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 Sabina Jaskot-Gill, Senior Curator, Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery and Selector for the MA/MFA phase of Graduate Photography Online 2023.
Photo by James Barnor
Tell us about your job? What does your day-to-day routine as a curator involve?
One of the best things about being a curator at the National Portrait Gallery is how varied the job is, no two days are the same. At its core, the purpose of my role is to care for a national collection of photographs, and to grow that collection through new acquisitions and commissions, which means that I’m constantly working with living artists, photographers’ archives and commercial galleries. This is a really exciting part of the job, but I also keenly feel a responsibility to make sure we are developing the collection to be more inclusive and representative of British society today. There are also more practical aspects of collection care embedded in the role such as conservation, cataloguing and digitisation. Photography has a real presence in the Gallery’s programme, so the other main focus of my job is curating exhibitions and displays of photography. One day I could be researching in our stores for historical material, another day making studio visits to contemporary photographers. I love seeing people in the Gallery, enjoying the exhibitions and the experience of being in the space, and it’s quite humbling to realise the impact of what we do. At any one time, I am also writing for Gallery publications, developing displays for national programmes, leading tours and press interviews, or working with our learning team to develop projects for young people and students, which is another rewarding part of the job.
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 History of Art and English Literature at university and as part of that degree I took a course on photography and its relationship to contemporary art. I was fascinated by all the photography and wanted to learn more about the medium, so I applied for an MA in the history and theory of photography. Alongside the degree, I was also undertaking a number of varied work placements and internships: I worked in an auction house, assisted lecturers at the University of the Creative Arts in Farnham, worked as an artist assistant to Karen Knorr, and enjoyed a brilliant internship at Autograph ABP working on their inaugural James Barnor exhibition. I really enjoyed the process of researching and writing my MA thesis, so I went on to apply for a PhD and received an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award for the research of photography as art since the 1960s, which was jointly supervised by the University of Essex and Tate. Collaborative PhDs are more common today, but it was something quite new at the time, and I really enjoyed the practical experience and insight it gave me into working in a major national gallery. During my PhD I also began lecturing on twentieth century photography and photography theory, and then made the leap into curating, successfully applying for an associate curator position at the National Portrait Gallery.
How do you decide on what makes an interesting photograph or photographic project?
I’m constantly thinking about acquisitions, and what makes an interesting photograph for the National Portrait Gallery collection. The Gallery celebrates the people who have contributed to British history and culture, so often we are looking to represent a sitter in the first instance, rather than the artist, but we are also trying to find a portrait that represents that sitter in an interesting and meaningful way. We also have an annual competition at the Gallery – the Taylor Wessing Photo Portrait Prize – and when judging this, visual impact is key. The prize is judged anonymously, so we don’t have any information about the artist, and only minimal contextual information in the form of a title, so with thousands of works to judge from, a photograph really does have to stand out from the rest of the field. Sometimes this involves all the technical elements coming together to create a beautifully composed and compelling image; sometimes it’s as simple as catching me off guard and showing me something I’ve never seen before.
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?
My two main pieces of advice are to edit your work well and know your audience. Really think about who you are presenting to – do your research and find out what their interests and specialisms are, and tailor your work to them. For example, if you are showing your work to a National Portrait Gallery curator, then show them your portraits. And don’t show every portrait you have ever made, but make a tight edit of your best work. I have often been shown portfolios with too many images, and the impact of the really good work is diluted. If you struggle with this then sign up for portfolio reviews, or show the work to others to see how they respond – the more people that see your work the better! The same can be said for your statement. Reams of text can be off putting, as can overly academic language. Edit your statement to say the most that it can in the least amount of words.
In your view, what are the kind of qualities that completing a degree course in photography should endow an individual with?
Learning how to print your work is a real skill, and a skill that can perhaps get a little lost when we are so used to images circulating digitally. I’m constantly handling prints in the collection, and the Gallery’s photo prize is one of the only competitions that still judges work from physical prints. Think about the type of print you are making and the scale of your print, as it can make or break the success of a work. One of the best skills you can learn from your course is how to talk and write about your work, so take the opportunity to develop those skills with your contemporaries. And have the confidence to accept constructive feedback on your work. In my experience, photographers can often be unsure about how to approach museums and galleries with their work, but having the confidence to talk about your work is key, as is the ability to present yourself in an organised and professional way. Ask your tutors for advice on how to write clear, succinct and tailored introductory emails. Make sure you finish your course with a portfolio of work that you are ready to show people. And have an elevator pitch up your sleeve, so you can quickly explain your practice to anyone you happen to meet. Also think about archiving your work from the get go. Too many photographers only begin this process later in their careers, and the task can often be insurmountable.
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?
So many people are taking photographs now, and there are so many ways in which images can be seen and shared, so making yourself and your work stand out is important. I think it helps to develop a strong sense of your individual approach as a photographer so you can be clear about what marks your style of image making out from other photographers. Get your work seen in real life – sign up for portfolio reviews, submit your work to competitions. I’ve judged a number of photo prizes, and I still remember particular photographers and continue to follow their careers. I’ve seen first hand how the Taylor Wessing Photo Prize can be an incredible launch pad early in a photographer’s career. We try to engage the shortlisted photographers in our learning and participation programmes at the Gallery, and we have commissioned them to create portraits for the collection, or to make new work for displays. This year we also introduced discounts for students and young people, to make it more affordable to submit work. You also shouldn’t be afraid of taking on work alongside your photographic practice. It’s not something that’s widely spoken about, and young photographers seem wary of how it will impact their careers, but throughout the history of photography, some of the biggest names have taken on jobs to support their careers in the art world, and I know many successful photographers today who are working concurrently in different fields. Those jobs could be in the photo industry – assisting, teaching, working commercially etc – but sometimes you might need to take on work that is completely unrelated in order to support your practice. In my own experience, I have found that no work is ever wasted - you never know how connections you build might prove useful later down the line.
What advice would you have for someone interested in working in your particular area of photography?
Learn about the history of the medium, but also make sure you are engaged with what is happening today. Get out and go see exhibitions, visit festivals. Hone your media skills, as curators are constantly asked to lead talks and tours or give interviews. And build a good network of contacts – they will be invaluable in supporting you throughout your career.