This interview was originally commissioned by Open Eye Gallery as part of the Socially Engaged Photography Network. Open Eye Gallery invite producers and photographers working in the field to get together to discuss their current projects for the A Spotlight On… series. You can see the original interview here: https://openeye.org.uk/blog/a-spotlight-on-marie-smith/
I spoke with Marie (@marie_elaina) about her practice, addressing themes such as identity, memory, environment, death, mental health and wellbeing and how her experience as a Black woman has impacted her work.
Sara – I wanted to tell you first that I really liked your writing and reflecting on mental health and showing your and others’ experiences as well, it resonated with me very much, so thank you.
Marie – That is lovely to hear, thank you.
How did you get into photography, and how much has it shifted over the years or through projects?
I got into photography properly in 2015, when I started to pick up a camera and make work with some intention and purpose behind it. I did my MA in history and photography previously, which led me to have an understanding of the history of photography, and where I can situate myself as an artist. It also gave me an understanding of what photography was and what it means now in this current context.
I started off doing digital, but I didn’t like it so I switched to analogue. However, I now engage in both methods as I have learnt that that the equipment does not define the outcome of the work.
The analogue process was really helpful because it’s really slow. You have to learn about technique, science and the mechanics of photography. I also started to learn what exactly I wanted to photograph. I started to try to think of ways to incorporate writing into my work and that eventually became my aesthetics. It’s my way of looking at the current interior state of mind and using writing as a visual language. And then everything else caught up – me talking about identity, mental health.
I’m wondering if you could tell me what socially engaged photography means to you and how your practice can fit in it.
I suppose I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m a socially engaged photographer, but I think there are elements of socially engaged practice, which fits what I do. The Whispering for Help project is the first time that I’ve worked with people I don’t know. I’ve had to learn new skills, ways of working and talking to people, trying to get my message across and trying to work ethically. I think socially engaged practice is very much about collaboration, working with communities and developing relationships and making sure that you’re there to facilitate their needs and also do what you want to do but not for the sake of somebody else. It is about raising awareness or helping communities talk about a subject. I think socially engaged practice and its methodology applies to me and doing the Crossing Sectors programme was really helpful to learn some new ways of doing socially engaged practice and learn the key things you always need to remember. So, for me socially engaged practice is more of a mantra, a way where your project is cohesive, ethical and reflective of the people that you are capturing in your images.
Do you normally work on projects in London, or do you reach out to other regions?
No, my work has been based in London. I think it is something I would like to do – work with some communities outside of London. I think Whispering for Help could have a potential scope beyond where I am now. COVID prohibits me from going out and doing the portraits. Some of the most recent photos I did do online. It would have been nice to meet them in person and have that one-to-one experience with them rather than just online.
I’m sure you could have both maybe in the future. Could you tell me more about that project – how it started and how you’ll go forward post-COVID?
Whispering for Help started in 2019 and it was initiated from my own experience. I started to make work about my mental health and well-being. Then I just got this feeling that I wanted to push this – the concern, query, curiosity – talking about mental health. I was looking at statistics, reading and researching, looking at the media and I did not see enough representations of colour and thought that there was a gap. I couldn’t see anyone that looked like me or the people I knew. Also, in the readings I found a lot of tropes and stereotypes about the silence – salvation of women, the family orientated South East Asian woman, the angry Black women or the very high rates of detentions in mental health hospitals for Afro Caribbean people. But within all those statistics where are the women? I couldn’t hear them; I couldn’t see their voices and I thought this project was a way for me to try and counter that. To try and create a space for them to talk about their experience – about how they felt in their own words. This is the reason why there’s handwritten text next to the portraits so they can have agency about how they represented.
It never occurred to me that I would just take a portrait and that’s it. It just didn’t seem enough. The writing side has been really interesting and informative, the women who took part so far have appreciated and understood what the writing meant for the project.
How did you reach out to find your participants for this project?
I did like a test portrait of myself, and I put that on my website, and then I created a project proposal and some guiding questions for people to use as prompts for their writing if they wanted them. Then I did a call out on social media (through friends of friends) and that’s how I initially met the women who were part of the project. And then I kind of continued with that and it’s working. During the pandemic I was still able to kind of capture two portraits, so managed to adapt it for the current situation. I also got funding from the Arts Council which enabled me to create a website, where I can demonstrate my progress. The funding will allow me to do workshops in the near future where I can get people together collectively with shared experiences. Polaroid cameras will be their way of playing with the idea of taking pictures being in the picture, and then once they’re used to that role, they can then come aside with me and take their portrait.
This is a new way of working for me as I’ve never done workshops before. I’m also partnering with a couple of charities in London, but it would be also great to go out with London and establish a methodology that works. It’ll have to be outside so that it’s COVID safe. The theme of nature was coming up a lot like an idea of safe space, the women were seeking solace and nature landscape. It feels like a nice theme to continue with, so that’s why portraits will be outside from now on. It also goes in theme with my work where nature has been becoming quite prevalent.
I saw your Whatever brings me Solace and Work in Progress projects, which focus on silence, nature and peace and they looked so beautiful.
Yeah, it’s nice. Through lockdown, I have been going on walks and parks are always so busy, so it’s hard to find that space of solace. But I am thankful that parks are there, I think everyone is appreciating them more now.
Do you think you representing others and mental health is your way of engaging with activism? Focusing on people who are not quite visible through art photography?
I don’t know if I would say that I was an activist. I feel that I am advocating for people.
I wanted to ask about social media. You mentioned that you did your call-out on social media and you also share a lot of your work and process there. Is it how you connect with people or how you show your work to people?
Yeah – I am making work right now about nature and mental health that I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing with and that’s okay. The series itself will lead on to other things eventually, but now I’m just trying to be a bit more playful, a bit more experimental and to show my process more. Social media is a way for people to get to know me. I am allowing myself to show a bit more of myself, which is helpful for me but also for people to see where I’m coming from.
I agree, I do like it when it’s not just the perfect pictures, but you see the person behind it.
I think with social media you can just show that one side of you with a professional filter and I do want to show that side of myself, but equally, I also want it to be open. My work is open anyways – talking about my mental health in a way that is quite explicit.
I read and saw some of your photos of grief and losing parents and I lost my father as well and it resonated with me so much. I felt that it was very brave to show it because I’m still not okay to talk about it and it was incredible to see that you were talking and showing your work about it.
Thank you. It is a difficult subject, but I find that work is cathartic to an extent, I need to get it out of my system somehow. Making work is a good way for me to physically explore and process how I feel. I can create some way of closure for myself with it.
Heritage of the Memory is a beautiful title for it. You are focusing on memories, photography, and heritage of a family.
This series is a work in progress, and I’ve been trying to play around with the archive of my family. I like old pictures and that is something I’ve been trying to visualise for the past few years. Heritage is meant to be the family history and memory about the relationship between memories and photography. I think memories are photographic in a way – how you think about them, how you describe them. And then you’ve got a photographic object which is meant to be an object to keep as a memento, but also to prove that you existed, therefore, create a legacy.
My point to think about legacy is why I fit into it now that my parents are not with me anymore. I was part of a nuclear family, still part of it but differently now and I am trying to find a way to talk about it.
This sounds very anthropological – thinking of memory, heritage and legacy.
Yeah, I think that’s where the History MA comes in; the academic and analytical way of thinking I developed. Anthropology and psychology interest me and I find that they’re transferrable to photographs as well. Think how communities were documented – ideas of eugenics for example. Photography has a dark history in terms of how some people be subjugated through the photographic image and how you’re told that certain things don’t exist – like Black family don’t exist. Ideas enforced how black fathers are absent fathers and black mothers are always single mothers. And family does exist because I’m part of one. It is my way of re-assessing how people are treating the stereotypes.
Can I ask, I know that we tend to study more stereotypes or larger history that does not focus on people and stories much? Do you think that with your projects you’re creating your own stories in a way because you couldn’t learn it through education or through representation? Do you think it’s important that you put yourself in your projects, show your legacy and your truth because it has not been represented right or enough?
Yeah, I think even though I worked and studied in academic institutions I’ve always looked outside institutions for learning. I wouldn’t just go to the university library, but also to the British Library, Stuart Hall Library, go to Black Cultural Archives (BCA) or visit the Library of Congress online. This way of researching and looking is really important and prevalent with a lot of artists of colour. So many times, we’re told that we don’t exist, our histories don’t exist, and we have to go looking for those histories to find them so that we can try and get that agency back about how we’re represented. For me it’s the normal way of working, not to have that expectation – sometimes you’re not going to find the answers. You have to go look beyond to find those answers. That has been my methodology not just for The Heritage of Memory but also for Whispering for Help. I have been going to places like Mind or Mental Health Foundation where I would see the bare bones of an answer, but if I wanted to go deeper, I knew I had to go and find those answers myself. I couldn’t necessarily rely on those institutions because it’s not giving you enough information and you need to go searching for that information yourself.
Can we talk a bit more about your lockdown experience – we talked about it a little bit, but how has it been mentally or how productive were you?
I was very much in survival mode when the pandemic started, it was very difficult, and I wasn’t creative. I was seeing all these people encouraging and showing off various lockdown projects and hobbies and I felt that was too much with all these people dying, you’re locked in your house, you can’t do anything or go anywhere. I understood that it was reflecting on the idea that we’re not allowed to rest, we have to use every moment for doing something otherwise we’re wasting our time. I decided not to do that and slow things down. I wasn’t making anything for months.
I had an Instax camera, and I was just taking photographs on that. It wasn’t about projects; it was just the act of taking a picture. It wasn’t until later in the year when I started to think about making work and actually make some work. The recent pictures of nature are all from during the winter. It just took me a while to get my head around everything and understand what I wanted to do.
I still find it very difficult but going for walks and having my camera has definitely been helpful.
Tell me about those new pictures of collages. Is it a new way that you started to experiment with or is that something you’re trying to learn?
I’ve done collages before, and I always enjoyed the element of the physicality of it. I think collages are really fun, you get to create something new from something that has already existed. Collage is my way of being a bit more tactile with the material (tearing, ripping, drawing, sewing) not being so precious about them. I’ve really enjoyed making them because it gives endless possibilities.