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 Sebah Chaudhry, Creative Producer & Curator and Selector for the BA phase of Graduate Photography Online 2023.
Photo by Jody Hartley
Creative Producer & Curator
Tell us about your job? What does your day-to-day routine as a curator and producer involve?
My day is very varied, as are my roles. As a freelance producer and curator, I often work on different projects at the same time/same day. As exciting as all my jobs are, there is a lot of admin. So, often my days are spent checking my email accounts, replying to emails, creating doodle polls for meetings, or joining a meeting. Some days, I have no meetings at all, but on others, I have as many as eight! If I am very busy (which I often am), I often work late into the evenings.
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 grew up in Birmingham and studied photography as a GCSE. I was never very academic, but enjoyed photography. And so I did a BTEC National Diploma in Photography, and at the same time, looked for work experience or volunteering in the arts. I emailed all the offices at the Custard Factory (a creative hub), in hopes of an opportunity to volunteer. Rhubarb-Rhubarb International Festival was the only organisation to reply, inviting me to volunteer at their festival in 2004. That was my first real experience of the professional photographic world, and I fell into it and somehow am still very deep in it! After some years of volunteering at Rhubarb, I joined the team as a freelancer, and then as their events coordinator in 2010. That is how my journey started. Then I went on to work at FORMAT Festival in 2012, and built many contacts over the years and became a freelancer in 2018. So I suppose I have always wanted to work in photography and during my brief stints in other areas, I seem to always come back to it. Though I liked taking photos, I felt my passion was behind the scenes, putting exhibitions together and working with artists.
How do you decide on what makes an interesting photograph or photographic project?
For me, it is the story behind the image that makes the image, and the relationship the photographer has to the subject. I generally prefer projects over single images. I like striking images, but also those that tell the story well. I like projects that are multi layered, with audio, text, objects and other multi-media. I connect more emotionally to stories that are universal. It is all relative though, if certain work does not seem interesting to me, it does not mean it is not interesting. It all depends on who you are, what your experiences are and even your mood when looking at images.
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?
Photographer statements should be simple, and accessible. Often at university, you have to talk about the work in academic terms. But after graduating, this should be re-written so that anyone from anywhere can read your statement and understand what your work is about. Avoid unnecessary jargon and art speak! You also do not need to write an essay, a short paragraph is enough. Though, if the story is important to understand the work, this must be included, as the viewers want to be able to relate to your work and also you as the person telling the story. If you have a strong link to the subject, then make sure you communicate that. Try to do the best to represent your work in an online space. If, for example, in an exhibition, you use poetry, then make sure that is somehow incorporated onto your online portfolio. And include paraphernalia, scans, anything you use. If you have audio, include a link or even a QR code depending on how you are sharing the work.
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?
It is very important to learn about the people skills required to ‘make it’. Like knowing how to network, and how to email people about your work after you meet them. You often hear, ‘it is not what you know, it is who you know’. This can be very true in the photography world. And why networking is so important. You need to have great marketing skills too. You could have an amazing project, but if you do not know how to share it or get it out there, then it is pointless. It is also very important to be nice. Be a person that people want to work with over and over again. If you have the best work, but are rude and do not respond to emails, then people will not want to work with you. Lastly, your portfolio is an extension of you, so make sure you present your work and yourself in the best way.
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 a lot of photography courses around the country and a lot of people graduate and fight for the same jobs. Photography is used in almost every field around us. So there will not be a shortage of work, but you have to connect with the right people and to stand out, you must work hard and put time and effort into it. If you are not willing to put the time in, you will not be successful. But you can do it.
What advice would you have for someone interested in working in your particular area of photography?
Volunteer. Whilst you are at university and after you have left. I cannot express how important it is to get that experience, to get a better understanding of the industry and network. It is important to have paid work, of course, but you cannot expect it to be handed to you on a plate. Volunteering will help you learn the skills needed and also make important contacts for future work, so that you can apply for the jobs you want. Using your initiative whilst working or volunteering is also an important way of standing out from the crowd. Always be friendly and also, just try to have fun and learn, whatever task you may be doing.