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 Chris Boot, Curator & Book Publisher and Selector for the BA phase of Graduate Photography Online 2023.
Photo by Tom Daly
Tell us about your job? What does your day-to-day routine involve? Both currently, as an independent photography editor/publisher and formerly in your role at Aperture?
My last job was as Executive Director of Aperture, the not-for-profit publishing house in New York. Working closely with a board and staff team, I was responsible for the organization’s direction, management, and finances, and for the institutional narrative. About half my time involved working with the organization’s main supporters and on matters of finance. I led a team of four commissioning editors, editing and making new titles and the magazine. I approved the proposals and signed the budgets, and tried to ensure the organization’s projects threaded coherently. I got the chance to work directly on a few books and photography projects of my own, but that was on the side of the main part of the job. After a decade in New York, I came back to London last year, and am pursuing independent projects. I don’t have much of a daily routine. A book I edited and produced was just published by Aperture, Presence: The Photography Collection of Judy Glickman Lauder; I’m working as a consultant for Autograph ABP; and I’m editing and producing new work about Muslims in America by photographer Mahtab Hussain.
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 was preoccupied with the politics of representation as a teenager. I got involved with Rock Against Racism, wrote for a punk fanzine, and joined the London Lesbian and Gay Youth Video Project. In 1984, with an English degree, my first meaningful job out of university was as Administrator of the Photo Co-op, a community photography group based in Wandsworth, a job I was attracted to, not specifically because of the photography, but because it was an activist media co-op. (I came to it via an ad in City Limits). By the time I left (and by then I also had a photography degree from the Polytechnic of Central London), I’d found a field and a career I was committed to. My experience in photography during the 1980s continues to inform and motivate my work today.
How do you decide on what makes an interesting photograph or photographic project?
I respond to work that’s coherently thought through, conceptually and visually; that’s surprising in some way; and that is relevant to issues of society and history. I can’t tell you what I would most like to see, because if I could imagine it, then I probably already saw it, when what I hope for is to be surprised by something that I never saw or imagined before! How a photographer’s story is deployed in the work is bound to be relevant, but I am most interested in work that’s outward looking, and where the discussion it prompts isn’t just about the experience or viewpoint of the photographer. I also think about a work’s ethics, and consider its social and environmental footprint.
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?
Keep things brief and simple. Less is more! Say less rather than more than is necessary and retain some mystery! Your purpose is probably best summarized in one distilled, memorable sentence. Be straightforward in the way you communicate your intentions; don’t resort to art jargon. While valuing brevity, make sure you communicate the facts the reader needs to know, to be able to understand and appreciate your work. I think it’s good to support your statement and pictures if you can with examples of what third parties are saying about you and your work publicly, in the press and online.
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?
If you go to college intending to work as a photographer, you ideally leave with a body of work that constitutes a manifesto for a career, a map of ideas to develop in future. In my case, as a non-photographer, a degree in photography endowed me with visual and theoretical language, a historical grounding, and self-confidence, which have been of incalculable value in my work since. Whether you want to work as a photographer, or in the field in some other capacity, you will be in a great position if you are clear and articulate about your purpose in photography.
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 an online world hungry for free content, the economics of starting out are incredibly challenging, so initially you may have to simulate a career – do serious work; do the kind of work you’d like to be paid for even if you’re not; get your work presented, published, seen and talked about; develop a public profile – even if at first this involves giving your work away for nothing or very little. Hopefully value gets attached to what you do, and an actual career emerges to replace the simulated version! Also, I think you have to be both humble and fearless, constantly put your work in front of new people. Join a collective or a group, so that you are constantly in conversation with other people about your work, getting stimulation and feedback, rather than working in a vacuum of your own thoughts.
What advice would you have for someone interested in working in your particular area of photography?
So, you want to be a photography editor? That covers a multitude of types of work, so I would say, to start, identify where you want to be (in what part of which industry), and exactly what you want to be doing, then do what you can to get to know what that involves. It might not be what you think. Approach people who are doing what you think you would like to do, ask to speak to them, offer to intern, go listen to them if they talk in public, etc. Figure out the steps you might take to get where you want to be, and forge a plan. (No doubt, things won’t go to plan – you’ll have to adapt as you go along – but it will help to have one). When you have a credible body of professional experience, don’t just wait for the right job to be advertised. Identify the people who you want to work for, and approach them, and tell them you’d like to work with them – ask to meet and for them to let you know when an opportunity arises. Per above, be both humble and fearless! In work, distinguish yourself by how you advance your employer’s interests, as well as your own. Don’t be afraid to take risks.