Documentary photographer and UCA Farnham professor Anna Fox’s work has been exhibited at The Photographers Gallery, the V&A and the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago, among others. Anna (pictured below) talks about research and why she always tries to speak with her subjects…
You and Natasha Caruana are giving a talk at Brighton Photo Fringe based on your co-authored book, Behind the Image, which explores the background work that goes into producing images – why did you think it was important to discuss this?
Young people looking at photography often see the resulting group of images and think they appeared out of the ether, through the amazing work of a single photographer. They don’t consider what went on behind the scenes, from basic research into the subject to technical and photographic exploration, through to tangential research that might include looking at writers, artists, politics and the news. They don’t realise there are an awful lot of people involved – from curators to editors. We were keen to break down the myth that great photography comes out of great names.
How would you start researching a new photography project?
You need to get the broadest possible perspective on the subject matter. I’ve got a new project coming up where I’m doing some work around Beauvais in France. As a documentarist, the first thing I need to do is go there, pick up all the local papers, listen to the local radio stations, talk to as many people as possible, look at the history of the place and the political, economic position it’s in. Of course I’d take photographs as well, for reference material and to develop new ways of thinking photographically.
What ethical considerations come into play when you’re planning a project?
There are two sides to the ethical dilemma. One is that I want to tell a story that’s relevant to the people and area I’m photographing, but at the same time I have to be true to myself. You need to know about the people – what they believe in and don’t believe in, what’s really happening. You’ve got to be sensitive to situations where people don’t want things known and deal with that in a more subtle way.
The other thing is you have to look at the situation and laws of the place and observe those. I rely on the fact I talk to most of the people in my pictures about what I’m doing. I explain it [in terms of] the importance of recording things, tell them that I’m a photographic artist; that it’s for publication and exhibition purposes. That’s really different to it being for mass publication in a magazine or for a scientific research project. It’s more emotional.
People like me, we’re not news photographers and we’re not running round doing things for gossip magazines, so it’s slightly more dignified. The main thing in terms of observing ethics is to talk to the people in the photos.
Does talking to people first ever make it more difficult to get images?
People always perform for the camera but I’m fairly persistent. I tend to hang around for a long time until I get what I want. I’m interested in how people portray themselves. I definitely don’t want to catch them unawares, although I love decisive moments, which I believe you can get even if you don’t do candid photography.
Do you have any other advice for emerging photographers?
You have to be absolutely determined. You have to keep going at it from every angle. One obviously has to be committed to doing the work but more importantly you have to network and promote yourself. Sad as that is – because it’s not everybody’s ideal thing to do – promotion is absolutely vital. If you can’t do it yourself you need to have enough money to pay someone else to do it. Even top photographers like Martin Parr have got agents, getting them commercial work. You can’t go it alone. You’ve got to have a network and a team of people and you’ve got to learn how the business works.
Brighton Photo Fringe runs from 6 October to 18 November. Anna Fox and Natasha Caruana's talk, Behind the Image, is on 20 October from 12 to 5pm at Phoenix Brighton.
First image: Ocean Hotel 2010 from the series Resort, documenting the modern face of Butlins, Bognor Regis. © Anna Fox. Third image: Pulikali Tiger 25 from the series New Age © Anna Fox 2011. Both courtesy of James Hyman Photography, London and Tasveer Arts, Bangalore.
For more articles, jobs and opportunities, visit our photography hub.