Luvera on Participation

MA in Photography, Falmouth University, Module 3, Surfaces and Strategies, Week 3

Anthony Luvera spoke at the State of Photography II Conference I attended in Birmingham on 16th June 2017.  This was timely as my group was just completing the crowdsourced zine project that week.

Luvera (born 1974) is both a teacher and practitioner – his practice has, since 2001, moved from commercial photographic work to a collaborative form.  Palmer in his book Photography and Collaboration (2017) cites Luvera and provides a useful historic context to his work, ranging from the Half Moon Gallery in 1975 when the merger took place Jo Spence and Terry Dennett.  Palmer quotes Jessica Evan’s term (1997:11), the orthodoxies which “claimed for photography the status of art with its ideological baggage of expressive individualism” noting that there was a dismantling in progress.  He cites Su Braden (1983) in her book Committing Photography the movement in community photography as a reaction and counterpoint to the ‘high end’ galleries which only celebrated individualised art at that time.  The era saw the co-ownership of equipment essential for taking charge of image making and processing; cameras, darkroom, shows and magazines.  This led to “empowering participants…in the politics of distribution of mass media and its investment in retaining the status quo” (pp91).  The arts funding cuts that began in 1979 saw the demise of the essential funds to make holistic projects such as this viable, the activity thus became minimal for a period.  Luvera moved by serious social issues such as homelessness began to collect tokens for the purchase of cameras and processing.  His first foray was tentative and the strategy of learning by developing ideas prevailed and he now uses what he describes as ‘assisted portraits” using professional standard cameras, flash guns and remote shutter releases enabling complex control by the subjects after being offered a session to learn the techniques.  Film or digital images are then captured and any adjustments are done with his co-participants.

I recorded Luvera’s latest account of his work at the conference. He spoke about “communities being fluid’, whereby the ‘membership’ may vary and circumstances will change through the life of a project.  He placed emphasis on how is the “process briefed and predicted for participation”, thinking through the journey and most importantly how the conversation is engaged and encouraged, to create actual ownership.  He cautioned against funders and the fact that “commissioners sometimes predict and position the lead photographer”, I surmised that his body of work and visible outputs would enable him to withstand undue pressure to bow to a funders expectation of output as the very essence of the practice is to submit and facilitate the group to define its choices each time.  He stated a point suffixed with a question “using images there is representation – what is the power balance?” he notes the fun element and socialisation of defining a project and making the images, many of which are also aligned with textual statements of the personal.  As soon as an image finds its way onto social media, posters, conference presentation, there is an exposure; an audience beyond the group.  I assume that this is the most delicate and sensitised forum for debate and decisions with a mixture of fear and excitement.  Luvera cited an example of one participant deciding that their portrait could not be shown on the London Underground station displays; it was able to be removed; this exemplifies the difference between the notion of display and the reality of visible experiencing your own portrait to a huge audience.  Fundamentally Luvera is providing a voice to his groups.  Not going Shopping (Brighton) and the forthcoming Let us Eat Cake (Belfast) are visible manifestations of his teams’ work.  He insists that a project starts with an open view of its benefits, values, outputs they become cemented only when you ask the participants.  This conversation would help to define audiences for the work, a question all photographers and facilitators should be asking.  I suspect that his ethical positioning would prevent Luvera from making work that defies the wishes, expectation and involvement of his collaborators and this it is infused with authenticity.

Practice Impact

Reading and writing up my conference notes has enabled me to reflect more on how I make work with others.  The most immediate example of my work as a group was the zine project (week 3) – in retrospect agreeing the ‘brief’ more throughly as a team then explaining in more detail the outputs and use of imagery and subsequently sharing would have been good.  I could envisage more learning, founded on this experience in the future as I may involve myself in a zine.

On wider practice, I am currently working with 4 people who have been provided with compact digital cameras and SD cards for 6 weeks to capture the area where I work.  I am increasing my level of interim engagement with them.  This group differ significantly from the groups Luvera engages with but there has been some transferred learning.

References

Palmer D. Photography and Collaboration. London. Bloomsbury (2017)

Evans J. (ed) The Cameraworks Essays.  Rivers Oram Press (1997)

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