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 Darren Campion, Assistant Curator, Photo Museum Ireland and Selector for the BA phase of Graduate Photography Online 2024.

Darren Campion

Darren Campion 

Tell us about your job, what does your core role at Photo Museum Ireland involve? What projects are you working on at present?

I'm Assistant Curator at Photo Museum Ireland. I work as part of the curatorial team with my colleagues Trish Lambe and Tanya Kiang to develop and realise exhibitions at the Museum.

Planning involves discussions around how particular works and practices might fit into our artistic programme for a given year, meetings with artists to share new work and talk about prospective shows, as well as managing calendars and budgets. Designing exhibition layouts is also a vital part of working towards an exhibition. The way a visitor encounters the work is a key aspect of its meaning and something we give a lot of attention to. This extends to the framing of the show textually, through the writing of exhibitions texts, press releases, and wall labels, which give visitors an insight into the thinking behind the work we’re showing. Then there is the practical side of curation, which can be anything from scheduling international transport to finding a specific kind of screw.

We also work closely with artists to produce a lot of the work in our own production facilities at the Museum. It's always great to be involved in the creation of new work in such a detailed way. Increasingly we're working on photobooks, and a lot of the same considerations that go into an exhibition apply to books as well. It's very enjoyable to work with artists, designers and printers in a collaborative way to create a publication, which potentially has a much longer life than an exhibition, and personally is one of my favourite ways to view photography.

At the moment we're working on a major touring survey exhibition of contemporary Irish photography that will be shown in Haus am Kleistpark, Berlin, co-curated by Trish Lambe and myself, with Ralph Goertz of IKS Photo. This is part of Zeitgiest Irland 24, an initiative of Culture Ireland and the Embassy of Ireland. This will open early in June. It's a brilliant opportunity for cultural exchange and an example of what the arts can do to foster dialogue internationally.

I'm also curating another survey show later in the year titled Skin / Deep: Perspectives on the Body. This will explore different experiences of embodiment, ways of being a 'body' in the world that tend to be left out of mainstream discourse. We feel it's vitally important for us to showcase the work of artists who are queer, or trans, or addressing experiences like motherhood, for example, that are too often shown from an othering perspective. The image we have of 'a body' can be a very narrow one and the featured artists are all working to expand that in some way, based on their own experiences. For me, it's also about how curation can create a kind of critical narrative with the work in an exhibition, placing it in a wider context to illuminate the connection, and equally the divergence, between different points of view. The show opens in November and it's a very exciting project to be working on.

In 2022 you co-curated two of the chapters of the Museum's 'In Our Own Image' programme, namely 'The Politics of Place' and 'Photography & the Social Gaze'. Can you talk a little bit about some of the challenges of working on curatorial projects of this scope? What sort of timeframe is involved from inception to opening?

Of course the scope of the exhibitions was a challenge in itself, but I think from the outset we accepted that they wouldn't be entirely comprehensive, and actually one of the strengths of the project for me was that it didn't try to cover everything, it wasn't encyclopaedic, but rather that it took a definite curatorial position, in the sense of telling a particular story about the development of photography in Ireland. With the whole programme we were looking at how Irish photography both anticipated and enacted a changing sense of what it means to be Irish. Photography hasn’t been passive in that sense, it doesn’t just reflect, but actually shapes our changing sense of Irishness.

Once we had that as a framework it was easier to see what should be included and what didn’t necessarily fit, although there was still a lot of discussion and consideration as the shows evolved. It's always a challenge to leave someone out, particularly when you admire their work, but ultimately when we had the concept for each show in mind, some works just didn’t contribute to that, despite being significant in themselves. It was also difficult when some photographers had multiple projects that could have worked, so choices had to be made about what most contributed to the concept or was most representative of that photographer’s practice. The curation involved important conversations about how best particular projects could be shown in the context of exhibitions like these, which didn’t really allow for much space to elaborate on what were ultimately quite extensive bodies of work. This resulted in individual solutions like QR codes to publications or extended texts in the form of handouts so that visitors could follow up on the wider projects if they wished.

The timescale for developing and producing the shows was relatively short, about a year and half. We worked on developing both together as there was a lot of overlap. Another significant challenge was the scale of our building, the show could easily have been twice as big in a different venue, but ultimately we made the space work to tell the story that we wanted to tell, and to include all the artists that we felt were significant to this particular account of Irish photography.

The prefatory text to the project references the desire to avoid canon-building in the conventional sense of the term, and this is very much evident in the final line-up of photographers in the respective shows, which feel very much a blend of practitioners rather than a pantheon. How much are you conscious of what the sum of the parts will be as you go along, or this is something that only emerges right at the end?

We knew the framework, but really the exhibition emerges as you work on it, and I think the exhibitions that were part of In Our Own Image, particularly the last chapters which dealt with mostly contemporary work, were an example of how curation can be a kind of research practice, or a critical practice that doesn't necessarily have a pre-determined endpoint, but questions its own assumptions as a way of arriving at an outcome, which in this case was a set of exhibitions. The issue of canon-building and what that implies was very much at the forefront of our minds, but really we were guided by what we saw as the defining concerns for Irish photographers, so rather than just looking at high-profile names or careers we were thinking about photography as a practice and its place in Irish life.

For both The Politics of Place and Photography & the Social Gaze it was very much a case of bringing together the projects we thought were going to be key to the particular concept for each exhibition, which formed the skeleton if you like, and then elaborating around those to form a narrative. The shows both had what were essentially very simple themes – looking at place in one and people in the other – but Irish society has travelled quite a way in relation to both over the last several decades. For us the narrative, the story we were trying to tell, was how photographers had reflected on that evolution, engaged with it, or even been part of it. This shift was particularly evident in Photography & the Social Gaze, with photographers moving to representing their own lived experiences and critically considering their own position as observers.

With so many artists and so many different kinds of work in each exhibition, it was a bit like creating a mosaic where you had to concentrate on the specifics of one area, with the installations for individual artists, and then pull out to see the overall pattern, which was the relation of the different projects within the framework of the exhibition concepts. After so much planning it was very satisfying to bring everything together.

To the lay observer it's always tempting to imagine the curator situated, right from the very outset, in a position of near omniscience in relation to the subject matter in hand. The very act of projecting a specific historical/cultural arc for a project almost implies a total grasp of all the work that lies within that arc. Presumably the process is much more one of profound discovery and even personal growth? It's particularly interesting to know in what ways the outcomes of this kind of curation process modify or exceed the expectations of the curators? In what ways were you surprised by the outcomes of the two projects in question, both in terms of yourself personally and in terms of the public response to them?

To be a curator often feels anything but omniscient! There is an important element of research in curatorial practice, or that the practice is in itself a kind of research, so the outcome is based on thinking, looking and reflecting to create a dialogue with the work. At the same time, you are assuming a position of knowledge, or a familiarity with the wider field of practice. In our case this is supported by an institution with a history stretching back over forty years, which is the key one for the development of photography as a creative practice in Ireland. We’ve shown or worked with virtually all the significant figures in Irish photography and we’re connected in with the next several generations of practitioners through shows, publications, and so on. It’s very much that institutional memory and those connections that we drew on to inform the exhibitions, within the concepts we had for them. Equally it was an opportunity for us to consider the gaps or the absences in our history, for example, by showing new artists or addressing issues we hadn’t looked at before. This is important ongoing work for any institution and something we’re very much committed to.

With The Politics of Place and Photography & the Social Gaze we saw how consistently Irish identity has been a subject for photographers, how much they've wrestled with it, and keep coming back to the question of what Irish life looks like. Perhaps because it has been defined by very rapid shifts and evolutions at a social level, Irish artists have engaged with these questions as a way of making sense of their own experiences, and I think we can all find something to relate to in that. In the development of the individual presentations for artists there was a sense of surprise for me personally in seeing projects I thought I knew very well in a different way, either because we were creating solutions for showing extensive bodies of work within the confines of a large group exhibition, or because what evolved from discussions with the artists was a new presentation for a particular piece. In terms of public reception it was gratifying to see audiences engage with such a range and depth of contemporary Irish photography across the two shows.

How did you make your way into the career you're now in? At what point did photography start to feature significantly in that path? What advice would you have for someone interested in working in your field?

I studied photography and then did an MFA so I was always interested in the field, but wasn’t really sure what I would end up doing, I certainly didn’t have a plan. Rather than becoming a practicing artist I found myself writing about photography extensively for websites and publications. I thought I might end up in academia, but started working at what was then Gallery of Photography Ireland (now Photo Museum Ireland) as part of an internship scheme there and stayed on through various roles before becoming Assistant Curator. My interest in curation grew through that experience, as I saw that it involved a lot of what had been important to me in writing about photography. I think of curation as a kind of critical practice, not in the sense of simply criticising, but rather of asking questions, opening out discussions around and through photography.

Perhaps the best advice I could give is be prepared to surprise yourself and to make the most of small opportunities, which can often grow into something much more significant. I really learned about curation though doing it, so for me there’s no substitute for actually being involved in something on a practical level. While not financially viable for everyone, internships and volunteering are still useful to gain hands-on experience.

How do you decide on what makes an interesting photograph or photographic project?

This is a something that can be quite intangible, but for me there are a number of things that have to come together for a project to hold my attention. Primarily what I’m looking for is someone who is engaged in thinking about the medium through their work, trying to push it in new directions, or use it in a new way. I don’t mean innovation or difference for the sake of it, which can often just end up feeling empty or decorative. I’m thinking of someone who has developed a particular way of seeing and evolves that consistently throughout their practice. I want this to be anchored by a meaningful subject, which can be something of wider social significance or something deeply personal, such as the photographer’s own experience. What matters is trying to make work that operates across these two levels, which are obviously interconnected. Photography is a unique opportunity to view the world through someone else’s eyes, so how they see and what they choose to look at are together vitally important to the success of the work, with ‘success’ being understood here as a creative or artistic value rather than anything else. At the same time, what you find interesting can be genuinely unexpected sometimes and that’s one of the best aspects of working with contemporary art, pushing up against the limitations of your own taste.

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 maybe the most important consideration is that the tone of the statement, the way it’s written, matches the nature of the work. I see this as demonstrating a consistency between what the work is presenting and what the artist is saying. It speaks to the level of understanding you have for your own work. So a personal project is best accompanied by a text that is personal as well, addressing the viewer in the same tone as the work, or piece that relies on a conceptual perspective could use that in the statement about it. We’re all familiar with the kind of difficult or overcomplicated language that can accompany artwork sometimes and it really is best to avoid this. I don’t believe in dumbing things down, but at the same time the purpose of your statement is to communicate with your audience and if they can’t understand what you’re saying that’s a big impediment. It can also lead them to feel like you’re compensating for something in the work. Communication is the core of your practice as an artist and in your writing about it. This is as much a question of how you say something as it is of what specifically you’re saying. In terms of submitting work to galleries or for applications, a concise selection of images and a short coherent statement is best for letting people see what you’re doing, whether that’s in digital form or a traditional portfolio.

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?

In many ways the technical skills are less important today than they might have been in the past. I think perhaps the most important gain in terms of practice is a wide view of photography as a field, learning about the work of other artists and engaging with critical ideas. This gives you a basis for your own work and for thinking about photography that helps to sustain a practice in the long-term. Those discussions, often in the form of peer-learning are the core of any good education and what most people will take from a photography degree. That kind of critical approach, which involves thinking, writing and speaking about ideas, is a real, transferable skill in itself. Indeed the so-called soft skills that a creative education involves can often be as useful as its practical or technical aspects. A career as an artist involves as much of those skills, in making applications, approaching galleries, and working with collaborators, as it does the largely mythological image of the artist as solitary creator. Given that a full-time artistic practice isn’t going to be the path for most people, the skills in critical thinking, organisation and team-work that a good degree imparts will often be the most beneficial in the long-term.

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?

No one would deny that establishing and sustaining a creative career is a challenge for graduates, regardless of whether their interest is in an art practice or more commercially oriented. In many ways the biggest challenge is having to create work largely by and for themselves outside the safe, supportive environment of education. When there are no deadlines and no briefs to follow, everything has to come from yourself. That period after graduation can also be a very difficult one for artists trying to embark on a career due to a lack of practical support and facilities for making new work, often a very expensive prospect in photography. Maintaining a commitment to your practice in the face of that and needing to work for a living is quite daunting. Economic pressures mean early career artists can feel like they have to make a choice between concentrating on their practices or having a decent standard of living. The fact that there are a lot of artists competing for scarce resources in terms of funding and exhibition opportunities doesn’t help with that either. I suppose ultimately its important to remember the reasons why you wanted to pursue photography in the first place and keep those as a guide for navigating the challenges that inevitably arise.