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 Jilke Golbach, Curator, Writer & Researcher and Selector for the BA phase of Graduate Photography Online 2024.

Jilke Golbach

Jilke Golbach 

Tell us all about the PhD you've been undertaking and what brought you to this specific area of interest? How much is your current research trajectory informed by photography?

By the time this interview gets published, my PhD should be completed! That is something I have looked forward to for a long time as I started this piece of research nearly ten years ago. All throughout this period, I worked in various curatorial roles (amongst others at the Museum of London and Barbican Art Gallery) and, as much as I loved undertaking my own research project, there were a few times the PhD had to take a backseat so that I could prioritise other projects. Thankfully I had supervisors who let me do this and supported quite a few stops and starts along the way. Probably not the most expedient (or sane!) way of undertaking a PhD but doing it this way did enable me to develop my interests along both an academic and curatorial track, which has been an enormous gift.

My research project, which I undertook at UCL, sits at the intersection of critical urban studies and critical heritage studies. It looks at the relationship between heritage (in a very broad sense of that word) and neoliberal forms of city-making through the conceptual lens of ‘the right to the city’. In more concrete terms, I explored forms of resistance against culture-led regeneration in industrial ruins in Rome (such as squats, self-managed social centres, and counter-museums), pondering the question of how a critical understanding of these might lead to alternative approaches to heritage that encourage cities for people, not for profit.

I have always held a fascination for cities: how they feel and function, what histories and memories they store (and reveal), how they get shaped and by whom. With my PhD project, I wanted to explore the contemporary politics of city-making, which are increasingly shaped by processes of commodification, gentrification and environmental destruction, specifically in a city like Rome, widely known as the ‘Eternal City’ but which has a difficult relationship with its past and a complex contemporary reality. Photography comes into this project to a limited extent, but the themes I am interested in (social justice, politics of place, resistance) underpin both my academic work and my curatorial practice.

On the face of things it's hard to imagine a medium better suited to the capture and encounter of urban phenomena than photography, particularly in relation to the intersection of the political and the urban, but of course the apparent obviousness of this albeit broad assertion must belie limitations?

Absolutely. And the connection between photography and urban life is as old as the medium itself. Apparently, by the middle of this century, three-quarters of the global population are expected to live in cities. I find this an absolutely fascinating fact. It might lead us to wonder what the ‘urban’ even means as a domain. For certain, planetary urbanisation is going to define lives everywhere and I believe there is much potential for photography to shed light on what this means as a contemporary human condition.

I am reminded, here, of some of the methods I drew on extensively during my research and which I find a useful guide for engaging with complex and messy realities, such as the intersection of the political and the urban. They come from critical ethnography and are all about ‘moving back and forth between examining the assumptions and foundations of how things are, how they got that way, how things might be changed, and why we should care in the first place’ (from Musings on critical ethnography, meanings, and symbolic violence by Jim Thomas). This very simple summation of what it means to apply a critical perspective has become somewhat of a mantra to me and how I think about the ways in which we might expose the great inequalities and injustices that belie our urban worlds, whether through photography or otherwise.

Tell us about what your previous role as Curator of Photographs at the Museum of London involved? Was the transition from curator to full time research a seamless one or did it feel like more of a departure?

Given my interest in photography and cities, it’s probably not very surprising I ended up at the Museum of London. I worked there with great pleasure for nearly four years, between 2019 and 2023, a period of great changes for the museum, not only because of the coronavirus pandemic but also because we were in the process of developing a brand-new site at the former Smithfield market in Farringdon, which is due to open in 2026. This was a hugely exciting project to work on and an opportunity to find new ways to display and share the museum’s incredible collections with the public.

I looked after the photography collection, which counts an estimated 200,000 photographic objects, from the earliest days of photography to recent acquisitions from contemporary photographers. It’s a true visual history of London life, which includes vernacular photography as well as iconic images and celebrated photographers. My role involved a wide variety of tasks, from everyday correspondence with members of the public to collaborative work with communities and partners to hosting archive visits and cataloguing objects. It was a real joy to be able to expand the collection with new acquisitions of both historic and contemporary work. We acquired, for example, prints by Sunil Gupta, Liz Johnson Artur, and a series of images documenting a group of crossdressers of the 1950s.

Research is a big part of a role like that and much of what you do daily as a collection’s curator involves learning and offering advice or sharing knowledge with others within or outside of the museum. You are asking about the transition from curatorial work to full-time research, by which you are probably referring to the return to my PhD after my departure from the museum in 2023, but you might have gathered from my previous answers that my career has been rather fluid in this respect as I have moved back and forth between research and curatorial work almost constantly. I will say this, however: having been able to focus exclusively on my PhD during the last few months to bring the project to completion has been a godsend. Now that’s done, I am ready to dive into curatorial work again. And of course, many curatorial projects will involve an extensive period of research too!

During your time at the Museum of London, you worked on the 'London in Lockdown' project, talk us through some of the practicalities and the methodology of embarking on such a project? It must represent an immense challenge on the one hand to produce a composite snapshot of this kind of epoch-making event yet without collapsing any of the layers of nuance and minutiae involved?

A challenge it certainly was. Almost as soon as the UK had announced the first lockdown in 2020, the Museum of London embarked on a collecting project, calling on curators and members of the public to suggest objects that would be able to tell the story of the pandemic to future generations. This upturned all of the museum’s usual procedures. Whilst acquisition processes normally take a long time (often years), the collecting project had to be done incredibly quickly (so that we could truly capture what the experience was like in the moment). We had to figure out quickly what would be the ‘right’ objects to collect and why, and think through how we might use them in the future. Moreover, curators and other museum staff could not physically access the museum site and stores. You can imagine that the logistics of such a project were interesting to say the least (for example, all objects coming into the museum had to be quarantined for a certain amount of time), especially given the fact that we received hundreds, if not thousands, of offers from members of the public.

As we were working on this museum-wide project, the idea emerged of a photography publication, and we partnered up with the brilliant team at Hoxton Mini Press to make this a reality. Our shared mission from the very beginning was to stay true to the hugely disparate experiences of the pandemic and to steer clear, as much as possible, from visual and narrative clichés. The book had to represent a variety of perspectives on London during the pandemic and so it includes hard-hitting series of images that were made on intensive care units (from which almost all journalists were barred), in collaboration with low-income communities who were worst hit by the pandemic, or taken at food banks where queues were getting ever longer, but also work that is introspective, tender and uplifting. We needed this balance in the book just as much as we needed it in everyday life at the time.

As you say, London in Lockdown is a snapshot, a cross-section of the huge amount of photography that was out there at that particular moment in time. Much interesting work has emerged since, and still is emerging even now. I write about this more in the essay that opens the book, but for me the challenges of the book were, to a great extent, also the challenges of the photographic medium: how do you convey very complex realities in a single image or series of images; who gets to tell their story; what remains unseen; and how do we interpret images, now and in the future?

While we're on the subject of books and perhaps by way of contrast to the 'London in Lockdown' project, can you tell us a bit about your involvement in the 'Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing' publication? It is presumably a very different process to be curating from an already extant/received body of work as opposed to fielding work from a live and still-unfolding situation?

Interesting question. It immediately strikes me that there are, in fact, many parallels between the London in Lockdown project and Dorothea Lange’s work. Let me offer some context first. Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing was a major retrospective and exhibition catalogue at the Barbican Art Gallery, which I co-developed as an Assistant Curator. It was an opportunity to revisit the career and oeuvre of an iconic, pioneering photographer whose large body of work has frequently been reduced to a single picture (the Migrant Mother). Through the exhibition and publication, we shed new light on Lange’s practice and critically reframed some of the core themes of her work, e.g. social inequality, migration, racism, exploitation, and consumerism, for a contemporary audience, themes which are as relevant today as they were in the twentieth century. Although Lange’s humanistic photography made during the Great Depression was already somewhat familiar to a broad audience, we also managed to include lesser-known series of photographs she made in Japanese internment camps, Ireland and post-war California, that were a real rediscovery for many people.

Making a retrospective of a historic photographer is indeed a very different process from collaborating with contemporary photographers creating work on a subject that is unfolding at that very moment. I think there are overlaps though in terms of their documentation of different moments of crisis – the Great Depression and the pandemic – and how the medium of photography is used to record the human impact of such grand events. With Lange we had temporal distance, of course, the benefit of hindsight, and a rich body of extant literature that provided historical context. With the lockdown project, we had to seek such context by looking at other historic moments of global crisis, such as the Second World War. Moreover, the need and desire to deconstruct or avoid clichéd photographic tropes is another element of connection between Lange and London in Lockdown. In both contexts, there were societal tendencies to use photography to feed flawed narratives of unity, resilience and solidarity in order to mask hugely fragmentary experiences and painful socio-economic disparities.

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?

Art wasn’t something that was part of my life growing up and I only really began to be drawn to it once I had started university. Even then I never thought I’d end up in this career. I did a multidisciplinary undergrad degree which gradually began to incorporate art history and I slowly fell in love with the visual language of photography. It’s a massive cliché, but it was the work of photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Elliott Erwitt and Richard Avedon that first appealed to me. I studied in the Netherlands and there weren’t any university courses on photographic history and theory available at the time, so it wasn’t until an exchange abroad that my interest in the subject became truly cemented. There, I encountered a fantastic lecturer who opened my eyes to broader ideas of the politics of seeing and image-making. I remember being blown away when first shown Wolfgang Tillmans’ photograph Man Pissing on Chair (1997), or the work of Nan Goldin. It completely changed my perspective on what photography could be and do.

Outside of university, I did a bunch of jobs in galleries and museums (internships, front-of-house, admin positions) that gave me a solid grounding in the sector before I got the job that set me on my current career path. I had moved to London for an MA and got a position as a curatorial assistant working on a big photography exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery, titled Strange & Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers. At the Barbican, I was lucky enough to work with talented people who were incredibly generous professionally and gave me the confidence to develop my own curatorial practice. The ball started rolling from there, but I still believe that initial support was pivotal to my development. The field can be extremely competitive and it makes having genuine friends and allies all the more important. That sense of generosity now also underpins how I look at the practice of curating.

In terms of advice, I would say build a circle of support, find a mentor if you can, and be prepared to start from the bottom – the seemingly most basic tasks are often what can make or break a curatorial project. Beyond that, develop your own work, shows, anything that helps you gain experience, no matter how small in scale. And get to know yourself: what do you care about, what motivates you, what are your ethics? So important for a curator. Needless to say, also go out and see as many exhibitions as you possibly can!

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

I have quite an intuitive approach to this so it’s hard to put down specific parameters or pointers but there needs to be something that holds my attention, that is compelling within the image or within a series as a whole, whether it is a new way of looking or an innovative technical approach to the medium. Given the huge number of images out there, I look out for unique subjectivities and meaningful perspectives: what does the project add (visually, conceptually, technically, aesthetically) that isn’t already overly familiar in a field that can feel pretty saturated? Beyond that, I look at how well a project is conceptualised and edited: how does it hang together as a whole, how are the main ideas conveyed, how is the viewer drawn in?

Finally, I am interested in work that is made to matter. A project can be very personal, intimate, or introspective and yet be outward looking. There must be something that connects the work to viewers on a higher level, or that opens up new perspectives of looking at a subject (for me, that’s the great power of photography). A good project, in my eyes, always goes some way to answering the question of why we should be looking at it in the first place.

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?

The statement should concisely convey what the work is about and what motivated it. What drives the work? In what context was it made? Why are you the right person to tell this particular story? And why does it matter to you? This doesn’t always need to be stated so explicitly, but it does have to emerge from the text. Moreover, it is very important that the work does what the statement says it does. Sometimes projects are informed by a ton of concepts and ideas but if this doesn’t translate into the final outcome, an uncomfortable gap emerges between the intention and the work, which can weaken the overall project. I am also slightly allergic to ‘arty bollocks’. There is no need to make statements unnecessarily complicated – you should be able to convey even complex concepts in simple terms. And if the concept is already a simple one, keep it that way, don’t overcomplicate it. Bear in mind that viewers often need to be able to grasp what the project is about in less than a minute.

As far as preparing the work for sharing it outside of university is concerned, I would similarly argue for a less is more approach. Keep texts short and image selections concise – especially if you are approaching busy curators – but it helps if more information is readily available elsewhere, either through a website or some other form of online presence. As a rule of thumb, I often find that if you cannot yet describe the work in a couple of sentences, you haven’t quite got to the essence of what you’re trying to do, and the project might need a little bit more time to percolate.

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?

From the perspective of a curator, I would say that one of the most important things is the ability to talk confidently about your work. You might be an incredibly talented artist, but the truth is that the course of your career will to a great extent depend on how well you can present yourself and promote your practice. You need to be your own biggest advocate and find the right ways to connect others with your work. But just remember that this is a learning curve: there are very few people who are naturally good at this at the time they leave university, and even very established and experienced photographers will struggle with this over time. It’s all part of the process of giving shape to your projects and finding your own voice and language to talk about your work. Portfolio reviews, graduate shows, or other forms of informal sharing, even just among peers, are good for practising this. Somewhat related to this is the ability to write grant applications. As boring as this might sound, many a career begins or ends with applying for funding.

Secondly, once you finish your course you are kind of on your own in terms of what comes next! So it’s very important to have a general understanding of how you might build a practice from the ground up: how do you plan for projects and make sure you see them all the way through? How do you potentially juggle your own creative practice with commercial work? What do you need to put in place to meet your own goals and push projects forward? Where are you going to get advice or feedback? Being an artist or freelancer can be an isolated existence so it can help to put structures in place that will support you in bringing an idea to fruition.

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?

One of the biggest current challenges recent graduates will face is that they are entering a field that is both highly competitive and under pressure from years of underfunding and budget cuts to the arts. It’s a hard time to make a living as an artist so it’s even more important to find ways to make your practice stand out and to be ingenious about supporting yourself.

I also think that the current state of the world comes with anxieties and throws up larger questions about what it means to start out as a photographer today: in the face of overwhelming global challenges (violent conflicts, the climate crisis, rising populism) how do you find meaning and purpose in photographic practice? This is undoubtedly a question emerging photographers will have to grapple with, and which will shape their interests and relation to their work.