What a year it’s been for our graduates. First the unprecedented complexity of dealing with studying around a global pandemic, and all the emotional anxieties manifesting from not having human support at such a critical life moment, followed by the horrific death of George Floyd and the rising up of many in protest that Black Lives Matter. We’ve subsequently seen the media, arts and the photography industry finally called out for its colourblindness and systemic racism, and its complicity in not doing enough to amplify and support artists of colour.
We’ve witnessed the photography community respond to both issues with a suitable range of emotions; frustration, rage, exasperation; but also kindness, sensitivity and generosity. Despite many photographers being low income workers, some of the most important recent initiatives have been borne from individuals out of these two parallel situations, notably Pictures for Elmhurst, which raised $1.3m for the US hospital through its print sale, Photographs for Trussell Trust which similarly raised £620,000 for the food bank, and See In Black, an important new collective of Black photographers raising funds via prints for a variety of Black advancement charities. Many comparable initiatives continue to thrive and our community welcomes it.
Undoubtedly a strange and interesting time to be a photographer. But what kind of a photographer? This is a question I pose to the students during our reviews. Many have responded to the recent challenges by rejecting the methods and institutions that have built dysfunctional and corrupted systems; the concept of the gallery, the validity of the artist, the deconstruction of truth. They show me works that are rooted in their personal history, collective identity and individual passions, presenting a refreshing narrative in an industry often so preoccupied with the other.
One could argue there’s never been a more important time to be a visual documentarian. Photography has always been the tool of the curious, but it’s also been the tool of colonialism and in many cases, cultural suppression. Recent events have raised and re-examined ongoing and necessary debates around authenticity, authorship and the gaze within art and photography. Coupled with the age of fake news, the concept of the who’s behind the lens, and inevitably then, who is looking at whom, become a key consideration in disseminating and understanding a 360-degree view of the news and an ever-increasing flow of online content. It is said that photography can be a tool for change. Let’s hope that the gatekeepers are listening, and that we begin to see a more varied viewpoint in our infinite feeds.
We’ve seen the whole world move online. To coin a recent phrase, we’ve ‘pivoted’. Our graduates have ‘pivoted’ and navigated their ‘new normal’ with grace and innovation in the creation of this online platform. Three Men Make a Tiger, it’s content and its festival program, may not have existed if not for the need for a circumstantial reaction. It may be an unsatisfying and perhaps un-ceremonial end to three years hard graft, but as a result, the platform can be accessed by far more individuals than the standard, London-centric degree show often favoured by UK universities. It has a legacy. Better yet, there’s not a warm beer in sight.
Fiona Rogers is the founder of Firecracker. She is also Magnum Photos Global Business Development Manager, and has been a judge for various competitions including the Mack First Book Award and the Getty Images Grant for Editorial Photography.