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 Cindy Sissokho, Curator at New Art Exchange and Selector for the MA/MFA phase of Graduate Photography Online 2021.
Tell us about your job? What does your core role the New Art Exchange involve?
I am a Curator and Special Projects Producer at the New Art Exchange (NAE) in Nottingham and started working there since May 2018. My role consists of curating exhibitions and their touring programmes, to both national and international venues, engaging in public programming ideas as well as working on large scale international projects. For the latter, I am currently working on a project which creates transnational dialogues between the African continent and its diaspora in the UK as part of a consortium of partners from both regions. I also engage in the development of young and emerging voices in the contemporary art sector, both with artists and curators, through several initiatives both in and outside of NAE.
How did you make your way into the career you're now in? Did you always want to work in a field that involved photography?
My journey in this sector hasn’t been smooth and has required me to wear lots of different hats, doing paid and unpaid work within artist-led/not-for-profit organisations and creative enterprises, since graduating from a Masters in Cultural Events Management, the equivalent of which in France, where I grew up and also studied, is called Cultural Mediation. I have re/considered my space within this sector a number of times due to the degree of hostility and exclusion I have faced as a black woman. For this reason, I always support younger practitioners of colour who are trying to develop a professional life in the arts, while at the same time trying to shift things as part of my everyday practice as a curator, producer and writer.
How do you decide on what makes an interesting photograph or photographic project?
My answer would be a photograph that comes as close as possible to the experience and subject that is being captured. When a photograph is able to grasp me emotionally and gives me food for thought, to question and reflect upon the photograph’s subject. Photography for me is very much about the narrative that becomes accessible through the photographer’s eye and vision, which should in turn bring something new and genuine in the details and the angle chosen to present its subject.
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?
When I take part in photography portfolio reviews or other mentoring platforms, I always pay attention to the context and the language that is used to accompany the work. Writing a short text which highlights the broader questions and narratives - and indeed the urgency - behind the work, is essential in understanding the photographer’s agency, and their practice’s aims in some respect too. No need to overwhelm the viewer with information, but it is about selecting what is fundamental to know about the work and artistic processes.
In your view, aside from specifically technical skills, what are the kind of qualities that completing a degree course in photography should endow an individual with?
I’ve recently been doing a workshop series, as part of the IF A TREE FALLS IN A FOREST by Untitled Duo, as part of the online programme for Les Rencontres d’Arles . The workshops attempted to respond to the question of how to articulate (a) collective gaze(s), encouraging workshop attendees to reflect on the idea of citizenship and its relation to photography, as well as gaining an understanding of the role of fiction within the photographic/visual narratives that we are bombarded by every day, and to dismantle the colonial narratives that come embedded in this material. I always question the space that university and institutional courses provide to allow for the dismantling of this colonial narrative - that the photographic form systemically brings since its creation i.e: ethnographic colonial practices of dehumanisation. So, I strongly encourage students to think beyond the confines of their immediate institutional space and to engage with larger discourses, and to approach photography as a political and emotional responsibility from the photographer to the viewer/receiver. This way there is a chance of building new social and political ways of seeing which can contribute to a more global vision of people, places and experiences.
What are the particular challenges you see facing graduates from photography degree courses as they make their way into the world at this particular point in time?
In terms of the immediate present, one of the challenges would be to develop a network in order to promote yourself on a local to international level. This usually takes place when taking part in events and openings, or any situation where you can meet people and exchange ideas and opportunities. This is perhaps the most rewarding and crucial part of being a photographer, but the current situation makes it difficult. So I would advise people to focus on what is currently within reach, such as creating a strong online presence through a website or social media pages such as Instagram Also, try and engage in online programs, perhaps get an opportunity to do a takeover etc.
What advice would you have for someone interested in working as a curator in the visual arts sector?
To be ready to undertake a diverse range of roles within organisations or other platforms, in order to understand and observe every aspect of what it means to be a curator. The word itself is so broad. I would advise to also take ownership of this title, to reinvent it in the way that each individual wishes to occupy it, as an agency for change. I believe that being a curator means to renew a space with narratives and bring to the surface urgent and relevant discourses today through multiple formats and art/cultural forms, which goes beyond exhibition-making.