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Article: SHIFTS: Shifting the Photography Landscape in the North East

Posted on: 4 May 2022

Dr Susanne Burns reflects on the SHIFTS Photographer Bursary Scheme so far.




The SHIFTS programme led by NEPN (North East Photography Network) seeks 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 offers 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 audience are evolving. It also offers four Bursaries to NE-based photographers for a new Professional Development Programme that would be bespoke to the needs of the individual photographers selected.

In mid 2021, I was approached by Amanda Ritson to support the evaluation of the programme. I was thrilled to take up this opportunity as photography is a passion of mine and I knew that Amanda shared my approach to evaluation as learning. It seemed to both of us that this programme could represent a timely exploration of the role of photography in changing contexts whilst supporting photographers to look forward, considering new opportunities and sharing strategies for developing resilience and sustainable careers. At an organisational level we also felt that the programme could inform NEPN as it moved forward in meeting the changing needs of the sector.

During 2021/22 two Symposiums have taken place –Photography, Environment, Action and Photography in the 21st Century Museum. Talks have included Shahidul Alam, Laia Abril, Mark Neville and a series of workshops have been offered including Soil Chromatography with Hannah Fletcher, Preparing for a Practice-based PhD delivered in partnership with Creative Fuse and InDesign for Photo Publishing and Collaborative Publication Making with Folium Publishing.

In late 2021, NEPN invited applications from NE based photographers who wished to explore new areas of research and development, or new ways of making and sustaining their practice. The programme was designed to be bespoke rather than prescriptive, aiming to respond to the needs of the individuals, supporting them to progress their careers at a critical stage. There was no expectation of artistic output but instead, the scheme aimed to invest in the personal and professional development of the selected photographers.

The application process was supported by workshops that sought to build on assets – Recognising Your Assets – and these were attended by 19 people of whom 10 eventually applied. Apart from taking the participants through the application process, the focus was on encouraging the participants to explore their assets, strengths and values in order to identify what they each needed to further their career at this particular stage. We encouraged them to all think about the benefit to them at this time.  Participants were at different career stages and had varied entry points with some still being in HE and others well established in their careers. The guidance and criteria for applying for the Bursaries was clarified and for some attendees it was clearly seen as a stand-alone CPD opportunity rather that preparation for an application which was encouraging.

A panel made up of photographers Joanne Coates, Ingrid Pollard, Kuba Ryniewicz and NEPN selected 4 photographers – from a total of 26 applications – to receive the bursaries and a key factor in the selection process was the creation of a cohort, a group of photographers who might work well together as peers. The photographers selected were: Will Creswick, Paul Alexander Knox, Lorna MacKay and Simone Jimena Rudolphi.

The applications generated a lot of learning about the perceived needs of the sector and this is now informing the planning of the 2022/23 programme of workshops, talks and symposia. It has also led to many applicants having 1:1 sessions with Amanda as part of the follow up and feedback thus adding value to the process for them as well as extending the NEPN network into a wider geographical area.

Broadly speaking, the needs fell into four groups. The first category was a recurring factor in almost all applications and refers to the circumstances within which artists are currently working:

  • the need for time – ‘buying’ time to focus on creative needs rather than paying the rent, time for research and development, consolidating and auditing work and learning new skills and time for self;
  • the need for autonomy and agency“Pursue photography for my own projects not those of others.” “Greater control over the way my work is produced and engaged with.”
  • the need for community building, networks and peer support.

Interestingly, these needs have been identified by many artists in different disciplines as we emerge from the pandemic and seem to be reflective of the contexts within which freelance artists are now working.  The other three areas of need were more specific – business development, technical skills development and linked skills such as videography, making photo books, zines etc, writing about work and creating narratives and working in socially engaged ways.

The application process also highlighted sector trends and challenges:

  • There are a number of conceptual and contextual issues that appear to be preoccupying the sample of photographers who applied. For example, Brexit and its aftermath, the rise of the far right, social justice more generally and climate change;
  • Covid has impacted the sector profoundly. The existing precarity of the self-employed creative was compounded by the loss of income, the virus itself that has impacted on the health and well-being of some applicants and the multiple demands on time brought about by home-schooling and working from home. It also placed limitations on subjects and interaction with people;

The selected photographers have now embarked on a series of diagnostic and planning sessions that will lead to a bespoke personal development plan and programme of mentoring, training, travel and research. The photographers are at different career stages and yet they share many needs and concerns and are already connecting as a group to take these forward. It is exciting to be working with each of them at the start of their journeys and to support them in seeking to achieve “a shift/ step change in their practice” which will also hopefully also assist the wider sector as NEPN learns more about need in order to inform future programming.

Dr Susanne Burns
April 2022

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, is a Trustee of Amberside Trust and is Visiting Professor at the University of Sunderland.


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