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 Mariama Attah, Curator at Open Eye and Selector for the BA phase of Graduate Photography Online 2021.
Tell us about your job? What does your core role at Open Eye involve?
We have a wide range of exhibitions and events that happen off site, in communities or informal spaces. My day-to-day role varies a lot depending on where we are in our exhibition schedule but my core role is curating the exhibitions for the physical gallery space. I spend time finding artists through research, word of mouth, or being introduced to practitioners. I’m also spending time getting to know our audiences and communities, understanding how I can continue these relationships and understanding what role the gallery plays in their lives. That’s a hugely exciting part of my role but it isn’t the majority of how I spend my time. Curating the gallery program includes everything from managing budgets, creating installation schedules, painting walls and condition reporting artworks to coming up with suggestions for the public program. Another part of my role at the gallery is teaching. We have just validated a new undergraduate degree called 'Photography and Social Practice' which we will co-deliver with UCEN in Manchester starting September 2021. There is a wider element of supporting students and artists through guest lecturing, mentoring artists and curators, portfolio reviews, writing essays on photography and sharing my thoughts through presentations and public speaking.
How did you make your way into the career you are now in? Did you always want to work in the field of photography?
I have always loved storytelling and reading but I didn’t go to museums or galleries when I was growing up. I fell into photography when I realized that it was another way of creating and sharing narratives. I did a degree in photography and started thinking more about the perspective of the storyteller, how this can lead to overlooked histories, and how this shapes our view of the world. When I graduated from my degree, I didn’t think I had the personality to make a career as a photographer, so instead thought I could use curating as a way of advocating for, and collaborating with, artists. I have worked in different roles in different parts of the sector, but didn’t work in my first photography-dedicated role until 2014. Now I can’t imagine not working in photography.
How do you decide on what makes an interesting photograph or photographic project?
I think it’s more that a project presents itself as being interesting, rather than me deciding that it’s interesting. I appreciate projects that show a connection, interest, or fascination with a subject. I’m always impressed when an artist is able to share an idea from their own perspective and is able to show a range of visual elements within that idea, while also being cohesive and informative. It isn’t always an easy balance to strike, but it shows a confident understanding of their artistic ability and a feeling for the subject. I also expect considerate and empathetic approaches, especially if the project is collaborative or relies on the input or cooperation of individuals or communities. It shows an ethical and mature approach to working with source material which has been entrusted to them to share.
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?
I always suggest that photographers keep things simple, and to also keep their audience in mind. Where is the statement being used? Is it being shared directly with someone who is familiar with the work, or are they being introduced to the work for the first time? Is it being used on a personal website? Or is it being included as part of an open call or project submission where people will be looking at a large volume of work at once? Have a standard statement and edit it to fit the context. Be clear in what you want people to understand about your motivations, contexts, inspirations and ambitions for the project and make sure the connection is apparent when they then look at it. Use your own voice when writing about your work, just as you use your own eye when photographing. Always research curators, galleries or editors before you approach them. Send a short PDF with a simple edit, indicate if it’s a work in progress, if any of the work has specific or unusual installation details, and give a very brief explanation of why you’re approaching this particular person.
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 think it’s crucial that students have the ability to talk about their work; to be able to explain their interests and encourage someone else to take an interest in their work. For me, this also extends to being able to write, even briefly, about the subject, to show an ability to analyze or position their work within a larger context. This helps audiences to understand the motivations and ambitions of the project, the artist and their practice or interests. I think a degree should also help to introduce students to the art sectors. This prompts students to think about where they want to be and how to achieve these goals, but it also points out a range of other positions or roles that they might not have been aware of. I think degrees can also play an important part in setting realistic expectations for how to make a living from an art practice. Photographers and artists usually work in a combination of personal work, commissions and commercial work. Being able to balance these different workloads and responsibilities takes flexibility, and organisation and goes far when it’s paired with motivation and understanding.
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 it can be very challenging for students to graduate without having much practical or hands on experience of navigating the art worlds. I think it can also be difficult finding physical spaces to work in, or finding a group of peers to form a network with. More than that, I think it can be difficult staying motivated and working on projects without the pressure of a deadline. Working in collaboration, or as a collective, can be one way of managing this, or in setting personal goals to stay motivated. I think there is also the pressure to work quickly and consistently without pause, to always have new ideas, to always be working on creative projects. I don’t think this is a sustainable or realistic way of working.
What advice would you have for someone interested in working in your area of photography?
I always encourage people to see as many exhibitions as possible, in a range of art forms, spaces, and formats. This helps to give people a feeling for the other details. Curating isn’t just hanging work on a wall, it’s also about understand how to move people through a space, how to write for a range of audiences, how to build the outline of a story and then enable people to fill in the blanks with their own perspectives or experiences. Learn what interests you the most about curating, what type of art or artist you want to support and advocate for, what size of space you’re interested in, and whether working in a gallery or museum is the best fit. You might find that acting as a guest or freelance curator is more appropriate. Above all, I would suggest being patient and determined.