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 Emma Jones, Curatorial Assistant at the Tate and Selector for the MA/MFA phase of Graduate Photography Online 2021.
Tell us about your job? What does your core role at the Tate involve?
I work with the curatorial team on photography coming into, or already in, Tate’s collection. My job involves a lot of research and writing, as well as day to day administration and budget management. In terms of program, I co-curate collection displays at Tate Modern and assist on the research and administration of large loan-in exhibitions. Currently, I’m working on a display of South African photographer Ernest Cole. I give presentations and tours for patrons and the public. One of my favourite parts of the job is working on acquisition proposals and proposed gifts from artists or donors. I write in-depth texts explaining the significance of the proposed works and why we feel they should be acquired or accepted into the collection. I liaise with artists and galleries on practicalities such as display specifications, shipping, and payment. I ensure that artists’ work is correctly represented and the information we hold is up to date.
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?
I knew I wanted to work with photography since school. The comprehensive I went to had a darkroom and I was fascinated by the process and materiality of photographs as objects. My first ‘proper’ job was in art shipping and logistics and this gave me a good background in arts administration and introduced me to a lot of institutions nationally. I went to every show I could and read up on photographic theory. I started at Tate in an administrative job and was promoted to Curatorial Assistant. It has been a privilege to develop my practise with guidance from such knowledgeable peers, especially from a transnational perspective.
How do you decide on what makes an interesting photograph or photographic project?
I’m drawn to photographs that make me look twice. This could be due to technical ability – such as an artists’ use of historical technique, or digital or darkroom manipulation. Perhaps they have cleverly blended photography with other artforms or presented their work in a unique way. Or it could be the concept behind the work. We are presented with a story, but it is told in a different or unexpected way or from a specific perspective. This is work where we really see the photographer’s eye – their decisiveness, their empathy, or their awareness of the power dynamics inherent in the medium.
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?
Include some of yourself in there. It’s important for readers to understand what motivates you. Plain language and lack of jargon is important, but so too is your identity as a photographer. If the work is a long term or ongoing project it’s important to understand the scale of it and how it will be experienced by the viewer. Be methodical in your archiving and keep your CV and contact details up to date.
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?
It’s important for a degree course to provide practical information about how to approach what can seem like quite an intimidating space. I think effective communication is a vital learnt skill and is key to managing the wide variety of relationships that any individual will encounter across the industry, from patrons to gallerists, potential buyers, journalists or sitters. This could start with how to discuss the work itself. Any creative course should provide a safe space in which work can be reviewed in an open and honest manner with peers.
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?
I think the main challenge currently is the lack of access to show work physically or to work on the development of projects practically. With this in mind, I would say that it’s a really important time to develop relationships and support structures with other practitioners and to take full advantage of the online sphere as a means to share work. I’ve been reading a lot of contemporary photography magazines such as Splash and Grab, who are showcasing a really exciting range of global contemporary photography.
What advice would you have for someone interested in working as a curator in the visual arts sector?
I work specifically in a museum and I’d be remiss not to mention the difficult financial position COVID-19 has put many national institutions in: more are cutting staff than hiring. Get creative and find related fields where you can practise elements of your craft and meet people. Get paid. Think outside the [white] box and curate smaller shows outside of a museum or gallery setting. Take up space, show work that excites you and find your voice. Foster good working relationships with living artists. When you visit shows, think about the overall experience – consider the texts, narrative and exhibition design as well as the works themselves. Read and write as much as possible. Find an area of photography that interests you and learn everything about it.