Q&A: Gemma-Rose Turnbull
By Zora J Murff | Published on September 21, 2017
Gemma-Rose Turnbull is an Australian artist, writer, Senior Lecturer in photography at Coventry University, and the joint Course Director of the MA Photography and Collaboration with Anthony Luvera, which is due to launch in January 2018.
Gemma’s research interests lie with the ways in which photographers integrate innovative co-productive methodologies into their practice––particularly when authorship structures are revised so people who may have previously been ‘subjects’ of documentary texts become co-creators. She has collaborated with street-based sex workers, elderly people who have suffered from abuse, and children. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland, was a Scholar in Residence in the Art and Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University 2013-2014, the inaugural writer in residence at Carville Annex Press in 2015, and one of the Taking Part residents at Photofusion in Brixton, London in 2017.
Gemma writes about her research, and the intersection of photography and socially engaged art practices at Photography as a Social Practice, a site built in collaboration with colleagues Eliza Gregory, Mark Strandquist and Pete Brook. She was the editor of the Open Engagement Blog Project which became the first edition published by OE In Print: The Questions We Ask Together.
Zora J Murff: Tell me a little bit about yourself, about an artist, a maker, and your involvement with Photography as a Social Practice.
Gemma-Rose Turnbull: I’m a senior lecturer in photography at Coventry University in the UK, and we’ve just written an MA program in Photography and Collaboration which will launch next year. I’m also in the process of finishing up my PhD in Australia, which is also looking at collaborative photographic practices within documentary photography, particularly. I’m looking at the tensions around introducing different types of authorships into something that is traditionally a genre which idolises the special-seer, and what happens when we make work with people rather than of people.
I worked in regional newspapers for a long time, actually in the region where I grew up. But my impetus for moving out of newspapers was a real inability to keep a professional distance from my job. I found it increasingly difficult to speak on behalf of people because I was within this community, but also completely outside of the community at the same time. So I began to think about the ways in which I could author stories with people. I did a project called Red Light Dark Room: Sex, lives and stereotypes in 2010, but I had never really come across collaborative authorship in the documentary genre before. Australia, like England, has a history of community-based arts, but that kind of work can be seen as an aside to a professional career (particularly in photography). And I was interested in was maintaining my areas of expertise as a photo-maker, but also thinking about how I could work with people rather than just coming in as an outsider and saying, “These are what the stories of sex workers are in this particular place…” This project had a lot of challenges, but it was the first project where I tried to make work with people, and this group of people happened to be a group of street-based sex working women. My interest in collaboration has grown from there.
I found Australia a difficult place to find people who were both documentary photographers and also interested in collaborative authorship, but I was really lucky to meet a woman called Eliza Gregory who was a student in Portland State University’s Art and Social Practice MFA Program, and she invited me to be a guest scholar for a month. It was life-changing, to meet a group of people who were more interested in working with people, than making objects. Luckily, after the month was up, the cohort wanted me to stay so I came back for a year as a Scholar in Residence. During that time, I met Mark Strandquist at the Open Engagement conference (then run by program students), and Eliza, Mark and I set up the website Photography As A Social Practice in 2013. It’s a place where we try to share articles, interviews, and projects that are relevant to people interested exploring ways of co-authoring, constructing participatory methodologies, or introducing collaboration at different phases of photographic projects. We draw heavily on the dialogues and ideas around Social Practice, although I would probably refer to it as socially engaged art.
ZJM: Could you talk some about your ideas around socially engaged art for our readers who might not be initiated?
GT: I feel like socially engaged art is still pretty amoebic, people are still pushing at the edges of the genre, trying to define it. If I had to summarise it I’d say socially engaged art is a practice which might seek to forefront relationships, interactions, and exchanges rather than solely focusing on object-making. Because of this sometimes it doesn’t look like ‘art,’ and isn’t found in the same places, or contexts as people might traditionally expect. Rirkrit Tiravanija is a good example of early practice. He hosted dinners in gallery spaces in the 1990’s and changed the use-value of those spaces. In serving food to exhibition visitors he turned the galleries from places where people would go to look at art at a respectable distance to places where people would go and have a routine daily experience, but with an emphasis on interacting with the artist, and with the other visitors––the process really examines the value of the art object, and the exclusivity of the space. Another, Rick Lowe’s Project Row Houses, uses art specifically to provide concrete solutions to community problems, rather than making images which just reflect challenges back at the community. He bought and restored 22 shotgun houses in the Third Ward area of Houston, Texas, neglected due to socio-economic disparities, regenerating a place that might otherwise be gentrified or abandoned completely. There’s a politicized ideal that compels his project (and many socially engaged art projects): making public something which is a under-visualised part of culture. Like a way of making which might have a more tangible impact on the social environment, or like Tiravanija, showcasing outdated institutional habits.
ZJM: Using art to make something invisible visible, how do you think photography in particular has a role in that?
GT: What’s interesting is that there is a really strong parallel between ameliorative aims of socially engaged art and documentary photography, particularly documentary rooted in progressive ideals: seeing social ills, and making images to help rectify them. As a vehicle documentary photography is about visualizing those social inequalities or attending to social justice through image making. What separates photography and socially engaged art is that in photography there’s always an object present from the outset––when you set out to make a photography project with people, you’re seeking to make photographs and you’re probably seeking to make public those photographs. But with the socially engaged art project––and of course people come from different genres and they draw on their art-making forms and genres to direct their own individual projects––potentially we discard object making, potentially we discard the photograph because we are not tied to that particular outcome. Documentary is always tied to a photographic outcome.
There’s a tension there, or a division from socially engaged art, because of that adherence to the object outcome. Which is a really interesting tension because it puts this parameter or barrier around the negotiations that might be had with collaborators. If you bring a group of people in to collaborate with, rather than to make photographs of, with documentary practice there is still always a photographic element that you’re working with, where socially engaged art gives more license to discard that entirely and make a different outcome altogether as directed by the group you’re working with.
I argue in the thesis that I’m writing that documentary photography which incorporates these collaborative methodologies would be really well-served to look to socially engaged art, to the dialogues and debates in critical thinking to direct and expand photo-based collaborative practice. Socially engaged art has much more robust dialogue around collaborative methodologies and ideologies than documentary photography does, or is maybe capable of. What’s interesting is that socially engaged art does profess in a lot of instances to rescind its grip on authorship––i.e., the artist as ‘special-seer’ or the ‘artist genius’ tropes that we’re used to––and even though I don’t always think practitioners are successful, that’s always one of the things that documentary practitioners struggle with when they incorporates collaborative methodologies.
ZJM: Why did you feel that you wanted or needed to start the Photography as a Social Practice Project?
GT: We had a shared experience as practitioners in that we came to these collaborative ways of working very unsupported within the genre/creative community from which we emerged. Eliza studied photography at Princeton, Mark has a photography background, I was a newspaper photographer and documentary photographer and we all came to social practice through trial and error, and our own interests, rather than because photography supported collaborative methodologies particularly well. I made my immersive participatory project with the street-based sex workers, and I felt like I had failed in a lot of ways because I didn’t have a network of peers to talk through the really unique challenges that are faced when you introduce collaboration. One of the aims of the website was to make public that we didn’t necessarily have answers, but that we were interested in visibly working through some of the challenges particular to this kind of practice.
It was such a relief to find a group of peers who didn’t necessarily sit in documentary photography, but understood it very well. Who sat better in socially engaged art, but had this photographic practice that had its own unique tensions and challenges. Over the last four years we have used Photography as a Social Practice as a platform to attend conferences and talk about this research. We’ve used it to share people's projects, and as a way for people to reach out to if they are struggling with their own socially engaged project. Particularly because one of our observations is that these methodologies are being used much more frequently by photographers, and in some sense there’s this idea that without a sense of understanding the history of the practice and the contemporary dialogues that people just keep reinventing the wheel. I watch people do the same things that I did with my first project, there were some definite successes in it, but also some significant fuck-ups. I think that it’s really important that when you’re working with people that you take responsibility in figuring out your methodologies before you dive in and make mistakes. Not that failures are always avoidable, but I think it’s an important practice to articulate publicly as it’s increasingly popular. To help people not have to keep reinventing the wheel.
ZJM: You make a lot of really great points, and I think that this is something that I have to contend with based upon the nature of my own work: walking this line between socially-engaged, or “artist genius”. Is it an either/or situation? Does it exist on a spectrum? I feel like those are questions I deal with. When you talk with people about their own work or who are making socially engaged art, what are some of the pitfalls that you often see, or warn them about?
GT: One of the things that most useful to practitioners is to reassure people that there’s no one way to do collaboration in photography. You’ve mentioned a spectrum, on our website we have a broadsheet newspaper that we published for a talk for Open Engagement at Aperture in 2014. In it, Eliza Gregory talks about a spectrum of participation. Sometimes what happens is that people come to this practice and there is this notion to completely reject “author as special seer”. Like, a lightbulb moment in which people realise “actually it’s old patronizing white dudes who are reiterating stereotypes of what photographers should be: go rescue poor brown people with your camera.” Thankfully women like Susan Meiselas and Wendy Ewald have long recognized that trope as boring, patronizing, and problematic, but they’re the rarity. And there’s often a tendency when people turn a corner and say that they’re not comfortable with being that person anymore. They then turn to collaboration as a reaction to not wanting to be that kind of photographer. And there’s this tendency for those practitioners to want to do a participatory project, and say “I’m going to work with people, and I’m just going to do what they tell me to do.” What happens there is that you discard all of these layers of knowledge that you have acquired through your own education and positioning as a photographer: a kind of reactionary subservience. I don’t think that’s a model that particularly serves either the community that’s being worked with, or the photographer, very well. I can also understand it too, when we decide we don’t like something, we push as far away as possible, and it becomes a diametric opposite of the trope of the photographer with the scarf and the Leica. What’s really reassuring for people coming to collaboration is to be shown a really broad range of people who have approached collaboration and how it has been meaningful for them as artists and also for the people they’ve worked with.
That’s the first point, reassuring people that there’s expansive opportunities available in these structures. I think the second point is to speak to the key questions and challenges that might come up with photography. When you embrace these kinds of methodologies of authorship, it’s a much bigger role than being a photographer who gets to walk in, take photographs, and walk out. I think that often people dive into these projects without realizing the size of the role. It’s huge going from being the photographer to being the photographer, curator, relationship manager, facilitator, person who sources all of the funding, who occupies all of these administrative roles as well as the creative roles, and holds space for everyone to explore their own stories in their own way and time.
Those two points: speaking to the expanded role, speaking to the multiple ways to do these projects, and then identifying the key questions that we are wrestling with as practitioners, like: Who needs photographers? How are they needed? How do you represent people in ways that they feel comfortable with, but still might have an aesthetic quality to speak to an audience who secondary to their experience? How you might relocate your participants to the audience rather than thinking of them as ancillary to what you’re doing?
ZJM: How do you feel this project has grown since you’ve started it?
GT: It has been an interesting project in a lot of ways because it’s not necessarily consistent. Right now I probably manage the project more than Eliza or Mark, but I’m actively researching these topics and they’re doing these amazing huge projects, which is work I haven’t done for a while. We’ll all sort of cycle in and out of it. I think the best thing about it is the community of people we’re building up around it. For me, the benefits of it are pretty invisible, hopefully they’re occurring even though I can’t see them. That practitioners who are being exposed to it through social media, conferences, workshops, or symposiums are starting to think about their practices more rigorously, even if they don’t incorporate collaborative elements to their practice. There’s always a case to interrogate ideologies of authorship in the tradition of documentary!
ZJM: Where do you see the project headed in the future?
GT: That will depend on what we decide as a group. I’m just about to start teaching the MA in Photography and Collaboration that Anthony and I wrote, and one of my aims is to invite as many contributors as possible. For me, the aim will be to have it grow as the research in this field grows: Daniel Palmer just put out a book Photography and Collaboration, Ariella Azoulay is working with Susan Meiselas and Wendy Ewald on a long-term project that maps the history of collaboration in photography. Increasingly this is becoming a point of dialogue in the industry; more people are embracing collaborative methodologies and revised notions of authorship. My hope is that it continues to become an increasingly robust resource – rather than a how-to guide – for inquiring minds to interrogate their practice more thoroughly.
ZJM: Let’s switch gears and talk about your work as a photographer and collaborator. With your own work, your first project was Red Light Dark Room. Did you feel like it was a project you went into as a collaborator, or did your opinion shift once you started?
GT: I went into it very naively. It’s been seven years since I finished that project, and there’s still a part of me that feels I failed so badly. I went in thinking that I was going to teach these women how to use photography, we’re gonna make this incredible photographic documentary of their lives, it’s gonna be inclusive. I think the thing that I primarily battled with throughout the project is that real tension between aesthetics and process. Where I let go of what the project was going to look like in comparison to other projects that I made. In Australia, photojournalism is pretty high in the hierarchy of practice, and I learned my craft in this heavy documentary/photojournalistic environment. It was difficult to let go of the aesthetic control to prioritise participants ideas around what how they wanted autonomy over their storytelling. The project was also impacted by the transience of the people that I worked with. I would set a particular time for a photography lesson and of course noon on Wednesday doesn’t mean anything to someone who is experiencing homelessness or has a life-controlling drug addiction, whose work doesn’t have standardized hours. The challenges around authorship and really working with people – and maybe I’m being too hard on myself – made me feel that I failed in some significant ways. And that failure has propelled my PhD research and the website, so in some ways I’m glad of that failure. I’m glad I didn’t just ace this first project and then keep going on to make problematic projects. I’m glad I’m less of an asshole now than I was then, or less of a patronizing dickhead.
ZJM: Something that you’ve mentioned a few times and keeps catching my attention is the idea of aesthetics, not letting the aesthetics have the creative control, and rather coming second to the process of collaborating. The notion of beauty has been a constant argument I’ve had with myself and others. I know that I can make a beautiful photograph, but why does it need to be beautiful?
GT: By what criteria do we measure beauty? Is it industry standardized? And if it’s not beautiful to the person you’re making it with, is it in fact beautiful? That question speaks very clearly to the idea of aestheticizing poverty, which as photographers, we are very good at. That idea that what we’re trying to do is package something aesthetically for an audience who is removed from that situation. One of the things that is most interesting to me is that when we shift that idea of an external broad-scale audience to the people that we’re working with or making photographs of as the primary audience, the outcomes of aesthetics changes. What we then ask ourselves is what these people need or want from photography, rather than what is going to communicate their situation to a ‘sympathetic’ audience who might reach into their wallets and change the situation facing the photographed community.
An example of that is that a lot of the women I worked with on the Red Light project were separated from their children, or had limited access to their children, and had lost images of their children through transience. So, primarily the mothers who were involved in the project wanted to use their cameras to replenish family photos as they could. They didn’t care if it wasn’t the world’s most beautiful photo, it had their baby in it. They were looking at content, not form. For an external audience, in my mind, these photos gave one element of the women’s lives, but wasn’t a overview of street sex work, which was ostensibly the story we were making. So there was a chasm between what they wanted, and what I thought a broad audience might want. The tension around aesthetics and the process is really fascinating to me. I also think that what’s also fascinating is how we can hold onto or leverage our skill set, make it affective (images that appeal to people's empathy) while incorporating people as well. One of Wendy Ewald's aims in participatory practices is to make the most high quality photograph that she can in any situation. For her that elevates the work of people into a gallery situation much more easily. There’s a really complex role aesthetics plays.
What’s also interesting is that our reputation as photographer is tied up in aesthetics. So we expect Alec Soth to make an ‘Alec Soth’ photograph, and he earns his income because people pay him to go places and make ‘Alec Soth’ photographs. We build our reputation on our reliability to produce particular forms of visuals. What’s complex about these processes is that you have to compromise that aesthetic reputation every time you work with people. Someone like Eric Gottesman compromises his aesthetic because he’s more interested playing with photography to help his participants find their own way of storytelling. So they’re not ‘Eric Gottesman’ photographs, they’re the photographs that he and the Sudden Flowers Collective made together throughout the project process. So he is ‘compromising’ his aesthetic reputation, but perhaps that’s balanced out by the reputation he develops as a practitioner who does good work in his particular way. But that’s a terrifying thing, right? That was my tension with the Red Light book––it could have been pictures of their kids, and that would have been beautiful to them, but maybe not worth much photographically. That was my whole fear during that year we were working together; how is this going to hold up in my community of documentary photographers? It seems absurd now, but I see this tension in lots of practitioners.
The other caveat to add to that is that documentary photography has never had an easy home. It has shifted between newspapers, to art galleries, and back––it’s never really sat comfortably anywhere. I can totally understand the impulse of documentary photographers to hold onto and protect their identities, and to defend any type of interrogation of their value. It’s hard to make a living, it’s hard to be the Alec Soth now. Alec Soth works hard and makes a good living, but there’s not many Alec Soth’s.
ZJM: Another project of yours that I was interested was The King School Project. I thought it was great visually. Seeing the images of the kids but also seeing their handwriting, drawings, labels. Can you tell me about that project?
GT: I love that project. I made that with my collaborator Emily Fitzgerald. One of the things that I have been doing over the past five years is doing smaller projects that examine different components of practice. One thing about the The King School Project is that the visuals are a kind of trope. Jim Goldberg definitely has embraced handwritten intervention in his documentary works, but it is also a Wendy Ewald signature as well: where you indicate that the images have been made collectively by inserting those interventions in the images. I love it, but I’m also aware that it of a visual type. I think that’s one of the challenges of these projects too, is that they can become visually repetitive because in some senses there’s limitation in demarcating authorship visually. There’s scope for me to chaperone a project and say that this is what happened and we all made it together, but for a project to stand visually alone, there can be some limitations in marking it’s co-authorship.
Having said that, I do love this project. We did it in after school classes with students. We had one or two children from each of the years at Martin Luther King Elementary School in Portland, OR. We started with a technical curriculum, but in conversation it became very clear that the kids just wanted to talk about themselves. So it became a project about the differences in how the kids saw themselves, how other people saw them, and how they wanted to be seen. Which is a really nice, simple premise to develop. We installed big pictures at the school, we made books, and we were a part of a book fair at the Portland Art Museum. My favorite part of the project was the first night of the fair, some of the kids were able to come along and replace us as the chaperones of the work. They were able to speak to people directly about their books. It was a profound moment for me. I had always been the person standing between the person whose story I was telling and the audience, and this was a tiny intervention where I stepped out of being the bridge between story-maker and audience. It was wonderful to overhear them describing the project to the audience without me laying anything on it. Semaj was one of the contributors and my favorite description of his was, “This is a project about who we are.” And I thought, I could lay so much on top of that, but he just nailed it. People are looking at his story, his book, and him. They’re not talking to me. I’m stepping out of this hierarchy in some instances, which is a really hard thing to do. What that made me realize is that a lot of people who embrace these kinds of collaborative methodologies often only do it in the part when you make the images. What I’m interested in in my practice is figuring out how you might collaborate in the other parts of the stages: the showing stages, the forming of the ideas around it. Not just making the photographs and then showing them in places that aren’t accessible to my collaborators, because that returns it to singular authorship again and it gets to be about me and my visual reputation.
ZJM: What’s next for you?
GT: I’m one of four residents in a program called Taking Part run by Photofusion in Brixton (London) and they have a socially engaged photography residency happening for the first time. So I’ll be doing a community-based photo studio project in Brixton later this year. Apart from that, I’m trying to finish my PhD, and the MA in Photography and Collaboration begins next year… Just a few small things!
ZJM: It’s been a pleasure talking with you.
GT: You too mate. Thanks! Also, if anyone wants to get in touch about the MA Photography and Collaboration, they can email me at Gemma-Rose.Turnbull@coventry.ac.uk.
All images © Gemma-Rose Turnbull