It’s been four years since I contributed to a Foto8 Summershow exhibition. This year I submitted some of my work for the 2012 edition of the show, held at the Host Gallery in London. One of my images was selected and I thought I would share with the OCA community how I decided on which images I submitted.
Backed by the prestigious magazine Foto8, the Summershow attracts UK and international documentary photographers who know that the show has gained a reputation for exhibiting work that redefines and expands our understanding of the documentary genre. For this year’s edition a total of 3200 images were received and 159 were selected for the exhibition – see press release.
Such stiff competition requires a very methodical approach to making a submission if you want your work to be amongst the 5% final chosen images.
What were they looking for?
There is no set theme and photographers are invited to submit personal, political or commissioned work undertaken recently, of any subject, style or genre, which engages or challenges the viewer, either to convey stories, raise questions or provoke feeling. Above all we encourage free expression and are keen to see new and creative approaches to the medium.
How many images?
You may make only one entry to the competition with UP TO THREE images to be considered as a sequence or individually.
I read the guidelines over and over again because every bit of information in them was relevant to the process of choosing which images to submit. I ruminated about them for over a week, mentally browsing my picture library and making preselections of my images. That’s before I actually sat down and got sucked into Lightroom to prepare the digital submission.
The following are some of the issues that I had to think about long and hard before parting with £20 and sending my entry.
- Three individual images or a sequence of three? This prompted further questions that I had to answer as honestly as possible. What kind of photographer am I? What do I do? Why am I taking photographs? What is the purpose of my photography?
- “…work that challenges the viewer…” what do they mean by that? What is it that they expect me to challenge, really? Preconceptions, social hierarchies, cultural understanding?
- “Above all we encourage free expression…creative approaches…” Does that mean that expression and creativity will have more specific weight than information and storytelling? Are they looking for more conceptual approaches to documentary?
I agonised on the above questions and trawled my stock of recent work, putting together a puzzle of submission guidelines, personal and commissioned work. I finally decided on three images that could be considered both as a sequence and individually. This was my submission:
A set of three images taken on commission for Tree Aid in 2011.
This is a summary of why I decided on these images in particular – deciding factors are not just purely visual:
- They work together to tell a story, that of people working to exhaustion in gold mines in Burkina for the sake of gold.
- They are the result of a genuine interaction between me as photographer and them as subjects of my photography – including the sleeping workers, to whom I spoke when they woke up soon after I took their picture. I feel my work was not only done for an ethical and worthwhile cause but also ethically produced. I feel it is legitimate to show it on an exhibition as long as I do not put my subjects out of context.
- They are visually uncluttered and the elements of design in them work well from a creative and expressive perspective. I believe they are photographs that attract the viewer’s attention, which is a pre-requisite for subsequently conveying information to them. I also thought that the first two images, being almost monochromatic, provided a balance for the highly saturated third image.
- In the first two images we can see the faces of the gold miners, but the face of the gold wearer remains anonymous in the third photograph. Interestingly, it is the gold miners in developing countries the ones whose faces we don’t see. I thought that the exhibition jury would pick up on the connotations of that.
The photograph of the two sleeping gold miners was selected by Foto8.
The final decision I had to make was to do with pricing the selected photograph. I had been paid for the job anyway; it was commissioned work. I felt awkward treating an image of two dusty Burkinabé gold miners as a commodity item. Isn’t an art gallery photograph a commodity object after all?
A can of worms.
So I priced the framed print at £350. The Host Gallery gets 50% of that. It has cost me £55 to print and frame it and a further £12 to send it by courier. And this is what my entry in the exhibition catalogue will read:
101. Jose Navarro
Séguénéga in northern Burkina Faso is suffering serious environmental damage due to the growth of gold mining. There are nine major mines where workers, mostly young men, are paid by the number of bags of stones they dig out. 90% of able people in northern Burkina have been drawn to these mines.
£350 (100% of the profit made by the photographer through print sales goes to support the work of Tree Aid in Burkina Faso – www.treeaid.org)
I had no desire to open that can of worms. I took the photograph of the two gold miners to tell a story. I was paid for it. And while a gallery is a perfectly good place to show documentary, I have no intention of making of those two miners objects of consumption.
That’s my answer to the questions I posed at the beginning of this article.
The exhibition will be on display at the Host Gallery 7th July – 18th Aug 2012. Make sure you go and see it because I have had a peek at the exhibition catalogue and there is very, very interesting work.