The title of Tanya Ahmed’s exhibition (I call this place home) at Bank Street Arts in Sheffield echoes from the earlier series by Bruce Davidson that inspired her work. The introduction to Davidson’s book starts with the line “What you call a ghetto, I call my home” and whilst the Magnum photographer was quoting one of his subjects, Tanya’s could actually claim the area is her home, and actually photographed her friends, neighbours and her environment. As such, this is not just a “copy” of Davidson’s work, rather it uses the same starting point, then grows in a different direction, informed by Davidson but with its own goals to achieve.
The exhibition was in the main room of the gallery, and featured 13 photographs from the submission (which originally contained 18 photographs), a display cabinet with a series of postcards and a copy of Davidson’s book.
When I look at Davidson’s photographs, I feel they’re generally dark and voyeuristic. I see the photographs of a social documentary photographer who is looking to the ‘Other’, making political photographs with a desire to drive a degree of change. His photographs show a gritty side of E100th Street, reinforcing what I would anticipate having been the outsiders view of the area – I’m too young to know for sure, my impression (rightly or wrongly) is based on the way it has been painted by cinema. I see Tanya’s photographs as being different, and with a different agenda although still pushing to inform the viewer about the area.
For a start, the images shown in the gallery tend to be much airier, gone are the dark and gritty interiors, replaced by much lighter rooms as we can see in the photograph below:
This airiness will come from various sources; from the renovation of the area and contemporary interior design fashions, through to the desire of both the photographer and the family in question, who are shown sitting within their home. This gives rise to an important difference to the two projects, and to a fundamental reason why I don’t believe Tanya’s work is copying Davidson’s (this question was raised in discussion). Davidson went in and photographed what he saw. Yes, there are posed photographs but I find it hard to believe that the people in question will have always wanted to present themselves in such a manner (here, for example), and this goes back to what I meant when I said I found his photographs to be voyeuristic, and a perceived connection to the “beggar photography” of Walker Evans et al in the 1930s. Tanya, on the other hand, appears to have collaborated far more with the subjects, they have posed as they wanted. I understand Tanya asked for them to leave their home as it normally is, but that they’d (naturally) been given a tidy up before she arrived with her camera; this reminds me somewhat of the Stranger series by Shizuka Yokomizo – people who have a certain pride in themselves may not want to be seen amidst their normal everyday clutter, respectability takes over. In this respect, I also felt a connection with the family portrait series by Thomas Struth…
This collaboration and Tanya’s association with the people and the block mean that the photographs are far more sympathetic than anything done by Davidson. Tanya looks to have gone in with a view of full disclosure of why the photographs have been taken, with Davidson I’m not so sure. Certainly, I consider it unlikely that his subjects ever saw the exhibition or the book of his photographs, visiting a gallery like MoMA used to be the reserved for the upper classes and back in the late 60’s I guess the history of racial segregation in America will have further ensured this be the case – Davidson’s photographs were taken in the time around when Martin Luther King was shot. If we consider that Tanya is bringing Davidson’s project up to date, she has done it with the eye of an insider, rather than an outsider, and has shown life on the block far more positively, and from a different subjective viewpoint. I said that Davidson wanted to drive a degree of social change, Tanya’s photographs go towards illustrating this change has happened (and is still happening?) and therefore can be seen to have its own political agenda; to illustrate to the viewer that the block is not what it once was, and it does this well.
It was a really good experience to see the work of a fellow student on the wall of an exhibition space and a huge honour for Tanya to lead the way with her OCA degree show. The work in itself was excellent, and sets a high bar for the rest of us to try to meet. The actual study visit itself was also one of the more accessible ones in that there was a small number of students and a small number of prints to look at, so everyone would see them all and this then lead to good discussion. Everyone could be involved, and they were, from those who had been with OCA for just a few weeks to those of us who had been around the block and approaching the end of the degree pathway. An excellent initiative from the OCA, and I look forward to seeing where future events might pop up, for all of the creative disciplines.
Moving on from Bank Street, there was another student show on at Sheffield Hallam. Now, I’m not going to go too deep into what I thought here, other than to say I was underwhelmed. All I can hope is that others will see my own work in a better light than what I saw in this group show…
Rob Brisco is a level 3 Photography student at the OCA and this report is a shortened version of his learning log entry which can be read here.