Each year as part of Graduate Photography Online we ask a number of professionals from the world of photography to review all the work submitted and choose their favourites. We chat to Nicola Shipley, Director at GRAIN Projects, Birmingham and Selector for the BA phase of Graduate Photography Online 2020.

Nicola Shipley

Nicola Shipley 

Tell us about your job? What does your core role at GRAIN Projects involve?

My role encompasses a whole range of disciplines which include commissioning new work, curating exhibitions, devising and leading professional development opportunities from masterclasses to mentoring, producing symposia and other events and in support of the above the increasingly important fundraising, stakeholder management, budget management and report writing and evaluation. Obviously, the ability to commission and work with photographers and to support and spot new talent is by far the most enjoyable aspect of the role but it has to be seen as part of the bigger picture. We are a small, not-for-profit arts organisation and so multitasking is key, as is having one eye on the detail and another on the many plates we are spinning. As a small organisation we rely on a dedicated, passionate and hardworking team and also on our project partners and collaborators.

How did you make your way into the career you are now in? Did you always want to work in the field of photography?

My background is in Art History and upon graduating with my MA I began working in the arts. I knew then I wanted to work with artists and with people and not in an institution. For almost 10 years I worked the gamut of visual arts, commissioning painters, sculptors, craft makers, public artists and photographers. In those early days the more I worked with photographers and in photography the more I realised I wanted to specialise. I also knew that I wanted to work with the public and communities. Following roles in arts development where I really cut my teeth and was able to commission, curate and develop new work, I then went freelance. After a number of years, I began working closely with the inspiring and inimitable late Pete James, to commission work that referenced, appropriated and celebrated the photography collection at the Library of Birmingham. It is from this work, from my experience and knowledge of commissioning and project development and from the demand from the photography community that GRAIN Projects sprang.

How do you decide on what makes an interesting photograph or photographic project?

There are so many things to take into consideration but ultimately, I am interested in work that makes a strong connection with the viewer. This is what makes work memorable and what makes people want to collaborate with photographers or want to visit exhibitions to see the work. I am interested in strong ideas and how they are conveyed in the work, how they have worked with that idea through research or process and how they have chosen to present it. Uniqueness is also important to me - there's something quite powerful in seeing a subject tackled in a new way or an innovative subject and approach. Its great to see a photograph or project that has something new to say about a subject or the state of our times. Work that tells a story and has a strong narrative is also very compelling. Given my background I am also very interested in work where photographers have referenced or worked with archive material, either from the family album or public collection. As someone trained in art history there is no doubt, I appreciate the formal qualities of a photograph and am interested in a strong visual language - I am interested in composition, tone and colour. With a project I am also looking for a great consistency and focus.

As regards the photographer's statement, what are the most important things for you to know about the work? When it comes to showing their work outside of University, have you any tips on how graduates should prepare their work and the supporting material that accompanies it?

Brief and concise statements are best. In my role I read so many statements whether that's at the many degree and student shows I attend or via the many submissions we receive. I do not want to read a statement that is too wordy or full of art school jargon but would prefer a photographer to be true to themselves and their work by saying something about their motivation, process and inspiration. Statements should also be objective. I want to include this bit of advice here - although it seems blatantly obvious - but statements, as with all writing, should have good grammar and no spelling errors or typos... you would be surprised but I do see statements that appear not to have been proofed or edited. Its also important not to be gimmicky but to keep the statements, cvs and any biographical information clear. I advise students and graduates to read artists and photographers statements and to find out for themselves what works and what doesn't - and to really think about the reader or viewer and how they are coming across in terms of style and tone of voice. Graduates should also think about their cvs and what other information they might take along to a portfolio review or include in a submission - such as a business card or any other appropriate item of marketing that the curator or agent can keep.

In your view, what are the kind of qualities that completing a degree course in photography should endow an individual with? Aside from specifically technical skills, what is the difference that having a demographic of emerging photography graduates makes in the world?

Completing a photography degree should not only be about technical skills and I feel very strongly that the curriculum should also include professional development and practice, live projects and opportunities for mentoring and/or paid internships. Given the number of BA courses, those graduates that leave with skills beyond photography skills are best placed to secure work and the many opportunities that are available. Photography students should have the opportunity to develop exhibitions or events, not just hanging their degree show prints, to use their writing, printing and promotion skills and to have developed marketing opportunities. I meet many students and recent graduates that have created these opportunities for themselves as extra-curricular activities, often with a small group of peers. Given the number of applications and cvs we receive, those that can demonstrate their experience, that they have been a self-starter and have engaged with photography outside of their course work are most attractive. Photography students have opportunities to network outside of their course. By attending festivals, events, symposia, portfolio reviews and meeting with professionals in the sector. All of these things provide an education and important networking opportunity that should run parallel to their degree. Having a great demographic of photographers means we are able to develop more opportunities and to ensure photography has a strong presence in the world. Photography is best placed to look at the complexities of our times, to engage with politics, identity and representation and to engage with society.

What are the challenges you see facing graduates from photography degree courses as they make their way into the world at this point in time?

The greatest challenge is the sheer volume of photography graduates and the competition for opportunities, work and funding support. There is also more and more pressure to find paid work quickly, given the debt that most students find themselves in upon graduating. This just makes the need to graduate with more practical experience and a knowledge of the photography sector more essential.

What advice would you have for someone interested in working in your area of photography?

My advice would be to develop a plan with the aim to get as much experience as you can – to think about curating pop-up photography events and exhibitions with your peers and student/graduate colleagues, to make and distribute zines and similar small self-publishing opportunities, to apply for exhibition opportunities and awards and to attend as many photography events and exhibitions as you can with the purpose of networking, developing new contacts and staying in touch. If there are not enough opportunities to gain experience or promote your work in your area then create your own. Being involved in this way not only develops your skills and experience, populates your portfolio and cv in a really interesting way but it also develops your confidence and your ability to articulate your interests and what you want to achieve. Photography courses provide such an important support structure made up of friends, lecturers and support staff, so graduates should think about what this infrastructure will be replaced with when they finish. They need to create their own network following graduation so that they are still able to seek advice, share ideas and develop opportunities together. Those that work in my field come from a diverse range of backgrounds so there are no hard and fast rules – what's important is being able to demonstrate your skills in devising and curating projects and events and in being able to deliver.