Anna Sparham, Curator of Photographs
Museum of London
Introducing the Selectors for the MA/MFA Phase of Graduate Photography Online 2017: we talk to Anna Sparham, Curator of Photographs at Museum of London.
Tell us about your job and the work of the Museum of London? What does your core role at the museum involve?
As the Curator of Photographs I share responsibility for the museum's rich and expansive photography collection. My core role is to develop, enhance and interpret this collection, making it accessible to our broad audiences in a multitude of ways within a social history context. The job is immensely varied and challenging. It involves creating exhibitions, large and small, developing content for the web, social media and publications, seeking and processing new acquisitions to the collection, cataloguing and researching, answering and facilitating enquiries and visits, liaising with practising photographers and estates and undertaking teaching sessions. The list goes on. I can truly say no day is the same. Right now I am heavily focused on curating a major photography exhibition for 2018. The museum is also at a unique juncture as we look forward to great change with a planned relocation in 2022.
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?
Photography has been around me my whole life. My father taught the subject at GCSE and A Level and I distinctly recall my first darkroom experience aged 4. I went on to study photography, graduating with a degree from Nottingham Trent University in 2001. As a student I obviously once had ambitions to be a professional image-maker, but actually I was quite clear in my mind that I wanted to work with photography one way or another and that was the strongest goal. I recognised my love for both history and the history of photography quite early on. My first job after graduating was for a news agency picture desk in Birmingham, but I was actively seeking a role within a museum, writing to several on the off chance. Eventually I struck lucky, landing a role in the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol where I found myself looking after their incredible photography collection and sourcing the image content for their Permanent Galleries. I learnt so much there about the heritage sector and caring for photography collections. After a period of travelling I moved to London, working in a couple more picture agencies and then I secured a post at the Museum of London's picture library in 2004. Jobs in the museum sector, let alone a specialism, are incredibly difficult to secure but I was determined to stay working with photography one way or another. I took another role at the museum as a project assistant, digitising and writing captions for the photography collection. Eventually in 2006 a Curator post emerged and fortunately it went my way.
How do you decide on what makes an interesting photograph or photographic project?
There is of course an instinctive response and an informed one based on the many images I see. Visually it has to grab me. That does not of course mean it needs to scream in my face. It can be a subtlety that is overwhelmingly appealing. Or it may be simply the shapes on the paper or a different aesthetic. I guess with experience looking at both historic and contemporary work you nurture an eye for something different and when something has been really well executed. You notice things subconsciously almost, such as the position a photographer has placed themselves or a distinct relationship between camera and subject. Many themes are covered hundreds of times and yet there is always the potential that one different approach will leap out at you. Other times a concept might appear uniquely interesting and strong, but it only really takes me if the images then meet those expectations.
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?
Being able to articulate and describe your own work can be really hard. I think it is essential to be able to clearly express the single most important message, narrative or purpose you intend the work to convey rather than over-complicate. I wouldn't be looking to know how something has been made, but rather to unlock something of why and what has driven the work to reach this point.
As for tips, I think it is about being true to yourself and your style. Not necessarily feeling that you need to invent a persona whether that is online or in person. We all scroll through images far too swiftly on screen so it is about captivating someone very quickly through one or two images and some solid introductory context. Perhaps being confident in showing less rather than overloading is good - and in as simple a way for navigating as possible. Yet at the same time as an online presence, talking or showing work in person where possible is really good to do and gives the opportunity to also talk about work in progress so you can demonstrate your continuity. If you are approaching someone out of the blue then avoiding lengthy emails would be advisable. Instead, a brief introduction and direction to a site, publication or exhibition would be great and it is fair enough to ask for some response if the work is of interest. If the work stands out and someone is able to meet and discuss, that will happen. It may not always happen. Or it may happen but not necessarily lead to anything immediate. That work may however be talked about as a result. All conversations are good ones and potentially rewarding ones. If you are showing work in person then of course prints or publications are good to see, but more than anything it is the chance to really engage someone with the work in front of them, so being able to talk about it naturally is more essential than a pristine portfolio to me.
In your view, what are the kind of qualities that completing a degree course in photography should endow an individual with? Aside from specifically technical skills, what is the difference that having a demographic of emerging photography graduates makes in the world?
In my view having been through such a route, I think a photography degree course enables someone to explore the medium through ways they may not have otherwise encountered or embraced if going alone. Not only are they hopefully introduced and exposed to different ways of working, and seeing, but they are also taking the time to look at the work of others. That might be in the study of photographic history, through which knowledge, influence and inspiration can be attained. It is also crucially through the work and ideas of their contemporaries on the course. On my own degree of roughly 60 people my memory is of roughly 60 very different approaches, interests and talents. All of which played their part in my appreciation for the medium's potential and helped shape my own personal angles of interest. Image-making can be very isolating, which is in some ways to its advantage and appealing. However, the medium as a whole is more than that and is essentially about a sharing of ideas and visions. This is reflected in the networked photography community. No photography degree course is the same as the next. And not every photography graduate will go on to be a photographer. But they will all look at the world with an informed and sophisticated eye, and share that either through images or commentary on others. Obviously everyone and anyone can take a photograph on their mobile and many with great skill. Every image has its place and context. Photography graduates may be equipped to take those visuals one step further, may share a commitment to the field that can bring great difference through the dissemination of those images to a wider audience, be that through fields as diverse as photojournalism or photo-therapy.
What are the challenges you see facing graduates from photography degree courses as they make their way into the world at this point in time?
Obviously with such image saturation and a camera at many people's disposal the ability to stand out appears increasingly limited. As with a Curator's role, to pursue the field you now need to be everything in one... a creative, a writer, a publisher, a publicist, a communicator, a fundraiser and so on. The opportunities to get your work seen are greater than ever before. There are so many platforms at your disposal be they online, in print or on the wall. Yet fundamentally there are so many people doing just this, with or without degrees. It is of course not always just about the photography either. In today's climate it is challenging enough to generate an income in any field let alone through image-making. Keeping it as part of this or your life generally is not a challenge to be underestimated. Don't despair! It is simultaneously far easier to stay connected with a network of fellow graduates that becomes a professional network outside of university, and wider, through social media alone. It is amazing how supportive this alone might be in gaining further contacts and actual work.
What advice would you have for someone interested in working in your area of photography?
Curating within the museum and gallery sector is a notoriously difficult field to break into simply because positions are so few and financial cuts are severe across the country. However, determination is half the battle. Gain experience wherever possible, even if it is not in the exact area you ultimately want to pursue. Most importantly - find a niche. When I graduated it was the fact that I had learnt Photoshop and digitisation that got me in the door when some in the sector knew little about it. You always have something new to offer. It is also essential to be as informed as possible, so where you can't get actual paid work, stay in the loop with current practice, trends, content and issues. This doesn't have to mean expense but does mean dedicated time reading online at the least and being connected. A job isn't going to land in your lap in this field, but the more you can demonstrate awareness and knowledge the better when opportunities arise. It also seems to me that there are increasing opportunities to pursue curating and research in the field through independent and freelance work. You don't have to aim for an institution to gain experience and get things rolling.