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Article: Paul Alexander Knox on SHIFTS

Poster © Paul Alexander Knox
Posted on: 9 January 2023

Paul Alexander Knox reflects on developing his professional practice through the NEPN SHIFTS Professional Development Bursary Programme, with an insight into mentoring, workshops and his future plans.


What I hoped to achieve?

In embarking on the SHIFTS Bursary, I wanted to develop a strategy to share my work in a more meaningful way; to share the whole story and not just make ‘content’. I chose to focus on my work documenting Pop Recs Ltd, charting their evolution from an empty shop into a record store, live music venue, cafe and community hub over 9 years and 4 venues.  I had been given full access to document all aspects of the project from day one, working with Dave Harper, the visionary behind this project, and the community that grew around him. When Dave died in 2021 it was heart breaking. I wanted to honour him and what he created. The scope and scale of this project was immense and had so much emotional weight I needed help to plan the practical steps to edit, shape and share this work.

Creating a professional development plan with the help and guidance of NEPN was incredibly helpful. I was able to form a clear strategy, broken down into manageable sections which became a useful tool to make things less overwhelming.


Pop Recs © Paul Alexander Knox

Pop Recs © Paul Alexander Knox

What I did?


Working with Syd Shelton, a photographer I deeply admire, has benefited me greatly. Following an initial meeting to hear about the work, he asked to see the entire archive of images. He took the time to look at over 1200 images. Syd helped highlight the images that capture the energy and the community. We exchanged numerous emails and met several times on Zoom, which enabled us to share images, start to sequence the work and explore several options for text and captions.

The strength in Syd’s work isn’t just the iconic images of world famous bands, it’s the entire atmosphere of the events. Having the balance of the crowd and the performers is vital. Talking to him about his work and conversations around my work made me relook at my initial edit and encouraged me to bring in photographs that I had previously overlooked.


I attended professional development workshops programmed by NEPN including:

  • Effective Websites for Photographers with Zoe Whishaw.

All the workshops were interesting and thought provoking, but I found the InDesign Workshop most useful. The skills taught are skills I will use regularly. I really enjoyed being in a shared learning space; meeting face to face and being able to support each other. The practical nature of the workshop meant I could make a zine and get feedback both from my peers and the course leaders. My knowledge of InDesign was very limited but now I feel much more confident using the software.


I felt very supported by both Amanda and Susanne and all connected with the NEPN as well as the other Bursary holders. I was in the midst of very difficult times.  My confidence was low and I was struggling to plan the next steps with my practice.  With Susanne and Amanda’s support, I was able to structure a professional development plan that will continue to benefit me as I move forward.


What I learned and achieved

The bursary came at a crucial time for me, as I felt overwhelmed by the volume of images and the emotional weight they all carry. The financial support enabled me to concentrate on my practice without worrying quite so much about bills. It bought me the time to do the work.

Through this process I realised I have strong bodies of work which benefit no one by just sitting on hard drives. Lack of confidence, lack of objectivity and isolated working was inhibiting my progress. Getting the external help reflected back that there are a lot of things I do know but that I wasn’t putting them into practice. The precarious nature of being freelance is difficult, always finding funding, keeping motivated and making new work. It’s hard to maintain the level of energy needed when working in isolation. Having regular contact with NEPN and peers has helped me refocus attention by having targets and deadlines. It has given me the ‘kick up the backside’ I needed.

During this time, I achieved a great deal:

  • I organised 9 years of work into one hard drive with chronological folders;
  • I re-edited the work drawing out vignettes and the wider narrative arc;
  • I re-processed older digital negs to maintain a strong aesthetic throughout;
  • I discussed fund raising options for the next steps;
  • I connected with various writers to help bring the narrative of the project to life;
  • I learned the skills to start to plan a book.

Extending the timeframe of the bursary was a huge benefit to me. Initially the schedule was quite short, and I would recommend that in future bursary awards that a longer period is utilised, as it gives more time for reflection and refinement.


What I now plan to do moving forward

I am now going to use the tools I gained and the connections I made to create a book charting the story of Pop Recs Ltd. Crucially, this will require further funding but I have been able to develop a fundraising strategy looking both at public funding and a crowdfunded campaign.

Through the editing process I began to see the stories that need to expand.

  • Bringing in other voices through interviews – interview the people who have been a part of this project though the last decade;
  • Take new portraits in dialogue with the interviews;
  • Work with a writer to capture the energy and articulate the importance of Pop Recs Ltd.

As my confidence has grown, I have felt able to reach out and connect with several key individuals working within the music industry, both locally and nationally, who are willing to help support and/or promote the work in the future.

The strength of my practice lies in my ability to connect with individual people and wider communities to create bodies of work that tell in-depth stories. I needed support to translate this long-term project into various contexts that can connect with the wider public through publications, dialogues, and exhibitions. The mentoring, one-on-one peer sessions and wider network support was invaluable to me in achieving this.

Paul Alexander Knox was one of four NE-based photographers selected following an open call for the SHIFTS Professional Development Bursary Programme, undertaken in 2022.
The programme offered a bursary, access to paid time of mentors (identified by photographers and NEPN), training budget, peer support discussions and access to the SHIFTS workshops programmed for all regional photographers throughout 2022.  Photographers were supported to develop their own Professional Development Plans, mentored by Amanda Ritson of NEPN and Independent Consultant Dr Susanne Burns.

Paul is a documentary photographer working to examine social and cultural structures both locally and globally. In the North East of England, Paul’s work focuses on industrial history and the changing social structure impacted by the loss of industry, as seen through changes in social housing and land use. His long-term project Pop Recs Ltd explores the development of an important grass-roots cultural hub in the centre of Sunderland and the community which has grown with it.

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