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 Jodi Kwok, Assistant Curator at Derby QUAD and Selector for the MA/MFA phase of Graduate Photography Online 2023.
Photo by Katherine Qi
Tell us about your job? What does your day-to-day routine as a curator involve?
As Assistant Curator at Derby QUAD, I am responsible for curating and producing exhibitions in the main gallery and the extra gallery space (stairwells and office foyer areas in the building). My role is to work between artists and the technical team, to present the artists’ works in the best and most understandable way for our visitors. As part of the programme team, I am also working on delivering and suggesting different public programmes for our community and audiences, like events, talks, workshops and gallery tours alongside the exhibitions, doing research and connecting with other galleries and museums for potential cooperations, supporting artists with physical and virtual residency programmes, doing social media for our gallery exhibitions and events and visiting different exhibitions for inspiration about the curation and installation. Our team has been working on the return of FORMAT International Photography Festival, emerging from the days of the global pandemic with renewed purpose. The festival will feature exhibitions in different cultural institutions and spaces in the city, with international and local artists presenting their works, and hosting conferences, portfolio reviews, talks and lectures, photobook markets and more.
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?
When I was a child, my weekend routine was visiting different art institutions in Hong Kong. I studied art at high school but did not continue doing so in university. I studied at the University of Sussex for a BA (Hons) Media and Communication, and was more focused on cultural studies and journalism until doing an elective in exhibition studies at the School of Art. I realised that I had taken an interest in analysing and researching blockbuster exhibitions, sociopolitical-related exhibitions and the influence of conflict culture when curating exhibitions in different mediums of artworks, especially in photography and digital art. I went on to study at the University of Leicester for the Art Museum and Gallery Studies and did my placement at Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool. This provided me with a chance to assist with research on the areas that I was interested in during my masters, working with brilliant people in the institutions, learning more about different ways for presenting photography, videos and moving images during an international festival in the galleries, unusual spaces and public areas, communicating with different artists and co-workers. I was keener to work in photography, contemporary art and digital art, as photography to me is to make the moment recorded and remarkable. I started working in Derby QUAD in September 2021, working with a great team on digital-focused programmes and the FORMAT International Photography Festival, which is a mixture of things that I am interested in.
How do you decide on what makes an interesting photograph or photographic project?
I think all photographs and photographic projects are interesting if they are specifically exploring and presenting the connection between the works, the artists’ practices, and communities. I am interested in sociopolitical-related exhibitions and the conflict of culture because of my background as I have mentioned. It is interesting to see the photographers working on the same topics with different practices. When I see some projects exploring very specific projects (Many interesting projects in FORMAT Open Call Projects) that I am not familiar with, I will do more research and read more articles about those topics. With social media becoming more and more important for the art world nowadays, categorising exhibitions as being either 'blockbuster' or not becomes blurred and difficult to judge.
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 think it is very similar to sending a cover letter and CV. It is very important that graduates know some brief background information about the institutions or the person to whom they are sending their photographer’s statement and works, to fit the context and opportunities. When I look through different Open Calls for exhibition and residency, I think that explaining the project directly and clearly, carefully picking the best works, or the work that you are confident with from the collection, and providing a website to show more works with regular updates of Bio, CV and contact details, are all very important. I also suggest that university students and graduates go to the exhibition launches, events and activities at institutions, to connect and communicate with artists and staff, and don’t hesitate to email or direct message curators for advice and suggestions.
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 it is important for students to know what is the best way to show their works (in curation, format and materials), be able to present their works in words as well as images, able to criticise and challenge their style, and be open-minded to receive different opinions. I believe that the degree should help students to go through all of the above and provide them with a chance to be introduced to different art institutions and art insiders, connect with them during university time, and give them an understanding of a proper attitude working with curators, producers and other artists. As there were no art courses in my university, I am always envious of the art course students having connections with schoolmates and working together, having peer support and feedback when creating works. Remember to think outside of the box and try new things, do not hesitate to ask, and keep motivating yourself. You will never know if you do not get out of your comfort zone.
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?
I have chatted with many emerging artists and photographers during work, I think it can be very challenging for graduates from photography, or art degree courses to know what they want to do and to find platforms, spaces and opportunities to show their works. Many of them are worrying about building up connections and networking to gain some feedback from peers after graduation. I know sometimes it will be extremely difficult to join programmes on your own. I would suggest graduates consider working together with their coursemates and schoolmates from the School of Art, to have regular meetings to inspire and support each other. More online programmes are providing the opportunity for emerging photographers since the pandemic . For example, Collective 22 is originally from FORMAT East Meets West masterclass programme 2021-22, and the collective worked together after the masterclass programme. It is a good example of working both individually and collectively, and joining different open call and conference events together. Also, I think portfolio reviews will be a great opportunity to get some feedback and suggestions on your work and career.
What advice would you have for someone interested in working in your particular area of photography?
I think visiting different exhibitions and doing research will be the first step to cultivating the sense of your interest in curating. Visiting more exhibitions will also help you to know the areas that you are more interested in, and develop them throughout your career. Wall text, lighting, handout, curatorial tour, and the tiny details in the exhibitions, can be very different. It is very important to see more and learn more at the beginning of your career. I suggest going to some tour exhibitions if you can, as the curating of the same exhibitions and artworks can be very different depending on spaces, venues, times, and target visitors, and which curatorial and tech teams were involved. Curator’s work is not limited to curating the exhibition. Effectively communicating with artists for exhibitions and future cooperations, explaining the whole exhibition and events to co-workers in other teams as well as visitors, and organising events that help our visitors to understand and know more about the exhibition, are very important too.