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 Ella Ravilious, Curator at Victoria & Albert Museum and Selector for the BA phase of Graduate Photography Online 2022.
Tell us about your job? What does your core role at the V&A involve?
My role at the V&A is Curator: Architecture and Design in the Art, Architecture, Photography and Design Department. I have worked at the V&A for 17 years, including leading on a digitisation project which worked intensively with our photographic collections for a decade. I also played a key logistics role in the move of the Royal Photographic Society Collection from the National Science and Media Museum to the V&A in 2017. My job now involves researching our historic collections, finding exciting works to acquire, sharing our collections through displays, publications, and events, and providing practical care for the objects we hold. I am also currently studying for a PhD at the Photographic History Research Centre at De Montfort University, researching the history of the V&A’s photography collection – why the museum collected photographs, who from, and who for.
How did you make your way into the area of work you're now in? Did you always want to work in a field that involved photography?
I studied for a Fine Art BA at Falmouth School of Art and then completed an MA at Norwich School of Art. I was then lucky enough to get a ‘service assistant’ job at the National Art Library at the V&A. I’ve worked in several different areas of the museum since then, but always with an interest in photography, and in the history of museum collecting. The National Art Library has a stunning collection of photobooks, which I remember getting really excited by as an assistant there. I would spend my lunch breaks browsing photobooks by Hosoe, Brassaï, Winogrand, Eggleston, Arbus, and Strand, and feeling very lucky to have that opportunity! My work in surveying and moving the Royal Photographic Society Collection was another gamechanger, as it forced me to learn about a much broader field of photographic materiality and activity than I had been familiar with before.
How do you decide on what makes an interesting photograph or photographic project?
An empathy with the subject, and some element of personal investment or involvement by the photographer – which might be personal risk or labour to get the images, or in careful time spent becoming embedded in the subject. I also look for engagement with the medium, whether that’s careful technical skill, or the opposite, a reaction against the craft of photography. I look for considered choices and an understanding of why the work is photographic.
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 look for specific information up-front – who the photographer is, where they are coming from, how and why they are using photography, and roughly how their work was made. It can be tempting to start with a more philosophical or abstract concept, but I tend to want the practicalities first! It’s also really helpful to be told what can’t easily be judged from seeing an image online – how big the work is, how it is meant to be shown, how it is printed or produced, that kind of thing.
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 a grounding in ethics is essential – graduates should leave with an understanding of their rights over their work and the rights of any participants in that work. They should be aware of the debates which underpin those rights. It’s a complex business, and photographers need to know the ropes and keep an eye on developments or else risk reputational damage.
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 many ways I would imagine it is the same challenge as it ever was, to balance trying to make meaningful work with trying to make a living, and figuring out how to promote one’s work without just giving it away for free. Although photography can often be a solitary profession, joining forces with other photographers and exchanging advice has never been more important, to my mind. I would hope that modern connectivity online might make it easier to connect with the sector, get work out there, and ask questions.
What advice would you have for someone interested in working in your particular area of photography?
My advice for anyone interested in working with photography is to dive right in and join us! I’ve found the photographic research community that I’ve met through my PhD to be an incredibly welcoming and inspiring one. Working with the V&A’s collections is a delight, as sharing discoveries with our colleagues and the public - and hearing what they think - makes our work deeply rewarding.