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 Pelumi Odubanjo, Independent Curator & Photography Writer and Selector for the MA/MFA phase of Graduate Photography Online 2022.
Tell us about your work and what your role as a curator and researcher involves?
My role includes working directly with artists and engaging deeply in their practices to illuminate those aspects that speak to wider conversations. For me, this goes deeper than display and how audiences interact with it, but more so, why do audiences interact with it? What is being reflected through our encounters with artwork? I feel my role as a curator is to raise these questions for the public, and not to search for one definitive answer. Engrained in my work as a curator are ways of working through ethical collaboration. This includes working with collections of historical value, artists, and artefacts, as well as with institutions and arts organisations. Working with a wide variety of public and private sector organisations, I actively support the research, acquisition, and presentation of contemporary work by Black artists across various mediums. My specialist knowledge has for long rested in the sphere of Black art in Britain, with a particular focus on Black photographic practices of the 20th and 21st centuries, and contemporary photographic practices across a multitude of diasporas.
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 path into this career has felt very natural and has all stemmed from my longstanding interest in thinking about images through what we see, why we see, and how we see. It also stemmed from thinking about the fragmented aspects of photography, and what is created by these ultimately, what are reproductions of moments and encounters with figures, objects, and environments. I studied Fine Art at University, and my field was always photography, throughout the 4 years. I was fortunate enough to have the chance to study Fine Art Photography at Die Universität für Angewandte in Vienna, which to my surprise, was completely focused on the theory of photography. Having this chance at such an early stage of my work to think simultaneously about photography as a theory and as a medium was an invaluable time in my life. Having the time to study and create work allowed me to deepen and establish my relationship with the camera. This is something that has absolutely influenced how I thought about images, and importantly, how I saw the photographer's relationship to the camera and act of photographing. Besides this, I really owe my career so far to the incredible people I have met over the years, who have always strived to champion the work that I do and offer opportunities to collaborate with a range of different communities and organisations. These relationships have allowed me to work with institutions like the Black Cultural Archives, Tate, and Photoworks to name a few.
How do you decide on what makes an interesting photograph or photographic project?
An interesting photograph is a photograph that engages senses beyond sight. Taking great inspiration from Tina Campt and her writing on the haptic qualities certain photographs and archival images possess, I often ask, what constitutes a photograph? Much of my work over these last few years has been dedicated to this question. My interest in certain photographs and photographic projects, in a nutshell, looks at the photographic representation of struggles and the struggle for photographic representation. Thinking about the use of the camera within diasporic communities, I often think of photography as a medium that has for long been used as a catalyst for certain individuals and communities. I'm greatly interested in how photography, photographs, and the camera can ultimately bring forth new experiments for documenting, retaining, and reflecting on stories of subjects who have for long been denied in telling their own narratives, and I am always looking for artists who work within this context.
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?
Present a narrative, not simply the photograph. Photographs are about far more than what we see as a final result. I encourage students to think widely about the photographic medium in the context of the work, and why, over other mediums, they chose the camera as a tool to illuminate such ideas. I advise graduates to always open their works to the thoughts of others. Work closely with a mentor, a curator, a writer, or simply friends who can form a great understanding of your work. I always find that collaboration is so important in the early stages of an artist's career. Photographers, and artists generally, are so accustomed to working in isolation, whether in the darkroom or editing suite. Open up your process. Be prepared to really speak through your ideas and your work. Don’t assume that the viewer will understand an image right away. Whether this means writing an accompanying text, artist statement, or simply practicing talking about your ideas - practice what works best for you!
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?
As a researcher, I feel knowledge of the field is always so integral to a photographer's practice. Not necessarily the entire history of photography, but with your specific interests, think about the work that has been done before you. I feel degree courses should be as expansive as possible in relation to this and encourage students to think about photographs in different contexts, whether it is the history of feminist photography in Japan, or how the camera has been used in socio-political contexts. Equipping students with knowledge close to their practices is vital. A Degree course should also provide tools that will help a photographer in their career as an artist, for example, thinking about copyright, how to approach commissions, how to access funding, and how to make a fruitful career out of creative practice. I feel that with many art degrees, this is often missing. Given the vast role of photographs in so many fields, from marketing to the fine art world, this is vital.
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?
There are so many talented and wonderful graduates emerging from universities, and unfortunately, funding opportunities and opportunities to exhibit are as competitive as ever! I would advise graduates to always seek out ways to create new work and seek to be a part of new opportunities that may seem out of their comfort zone. Many opportunities can open up in this way. I would also advise working with other young, art workers such as curators or if fortunate enough, gallerists, who can really mentor and advise you at the early stages.
What advice would you have for someone interested in working as a curator in the visual arts sector?
Keep seeking out new ways to work, whether it is through new projects, meeting new artists, or taking certain courses. Each time I feel I know a vast amount in my field, something new pops up, and I am always able to learn! Always try to expand and forge new relationships - you never know who you may meet again!