This interview was originally commissioned by Open Eye Gallery for their Socially Engaged Photography Blog. Open Eye Gallery invite producers and photographers working in the field to get together to discuss their current projects. You can see the original interview here: https://openeye.org.uk/blog/interview-with-becky-warnock-and-kate-watson-on-socially-engaged-practice/
As the Open Eye Gallery’s interviewer-in-residence, I met Becky Warnock and Kate Watson, who run Terms of Engagement to talk about the project, the ideas behind it as well as their own practice and ideas regarding socially engaged practice. Find more on Terms of Engagement, Becky and Kate.
Sara: Hi, it’s lovely to meet you both. Becky, could you tell me a little bit about your background and your practice?
Becky: I initially trained in theatre. The first time I picked up a camera was in my 20s, and I learned photography because I wanted to document what I was doing in theatre workshops at the time then transferred after quite quickly.
These days, I would describe my practice as broadly visual arts rather than specifically photography. I am also really enjoying writing which is a new element that I wasn’t really interested in before.
I focus on photography as a starting point rather than a destination, how photography can be a place to photograph things that are difficult to talk about. A lot of my recent work has been about mental health and how photography can bring people together and start conversations.
Sara: Could you describe what socially engaged practice means for you and how it comes into your projects and your practice?
Becky: I have been thinking about this more recently because I had a shift in how my practice works. All my projects come from a space of working with people in various different ways, often through a workshopping process or supporting people to explore ideas or things that are difficult through creative methods. Some projects we make work together, others have the workshop as the beginning of an idea, an exploration that leads to the work.
I feel strongly that the workshop is not part of my practice, but it is my practice. Those workshop spaces and facilitation is an art form in itself.
Sara. Yeah, that is how I would see socially engaged practice too, using art to start conversations.
You describe yourself as an artist and organiser, do they add up into your practice or are they different sides of your art and practice?
Becky: Part of that comes from being involved in different kinds of social change movements and agenda, an activist space. I wouldn’t describe myself as an activist but as an organiser being part of projects that have explicit intention. So, I think of them as slightly different roles but very connected.
Sara: For me (and many people) activist is a loaded term, I really love your way of reclaiming the word being an artist and organiser.
Becky: Exactly. My way of being part of activist movements is a slightly gentler approach. It offers me slower possibilities of working with people, that’s what I am interested in.
Sara: The way you describe your practice, it is what you do. Working with groups of people but deeper rather than on a bigger scale.
Becky: These days I would probably also say that I am an educator as well because I do lecture a lot more. I teach photography. I do feel that is also part of my practice – they are all connected elements in my practice.
Sara: Can I ask you Kate, what is your practice and how has it evolved?
Kate: My background is in fine arts, I studied painting and printmaking. My work then largely focused on latent forms of violence – I was interested in the representation, authorship and the power structures involved in the making and reading of images, particularly the one-sidedness of their media representation – the absence of voice of the ‘subject’. This interest led me to my MA in Human Rights and International politics, and I went on to work with NGOs on comms and storytelling. It felt that I was encountering the same problem – the lack of space for the ‘subject’/person involved in these international development projects where the narratives were often lacking a voice. I became interested in how visual and participatory methods could be used to centre voice and support people to have increased autonomy over how they are represented, how their stories are told. For the past 12 years I have worked independently and with different organisations leading on projects that use participatory and collaborative visual methods with community groups and support them to represent their experiences and redefine the issues that are affecting them. How this looks is different for each project or organisation, but elements of representation, co-authorship and co-production remain central to the process of generating work through participatory methods, collaboration and collective action.
Sara: How has your own practice shifted? How is it different from working for organisations?
Kate: More recently, I have had more time to develop my individual practice. This work has elements of socially engaged practice, collaborative working and participatory methods but moving away from organisations that work within set methodologies has been an opportunity to reconsider some of these ideas and their applications. To interrogate them further and reflect on their nuances. Within my own projects, I feel it is important to recognise that I have an arts background and I have access to different skills and resources that could be drawn upon and could enhance a project rather than the idea of being an ‘objective’ facilitator. I don’t believe that as a facilitator you can truly be objective, or that even if it was possible, it would necessarily be a good thing – I think we bring elements of ourselves and these can be real strengths as long as we are checking in on our power and balancing what we are bringing and what we are asking from participants – what the exchange is. I am really interested in this.
Sara: I agree, I don’t think you can stay objective, of course you are bringing your ideas and skills, I think what is needed is a constant check in how much it is influencing others or supporting them to express their own views.
What does socially engaged practice mean to you; how would you describe it?
Kate: One of the things we tried to do with Term of Engagement is not pin down what socially engaged practice is. How people understand it and apply it within the field can be so different. In my approach I would draw on different theories, pedagogies and facilitation methods like participatory action research, critical pedagogy, ethics of care. I always include these in the projects but also, it’s dependent on the specifics of the projects and groups I am working with. If I work independently or for an organisation I would lean on the various elements to a different extent. I could be co-producing work alongside the group, and then as an ‘artist’ I might be more present. In other projects, I might take on more of a facilitator role, stepping back and focusing on creating a supportive space for different modes of engagements and facilitating space for dialogue. However, in both these examples, the idea of exchange is important – I could be bringing skills from my own art as well as those from the group too, they are often bringing so would offer learning and insight around the issues that we are looking at.
I think it is this exchange and the balance of the exchange is what distinguishes a socially engaged arts practice and photography from other approaches.
Sara: Can you separate being an artist and a facilitator when working in a socially engaged way? Do you have to be a facilitator to be a socially engaged practitioner? I think no, but what do you think?
Becky: You can definitely be a facilitator without being an artist and an artist without being a facilitator as well as an artist who facilitates. It is a skillset you can develop. As a socially engaged practitioner, it might include facilitation within your practice but not necessarily.
Kate: I agree with Becky – you don’t have to be a facilitator (a term that is slightly tricky) but to be a good socially engaged artist or practitioner you would want to draw upon and understand different methods of facilitation to create a space where participants feel safe and confident to take risks creatively or explore issues. So, I think good socially engaged practitioners certainly draw upon different facilitation strategies.
Becky: I agree, it is often about holding space for somebody and that comes from facilitation skills.
I feel sometimes that facilitation doesn’t get enough space or thought. It is often assumed that you can just teach someone to facilitate, but I think the real beauty of it is that it can be developed, and it is personal; it should be celebrated more. Kate and I are very different facilitators and I think it’s one of the ways that we work together well is that we draw on different parts of both of our personalities. We balance each other out through that.
Kate: It worked well for Terms of Engagement, and we’ve also worked together previously in the past. We’re both bringing different things that make it work.
Sara: Amazing. So how did you meet and how did you come to Terms of Engagement as an idea and into a practical course?
Kate: Becky and I used to work together, we met eight or so years ago. We became friends then. How Terms of Engagement came about was following many discussions on socially engaged practice and the increased interest in it; new and various ‘collaborative’ ways of making work. Within this I felt that terms such as ‘collaboration’ and ‘participatory’ were increasingly being used as a ‘silver bullet’ to address the ethical issues that arise in all kinds of creative representation, and particularly when you are working with different community groups or ‘non-artists’. We felt it was an important time to critically reflect on that and think about what these terms (e.g. ethical engagement, participation, representation) actually mean in practice.
The idea was to not narrow down those definitions but to think more of how they are being understood by different practitioners and people interested in socially engaged practice. We wanted to use the project as a catalyst to think how they/we are applying these ideas in our practices and what can we learn from this: Is there a place for a common language and understanding within the terminology we use, or would that be reductive or redundant? This was our starting point; selecting key terms and then inviting different practitioners to unpack those and bring their understanding into a discussion within the project
Becky: Yes, it was born out of a frustration that these words and terms are used so freely but they describe so many different things. We wanted to understand what everyone meant by those terms as they mean so many things for people even within the same project. We wanted to understand and really think about that. I think language is not expansive enough and in Terms of Engagement it was an attempt to make a space where we could play with that a bit.
Sara: Did the people you invited were connected through their practice of how they use the terms or chose people with different ideas of the same terms to show the complexity of the terms? What was the process of inviting practitioners to lead the sessions in your course?
Becky: We started with the terms we identified; everything comes back to them. Then we looked around to see who was doing interesting things with these words and ideas. The invitation was a question of how they understood that term in their practice and applied it working with people.
The intention moving forward with Terms of Engagement is to come back to similar terms and invite more people to share their ideas and practice and create this beautiful space where the different practices are reflected on.
Sara: It sounds like a dialogue between artists. The course I saw was about curation, was that just one angle to focus on?
Becky: Yes, the first iteration of the project was more about socially engaged practice more broadly. The second cohort was thinking about curation with a socially engaged practice. This was an invitation from the Photographer’s Gallery. We are thinking what our third iteration might look like and what those terms could be. The first one was a real pilot, it was done during lockdown so it was all online.
Kate: Both iterations of the projects were hugely supported by LCC. For the first iteration, the key terms we chose were Inclusive Practice, Ethical Engagements and Representation – opportunities and possibilities. This was run online, it was just when we were coming out of lockdown, and it was decided it would be online as people will be more comfortable contributing to that. It worked well but it was quite condensed as it was a three-day format. The feedback we got was really positive and some of the people involved then came on to the second project run in partnership with LCC and the Photographer’s Gallery, which explored socially engaged practice within the scope of curatorial practice. It was interesting as neither Becky or I would identify ourselves as curators, so that pushed us out of our comfort zones and encouraged us thinking about how socially engaged practice applies in this field, what are the broader ideas and what are the similarities. We actually found a lot of crossovers when you are thinking about strategies to make a community group more comfortable about accessing the work or creating the work; there are similar lessons about audience engagement and audience becoming more centred at the work.
It brought on different practitioners, some who identify as curators, some who didn’t view themselves as this. It shifted the dialogue, and it was really interesting.
Becky: I think one of the most interesting things about socially engaged practice is that anyone who works in that way will take on different roles throughout the project as needed (from producer and facilitator to youth worker, artist and curator).
Sara: It sounds interesting to think how fluid it is, you are not having fixed roles. I have a museum background and, in the museum, and outreach, you are locked into your role. It sounds amazing and demanding as well.
Becky: Yeah, when you are working with a group or with a partner, you can share that you are not sure and ask for their input. The best part of working with people this way is that you don’t always have to know.
Sara: I think it’s just as valuable. Museums don’t do that, as institutions who are there for education and preserving culture and history, they don’t often admit that they don’t know and ask their communities ideas. It is where the sector is trying to get to but it still seems far.
Who signed up for the second one? Museum practitioners or socially engaged practitioners who wanted to learn how to do their curating?
Becky: Bit of both, some academics, researchers, artists, students, and people who were not sure what to do next. It was a mix of backgrounds and experiences which we always wanted for the project.
Sara: What was the main goal when you started this project and what is it you actually got from it? I would imagine it’s pretty fluid and in the moment what you get, but did you have a concrete idea before starting?
Becky: The main idea was a workshop programme that is the core identity of Terms of Engagement, where people come together and reflect on terms in creative and interesting ways. Also learn collectively, learning as a group. On top of that, for each of the iterations, we are making a publication. We just finished the first one, the second one we are finalising the funding for. In each of the publications the artist that we invited to think about the terms contribute a piece but also all the participants (reflections and their ideas on the project). The publication is intended to be democratic; all of the ideas and reflections are in there together.
Sara: Is that something you are going to use or encourage people to read while studying these terms or is that something anybody can pick up and read these ideas?
Becky: Yes, definitely both. It has been a relatively small run, but we are doing a bigger run after Christmas. It will be available if people are interested, they can get a copy from us. It is full of wonderful ideas.
Sara: And you are thinking of the third one for ideas? Is it in a thinking process or already have some ideas but finalising them?
Becky: Yes, we are in conversations with LCC about what it could be as they continue to support it, but we don’t know exactly how it will look or how external people would be involved with.
Sara: From the participants, did you get feedback on how it changed their thinking, ideas or practice?
Kate: In general, both the courses had moments after it when participants said they had more questions than when they started. Becky and I are happy about that, as it feels like a departure point for their ideas and a chance for us all to re-consider or consider further elements of our practice. For the publication, we were keen not to make a distinction between the artists or practitioners we invited and those who signed up to take part. That is why we did the publication so everyone would contribute and could learn something from each other and share best practices. For some of the contributors, who could be seen as ‘more established’ or ‘more experienced’, they fed back that they valued having the space we created where they could reflect on their own practice – to step back and question the elements of their practice.