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Article: SHIFTS: Addressing the changing needs and working contexts of photographers in the North East

Posted on: 28 February 2023

Dr Susanne Burns reflects on the completion of the SHIFTS project supported by Arts Council England.

The SHIFTS programme led by NEPN comprised several different elements but at its heart lay a commitment to address the changing needs and working contexts of photographers as we move into a period of recovery and repositioning beyond the Covid-19 pandemic. It offered a series of talks and peer discussions, workshops and symposiums, exploring the shifting landscape for the production of meaningful photographic work and the ways in which relationships with audiences are evolving. It also offered four Bursaries to NE-based photographers for a new Professional Development Programme that would be bespoke to the needs of the individual photographers selected. At the onset we were clear that the project would impact on the photographers taking part in the range of activity, the Network itself and the wider sector.

As the evaluator for the programme, I have walked alongside the bursary holders as they progressed on their very different journeys and have learned a great deal in the process. The bursaries sought to support the four photographers to achieve “a shift/ step change in their practice.”

The selected photographers were at different career stages and yet it was apparent from the onset that they shared many needs and concerns and began connecting as a group immediately to take these forward. Peer discussions brought the group together throughout the programme and highlighted many shared concerns which we believe to be shared across the wider sector. For example: the ethics of their work and the fact that they were all motivated to make a difference through their work; concerns about balancing the relationship between the commercial and the conceptual in their work; a sense of their work being outwardly facing, and for some openly activist, which raised issues around safety, risk, rights and the role of the photographer in such contexts;  a shared interest in climate change.  Importantly, they all shared a desire to move towards a more sustainable practice.

It was this balance between the individual and the collective that made the journey through the programme so fascinating. Each photographer followed an individual pathway through the bursary made possible by mentoring, one to one support and advice and ongoing reflection and CPD planning. But at the same time, the group shared peer sessions and provided mutual support, and this was valued greatly by all photographers. Breaking down isolation, connecting people and providing opportunities to share ideas and practice was found to be invaluable. The impact was therefore two dimensional and it will be interesting to see if the group journey results in new initiatives or networks.

“Being part of a cohort has been one of the most positive elements of the SHIFTS scheme. As a freelance artist you’re often functioning outside of institutions which can be isolating at times. It can sometimes feel like you’re a one-(wo)man band, carrying out a broad range of duties – simultaneously – and learning as you go. Having a support network of friends and peers who understand these complexities should never be undervalued.”[1]

From the onset in the early pre- application workshops, we encouraged applicants to think about their values and what this meant for their practice. Values were a recurrent theme throughout the programme which the photographers returned to many times in one-to-one discussions as well as in group sessions. Dominant among these was the tension between the commercial and the conceptual and the implications this has for integrity in the work. 

“The relationship between values and personal commitments and beliefs and making it work in terms of realising assets and making a living.”

“The SHIFTS process helped me to define my process and visualize my place within the creative/documentary community and see my strengths and weaknesses more clearly while feeling more confident that I belong and have something to say and do. The process itself within NEPN and the peer group was aided by all of us very quickly seeing a connectivity between our work, our themes, our values and by the huge flexibility and adaptability not only of the first call out but also the ongoing process.”

Much learning has accrued about how to structure and manage programmes that effectively support artists to progress their practice at different career stages.  The bursary holders needed time to develop a degree of focus in their programme of activity. Almost all programmes were too ambitious at the onset and after activities have taken place or mentoring has occurred, time has had to be taken to reflect and recalibrate. Each individual has progressed at different paces, speeds and timing – often due to personal circumstances or commitments – balancing the bursary with life and work proved difficult for some.

“It has been hard to focus on the bursary when you are facing health challenges and it’s hard to find a balance when you are living in precarity.”

The uniqueness of the relationship between NEPN, the Northern Centre of Photography and the University of Sunderland offers enormous potential in relation to research, academic input to events and seminars as well as facilities and this provided opportunities for the bursary holders to feel part of a wider mutually supportive community.

“Long term access to facilities would be really valuable so we need to think what the return could be so there is mutual benefit.”

The learning that has accrued from the SHIFTS programme points to future needs that can be addressed by all stakeholders moving forward. There is a sector need for an ongoing programme of critical conversations and workshops that address the wide range of needs identified. The world is changing fast and as a sector the NE photography community need to be able to respond to this and develop sustainable careers, and this requires an ongoing programme of access to Continuing Professional Development.

There is a need for the network – the application process for the bursaries highlighted the isolation felt by many photographers in the NE. There isn’t felt to be a ‘community’ of photographers at present so the challenge is to find ways to support this to grow organically. The bursary holders have talked about the long-term sustainability of their network and conversations are ongoing but the role that can be played by NEPN will be critical to developing the photographic ecology of the region.

“NEPN’s integrated approach to networking, skill building and funded opportunities creates meaningful development that is vital to a sustainable career. What makes their work successful is the embedded understanding of what the ecosystem of lens-based practitioners need to sustain practice. This comes from conversations both formally and informally as well as being active in the wider community, the arts sector and academia.”

[1] All quotes in italics are drawn from the data gathered as part of the evaluation of the programme but are not attributed.

Dr Susanne Burns is an Independent Development Consultant with over 30 years of experience in the arts sector specialising in research, evaluation, strategy, and organisational development.  As Project Director of ArtWorks for the Paul Hamlyn Foundation (PHF) she led and facilitated a complex UK wide network supporting the participatory arts committed to peer learning and development, and she is currently an Evaluation Consultant for the Foundation. As a Churchill Fellow 2017, Susanne travelled across the USA and Australia looking at how artists are supported in their freelance careers.
Susanne is also an experienced trainer and qualified coach, an Action Learning Facilitator and mentor.
She has a D Prof from Middlesex University and is Visiting Professor at the University of Sunderland.

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