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 Cynthia MaiWa Sitei, Artist & Creative Producer and Selector for the MA/MFA phase of Graduate Photography Online 2023.
Cynthia MaiWa Sitei
Tell us about your job? What does your day-to-day routine as a curator involve?
I am the curator at Ffotogallery Wales which is the leading photography and lens-based media organisation in Wales. Our work primarily involves supporting visual artists in and from Wales as well as Internationally – including giving artists a platform to use us as a channel to share their ideas and engage in discussions and conversations with the audience through their practice. Recently my day-to-day has been quite exciting and has involved a lot of work travels, internationally engaging in conversations about curation and learning along the way. But usually, my day-to-day involves a lot of research, working on funding applications, portfolio reviews and meetings including admin work such as responding to emails and connecting with artists and educators.
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 an MA in Documentary Photography at the University of South Wales and in 2019, I co-curated an exhibition at Amgueddfa Cymru (National Museum Wales) with Bronwen Colquhoun. It was such a riveting experience and fantastic opportunity, working with and learning from Bronwen, who is the Senior Curator of Photography at Amgueddfa Cymru and I thought if I get to work with collections, archives and artists in this way again then it would be great to be a curator. After I achieved my masters in 2019, I went to South Korea and lived there for a year and while there, David Drake, who was the previous Director of Ffotogallery, reached out to me via email about an exhibition, he also sent out a job opportunity opening at Ffotogallery for a Creative Producer which I applied for and, thank God, I got it. Yes, I’ve always wanted to work with photography and especially documentary, because I love the learning that happens through the extensive research that artists put themselves through while developing a body of work. I studied psychology with criminology, so research has always been at the core of my work and something I love and enjoy.
How do you decide on what makes an interesting photograph or photographic project?
This is a difficult question which I think doesn’t have a right or wrong answer. Personally, I am drawn to photographic projects where the artist has pushed themselves beyond their limits and thoroughly researched their work and presented it in the form where text and other forms of media have also been integrated with the photography. That to me makes it a more intriguing body of work.
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?
For me, the photographer’s statement has to be brief, 150 words max, and it has to tell me what the project is about, where the work was made, why the work is important, who the work is for and how the work can engage a wider audience or impact change, if that’s the initial purpose of making the body of work. Again, there’s no standard or single way of writing a contextual statement but often one that is direct and straight to the point, brief and answering to the four wives (who, why, where, what) and 1 husband (how) rule, tends to engage the audience more. Artists today are too concerned about jargon and being too erudite in their statements, sometimes simple is best.
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 the visual arts industry especially in Wales and the UK and having been in the US recently isn’t so easy to get into unless you know someone. I believe that has to change because there are a lot of artists, be it emerging or otherwise, who are making great work that is not being seen, because they don’t know how and who to reach out to. Universities that teach visual arts and photography degrees should endeavour and make incredible efforts to connect their students with the right contacts before they graduate, because not everyone can be a well-known photographer in a matter of minutes but there are other pathways that artists can take that involve working with photography and still making and developing work on the side.
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?
Following on from my earlier point. I despise that saying that is passed along among visual arts networks and the industry about “it’s who you know”. I think your practice and work ethics should speak for itself and of course the connections that you make should help guide you into the right direction, but it should not be the only reason of not succeeding or succeeding. This is what I worry affects early career artists because Universities don’t prepare them enough for the industry. With that said, if photography is what you love, then nothing should stop you from reaching your goals regardless of connections, graduating artists should persevere and remain consistent in their work and not give up hope. Attend talks, symposia and exhibition openings, as well as email curators and phot-editors and photo-book publishers your work, you never know who might actually be intrigued and want to work with you.
What advice would you have for someone interested in working in your particular area of photography?
I’ll share with you some words of wisdom that I always carry with me from my mentor and someone I admire, Mariama Attah. Something that is crucial in curation is that you are always on the receiving position. I am always learning every day, through research and conversations, it’s never a dull day. A curator is not a guardian of the gallery or an all-knowing, all-powerful person because this doesn’t leave room for taking on new ways of thinking or being critical about our own inevitable blind spots. It’s about recognising the expertise of others and being eager and willing to continue learning. If you come with this attitude from the beginning, then you’ll make waves.