantee the effect of what usually came to be received from an objective resemblance. He had to have her on paper, a material with a flat and seamless surface, a physical location which could represent her resemblance all in one place, a place that had the chances of looking real, but a place that didn’t have any specific chances of being real.

His fantasies, and right now, the one of her, needed satisfaction. And satisfaction, at least in part, seemed to come about by injesting, perhaps ‘perceiving,’ the fiction her photograph imagined.

She had to be condensed and inscribed in a way that his expectations of what he wanted her to be (and what he wanted to be too) could at least be possibly, even remotely, realised. Overdetermination was part of his plan and in a strange way, the same kind of psychological after-life was what he loved, sometimes double loved about her picture.

It wasn’t that he wanted to worship her. And it wasn’t that he wanted to be taxed and organised by a kind of uncritical devotion. But her image did seem to have a concrete and actual form, an incarnate power, a power that he could willingly and easily contribute to. And what he seemed to be able to do, either in front or away from it, was pass time in a particular bodily state, an alternating balance which turned him in and out and made him see something about a life after death.”[v]

In this prose poem, Richard Prince generates and at the same time describes the desire of the image: preferring the image to the reality is ultimately a desire that also finds fulfilment in the experience of a life after death. Here, Prince provides us with his velvet reason (“The Velvet Well,” as he called it) for the return of the image to the museum in the 1980s: as part of a gradual shift from a fascination with reality to a fascination with the image of reality. Just as we speak today of digital natives, we might describe this as the realm of the first medial natives, in that they were the first generation to grow up in a world of mass media, television and advertising, saturated with images and dominated by what enlightened critics at the time described as the “consciousness industry.” This generation has come to be known, borrowing the title of the 2009 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, as the “Pictures Generation.”

In his book Photography Until Now, John Szarkowski describes this development, as it relates to photography, in the following terms: “The addition of photography to the liberal arts curriculum was a phenomenon particularly marked in the United States: in the three years between 1964 and 1967 the number of colleges and universities that offered at least one course in photography increased from 268 to 440. In Europe, in schools such as Hans Finsler’s Kunstgewerbeschule in Zurich and Otto Steinert’s Folkwangschule in Essen, pedagogical styles continued to emphasise a relatively rigorous concentration on conventional craft virtues, and students of photography were more likely to be educated with future commercial artists and graphic arts specialists than with painters and traditional printmakers.”[vi] In the USA, by contrast, art education was far more strongly influenced by the ideas of Lászlo Moholy-Nagy. A remarkable number of the photography lecturers and tutors tasked with developing new art school curricula were themselves former students of the New Bauhaus, the Chicago Institute of Design, founded by Moholy-Nagy and headed by him until his death. Arguably the most impressive example was the founding of CalArts, the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles, which was set up in 1970/71 with funding from Walt Disney. Paul Brach, the first director of CalArts, immediately appointed the young John Baldessari as professor. Baldessari threw all established guidelines overboard, according to the maxim: “You can’t teach art, that’s my premise […] We just eliminated grades. We had pass/fail. You can’t use grades as a punishment.”[vii]

Then (as now) it was the media theory of French philosopher and sociologist Jean Baudrillard that provided the theoretical basis, echoing this mindset and this understanding of the world and the media. Known in the 1980s and 1990s as a distanced diagnostician of modern mass media society, his key theory of simulation describes the social conditions of the twentieth century as shaped by the media. He sees society in the age of “simulation modernity” as being completely influenced by and dependent on media: “Everywhere socialisation is measured by the exposure to media messages. Whoever is underexposed to media is desocialised or virtually asocial.”[viii] In Die Agonie des Realen (1978) his point of view culminates in the observation that social occurrences are now initiated solely by the media, and also mirrored by the media. The result is a media-generated hyperreality in which it becomes impossible to distinguish between the authentic and the simulated, to the extent that the lack of reference in media signs makes any such attribution completely pointless.[ix] The indistinguishability between (historical) fact and (media) simulation ultimately results in the complete loss of access to any specifically perceptible reality. As Michael Wetzel puts it with regard to Baudrillard: “The world becomes the reason for its photographic and filmic reproduction and images from around the world replace our image of the world, our world view. It could be said that being-an-image gains ontological precedence over being.”[x]

Andreas Gursky positioned his first large-scale pictures within this radicalised context, this new field of art and the world. Although his path to becoming an artist had not been in the USA, following Moholy-Nagy in Chicago or with Baldessari at CalArts, he had studied at the Folkwang Schule in Essen under Otto Steinert, or was at least influenced by the ideas of Steinert (who died shortly after Gursky enrolled) and at the Düsseldorfer Akademie in the department known as the Becher Schule, under Bernd and Hilla Becher, graduating alongside Thomas Ruff and Axel Hütte, shortly after Thomas Struth and Candida Höfer. Steinert and his cohorts in the Fotoform group, with their idiosyncratic combination of abstract form and material under the lens of “subjectivity;” Bernd and Hilla Becher with their “neue Sachlichkeit” approach to industrial buildings and forms heralding a new anthropology of utilitarian structures that granted each building its own firmly anchored existence in spite of the typological similarities. Gursky, however, went beyond these source parameters, taking a more international view and often citing Jeff Wall as a key inspirational figure. The large-scale lightboxes of the Vancouver-based photographer brought billboard-sized street scenes, often featuring realistic reenactments of distinctly downbeat urban life, into the museum as works of art.

The European exhibition most closely related to Andreas Gursky’s start was Blow Up, which opened in 1987 at the Württembergischer Kunstverein in Stuttgart –appropriately, the very same year Gursky completed his studies in Düsseldorf – and went on tour under the guiding principle that “the artworks in the exhibition Blow Up – Zeitgeschichte document the intellectual independence of the artist in an era shaped by mass media and consciousness industries, and have a seismographic effect on art and society, as a reflection of our era.”[xi] The organisers and curators – Tilman Osterwold, Klaus Honnef, Peter Weiermair, Jean Fisher – had made a carefully calibrated choice of artists they felt best represented the emerging medium of large-scale photography. These included Joseph Kosuth, John Hilliard, Marina Abramovic und Ulay, Cindy Sherman, Clegg & Guttmann, Jeff Wall, Ian Wallace, Raimund Kummer, Christian Boltanski, Günther F.rg, Astrid Klein, Katharina Sieverding, John Baldessari, and Barbara Kruger. “The criteria for this are the distinctiveness of the large-format photograph, whose sheer scale has a presence that underpins the message of the image; the artist uses this medium in a targeted way as a central and crucial element of his work […]”. Or, in Klaus Honnef’s quintessential summary: “Artists who currently use photographic techniques and means to formulate their ideas find themselves confronted with the situation that the boundaries between empirical reality and the fictitious reality of the media have become blurred.”[xii]

The large format that Andreas Gursky was soon to choose is in itself a statement of the artist’s architectural, visual and content-related assertions, and one that challenges the viewer. In contrast to exhibitions of classic photographic formats such as 30 x 40 cm, 40 x 50 cm, 50 x 60 cm, through which we stroll and pause to look at each image for a time, feeling bigger and more powerful than the images themselves, with a sense of superiority, and an awareness that the exhibition space remains more or less unchanged, these largescale works transform the space and redefine it, confronting us as viewers either subtly or forcefully, opening our eyes or dominating our gaze. They pose a physical challenge and, at the same time, invite us to come closer and engage with them visually, immersing ourselves in them. From the very beginning of his career, since his first large-format works, Gursky has played with these different energies. He positions the images in the room not only in terms of content, but also in terms of visual references, powers of attraction and repulsion, and diverse energies. He creates atmospheres in his exhibition spaces that let us move along entirely different paths, to and from, turning around, but hardly ever strolling along by the walls.

Photography is (classically) about addressing an object or being and, with that, a specific motif that appears before the camera and is set against a certain background, in a certain place, at a certain time. This form of engagement does not seem to correspond only to the attitude and style of the respective photographer, but actually appears to be inscribed into the medium of photography itself and “photo-ontologically” merged with it. It is in this spirit that Andreas Gursky travels the world, often inspired by some visual motif, situation or theme that he has seen in a newspaper. And, once his investigations have succeeded, he chooses his motif: a production plant, for instance, or the means of production in cutting-edge industries, various storage and transportation hubs such as cargo ports and warehouses, or consumer goods on display, as well as banks and stock exchanges or even traffic hotspots such as hotels, docks, and airports. He also seeks out energy production and solar power plants, aspects of tourism ranging from pleasure to sport, and even agriculture, food and meat production. He also explores the halls of politics and the temples of art. Accordingly, his photographs bear titles that are, for the most part, simple, descriptive or location-related, such as, in the first instance, Times Square, Bundesstag, Union Rave, Prada II, Engadin, Rhein or Hong Kong Stock Exchange, then Gucci, Utah, Tokyo, Pyongyang, Schweine, Politik II, and finally Kreuzfahrt (Cruise), Bauhaus, Apple, and Las Vegas.

In contrast to classic photography, however, Andreas Gursky pursues a different goal. Although he goes to these specific places, what he tries to do there is not so much to seek out and capture an attractive motif set against a backdrop – and then enlarge it to almost oversized dimensions – but instead to show situations and constellations, highlighting the underlying structures, and rendering visible the social context in which events and actions occur. He does so, on the one hand, by means of a kind of mapping in which he visually combines multiple individual details into what might be described as a photographic map, and on the other hand by condensing seemingly symbolic images that do not fully reveal their descriptive significance. Although he photographs at a specific, albeit extended, point in time, and does so at the particularly advanced venues of a prosperous, mobile, post-industrial, global society of financial capitalism – whereby landscape and nature are also to be regarded in this light in his works – he has nevertheless always sought to stretch what is fixed in time and place so that it transcends the specific, becoming universal, as though taking stock. As he said in an interview, “I am never interested in the individual, but in the human species and its environment.”[xiii] Gursky visualises many elements of globalisation, with some of its often negative effects, but he leaves the critical judgment to us, as viewers. “Yes, the issues of our time – climate change, the exploitation of natural resources, working conditions, the monopolisation of distributing structures – they’re all themes in my work. But I don’t have solutions to offer. Everyone knows that Amazon represents turbo-capitalism, but it’s for the viewers to come to their own conclusions.” [xiv]Gursky photographs global conditions of special significance, showing us the critical situations inherent in them, yet at the same time, through his images, he seeks to maintain and renew our interest in the world, its beauty, its dark sides, its complexities. In the specific, the current and the contemporary, he seeks recurrent signs of the rules and structures of global cohabitation, production, action, and order.

With regard to photography and the photographic, Andreas Gursky, over time, pushes the boundary of the medium to its limits. The 1998 image Bonn, Parliament is one of the first that he took, not using just one click, but as many as perhaps forty or fifty clicks, then digitally assembled them to create his own image of the parliament. Over time, he also shifts his viewpoint while he photographs, circling the chosen motif, zooming in and out, and then eventually combining the many elements and partial images to create the whole, as his completed image. From a purely technical standpoint, this process allows him to achieve better definition in his large-format photographs, as well as a sharper focus and greater visual saturation. Visually, this transforms the works into compositions and montages that do not immediately convey the underlying principle. As Gursky said of this in an interview: “My works are very real, and at the same time composed, but not completely imaginary. This can be seen, for instance, in the work Bahrain I (2005). The racetrack in Bahrain is made of concrete onto which a new circuit is painted for every race. That is why many of the road sections look so bizarre. This is not a figment of my imagination, but rather a figment of reality. Yet at the same time the picture is also a montage in which I have made a few changes for reasons of composition. Although the work has an increased element of perspective – the ground is steeply inclined and the composition forms an abstract pattern – there is still a horizon line and a strip of sky.”[xv] Elsewhere, he credits his teachers, Bernd and Hilla Becher, with his tendency to anchor his images with a baseline, horizon line and sky, forming the basis, orientation and anchorage of his photographs.

Andreas Gursky undertakes abstractions or constructions with regard to the image as a whole, abstracting from the specific to the general, to the systemic, or constructing a montage of multiple photographs to form an image that nevertheless strikes the viewer as familiar and normal, and even photographically true. The digital construction of the montage rarely, if ever, pushes into the foreground. Instead, it tends to emerge only through careful and close inspection. In almost monochromatic images such as the grey carpet of Ohne Titel I (1993), the sandy ground of Ohne Titel III (1996), or Amazon (2016), but also in constructed images such as Rhein II (1999), El Ejido (2017) or Beelitz (2007). It is clear that Gursky repeatedly addresses the medium of painting in his work, including American Colour field painting, Hard edge painting and Allover painting, as well as Minimalism. In subjecting his photography to these structures and to their underlying ideas and compositional approaches, he challenges his own medium and imbues it with additional potency of form. Yet he does so without ever allowing the photographs to become painterly. He is constantly seeking aspects of tension for his works – the specific and the universal, the geometrification of untamed nature, recognising and losing oneself, order and chaos, photography and painting – and tracking down crossing points within the order of the world, be they mirrored in the clarity of the absolute that is the sky, or in the midst of things, within the tangle and fullness of reality. Ultimately, Andreas Gursky is like a (highly contemporary) history painter depicting the central hubs of our life, our expressiveness, from the ecstasy of the rave to the production, structuring, administration, and interventions in our own nature. And here, especially, in this exhibition, from the port of Salerno to the Tokyo Stock Exchange, from the locker room of a coalmine to the facade of the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank, from the industrial production of meat, vegetables and flowers to the luxury goods sector or even the solar panel farm that floats across the French landscape like a gentle version of Hokusai’s Great Wave, everything everywhere is always interconnected in the vast and all-encompassing network of late capitalism.

“Perhaps that really explains Gursky’s huge success as an artist: this openness, the willingness to use everything that can serve the image and promise knowledge. Not to be fixed, either on a motive or on a way of working. […] Gursky’s pictures work as visually overwhelming, but in their entirety there is nothing triumphant,” wrote Boris Pofalla in the Welt am Sonntag. [xvi] To this day, that is what remains Andreas Gursky’s particular strength. His enormous visual power is such that entering into the universe of his images becomes each time an experience and a step towards awareness. Now, moreover, some thirty or forty years since the advent of large-format photography, this has been further accentuated by the contrast with the current spate of images in tiny 4 x 6 cm or 6 x 6 cm formats, shrunk by the use of smartphones and all similarly backlit, snapped with an attention span of no more than a second. This new world of miniature, ultrafast images has to be clear, simple and even banal so that the pictures are instantly recognisable and readable. Sadly, this leaves neither time nor space for the physical, mental and emotional exploration, experience, understanding and grasp of such images as those that Andreas Gursky offers. ♦

All images courtesy the artist and Sprüth Magers.
© Andreas Gursky

Andreas Gursky. Visual Spaces of Today runs at Fondazione MAST, Bologna, until 7 January 2024 as part of Foto/Industria 2023.

Urs Stahel is a freelance writer, curator, lecturer and consultant. Among his current roles are Curator at Manifattura di Arti, Sperimentazione e Tecnologia (MAST), Bologna, Italy; Consultant of the MAST collection of industrial photography; Adviser to the Vontobel Art Collection and Adviser to Foto Colectania, Barcelona, Spain. As the Co-Founder of Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland, he worked there as Director and Curator between 1993–2013. He lives and works in and out of Zurich, Switzerland. 


1-Andreas Gursky, Amazon, 2016. © Andreas Gursky, by SIAE 2023 Courtesy: Sprüth Magers

2-Andreas Gursky, Apple, 2020. © Andreas Gursky, by SIAE 2023 Courtesy: Sprüth Magers

3-Andreas Gursky, Bahrain I, 2005. © Andreas Gursky, by SIAE 2023 Courtesy: Sprüth Magers

4-Andreas Gursky, F1 Boxenstopp I, 2007. © Andreas Gursky, by SIAE 2023 Courtesy: Sprüth Magers

5-Andreas Gursky, Hong Kong Shanghai Bank III, 2020. © Andreas Gursky, by SIAE 2023
Courtesy: Sprüth Magers

6-Andreas Gursky, Kodak, 1995. © Andreas Gursky, by SIAE 2023 Courtesy: Sprüth Magers

7-Andreas Gursky, Les Mées, 2016. © Andreas Gursky, by SIAE 2023 Courtesy: Sprüth Magers

8-Andreas Gursky, Salerno, 1990
© ANDREAS GURSKY, by SIAE 2023 Courtesy: Sprüth Magers

9-Andreas Gursky, Salinas, 2021. © Andreas Gursky, by SIAE 2023 Courtesy: Sprüth Magers

10-Andreas Gursky, Tokyo Stock Exchange, 1990. © Andreas Gursky, by SIAE 2023 Courtesy: Sprüth Magers

11-Andreas Gursky, V&R II, 2022 (2009). © Andreas Gursky, by SIAE 2023 Courtesy: Sprüth Magers


[i] https://www.republik.ch/2018/10/02/analphabetendes-bildes (access: 16 March 2023).

[ii] Although Ansel Adams had printed the image more than a thousand times.

[iii] Last year, in 2022, that record was broken. Man Ray’s Le Violon d’Ingres (1924) was sold at Christie’s in New York for 12.4 million dollars.

[iv] Louise Lawler, Why Pictures Now, 1981.

[v] Richard Prince, Why I Go to the Movies Alone, p. 11. http://www.richardprince.com/writings/why-i-go-to-themovies-alone-pg-3-6/ (access: 16 March 2023)

[vi] John Szarkowski, Photography Until Now, catalogue of the exhibition, Museum of Modern Art New York, New York 1989, p. 269.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacre et Simulations, Editions Galilée, Paris 1981 (English translation: Sheila F. Glaser, UMP, Ann Arbour 2002).

[ix] Michael Wetzel, Paradoxe Intervention. Jean Baudrillard und Paul Virilio: Zwei Apokalyptiker der neuen Medien, in Ralf Bohn, Dieter Fuder (ed.), Baudrillard. Simulation und Verführung, Fink, München 1994, p. 97.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Tilman Osterwold, Blow-Up. Zeitgeschichte, exhibition catalogue, Württembergischer Kunstverein, Stuttgart 1987.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Liz Jobey, “Andreas Gursky: The perfect image is not something that can be taught,” in Financial Times, online, January 12, 2018 (access: 16 March 2023)

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Andrew Maerkle, “Andreas Gursky,” in Art it, July 12, 2013 https://www.art-it.asia/en/u/admin_ed_itv_e/E6vMIYKmWUG5q8NJVQrS/ (access 16 March 2023).

[xvi] Boris Pofalla, “Ich war so ein Spätachtundsechziger,” in Welt am Sonntag, March 21, 2021

Hiroshi Sugimoto: Time Machine

Hayward Gallery, London

Interview with Director, Ralph Rugoff

Hiroshi Sugimoto: Time Machine is now open at the Hayward Gallery, London and marks the largest retrospective to date of the internationally renowned Japanese artist. Featuring key works from all of Sugimoto’s major photographic series, the exhibition, curated by Director Ralph Rugoff, offers an arc of the myriad ways the artist playfully and philosophically explores the ambiguous nature of photography as a medium suited to both documentation and creative expression. 1000 Words Editor in Chief Tim Clark speaks with Rugoff about the exhibition making process, stretching and reshaping our notions of time in photography, the artist’s affinities with other art forms and why Sugimoto’s approach can be framed through a ‘lens of doubt’.

Tim Clark: What is the impetus to stage Hiroshi Sugimoto’s retrospective now at the Hayward Gallery? What would you argue are the reasons behind his contemporary relevance? I’m curious, since, as you have noted, Sugimoto goes against the grain in many ways with his analogue approaches and routinely keeps ‘ancient dialogues in play’, albeit embedded within a conceptually driven approach.

Ralph Rugoff: Sugimoto turned 75 this year, and it seemed like a career survey in London was overdue, as he’s been making influential and highly singular photographs for five decades. I don’t think there’s another contemporary artist who has so rigorously and inventively explored the medium’s possibilities, and in our era of Deep Fakes, some of his work also takes on a special resonance as it reveals photography’s inescapable artifice, and reminds us in different ways that photographs do not present an objective view of reality.

TC: Time Machine is an intriguing subtitle. In what ways has Sugimoto innovated around ideas of stretching and reshaping our notions of time in photography?

RR: He’s messing with notions of time in very different ways with different series. With Theaters (1976–), he condenses the images from an entire movie into a single glowing white screen by keeping his aperture open for the length of the film. Some of his photographs in Portraits (1999), featuring historical figures from Madame Tussauds – including Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn – almost look like photographic portraits of real people; as Sugimoto himself quipped, he might be the first photographer of the 16th century. And with Architecture (1997–), he created images that portray landmarks of modernist architecture as if they were ancient monuments, seen through a haze of historical memory.

TC: Tell us about the journey of ‘Sugimoto as visionary’ that the exhibition takes viewers on.

RR: I wouldn’t use the word ‘visionary’. Sugimoto is an extremely canny artist with a profound understanding of the possibilities of the photographic medium and how it can be used to explore a wide range of psychological and philosophical questions. The exhibition takes viewers on a journey through some of those possibilities, most of which lay far outside our usual experience of photography. It’s a very inspiring, and moving, experience, and his stunningly meticulous craftsmanship plays a role in this, as his carefully nuanced black-and-white prints invite a lingering gaze and encourage us to explore each image in depth.

TC: Are there any curatorial devices within the exhibition’s orchestration that you might like to share?

RR: The works are hung in rooms devoted to particular series, but there’s a progression from his pictures that deal with social environments and cultural representations (Dioramas, Movie Theaters, Portraits, Architecture) to works that have connections to either more spiritual/sublime subjects (Sea of Buddha, Lightning Fields) or to abstract painting and sculpture (Conceptual Forms, Seascapes, Opticks).

TC: In your catalogue essay, you eloquently describe Sugimoto’s approach as framed through a ‘lens of doubt’. Can you expand on this and talk us through an example of where some of these layers of ambiguity that exist within his imagery are particularly palpable?

RR: There are people who think Sugimoto is a wildlife photographer because his pictures of American Museum of Natural History dioramas look so convincingly like images of real natural habitats and animals. For me, they instead seem to occupy a threshold position; they don’t look completely real but then they don’t look obviously artificial either. So this creates a sense of doubt about whether the creatures we’re looking at, say, were alive or if they are mere objects – that kind of uncertainty is practically a text-book definition of the ‘uncanny’. Inasmuch as the diorama was a kind of theatrical precursor of photography, there’s another layer to unpick here as well.

TC: Strategies of deception abound across many of Sugimoto’s bodies of work, which has interesting implications given photography’s responsibility-cum-burden as a document. You talk about how ‘the elusive, “in-between” character of these photographs [is what] links them.’ I’m curious, then, about Sugimoto’s key artistic influences. Marcel Duchamp is often summoned in relation to discussions around Sugimoto’s motivations and key concerns for instance. As are Jasper Johns and the Bechers, to name but a few. What unites this group in your view?

RR: Sugimoto has frequently remarked that photographers steal objects from the real world, and recontextualise them in ways that strip them of their everyday significance to create new possibilities of what they might mean. This is a view that corresponds with Duchamp’s comments about his intentions with his readymade sculptures, something Johns picked up with his paintings and sculptures of everyday objects. The Bechers are a slightly different case, but to some extent their pictures seem to treat industrial structures as found sculpture… Like Sugimoto, they also tend to scrupulously remove any sense of the surrounding environment, so that their subjects are decontextualised. In addition, I think that Sugimoto – who was definitely inspired by the Bechers’ work – also drew on the practice of working in extended series (which Johns also shared) – as a way of drawing attention away from the specific or ‘real’ subject of a picture to its other possible meanings.

TC: Thinking about Sugimoto’s engagement with painting more broadly, as you point out, nowhere are the crossovers between aesthetic conventions more evident than in his deliberately blurred Architecture series and indeterminate Seascapes (1980–), recalling the work of Gerard Richter or Mark Rothko respectively. Can you discuss his affinity for other disciplines, such as architecture?

RR: In terms of the painting reference, I’d add his Opticks series, which really does suggest a new kind of colour field painting (and recalls Rothko even more than some of the moodier Seascapes do). We also have two of his Brâncuși-like Mathematical Model sculptures in the exhibition, and Sugimoto recently unveiled a monumental sculpture in this same series on Yerba Buena island outside San Francisco. Along with his architectural endeavours, I think all this work reflects his keen interest in, and understanding of, how we experience space and light.

TC: In the case of Lightning Fields (2006–), it could be argued that these are maybe Sugimoto’s most elemental and metaphysical works in that he shifts his focus to instantaneous capture. The imagery not only recalls some of the earliest and most ambitious experiments in scientific photography, such as Charles David Winter’s Éclair électrique produit par l’appareil de Ruhmkorff (1865), but also certain examples of contemporary photography like Clare Strand’s The Betterment Room – Devices For Measuring Achievement (2005). Do you think Sugimoto is as interested in exploring or surpassing the limits of human vision as much as he is trapping time? In revealing the invisible?

RR: Lightning Fields – named, of course, after Walter De Maria’s sprawling land-art installation in New Mexico – is an ongoing experiment that has multiple angles to it, some of which have nothing to do with lightning. To produce two of the lightning pictures that are in the exhibition, Sugimoto created a salt water brew intended to replicate the chemical character of primordial oceans. Submerging electrically charged film into the water, the artist was amazed to see light particles move across the surface like microorganisms. The resulting photographs are some of the uncanniest images ever recorded on film – one of them distinctly suggesting a new kind of luminescent deep-sea creature. ♦

All images courtesy of the artist, Marian Goodman Gallery and the Hayward Gallery © Hiroshi Sugimoto

Hiroshi Sugimoto: Time Machine runs at the Hayward Gallery from 11 October 2023 – 7 January 2024.

Ralph Rugoff has been the Director of the Hayward Gallery, London since 2006. He served as Artistic Director of the 58th Venice Biennale, Italy, in 2019 and curated the 2015 Lyon Biennale, France.

Tim Clark is a writer and curator based in London. He is Editor in Chief at 1000 Words, Artistic Director at Fotografia Europea in Reggio Emilia, Italy, and teaches at The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University


1-Earliest Human Relatives, 1994. © Hiroshi Sugimoto, courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery

2-UA Playhouse, New York, 1978. © Hiroshi Sugimoto

3-World Trade Center, 1997. © Hiroshi Sugimoto

4-Lightning Fields 225, 2009. © Hiroshi Sugimoto

5-Bay of Sagami, Atami, 1997. © Hiroshi Sugimoto

6-Sea of Buddha 049 (Triptych), 1995. © Hiroshi Sugimoto

7-Kenosha Theater, Kenosha, 2015. © Hiroshi Sugimoto

8-Manatee, 1994. © Hiroshi Sugimoto

9-Polar Bear, 1976. © Hiroshi Sugimoto

10-Salvador Dali, 1999. © Hiroshi Sugimoto

11-Union City Drive-in, Union City, 1993. © Hiroshi Sugimoto

12-Hiroshi Sugimoto. © Sugimoto Studio

Art and Aid

Postcode Ukraine

Mark Neville

As a British artist living and working in Ukraine, Mark Neville shares an account of his experiences in a country that has now been under siege for more than 500 days. Known for his long-term, immersive documentary projects in various places, from Glasgow to Helmand Province, Neville reflects on reconciling the urge to document what is happening in his adopted home with the waves of grief, fear and horror felt as the war has unfolded in real time. 

In 2011, I made a long commission for the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, where I decided to focus on racial inequalities in American society. When these photographs were later shown at the Cristea Roberts Gallery in the solo exhibition London/Pittsburgh, we approached the Scottish-Sierra Leonean writer Aminatta Forna to write the catalogue essay. One of the first things which Aminatta brought up when we met for the first time was her charity work. In 2003, Aminatta had established the Rogbonko Project to build a school in a village in Sierra Leone, the country in which she was raised. The school is now 20-years-old and her charity also runs a number of projects in the spheres of adult education, sanitation and maternal health. Our first meeting made a big impression on me; it seemed to me that her humanitarian work was integral to her, and connected to her writing. Somehow, the two activities were interwoven.

I began to more fully understand Aminatta’s desire to contribute to a people through charity or volunteering work when I first visited Ukraine in 2015 (I later moved there in 2020). Volunteering is extremely common in Ukraine, and it has been since Russia’s war began there in 2014. Some people started donating a percentage of their humble wages to soldiers, whilst others went on self-organised, self-funded aid missions delivering food, cigarettes and clothing to an extremely brave but poorly equipped frontline Ukrainian army, living in the trenches in Luhansk and Donetsk. When the war escalated on 24 February 2022, I found myself completely ill-prepared for the doubt it would provoke in me. For the first time in my life, I felt photography as a primary response to be utterly futile. Having campaigned for over 20-years on the social function of photography and how it is incumbent on photographers to use every aspect of image making and the art world as tools to change society, suddenly I felt that taking a picture was completely inadequate.

I remember waking up in my apartment in Kyiv at 7am that day to the sound of sirens. Then started the continual torment that I would be wracked with for the rest of the year. A nauseating guilt about the best course of action. Whom should I help first and how? Should I help Ukraine? Help myself? Help my partner Lukeriia and her family? Or help my friends – many of whom were male photographers forbidden to leave Ukraine because of the conflict? War makes you question exactly what responsibility means to you, and you find yourself immediately confronted with very tough decisions as to what to prioritise. Should I stay and take photographs as Russian tanks advance past my window in central Kyiv? (They never did). Should I start making Molotov cocktails, pick up a gun and join my fellow Ukrainians? Should I donate blood? Do interviews for the international press where I try to explain the situation from my perspective? Try to get work for my impecunious Ukrainian photojournalist colleagues? Or leave Ukraine and get Lukeriia to safety in Poland?

During the first week of the war, I was extremely alarmed by a second kind of invasion: the international press and media. So much so that I was prompted to post on social media a message that went viral. ‘World press and media. I have a Ukrainian press pass. I live in Ukraine. My friends live here too. Instead of sending more and more and more reporters from abroad, who do not understand the situation, or the language, or how to move around, contact me and either I will do it for you for no or little money, or I will connect you with amazing Ukrainian photographers who will do a better more accurate job than any of us. Have some respect for these people, this country and this conflict; let us get it right for you, and do not risk more lives by sending crews from abroad. Thank you for all your amazing work and continuing to report on this.’

To my relief, my words were embraced and I was inundated with messages from the world press requesting lists and recommendations for Ukrainian photojournalists and reporters. During war, most people’s incomes come to a dramatic halt. Redirecting hundreds of thousands of dollars flying reporters from New York or London to Ukrainians on the ground instead was not only the right thing to do from a journalistic and an ethical view point, but it was also quite literally a lifeline for many of my friends and colleagues in the photographic community here.

That first day of the war was exceedingly tough. Lukeriia is a very resilient woman, but her underlying health issues mean that extreme stress can be life threatening. At the end of the day, she said to me: “Mark, get me out of here.” We succeeded in catching a 24-hour-long car ride with five others in a van to west Ukraine, and then a week later, in early March, we crossed the border as refugees with thousands of others into Poland. But the guilt I felt on that first day of war just got worse and worse until it was an excruciating scream. I had only lived in Ukraine since 2020, but being forced to leave in this dramatic way, I soon realised that it had become my home, and that I did not intend to give it up. I had searched for that feeling of belonging to a community most of my adult life – as is evident in my long, immersive projects in different places – and it took me by surprise when I felt it for Ukraine.

With abject horror and protest from Lukeriia, I told her in March that I was going to return to Kyiv to try and retrieve my camera equipment and any possessions of hers she wanted from our apartment, take some new photographs, and then safely return to her in Lublin, Poland, where we had rented a small Airbnb. Although it was a terrible experience for Lukeriia, during which she imagined the worst and nearly did not sleep for the 10 days I was away, for me it was a healing experience. I travelled with an aid convoy from Warsaw – effectively a passenger coach rammed full of diapers, baby milk, toys, blankets and things which the incredibly generous Polish people had donated to Ukrainians in need. Apart from two drivers, I was alone on this bus. At the time, Kyiv was surrounded on three sides by Russian troops and everyone was concerned for my safety. The drivers were visibly nervous about going, and the Warsaw-based aid workers who loaded the bus treated me as if I were heading to certain death. This was my first experience of humanitarian aid work. People volunteering to help other people, directly, unfunded, uncelebrated, anonymously, with no virtue signalling, no selfies and no prospect of reward. Some of those people involved in organising that trip later died from Russian shelling.

I made it back to my apartment in Kyiv. I entered and saw a half-eaten sandwich on a plate, a half-drunk cup of coffee, the normal mess of life suddenly interrupted. I was euphoric. I suddenly felt able to process the trauma of being forced to leave my home and abandon my humble possessions. All those feelings began to palpably subside. The cycle of constantly re-living that day and week of panic in my mind eroded, and I felt that in some small way I had regained my identity and reclaimed myself. By returning to Kyiv, I was fighting the enemy and standing up for myself and my rights. Kyiv itself was utterly desolate at the time – no traffic, abandoned cars, very strict curfews, supermarkets barely operating, a mass of roadblocks and block posts and the occasional sound of explosions and gunfire. But I knew what I had to do.

I returned to Lukeriia 10 days later, leaving the bulk of my camera equipment at the home of one of the aid workers in Warsaw, in my mind planning that I would somehow return to our home in Kyiv via Warsaw. Then, out of the blue, an art collector family, collectors of my photographs and recipients of my pre-war book Stop Tanks With Books (2022) contacted me and asked: “What can we do to help?” Of all the recipients of my book, ranging from the super-rich, international media and NATO members to celebrities, politicians and world leaders, they were the only people who actually came forward and offered help in real terms.[Images 5 and 6] The concept behind Stop Tanks With Books had been to weaponise the medium of the photobook, to galvanise the West into supporting Ukraine’s fight for independence before the war began. Now, I felt for the first time that the model I had been using for 20 years – making photo books and sending them out for free to a targeted audience in order to change the world – was impotent, that art alone could not change anything. Just making photographs of life in wartime Ukraine was not in itself enough anymore. Of course, the atrocities committed at Bucha, in the Kyiv region and all over Ukraine needed to be documented and seen as testimony for the rest of the world to understand that this is a genocide. That documentation is the job of reportage, but not necessarily of witness art.

Apart from very occasional commissions, I am not a photojournalist employed by a newspaper. Some of the reporting I see on Ukraine has had serious limitations and impacts. Dependent on sales and audience interest, Western media’s engagement with Ukraine dropped off a cliff edge as soon as compassion fatigue set in and the public’s appetite waned. Photographs of war crimes committed at Bucha were deeply shocking and important and the West needs to try to understand that such atrocities have been committed all over Ukraine. But the images also acted as trauma pornography, leading the viewer to a dead-end cycle of re-viewing and re-engagement, but not offering hope, or solution, or respite, or a way to process the events. Fear sells content, and, since February, I have been approached by some international publications wanting me to report for them in ways which focus on fear, rather than on a more objective take on reality of life in Kyiv now. This is not to say that fear does not play a part in our lives in Ukraine, but many other things are happening which are not reflections of fear nor defined by it. Prior to the invasion of 2022, some Western newspapers, intending to generate fear, happily perpetuated Kremlin myths that described Ukraine as a fascist state. The reality is that Ukraine is one of the most tolerant countries in the world. And now, following the invasion, Ukraine is being framed once again through a prism of fear. But the reality of life here is more complex, human and nuanced, and that makes it fascinating.

Now convinced that art and photography alone were not enough – that my pre-war book Stop Tanks With Books had not accomplished enough – I proposed to this incredible, altruistic family of collectors of my work something which combined humanitarian aid with my various forms of documentary photography. To my amazement, they agreed to fund the charity project, making substantial donations to the aid groups we support on a regular basis. This has meant that any donations from others that we receive go directly to those in need, not on the running costs of the charity itself. This project represents the logical conclusion and culmination of my life’s work; the investigation into how photography, and the photographic community in all its elements, including collectors, can and should significantly impact in the real world. After all, photography deals with the real in a unique way and therefore it should aspire to something more than virtue signalling, something which equated to the courage of those Polish volunteers who delivered both aid and me to Kyiv in March.

In April, I returned with Lukeriia to Kyiv, and constructed a hybrid project which fused a type of “guerrilla giving” – one which responded to the immediate needs of Ukrainians on the ground in the worst affected towns and villages, with my efforts to document the reality of life in Ukraine in a way which might make the West re-engage with my adopted home. Together with co-founder Tanya Logacheva, I devised the Postcode Ukraine project and we started by helping other grassroots Ukrainian charities deliver food and medical supplies to seven villages in the Chernobyl region: Ivankov, Sukachi, Krasyatychi, Maksymovychi, Sichivka, Dimer and Dimidov. We then went on to visit villages through Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Kharkiv regions. Paying for petrol, food and medical supplies, we would accompany volunteer groups and charities, many of whom had been working since the first day of the war without rest or wages. Two things struck me during that initial month of the project. The first was the complete lack of support for people who had lost everything. One realised pretty quickly that without these humanitarian aid deliveries, many people would not survive. There was no other support network in place. We could, and indeed do, make a difference. The second impression was the type of devastation wrought by the war. Everywhere we travelled, we found destroyed schools, kindergartens and nursery schools. Children had been deliberately targeted and this was clearly genocide. The Russian army had come very close to capturing the capital and the burnt-out carcasses of Russian tanks were found within ten kilometres of Kyiv city centre.

A game changer for us came in July when the family funding our project demonstrated astonishing commitment by visiting and accompanying us on a tour of Ukraine to see the challenges for themselves. This was hugely beneficial to the project. I had no previous experience of running a charity, and this family had plenty. They suggested a powerful structure for Postcode Ukraine. Rather than be the ones who spent our time packing up boxes of food and attempting to locate the ever-changing frontline demographics in need, we would try to identify the charities in Ukraine already doing the best work, the ones who would most benefit from our support, the ones with a network of volunteers and managers already in place. It made sense. We visited and assessed charities and encouraged them to submit funding proposals for projects. We thus became a “charity of charities”, funding the organisations that employed the best practice, charities which were transparent with their book-keeping, charities with some kind of long-term sustainable plan and, importantly, charities with some strategies in place to help overcome the burn-out and exhaustion that the aid sector in Ukraine has been experiencing. Postcode Ukraine has donated well over $200,000 to humanitarian aid groups, including Go Kultura Demokratti in Odesa, who receive and help around 600 families a day fleeing heavily targeted regions such as Zaphorizhzhia and Mykolaiv.. Volunteer 68 have been evacuating people from frontline towns since the war began in 2014, and delivering food and medical supplies to 12,000 people a month in the Kharkiv region. I regularly accompany the charities that Postcode Ukraine supports on their missions and we all stay in regular contact. They ask us what we can provide and then we in turn ask them what they need, requesting them to submit budgeted project proposals, followed by receipts and reports.

Added to this, I am also constantly in touch with all manner of aid groups and supply chains which deliver to Kyiv from all over the world. I never leave Kyiv unless my car is full of generators, thermal clothing, sleeping bags, toys, medicine or food and I never go empty-handed to frontline towns in Kherson, Bahmut or Kharkiv. Sometimes I am accompanied by a military escort, but on days like today, I am just with my regular driver, Yuri, as we deliver blankets and thermal underwear to a frontline military hospital in Kherson. The most deeply shocking and dangerous of these aid trips was one I made in December 2022 to deliver generators to Bahmut. The continual sounds of explosions – by continual, I mean one every few seconds – did not stop throughout the day. Having suffered from PTSD as a result of working as a war artist in Helmand, Afghanistan in 2011, I now take my own mental health very seriously and closely monitor my behaviour after embarking on aid missions. We are all just vulnerable animals, no matter how resilient we believe ourselves to be. One British army officer illustrated my feelings perfectly when I told him that I felt I had changed since returning from Helmand: “If you were to put a cat in a field, and you let off bombs all around the cat over the course of several weeks, the cat may well survive but it won’t be the same cat anymore. It is the same with people.”

My relationship with Ukraine started in 2015 when Kyiv Military Hospital requested (Ukrainian language version) copies of my book about mental health in the British military, Battle Against Stigma (2015). I was so impressed that a “post-Soviet” country would be so forward-thinking in its desire to treat its soldiers that I had the book translated into Ukrainian and sent it to them as a PDF. Shortly after, I visited Kyiv and the hospital and met some of the soldiers who had returned with both physical and psychological wounds from the war in the East. In 2016, I then started visiting Ukraine’s frontline towns and trenches and began work on the content for Stop Tanks With Books.

Throughout 2017, I travelled through Ukraine making new work for the Centre for Eastern European and International Studies in Berlin, focusing on the estimated 2.5 million internally and externally displaced Ukrainians resulting from the war in the Donbas. It was during the making of Displaced Ukrainians in 2017 that I fell in love with this country. I interviewed countless families who had been forced to flee their homes in Donbas, who had witnessed and experienced unimaginable horror, and who literally had nothing left; no possessions, no security, no income, no pension and no hope. Yet, not once did any one of them ask me for support, nor for financial assistance. They just wanted to tell me their story. I have worked in some very difficult environments in the past, where people are going through absolute hell, and I can testify with experience that the kind of resilience I saw amongst Ukrainians during the making of that project is exceptional. When I returned to London in late 2017 after completing Displaced Ukrainians, I realised that I was not the same person any more, that I had learnt something important from these people.

In 2020, five years after my first visit to Ukraine, I moved from London to Kyiv. In order for me to realise the Stop Tanks With Books project, I needed to understand how it feels to call Ukraine my home, to live at the geographic centre of Europe and feel war rumbling away on one’s borders as a daily reality, and to live with the threat of a further, full-blown Russian invasion at any moment. From the start, I understood how this threat has devastated not just those displaced from Crimea or Donbas, but how it has destabilised the whole country, and how deeply unsettled people feel. Relocating has also allowed me to see my country of origin, Britain, with greater objectivity. Many of the obstacles which Ukraine faces also now face the UK. The impact of pro-Kremlin disinformation has been an extremely destructive force there as it has been here, and a disastrous, growing lack of transparency and accountability amongst the different branches of power within British government has clearly facilitated Kremlin influence upon everything from Brexit, to banking and real estate deals, not to mention the enabling of money-laundering.

Now it is 2023 and I am director of a charity in Ukraine. Being an integral part of a humanitarian aid project is important to me for a number of reasons, but primarily because it immediately changes my relationship to the people who are my subject matter as a photographer. Rather than being someone flown into Ukraine by an international newspaper or media outlet – perhaps with a predetermined story to tell – I am actually someone who is helping locals in tangible ways. My role is very clearly one focused on aid rather than on documentation of others’ misery no matter the cost. By accompanying aid missions, which we are supporting on every level, including logistics, funding, and transportation, my role has changed. These people living in the frontline towns have lost everything. They have seen their friends and families slaughtered and their homes levelled. And yet everyone wants to take something more from these people. Journalists come and go from all over the world asking these people to re-engage with their trauma as they recount the abject horror they have lived through. So, you can be damn sure that, when we turn up, the very least we offer people something, no matter how small: packs of apples, bunches of bananas, cigarettes, bags of candies, chocolate bars, toys, tools. It is essential that these people see that someone is gifting them something, that not everyone who records their lives is purely wanting to take from them with the sole justification that they are keeping their fight in the news. It sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But, mostly, this does not even occur to most people coming to work in a war zone. The emotions which I felt around this issue were conflicting and torturous as I attempted to reconcile the urge to document what was happening to my adopted home with the waves of grief, fear and horror I felt as the war unfolded in real time. It continues to impact my home, my quotidian life, my partner, her family, my friends, my colleagues, acquaintances and ultimately upon me too.

Somehow, I have always come back to the same question for two decades: how can the subjects of my photographs become the primary audiences and beneficiaries of the images over and above visitors to art exhibitions, photo book collectors and generic audiences. This started with my The Port Glasgow Book Project (2004) nearly 20-years ago – a book containing my photographs of a town on the west coast of Scotland, which was delivered uniquely to every home in the Port, all 8,000 of them, by the local boys’ football team. The book was never made commercially available in bookshops, online or anywhere else. The idea had been to disrupt the conventional hierarchy of exploitation normally found in the way these art books always ended up on the coffee tables of white, middle-class people like me, and not on the coffee tables of those represented in them.

With Postcode Ukraine, the concept was to shift the role of the conflict photographer away from reportage for newspapers in the West. Instead, the emphasis is one where I have a kind of exchange with Ukrainians during their hardest times, one which is focussed primarily on delivering aid, not on making news content. That changes the type of photographs I am able to capture, the willingness of my subjects to participate in this process and their feelings about featuring in my images. This in turn has made me feel more comfortable about taking images and I hope it allows me to make more intelligent work. Images are taken, and then usually taken again to reach audiences other than the subject matter. That process necessitates giving something back.

Not only that, but my personal feelings about living in Kyiv during this war needed to be reflected in my images. I am not making reportage; I am not telling the news. I am somehow trying to express my quotidian experience of living with the war through the photographs. The juxtapositions I see between the banal routine of normal life and the horror and insanity of the genocide are absolutely perverse. I live in Ukraine because I truly love it here. My residency is not an experiment, artistic or otherwise, as it was in Port Glasgow. But living here at this moment is also an act of defiance, a political statement which proclaims that I am part of a demographic that refuses to be beaten by the Kremlin. I believe that if enough people stay in Ukraine, then we have won. That is not to say that people who leave Ukraine are somehow weaker, or are defeated, or are not fighting in equally important ways. They are. Nevertheless, it is shocking and indeed traumatising on some levels to normalise an existence which is bookended by explosions, sirens and random, malevolent acts of violence. For the first time, I have started making black-and-white photographs on a consistent basis in order to create surreal stages for these juxtapositions. The images I made for Postcode Ukraine are inspired by literature rather than film, photography or painting. Kurt Vonnegurt’s Slaughterhouse 5 (1969), J.G. Ballard’s novels and Martin Amis’ House of Meetings (2006) all created absurd and cruel worlds defined by conflict. Ballard summed it up: ‘I don’t think you can go through the experience of war without one’s perceptions of the world being forever changed. The reassuring stage set that everyday reality in the suburban west presents to us is torn down; you see the ragged scaffolding, and then you see the truth beyond that, and it can be a frightening experience.’

Being in-between several roles here in Kyiv is a surreal, disorientating experience in itself. I am not Ukrainian. I am not (yet) an experienced aid worker, and I am not a photojournalist. The immediacy and overload of graphic images covering this war on social media has been unprecedented. I often feel like my own voice is taken away from me by the over-mediatisation of the war. For example, at 8:20am on Monday 10 October 2022, a Russian shell hit a playground in Shevchenko Park, a two-minute walk from my home. I was making coffee at the time and I heard not just the huge explosion, but the missile flying directly over my kitchen moments before it hit. And it was this sound, of it flying overhead, that was absolutely terrifying, even more so than the sound of impact. My first impulse was to get Lukeriia, who was asleep in bed at the time, to safety. I took her to the bathroom and we sat on the floor for several minutes. My next impulse was to leave the apartment and take my camera and flash equipment out on the streets and find the place of impact. Lukeriia screamed at me not to do so, perhaps with some justification as moments later there was a second explosion, then a third, a fourth and a fifth. About an hour later, I convinced Lukeriia that I could and indeed must leave the apartment to document this attack on us. However, by the time I reached the location of the first missile strike, it was already heavily cordoned off and controlled by military and police. International press and media crews were already in place on its perimeter, and the dead and injured had been taken away. So, this written testimony of the attack becomes the primary record of the event for me, an experience of terror but also one of frustration. Two days later, even the huge crater where the missile impacted had been completely filled in by the local council. Much like the physical site, my memory of the missile strike was immediately filled in by the media, who presented ways for me to think and feel about it which pre-emptied my own response. I somehow felt robbed of the opportunity to process the event on my own terms. Trauma works on the body as well as on the mind, and apart from some minor disorientation and hypersensitivity, I felt absolutely fine for about three days following the strike. Then someone asked how I was and I wept. I realised that I was not fine. Later, I tried to represent my response to this missile strike in a portrait of a schoolboy standing amidst the remains of a destroyed building further away in the Kyiv region.[Image 1]

When I saw children from Bogdanovka, near their burnt-out school bus, I had the feeling these children were ghosts, attempting to reclaim the ruins of the school that the Russian army blew up and mined during their retreat, following a month of occupation.[Image 2] I live with these perverse visual juxtapositions everyday. The portrait of Tatiana was taken 200-metres from my front door, during a display of seized and destroyed Russian tanks on Khreschatyk High Street, Kyiv this August, to commemorate the 31st year of Ukrainian independence.[Image 3] 19-year-old student Tanya looked to me like a character from a Luc Besson film – a cross between an activist and an angel. Behind her is a trophy of war, a burnt-out armoured personnel carrier left behind by the Russian invaders who tried to capture her hometown of Shostka, not far from Sumy. Many of my other images feature the recipients of aid on our missions, and one particularly distressing aspect of these trips is how often we find single mothers having to care for two or more children at the same time, as they face homelessness, displacement and utterly paralysing fear at what the future holds.[Image 4]

My aim with Postcode Ukraine is not just to deliver humanitarian aid and take photographs. I try to present the images in resonant contexts to compassion-fatigued Western audiences. I hope to encourage those audiences to re-engage with Ukraine, but success or failure in this respect is a hard thing to quantify. The V&A in London immediately responded to a proposal to exhibit large prints and copies of the book Stop Tanks With Books. They received our proposal in late March 2022 and, with speed unheard of for a large institution, succeeded in printing, framing, installing and promoting the entire exhibition within three weeks. They recognised the urgency and decided to respond to current events in the same activist spirit as Stop Tanks With Books and Postcode Ukraine. When the show ended in September, it was only two months before we then managed to place the work at The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in London.[Image 7] The civil servants at FCDO understood that this was an opportunity to weaponise an artwork whose messaging about Ukraine aligned with its own and they pulled out all the bureaucratic stops to make the exhibition happen. Putting the work in a place visible to many key stakeholders reminds the international community of the people in Ukraine in a very specific way. I now see charity work and my practice as interwoven activities. ♦

All images courtesy Mark Neville and Postcode Ukraine.

Mark Neville is a British artist who has been living and working exclusively in Ukraine since 2020. Stop Tanks With Books was shortlisted for both Les Rencontres D’Arles Photobook Award and Paris PhotoAperture PhotoBook Award 2022, and chosen as the best art book of 2022 by The Art Newspaper.


1-‘Schoolboy, the Kyiv region’, March 2022 © Mark Neville.

2-‘Bohdanivka, the Kyiv region, the school and the school bus were deliberately targeted by Russian artillery’, June 2022 © Mark Neville.

3-‘Display of seized and destroyed Russian tanks on Khreschatyk High Street, Kyiv’, August 2022 © Mark Neville.

4-‘Preparing to leave’ August 2022 © Mark Neville.

5-‘Demonstration of European Parliament members, Brussels’, 2 March 2022. Photographer unknown.

6-‘Justin Trudeau receives his copy of Stop Tanks With Books’, April 2022. Photographer unknown.

7-‘Mark Neville with Lukeriia and Sir Philip Barto, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, London’,18 January 2023 © Lukeriia Pokrovska.

How to work better

Nadine Wietlisbach

Director at Fotomuseum Winterthur

“People have opinions and a lot of expectations towards your vision and you as a person”: a brief survival guide for starting out as a museum director, courtesy of Fotomuseum Winterthur’s Nadine Wietlisbach.

Working in my 5th year as Director of Fotomuseum Winterthur, I was asked on several occasions what I wished I would have known when I took up the position in January 2018. This small survival guide was inspired by artist duo Fischli/Weiss, which I sent out to our team during my first week of work as the first female director at the renowned institution with a long history.

Your gut means truth

If your stomach is in knots, something is wrong and needs change. It might be the outcome of an encounter, a moment within a hiring process or simply the wall colour. Sometimes, it will take hours, sometimes years, to find the right solution. Making lists and drawing maps might help to untangle the knot. On the contrary: if your belly region is comfortable, it can also indicate that taking a risk while acknowledging you might fail (because it’s part of a process) makes sense to you in that very moment.[i]

Expectations are gifts and your greatest enemies

People have opinions and a lot of expectations towards your vision and you as a person (not to mention the expectations you’ll have towards yourself). The expectation for you to be present everywhere and at all times will be discussed amongst colleagues, artists and your friends’ uncles. Do not lose too many nights thinking about whether to positively surprise or disappoint people: it’s essential to stay healthy, surrounded by your (chosen) family and regularly take time off. No one is going to salute you for burning out.

Unlearning and sleeping

Unlearn saying “yes” too many times in a row and claim your space to make your own decisions. Always add a night in between decisions of whether you should or shouldn’t add something to your plate. You can suggest a trusted colleague instead or ask for another time frame.

Changes happen – over time

You cannot create the museum of the future[ii] if you are not patient. The urge to constantly hustle is going to follow you like a shadow. Certain changes are two-fold: if you decide on certain programming aspects, like addressing feminist, postcolonial and anti-discriminatory questions, for example, these questions also need to be addressed transversally throughout the institution – otherwise the changes are not sustainable for the next generation stepping into your shoes. And yes, the shadow of impatience is following you dark and cold.

Follow your vision, never stop reflecting

Never stop questioning yourself, but don’t forget to believe in your most important goals. They can function like a set of stars, navigating your spaceship within a vast universe.[iii]

Trust in each other

Museum work always means teamwork: listen and actively open spaces for the ideas of your team members and make sure you agree on the essential parts of programming and being part of the team. Compromises are healthy, but rather in a cheese/no cheese way and not whether to go out or stay home kind of way. Hire – or keep on – people with skills you admire and/or might not have at all, they strengthen the institution and make working together simply better.

The pressure is on

Raising funds constantly and not knowing about whether the outcome is going to be substantial enough to make something happen, or keep things rollin’, is a 24/7 occupation.[iv] It doesn’t get particularly easier over time. Try to get used to it because there’s no remedy. It’s like a decent spot of skin constantly itching.

You are not a pizza

If you consider change to be essential and like to move things around, you’ll most certainly come across people not appreciating your pace. If you are strong-headed and persevering, you will annoy them. Wrap your head around it: you are not a pizza, not everyone likes you.

Your allies are your superpower

Stay in touch and pick up the phone regularly to talk to colleagues in similar positions and stay inspired by people you admire from other fields. Debate with allies is beneficial. Ask for support if you feel weak. Ask elders about their experiences and be considerate in adapting their tips to your contemporary circumstances. Not everything the boomer generation experienced has a lot in common with what you are facing today. 

Shift in perspective: no emergency room

The museum or art world can still feel out of touch at times. It’s therefore healthy to remind yourself: you are responsible for content, a team, a structure – not an emergency room. No one is losing their life because you make a mistake. Talking to people outside the bubble – maybe also children – can be eye-opening. Lunch box ideas over finances, ice cream choices over VIP-invitations. In short: choose your everyday battles wisely.

Taking in moments of magic, and being aware of own privileges

Whenever you start installing a show or writing a text, experience a productive workshop or an inspiring artist talk together with colleagues, visitors and allies – take a breather. Being aware of your privileges doing what you love – and having the possibility to even get into this situation to begin with – together with smart, driven and inspirational people, is humbling. Plus, it really does make up for loads of hardship and stressful moments of uncertainty. ♦

Image: Nadine Wietlisbach. Courtesy Fotomuseum Winterthur © Anne Morgenstern

Installation views of Chosen Family – Less Alone Together at Fotomuseum Winterthur from 11 June – 16 October 2022. © Fotomuseum Winterthur / Conradian Frei

Nadine Wietlisbach is Director at Fotomuseum Wintherthur, Switzerland.


[i] Might be one of my favourite feelings

[ii] In my case: empathic, experimental, diverse

[iii] For example, again for me:

  • together with a team to create a diverse programme and organise visibility for visual narratives which haven’t had the presence they deserve and/or feel urgent nowadays.
  • be as radical as possible about the contemporary and what it means to be a cultural institution in today’s digitally-connected times.
  • make it a focus to learn about visual literacy and media competence and activate younger generations to engage with the museum on-site and off-site as well as online.
  • stay empathic and kind, be present on this journey with artists, photographers, colleagues, board members and

[iv] If you are lucky to start running a highly-funded institution, congrats! I was never in this position so far, and had to raise funds from 50-70% in regards to the total of an annual budget.

Writer Conversations #10

Tanvi Mishra

Based in New Delhi, India, Tanvi Mishra works with images as a photo editor, curator, and writer. Among her interests are South Asian visual histories, representation within image-making as well as the notion of fiction in photography, particularly in the current political landscape.

Until recently, she was the Creative Director of The Caravan, a journal of politics and culture published out of Delhi. She is part of the photo-editorial team of PIX and works as an independent curator forming part of the curatorial teams of Photo KathmanduDelhi Photo Festival as well as the upcoming BredaPhoto Biennial in 2022. She has served on multiple juries, including World Press Photo, Chennai Photo Biennale Photo Awards and the Catchlight Global Fellowship. She has also been a mentor for the Women Photograph programme and is part of the first international advisory committee of World Press Photo.

Some of her recent writing includes Viral Images: The role of photography in documenting India’s COVID-19 disaster (The Caravan magazine; 2021); Photography in Crisis: Repurposing the Medium for Solidarity and Action (FOAM Magazine, 2020); The New Era of South Asian Photography Festivals; (Aperture, 2021); Archive as Companion: text accompanying Priya Kambli’s work ‘Buttons for Eyes’ (PIX Vol. 18 Passages; 2022); The Great Upheaval: Can the digital revolution potentially shift the power dynamic in photography? (Viewbook Transformations; 2017). She has also contributed to books including WHY EXHIBIT: Positions on exhibiting photographies (FW: Books, 2018) and exhibition catalogues such as Taxed to the Max (Noordelicht International Photography Festival, 2020).

At what point did you start to write about photographs? 

A little more than a decade ago, I was invited to join the team of PIX, an editorial and curatorial practice aimed at building an archive of contemporary photography in South Asia. For the publication, PIX solicits lens-based works, and pairs them with writing that responds to the images. At this point, I was establishing my photographic practice, and negotiating my relationship with the medium. I thought of myself as solely a photographer, and believed that the core of the practice was animated by those who made images. My work at PIX signified my first professional interaction with the work of others, no longer as just a viewer, but as an interlocutor, an editor and a collaborator. The sustained engagement with other makers and their practices played a crucial role in the evolution of my own practice as well. Through this process I was introduced, or rather coerced, into writing. 

I have always found it easier to speak with photographs. Through many years of crafting visual stories, initially as a photographer but largely as an editor, I have become, somewhat, attuned to the rhythms of weaving images into compelling narratives. The trajectory of arriving at this point of “ease” has been somewhat predictable, and regularly working the muscle has made the photo-editing process feel more natural. I approached writing with a greater reluctance – my relationship with it continues to be complicated, but it has helped me give shape and voice to the ideas marinating in my mind. In my earliest published piece, for instance, in 2012, in writing about the artists featured in a volume of PIX, I was forced to articulate my photo-editorial choices into words. This was the first time that I crystallised the process of editing images, inherently abstract and intuitive, into concrete sentences. Since then, this connection – between my practice of writing and editing of photographs – has been constantly reinforced, and one has continued to inform and enrich the other.

Over the years, my writing on the work of photographers has ranged from conversational essays to commentary and analytical pieces. As my practice developed, the work that I was commissioned for became more wide-ranging. I was invited to comment on larger questions looming over the visual medium, reflecting on its theoretical and conceptual framework, as well as examining the contours of the industry and the fault lines that continued to plague it. Since I work primarily as an editor of images, these “prompts” that came my way in the form of writing assignments shaped the trajectory of my writing practice.

During my years at The Caravan, a long-form journal of politics and culture, my writing was heavily influenced by the magazine and its editorial process. It is here that the prompts shifted – from premises assigned by others – to my own responses to themes we were engaging with in the newsroom. While my interests are medium-specific, I am drawn now to the intersection of the image with politics, culture and society. In how images circulate within larger publics, and how that affects our ways of being as citizens in this world.

What is your writing process?

My process is often marked by tedium – it can be terribly slow, frustrating and one that mandates constant revision.

I rarely ever write “for myself”, though that is a direction I wish to desperately move towards. Most of my writing is done on a fairly urgent timeline – either in response to a commission or to an unfolding event. My experience in journalism instilled the belief that getting a piece published at the right moment is as crucial to its reception and circulation, as chiselling it to “perfection”. Since writing is the part of my practice, I am least confident and most unsure about, if left to myself, I can continue to endlessly tweak and tighten, in an attempt to reach the best possible conclusion. Even though the lack of time can feel constraining at the time of shaping a piece, it is also an immensely powerful impetus in releasing my writing out into the world. I am learning to get comfortable with the idea that some of the most compelling writing does not necessarily present normative resolutions or answers, but it offers instead, a space to question, stir debate and generate ideas.

The physical act of writing feels burdened with procrastination. I inevitably delay the start till the last possible moment, perhaps because of the potent anxiety I continue to experience on encountering an empty page. However, the process of writing begins much earlier. In the days leading up to putting words to paper (or a Word document!), I make my way through the premise and arguments in response to the prompt. A lot of this thinking happens in the unlikeliest of places – on a walk, in the shower, while cooking – and rarely at my work desk. On the days when I am actually writing, I am fairly chaotic. I have many books and multiple tabs open, because I comb through references fairly extensively. Most of these are texts I have read before, and that have offered insights that resonate with the idea I am working through. Other sources of inspiration tend to be authors or thinkers whose words help me when I arrive at an impasse. I find myself to be both heavily distracted, fielding multiple influences at the same time and intensely concentrated, in that I cannot pursue any other intellectual task during those days.

My writing process is quite similar to my photo-editing practice: with a large set of images for instance, the beginning can often feel quite scattered, and the ideas and arguments fairly disconnected. It is somewhere at the half-way mark of the process that the links and connections begin to emerge in the loose structure, revealing a possible outcome where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Sometimes, the emergence of this clarity can hasten the process, and the remaining puzzle is solved at an accelerated pace. Just as with an edit on images, writing benefits with some resting time, allowing the words to sit next to each other, revealing meanings that were perhaps not as visible the first time around.

I wonder if you might expand on the “prompt” as you describe it: it seems to be a catalyst and a beginning, of course, but I wonder if in some ways, it is also for you a sign of writing’s contingency, something which describes how, as a writer, you are always in dialogue from the very beginning. Does your attention to the “prompt” describe something of your writing practice and your attention to writings relationships?

I see the “prompt” as an impetus, one that pushes me to act. Those of us who choose to think of ourselves as political beings respond to change in our environment. Our craft is one way to channel this response.

The dialogue you speak of is ongoing, and inevitable. We use the tools we have at hand to articulate our concerns. For me, writing may fill in for the inadequacies, or limitations for response, within photography, or it may be used to activate different audiences.

I consider myself fortunate to be able to engage with the image in varied forms. This engagement is what I see as the dialogue – at times collaborating with image-makers, their work and archives and in other instances, using writing as a possible instrument of inquiry. I find this response to be contingent, and writing as one form of that contingency.

What are the questions or problems that motivate your writing? 

Most of what motivates my writing is what motivates my work with images. These concerns shift with time, in response to unfolding events and my evolving personal politics. I see writing as a way to distil the varied questions and ideas that emerge during my primary practice of working as a photo editor and curator.

Currently, one of the biggest questions I am wrestling with in photography is to do with the process by which images make their way into the world, and the manner in which their circulation shapes discourse – within the image economy, but particularly outside it, in society. I am interested in how the surplus of imagery affects our psychological being and how the consumption of these images moulds our reception to social, political or cultural realities.

Having worked in journalism, particularly on the photo and multimedia desks, I have witnessed the impacts of such circulation first hand. The choices we made had the potential to shape public opinion. This was both a potent instrument, as well as a heavy responsibility. While it may sound staid as a concept in the space of photo discourse, I am interested in the image as evidence in today’s media landscape. Where does such evidence hold value, when courts themselves look away? How is media, and the narratives it is composed of, used as information warfare, both by those in power and those opposing it? How does the image need to be packaged to be consumed as truth or propaganda? How do we read political photographic fiction in today’s image world? How do we decide to trust a certain image, or the sources it is disseminated through, and what governs this psychological response? When does image circulation, particularly on social media, trigger a near immediate reaction, whether by the general public or by organised troll armies? It is this response that I’m interested in examining: is it genuine or manufactured; how does it measure “truth”; how do these images change in their meaning as they further circulate in the digital realm?

Another concern that consumes much of my thinking is around the politics of representation – specifically, whether it is possible to ever circumvent the hierarchies and power dynamics embedded within photography. While, earlier, I was curious about how the “democratisation” of the medium impacted this balance, I am no longer as interested in the pervasiveness of and access to the medium, but more so in where this conversation around representation – “who gets to tell whose story” – leads us. The push towards local and “insider” narratives is one that is now, rightfully so, valued. This reorientation is the long-due reparation of the historically skewed representation of many communities and issues, which was a direct outcome of the privilege of either the coloniser’s lens or the “outsider’s” festishistic gaze.

However, I question the notion of this “insider” and how we arrive at its definition. Is there an ideal insider? Is she always best positioned to tell that story? Aren’t we all insiders, truly, only to our own stories? And yet, autobiographical narratives are only a part of how we learn about the world, and how we choose to produce or consume media. Lived experience is a crucial component, in that it brings to the fore a gaze that is less essentialist than what has existed largely in narrative storytelling. We are, often, better placed to access communities or issues that we have engaged with otherwise, outside of the “professional” demand; those that we resonate or connect with as individuals or citizens, not necessarily only when tasked with representing them. Does this mean that there is a possibility for an honest engagement, that may well be “imperfect”, with a narrative outside of the lived-experience paradigm? Is authentic storytelling a function of provenance? Is identity an absolute construct, or does it shift in response to the subject and landscape? I am interested in how the intersection of various markers like gender, caste, class, region, religion as well as traits such as lived experience and personal politics guide the making of this definition, complicate notions of identity and affect the proposition of narratives distinct from historically dominant perspectives. These intersections often guide the choices of artists I write about, and that writing is an important conduit that enables the development of my own understanding of the concerns regarding authorship and narrativising.

Recently, I have been interested in reflecting on the positionality of image-makers, and how their own identity impacts the work they put out into the world. The term “identity” here is not to be seen as synonymous with nationalistic definitions – defined by borders and passports – but more by their position as citizens in the world social order, and in relation to the narratives they construct. Whether it is even possible for works to reckon with aspects of the makers’ identities and if so, whether photographic works are as much about the authors as they are about those who are photographed?

Within this realm lies one of my biggest concerns of late – photography’s inability, or limited ability, to shift the gaze towards the perpetrator, the oppressor, the coloniser. These definitions are not in relation to the conventional binaries of the West/East, urban/rural etc., but with reference to where the author of a work is placed when she is representing someone other than herself. While contemporary discourse has compelled narratives to shift, from unidimensional perspectives of suffering and impact, to include a broader spectrum of human emotion and experience, photography has been limited in visualising those other than the victims or survivors. There has been an inherent difficulty in exhibiting structures of supremacy, of complicity.

My own position as a dominant caste individual from India makes this particularly pertinent for me. The need to pass the lens, and so the power, into the hands of the oppressed and marginalised to build their own narratives – of both joy and suffering – to self-represent their own communities is urgent. But, alongside, authors, especially from majoritarian or dominant identities, need to apply a more critical gaze to their own communities – those, for instance, that have historically oppressed others by way of privilege afforded by the caste system, a discriminatory social order of hierarchy prevalent across the subcontinent. The capacity of visual narratives to critique these systems of power, and not merely display them as “documentation”, is rare in our image world. I am interested in these limitations and in examining whether photography truly has the ability to upend historical narratives, which have inevitably been authored by the very dominant systems and lenses it has failed to effectively illustrate.

Apart from these conceptual interests, a lot of my writing is motivated by visual works emanating from South Asia, particularly when their vocabularies are distinct from mainstream photographic canons. Since most references within photography are from Western histories and contexts, I am drawn to artists and works that attempt to break this trajectory in form and language. I usually engage with the artists in an editorial or curatorial capacity, and the writing emerges from these collaborations.

Your description of the image as evidence feels important, in that it gives an equal weight to how the image is made and also put to use, how it acts and impacts, alongside what it shows. Do you think this process of exploring positionalities leads us in some ways towards images being understood as assemblages, and truth as something that cannot be reduced down to one essentialising characteristic?

The relationship between the photograph and “truth” has been a complicated one. Ambiguous by nature, the image has always been open to a subjective interpretation, even in its use as a document. As an editor, I particularly appreciate the transformation of an image and its meaning, when it interacts with another image, or with text; how it is re-casted depending on where it is placed, how it is disseminated and so on. The notion of “truth” has always been defined by multiple forces, at times by a collection of images, at times by other interactions and factors. What an assemblage may do, particularly in the case of evidentiary images, is to make a particular truth harder to deny. While an “iconic image”, a term I find to be redundant now, may evince a particular truth about a situation by a singular author, the streams of images generated may help reiterate its evidentiary value.

However, as I write this, I find exceptions emerge to this proposition. Take the recent pull-out of the US from Afghanistan or the current war in Ukraine. What we see, despite the surfeit of images generated, is largely a singular perspective. A singular truth? The collections that emerge are predominantly authored by Western image-makers, or for Western publications. This repetition leads to a redundancy, with most photographers creating work that reaches the same conclusion. Rarely do we come across the deployment of the image in critiquing the systems that led to these conflicts, to look at the complicity of Western nations and modern-day cycles of imperialism.

In the case of positionalities, I am not so concerned with this notion of “truth” but more with the aspect of authenticity, of honesty. Exploring an author’s position in their work helps us parse through their motivations. Self-reflexivity can serve as an anchor, from which we construct our truths and reveal why we reach the conclusions we do.

What kind of reader are you? 

Sporadic and unstructured. I now read mostly for work, which fortunately for me is around themes that genuinely interest me and enrich both my writing and image editing. Much of it is triggered through prompts – figuring my way through a writing invitation, working through an edit or deconstructing a premise someone may have posed. Often, reading offers me an articulation of a politics that I find difficult to put into words myself.

During my tenure at The Caravan, my role required extended reading from a wide spectrum of contributors spanning a range of topics. A lot of my writing education has been from observing their first drafts take shape into finessed final pieces. I was privy to the writer-editor dynamic and the tense tug of the relationship. I would pore over the comments from editors to the writers, and witness the evolution of these drafts, as they were refined over time, through intervention and exchange.

I always have a list of pending readings – which seems to grow at a much faster pace than the rate at which I consume them – and I’m constantly dreaming of a reading residency that may give me the time to catch up!

How significant are theories and histories of photography now that curation is so prominent? 

My engagement with the medium began as an image-maker. While my role may have changed significantly over the years, my understanding of photography is largely shaped through a practitioner’s lens. I have never had any formal training in photographic education, and theory has never been a core component of my work with images.

That being said, I do consume some theoretical texts, particularly those that break away from being dense and opaque – the most common obstacle of this genre of writing. I do wrestle with the codification that theory brings with it, particularly for culture, and a medium as inherently ambiguous as photography. I have regard for theory and academia, for its rigour of thought and deep, sustained engagement. However, I am interested in working at the cusp of academia and practice. For this, theory needs to be activated into accessible forms and for academics to invest in dissemination across channels beyond their own structures. To quote from scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore: ‘to think theoretically, but speak practically.’ I am drawn to artists/practitioners who comment on or respond to theory in their works, building additional channels of circulation and deconstruction.

As for histories of photography, I consume them to keep pace and build context to certain discussions or texts I come across. However, I approach these with some degree of caution, given that no history is definitive and mainstream versions have, largely, been authored by dominant perspectives. I am also constantly trying to strengthen these muscles of criticality, in order to allow an evolution of these definitions of who/what constitutes a dominant/mainstream or oppressed/fringe perspective, and that these can shift depending on relational dynamics. Largely, histories of photography – inevitably mimicking social histories – are rooted in Western canons and colonial perspectives. While they help build structures to understand one linear progression of the medium, they carry with them significant erasures, by missing out on or misrepresenting large populations and perspectives. I do advocate that some of them be read so as to have a framing, from which to subvert. Ariella Aisha Azoullay’s recent publication Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism (2019) is one such proposition for subversion, offering the possibility of an alternate reading of photography through historical time. Tina M. Campt’s Listening to Images (2017) proposes using sound and haptics as a register to re-read images that have historically carried different meanings. I also consider micro-histories or personal histories as potent historical documents, if collated and contextualised within a historical timeline.

Then, it is predictable that my personal view of curation is not dependant on theories and histories of photography. I have always found them to be separate fields, that at some points may collide or intersect, and at others may run parallel or even be entirely removed from one another. I think the choice depends on the curator and/or the institution, depending on how they perceive a “valid” curatorial practice.

I consider curation to be as open-ended as an artist’s practice – some may interpret it through a reliance on pedagogy, others may be influenced by theory without deploying it consciously in the building of work and even others may entirely reject it, dismissing it as didactic to build a curatorial premise on an entirely different tenor.

So, to answer the question, I don’t find the link between theory, histories and curation to always be very direct or consistent to comment on how the supposed amplification of one impacts the other.

What qualities do you admire in other writers?

Accessibility, and the ability to weave complex ideas into simple sentences.

Brevity, precision, and narrative clarity.

An ability to be self-reflexive.

Personality, colour and texture in writing without deploying complicated language or purple prose.

What texts have influenced you the most?

I don’t think I can name texts, because I associate more with authors and their trajectories of thought, than a particular iteration. It is simpler for me to list writers who have had some form of influence or provided inspiration, either to my politics or my practice. The connection is as intuitive as the one between multiple images during an editing exercise.

Listing them in no particular order: Tina M. Campt, Ariella Aisha Azoullay, Mark Sealy, B. R. Ambedkar, Frantz Fanon, Kajri Jain, Maaza Mengiste, Teju Cole, Alana Hunt, David Campany, bell hooks, Amitava Kumar, Aveek Sen, Allan Sekula, Stuart Hall, Gayatri Gopinath, Audrey Lorde, Joan Didion, Joan Fontcuberta, Eyal Weizman.

What is the place of criticality in photography writing now?


I do think that many texts in photography, are about images or descriptive writing. A lot of my own writing also falls within this definition, particularly when I am focusing on a specific artist’s practice. While I am in favour of using writing to deconstruct image-making for a general public, and offer them a vocabulary with which to enter the work, I do not believe that a text must decode or lay bare the entire work to the audience. This would be an injustice to the image, to rob it of the ambiguity that makes it universal, in the way in which it connects to each individual.

Critical writing, however, allows an engagement that has the potential to “expand out of” the artists’ practice, using it as a trigger to deconstruct an imposed premise or to weigh it against its own claims. It could also be used as a springboard to speak about larger themes – the image as a sociological study, or more formal, medium-centric concerns. I imagine the act of critical writing to be radical, one that can activate the political imagination. It helps us envision alternate readings and possibilities within a work. Unfortunately, criticality is often seen as an effort to diminish or “cancel” works, and not as a channel to foster debate.

What if criticality were built around the politics of care? For me, this would embody an accountability to our fellow citizens, not just those who are in the role of spectators and subjects, but also to our industry peers, as image-makers and thinkers. This “care” could be embodied in thinking about and building images, reflecting rigorously on how we see and what or whom we show, demanding more out of the practice and building a collective conscience towards questioning the conclusions we reach (or don’t) with photographic narratives. In my practice, since I work mostly with images that are inevitably oriented towards the human experience and society, rather than form-based or conceptual experiments, these concerns have reverberations beyond our own industry.

This grounding in care could be a potent ingredient for criticality – in so much as we view it as collective learning, and as an instrument to dismantle the hierarchies that may emerge in the process. The critic, the image-author, the viewer as well as the practice itself stand to be enriched if we were to build systems that nurture criticality as well as the response to it. While there is no dearth of critical thinking, there are very few platforms that champion this kind of writing. Perhaps for criticality to thrive, it needs to exist outside of a capitalist structure, seen more through a discursive lens as an intellectual pursuit.

Perhaps this existing outside of capitalist structure brings us back to your desire to write for yourself? Have you found tactics for writing which allow you to construct a space where writing functions in its own or in your own time?

What I mean by existing outside of a capitalist structure is that knowledge production cannot be beholden to profit. However, it requires institutional support to sustain itself, functioning akin to the academy but allowing a more fluid exchange with those outside of it. Those that have resources could (should?) divert them to this end, investing in a return far greater than any financial gain.

What stops me from writing for myself is time. The kind of writing I currently pursue does not pay commensurate to the labour it involves. For most of us, we are already functioning outside of this realm of profit-making, and the desire to write stems from a need to respond and engage. If support was extended to foster deeper engagement and thought, it could help in wrestling time away from other pursuits, and to move away from the need to constantly “produce”.

Before I embark on the process of writing for myself, I need to drown out the noise, and listen. To “take in” more than I “put out in the world”. Reading is a necessary precursor and an integral part of this process. For years, I have felt, that as grateful as I am for the writing invitations, I am compelled to respond immediately. While this works a different muscle, writing for myself involves a longer, more sustained engagement with a theme, one that perhaps assimilates many of my influences and experiences.

So the answer to your question is no, I haven’t managed to construct this space, but I am hopeful that it will emerge as my practice evolves, or when someone reading this is compelled to help create it!♦

Further interviews in the Writer Conversations series can be read here

Click here to order your copy of the book

Writer Conversations is edited by Lucy Soutter (University of Westminster) and Duncan Wooldridge (Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London), upon the invitation of Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University).


1-Tanvi Mishra © Aditya Kapoor 

2-Opening spread of Viral Images, an essay on the role of photography in reporting on COVID-19, first published in The Caravan

3- Issues of PIX since 2011. PIX is a South Asian publication and display practice looking to archive contemporary photography in the region. Over the last ten years, PIX volumes have addressed various thematics and also produced country specific works on photography from Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka

4-Opening spread of The Great Upheaval, an essay on the impact of the digital revolution on photography and whether it has the capacity to shift the power dynamic in photography. The piece was published in Transformations, Exploring Changes in and Around Photography, a project to explore changes and support photography in a digitally connected world

Writer Conversations #9

Wu Hung

Wu Hung holds the Harrie A. Vanderstappen Distinguished Service Professorship at the Department of Art History and the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago, US, where he is also the director of the Center for the Art of East Asia and the Adjunct Curator at the Smart Museum. An elected member of the American Academy of Art and Science and awarded with an Honorary Degree from Harvard University, he sits on many international committees including Guggenheim Museum’s Asian Art Council, and chairs the Academic Committee of the OCAT Museum Group. Wu Hung has received many awards for his publications and academic services, including the 2018 Distinguished Scholar Award and the 2022 Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing on Art, both from the College Art Association of America (CAA).

Wu Hung’s research interests include both traditional and contemporary art, and he has published many books and curated many exhibitions in these two fields. His interdisciplinary interests have led him to experiment with different ways to tell stories about Chinese art, as exemplified by Monumentality in Early Chinese Art and Architecture (1995); The Double Screen: Medium and Representation of Chinese Pictorial Art (1996); Remaking Beijing: Tiananmen Square: the Creation of a Political Space (2005); A Story of Ruins: Presence and Absence in Chinese Art and Visual Culture (2012) and Zooming In: Histories of Photography in China (2016).

At what point did you start to write about photographs? 

I started writing about photographs quite late in my career, in the late 1990s after I had received tenure. I was trained as an historian of Chinese art. The books I published before 1996 all dealt with pre-modern art – ritual vessels, monuments and pictorial medium and representation. Photography attracted me via two paths. First, when I started curating exhibitions of contemporary Chinese art and writing about this art in the late ’90s, I discovered that photography was one of the most dynamic branches in this art and deeply enmeshed with painting, performance art, Body Art, Conceptual Art, and so on. Secondly, when I began working on a book about “ruins” in Chinese art and visual culture, I realised that the introduction of photography in the 19th century radically changed how Chinese people and artists perceived and represented the world. At that point, I also began to develop other research projects on historical photographs along two intertwining lines, which I call “Chinese photography” and “photography in China”. The former is an integral component of modern Chinese visual culture, while the latter, though produced in China and featuring Chinese subjects, served external agendas.

What is your writing process?

With contemporary photography, most of the time I’m first captured by particular images in exhibitions and publications, which lead me to their creators. I interview them, befriend them and conduct research on their entire corpus of works, before I sit down to write about them.

With historical photography, my interests are typically aroused by archival materials that pose unanswered questions. One example is my study of Milton Miller’s Chinese portraits which he made in Hong Kong around 1860. I was intrigued by these photos when I studied them in the Getty Research Institute because they confronted me with many questions which I couldn’t answer: Who are the anonymous sitters in the pictures? Are these images really “portraits” in a conventional sense? Why did Miller make these photos in the first place? I spent several years to find the answers to these questions.

In your writing on Miller and on early photography, you advocate for a form of intense looking and reading. How does this meet the writing process for you?

Although looking at old photographs and writing about them are not the same thing, they are certainly related to each other. For one thing, both unfold in time. Intense looking is a temporal process through which the researcher “enters” into the picture and tries to see it from within – to discover significant details from a historical point of view. Writing translates this visual undertaking – if it is successful – into a written form. But the sense of discovery can still help animate the written words and bring readers on an exploratory visual journey.

What are the questions or problems that motivate your writing? 

One set of problems is concerned with the history, status, motivation and function of contemporary Chinese “experimental” photography, which developed into a strong trend in China from the 1980s onward. Instead of perceiving and interpreting this trend as an anonymous movement, I’m more interested in discovering the experiences and experiments of individual photographic artists. To me, the differences between these artists, rather than their commonalities, should remain at the centre of investigation and presentation.

Another set of questions is related to the historical relationship between photography and Chinese art and visual culture. In particular, how did this modern technology change people’s perception of the world and of themselves, as revealed by the emergence of new kinds of images in the second half of the 19th century and later. For example, images of architectural ruins emerged for the first time in Chinese art; new types of portraiture and self-portraiture also appeared (such as inscribed photos I have termed “I-Portraits”). These new images often coincided with seminal historical events.

A third set of problems is even broader and focuses on the general relationship between photography, painting and objects. This is the central thread of my forthcoming book The Full-length Mirror: A Global Visual History (the 2021 Chinese version is titled Object · Painting · Photography: A Global History of the Full-length Mirror). A photograph is both an image and a material construct, and it represents objects in specific ways. While photography and painting are similar in this respect, they also differ in ontology and in the correlation between image and material. Moreover, a more complex story about the relationship of photography, painting and objects begins to emerge when we observe this relationship in a global context.

What kind of reader are you? 

I read mainly around specific research/writing projects. Since I usually conduct two, three or even four projects simultaneously, more often than not I read books and articles on unrelated subjects at the same time. This also means that I read more for work than for pleasure. I don’t consider this an enviable habit.

How significant are theories and histories of photography now that curation is so prominent? 

I am, by training, an historian of images, and my writing and curatorial projects usually have strong historical frameworks. Even for those on contemporary art, including photography, I feel that I need to understand and present historical contexts, which can be artistic, intellectual, cultural and political, and to have a firm grasp of how a photographer’s artistic development is interwoven with their life experiences. In a broad sense all of these can be called “historical”.

In terms of theory, I prefer not to rely on preconceived theories, understood as self-sustaining discourses with their own intellectual context, in developing curatorial and writing projects. To me, “concepts” are more productive because these projects always need certain conceptual frameworks. Four years ago, my colleagues and I at Beijing’s OCAT Institute started an annual competition called “Research-Oriented Curatorial Projects”, encouraging young curators to organise exhibitions that combine serious research and theoretical thinking. There have been a good number of successful examples. But many submissions fall back on well-known (Western) theories as preexisting parameters, either applying them to interpreting artworks or illustrating them with selected examples. The “Research-Oriented Curatorial Projects” programme tries to counter this tendency which has become widespread in the field.

In your interest in early photographs of China, you seem to be looking for a meaning beyond the informational or descriptive, and something of this seems to be at work in your “Research-Oriented Curatorial Projects”. Is this process of researching – whether it is written or curated, a creative exercise? And are writing and curating one and the same as far as this is concerned?

Yes, an historical photograph is never transparent and displays its “meaning” on the surface because of its inevitable dehistoricisation: it has lost its original associations with its time, place and people. In other words, it has “survived” history to become something else. Verbal description of the image alone can tell us little about its historical meaning. But sensitive observations are crucial for a researcher to discover problems, which then stimulate further investigations. I consider this process of finding, observing, describing and investigating a combined creative exercise, regardless whether it can produce a definite conclusion. My writing and curatorial projects more or less follow this logic, but curatorial projects naturally also demand taking into consideration the logic and functionality of the exhibition space.

What qualities do you admire in other writers?

Real understanding of the subject. Clarity. Being engaging. Passion. An interest in new ways of telling a story.

Do writings from beyond photography also influence how you think about the photographic image? Approaching photography from an oblique angle can also be a revealing strategy.

In thinking about photography? It should be Camera Lucida (1980), like with many of us. I also want to mention Benjamin’s “The Little History of Photography” (1931), which says that a photograph has something in it which ‘goes beyond testimony to the photographer’s art.’ In saying this, Benjamin means those things which a photograph doesn’t display on the surface but which are nevertheless there, arousing curiosity or even fantasy. I feel that this is especially true for historical photographs, which always go “beyond” the images themselves, compelling historians to pursue the missing information.

What is the place of criticality in photography writing now?

I take “criticality” as reflections – through either words or images – on photography itself. As such, criticality is always important to photography writing, although it doesn’t have to be externalised as the sole or main purpose. In my mind, the best photography writing – or writing on any type of image – should simultaneously expose hidden meanings of images and articulate new ways of arriving at such meanings. Camera Lucida again provides a supreme example.♦

Further interviews in the Writer Conversations series can be read here

Click here to order your copy of the book

Writer Conversations is edited by Lucy Soutter (University of Westminster) and Duncan Wooldridge (Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London), upon the invitation of Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University).


1-Wu Hung, 2022

2-Book cover of A Story of Ruins: Presence and Absence in Chinese Art and Visual Culture (2012)

3-Book cover of Wu Hung, Zooming In: Histories of Photography in China (2016)

4-Book cover of Wu Hung, Photography and East Asian Art (2021)

5-Wu Hung, Rong Rong’s East Village, 1993–1998 (2003)

Writer Conversations #8

Max Houghton

Max Houghton is a writer, curator and editor working with the photographic image as it intersects with politics, law and human rights. She runs the MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at London College of Communication, University of the Arts London, where she organises regular public talks, symposia and exhibitions. Her writing has appeared in publications by The Photographers’ Gallery, London and the Barbican, London, as well as in the international arts press, including Foam, 1000 Words, Photoworks and Granta. With Fiona Rogers, she is co-author of Firecrackers: Female Photographers Now (Thames & Hudson, 2017) and her latest monograph essay on Mary Ellen Mark will be published in 2022 (Steidl). She is a Laws faculty scholarship doctoral candidate at University College London. With David Birkin, she is co-founder of research hub Visible Justice.

At what point did you start to write about photographs? 

I had just finished the NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists) course in 2001, and was researching (more than writing) for a Guardian journalist, Nick Davies, when Jon Levy, who’d I’d met through a mutual friend, asked if I’d write for his new website for photojournalists, Foto8. He sent me a set of photographs taken in Vietnam by an American photographer called Les Stone, which documented the ongoing transgenerational effects of Agent Orange. It was a fascinating exercise, because immediately I felt a responsibility to the overall subject matter of the Vietnam War, to the photographer and to the people in the pictures who I would never meet. Also, my question was: am I writing about the images or about the subject matter? These concerns endure. Six years later, I began an MA in critical theory (I didn’t have a first degree) to help me think them through. Foto8 grew from being a kind of dotcom start up to a published magazine, which eventually, along with Lauren Heinz, I edited. My bottom-line excitement, in staying with photographs for so long, is the idea that what we see never resides in what we say… It is an infinite relation, as Michel Foucault wrote. I’m always skipping from one register to the other, and back again.

What is your writing process?

My writing process is essentially reading, listening, editing, running and sleeping. I think that if we let it, our ‘back brain’ (please don’t ask me for the science!) works it all out while we’re doing other things. I can only understand something if I’ve written about it, or if I’ve been lucky enough to have a proper dialogic conversation on the subject. I’m not a hugely opinionated person, so it’s important to afford very close attention to the work, and indeed to spend time with it, in order to find out what it might be that I think, or that the work emits.

What are the questions or problems that motivate your writing? 

I’m interested in the idea of being able to write with photographs, which I hope might be a practice underpinned by an ethics of care. I think this is an originally feminist term, which resists patriarchal injustices… And while, of course, that is part of my intention, I also mean to use the term in relation to the root of the word ‘curate’ – cura – which is a specific way of paying attention. If I am asked to write with an artist’s images, it is important to me to impart the same kind of care in my writing as the photographer did in the original images. I don’t tend to write about work that doesn’t move me; in that sense I’m not a critic at all, though I know there is useful place for such writing. I’m also motivated by what (photographic) images might do in the world, and in how, as technical images (as Vilém Flusser described them), they combine with other images in the world to stimulate thought processes. The image brings a different form of knowledge, which is different again when combined with text. It’s fair to say the image-text is the underlying question that motivates my writing. As well as this, I’m always interested in what moves me; what connects me to actual feeling, and, as a logical extension of that, what might move others. At best, I hope my words might sometimes connect people to emotion. I think we can all exist very superficially. If we take time to notice how we feel, and when we feel, and manage not judge those feelings as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, we may be able to spend a little longer thinking about what matters. Finally, I continue to seek an inclusive practice, and my desire to challenge and refuse brutal, dangerous and often dominant power structures that shape our world remains potent.

What kind of reader are you? 

Oh, reading. I don’t know who or what or how I’d be without it. I wish I could read everything I want to read, but then I wouldn’t live. It’s simply how I understand the world; it’s been my way of being in it all my life. I guess I’m that kind of reader!

How significant are theories and histories of photography now that curation is so prominent? 

I’m not sure one precludes the other? I’m very glad to see how curatorial practice is expanding to unpick those questions that theories or histories might more traditionally cover, but surely they are all interwoven as discourses? Okwui Enwezor’s 2002 documenta would offer a very significant example of such weaving for me, for example. I wonder if I fully understand the question? I certainly see how curation is influencing future theories and histories, even in terms of whose histories are being made visible. It’s also an aspect of my way of being with photographs that recently I’ve been able to pursue, but this is not an isolated or removed practice… On the contrary…

What is the role or currency of the idea of documentary in your writing? In Firecrackers: Female Photographers Now (2017), the book that you co-wrote with Fiona Rogers, both your photographer selections and the written project introductions propose exciting new terrain for documentary practice. It is practically a manifesto for expanded documentary.

Fiona’s wonderful Firecracker platform rightly foregrounds the individual work of the artists, and I guess we were not seeking to make such a statement. I’m grateful for your phrasing; it’s absolutely documentary that grounds me, but not in any kind of limited way. I see documentary as a desire to gain evidence of something vital, something that needs to be seen, shared and understood; afforded attention. Its methods can and indeed must be as expansive as possible. The kind of work that understands how documentary images have been used to categorise and control; the kind of work that has ingested some of the world’s trillions of other images; the kind of work that seeks; the kind of work that may never even be finished… This is what interests me.

What qualities do you admire in other writers?

Clarity, (emotional) honesty, generosity, nuance, wit, precision, creating images through words, humility, mystery, playfulness (not necessarily all at once)… The same qualities I admire in other humans(!).

What texts have influenced you the most?

All works by W. G. Sebald, without question (though of course there ought always to be questions). T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1941). Foucault’s The Order of Things (1966), Philippe Sands’ East West Street (2016), Patricia J. Williams’ The Alchemy of Race and Rights (1991). Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), Roy de Carava and Langston Hughes’ The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955), James Agee and Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), bell hooks’ Teaching to transgress (1994), Maurice Blanchot’s The Writing of the Disaster (1980), “To See and Not See” (1993) by Oliver Sacks, “You’re” (1960) by Sylvia Plath… I could go on…

What is the place of criticality in photography writing now?

Central, isn’t it? Like always? ♦

Further interviews in the Writer Conversations series can be read here

Click here to order your copy of the book

Writer Conversations is edited by Lucy Soutter (University of Westminster) and Duncan Wooldridge (Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London), upon the invitation of Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University).