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 Ben Harman, Director at Stills, Edinburgh and Selector for the MA/MFA phase of Graduate Photography Online 2022.
Tell us about your job? What does your core role at Stills involve?
Stills is a centre for photography based in the heart of Edinburgh and I’ve been Director here since 2014. Most people that know Stills are familiar with the gallery space (established in 1977), exhibitions and events programme, but we also house production facilities for analogue and digital photography and deliver a range of courses. Forming the core of our year-round education programme, we run the Stills School, an alternative photography school for 16-25 year olds that experience barriers to accessing the arts. We’re a relatively small staff team so a large part of my role is to lead on a variety of management and organisational development activities. At the current time, a majority of this is fundraising and post-lockdown recovery planning. However, with a background in curating, I lead on the curation and programming of three major exhibitions a year for our gallery. This is a highlight of the job and makes the urgent and less creative tasks worthwhile!
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 studied History of Art at University and then moved to London where I managed to juggle earning a living with evenings and weekends spent volunteering in galleries and working for artists. It was the late 1990s and an incredibly exciting time for the visual arts in London. I’d always been interested in photography and there was so much to see and learn from. I remember being really inspired by a Jeff Wall exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1996 and first seeing Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills around the same time. In the early 2000s I moved to Glasgow and eventually got a job as Curator at the Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow (GoMA). Here my collections remit included photography, so I had to get a better understanding of contemporary practice and that meant familiarising myself with the photography world as well as artists that use photography in their work. At the time, Glasgow was becoming famous for a generation of ‘conceptual’ artists that were taught to work with a variety of different media rather than one particular artform, such as painting or sculpture. GoMA already had a significant collection of 20th century photography by people such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Jo Spence and Peter Kennard. Part of my role was to develop and interpret this collection and literally bring it into the 21st century. I later discovered that Glasgow Museums owned one of the largest collections of Anna Atkins cyanotypes anywhere in the world. I was able to borrow a selection of them for the first exhibition that I curated for Stills. Taking the job at Stills after 10 years at GoMA was a privilege. The exhibition history going back to the late 1970s had interested me for a long time and the programming we do now is very much inspired by what Stills was doing then.
How do you decide on what makes an interesting photograph or photographic project?
I try to remain very open and I’m not someone that keeps a prescribed set of rules or attributes in mind. There are numerous variable factors that contribute to what interests me at any given time, what might make me look twice, seek out a website or publication or think about an exhibition opportunity. I don’t always know why particular photographs or photographic projects interest me and even with the benefit of time this can remain a mystery! What I do know is that I’m continually learning from the work that I look at, and I do like to feel challenged or to see something new and different. I think too much emphasis is placed on the importance of ‘newness’ so I’m not meaning new ideas necessarily. The work might draw on an old idea or a subject that has been covered by other people but is presented in an innovative or enlightening way. I find it less interesting to see work that seems repetitive, where a photographer’s ‘voice’ is drowned out by an overbearing emphasis on technical concerns. During lockdown I also realised that I find cynical photography very uninteresting. I won’t give specific examples here, but the kind of work I’m thinking of makes assumptions about the viewer and shows a lack of openness and curiosity – both things which I think are really important.
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?
What the artist or photographer wants me, or any other viewer, to understand from the work is the most important thing in a statement. I think finding a balance between enough but not too little information is key. Give the viewer the information they need but let them do some of the work. If you’re able to work within a peer group, such as at University, then use that opportunity to get feedback and constructive criticism to help you find that balance. Outside of University, preparing work and supporting material will depend very much on the context in which the work is to be presented. For example, What are the limitations and possibilities presented by the physical or online space in which the work will be shown? What are you being asked to do and what do the hosts/commissioners hope to achieve from it? Who is the audience for the work and how will they engage with it? What will the legacy of the project be and what will happen to the work after the presentation? These kinds of questions will help guide the thinking behind the preparation of work for different contexts.
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?
Photography degree courses provide a window of opportunity to increase knowledge and understanding on and around photography, to develop greater visual literacy and to benefit from the access to resources, equipment and staff expertise. I think the advantage of this is that individuals become better equipped to consider the role of their work in society and to understand the difference it can make. I would never underestimate the importance of being able to bounce ideas around a University or College peer group either. That kind of critical feedback, support, sharing of ideas and understanding of other viewpoints and perspectives is valuable and not always easy to find outside of an educational context.
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?
At this particular point in time it seems incredibly challenging having come through two years with very few degree shows happening in real life, and enormous strain on the ecosystem within which artists and photographers exist post-University or College. We are still faced with very uncertain times ahead, but history proves that artists are capable of showing resilience and the ability to adapt and respond to changing situations. I’m sure we will see photography graduates rising to the challenge, looking for opportunities and finding ways to pursue their work. I think peer support will be more important than ever – finding other individuals, groups or networks to work with, to share support and ideas. I’ve seen this happening already in Edinburgh over the last few months. It’s exciting to see younger generations of artists and photographers lead the way in making new things happen.
What advice would you have for someone interested in working in your particular area of photography?
For people interested in working with photographers, curating exhibitions and running public photography organisations today, I think there is a lot of opportunity and space for new ideas and for collaboration with existing networks. My advice would be to give something a go, but always investigate thoroughly and be receptive to organisations that are already there. With so much interest in photography there is no need to compete or duplicate work, and it’s better for all if the photography infrastructure grows and expands through shared working and support for new initiatives. It sounds a bit clichéd but some general advice from me would be to always keep looking and learning from what you see. Working in the photography sector can sometimes mean that it becomes more difficult to get out and see work, especially when it isn’t close to home. I find it’s important to become disciplined about looking and it’s always extremely rewarding.