As Miniclick celebrates its tenth anniversary, Gemma Padley speaks to photography professionals about the role of communities and why they are more important now than ever.
Communities come in many shapes and sizes and that is as true in the photography industry as it is anywhere. This diversity is part of what makes the photography world such an exciting place. Great things are happening at the bigger institutions across the UK, but interesting ventures have also been taking root outside of the mainstream for some time.
Miniclick is one of several UK-based photography organisations to have sprung up in the past decade that offers an alternative grassroots approach to engaging with photography. To date, the free-to-all organisation has hosted myriad events up and down the country in cities such as Leeds, Bristol, Derby, London and Brighton, where the group was formed, and has collaborated with more than 450 people from photographers, writers to curators and more. Portrait Salon, The Photocopy Club, The Photographers’ Gallery, Photobookshow, LOOK Photo Biennial, FORMAT International Photography Festival, Document Scotland, A Fine Beginning, Brighton Fringe and Slideluck are among the organisations and collectives with who Miniclick has worked.
It’s about bringing people together in an informal, supportive environment where conversations about all aspects of photography can take place, says Jim Stephenson, Miniclick founder. Everything the group does is almost entirely self-funded, he says, and they rely on people’s goodwill, but there is an appetite for discussion, for being part of something. People are invested in what we do, he says. ‘One of the things we’ve plugged into is a curiosity that people have. We offer something outside of formal lectures on photography – we deliberately broke that down. I think there’s a big [desire] to get into that.’
It’s all about the ideas, he adds, and looking at the world of photography differently, doing things differently. ‘[Everything we do is] geared towards giving people different ways to interact with photography.’
In a world ravaged by Covid-19 and with the arts constantly being squeezed, it’s more important than ever to keep finding new ways to interact with people through photography. Indeed, coronavirus has revealed just how instrumental communities are in the way we live and work. Notably during lockdown in the UK, the internet’s potential for bringing people together came in its own, says Mimi Mollica, founder of London-based Photo Meet, an annual photography meet up that involves portfolio reviews, talks, workshops and other events. ‘The internet found its reason for being,’ he says. ‘Social media, interconnectivity, remote working, all these things have offered us the real positive meaning and use of the internet. It’s brought about social cohesion, mutual help, support for one another.’
In the absence of this year’s Photo Meet, organisers teamed up with Northern Narratives to launch an open call, which provided a platform for photographers who might otherwise have struggled to get exposure for their work during lockdown. Work was promoted on Photo Meet’s website and through its social media channels, and there was an online exhibition.
Despite the obvious benefits of the internet for building communities, Mollica believes there is still a place for meeting in person. ‘We can use online tools, but we will crave getting together,’ he says. ‘Being together you can really feel the human connection.’
Matt Martin of The Photocopy Club, who previously co-ran Doomed Gallery in east London with Ken Flaherty, and who now coordinates events at the Rapid Eye Photobookcafe, agrees. ‘The cafe’s focus is on books and talks and workshops, and in light of Covid-19 we moved events outside. We did a book launch the other day and it went really well. I think people really miss [getting together]. Everyone I’ve spoken to about doing regular events [again] says they can’t wait.’
Photobookcafe is a perfect example of community, Martin adds. ‘People can look at the books we have here and if someone wants to buy a copy, we have a link to the artists so they can buy directly from them. All our events are free. For me, it’s about carrying on with the same ethos we had at Doomed Gallery where it was about having an exhibition space that’s as affordable as possible for up and coming artists.
‘There was nowhere like Doomed Gallery, no affordable place to hire with a punky ethos,’ he continues. ‘We helped the artists hang their work – it wasn’t just a case of “here’s the space, get on with it.” We helped design the flyers, we helped with promotion. It was very much a collaboration between us and each artist that exhibited there.’
So why are communities so vital? How do we benefit from them? Bindi Vora, artist, lecturer and curatorial projects manager at Autograph, the London-based visual arts organisation that focuses on working with artists around the politics of race and representation, believes that being part of a community informs our human condition and gives us a sense of belonging. ‘Communities are fundamental to our [sense of belonging]. To be part of a cause, a collective, a network that has a greater purpose than us [informs who we are,]’ she says. ‘As creative individuals, community can be a place where we can share our ideas, nurture thoughts or pose provocations. These alliances can encourage connections across difference and “challenge prevailing hierarchies”, to quote Autograph’s Ali Eisa from his recent essay Rights, Visibility and Disability in Cultural Spaces.’
The communities we create don’t have to be big, she adds, but what is key is access. ‘The way that the photography community, and the organisations that advocate for photography in the UK, can grow as a community is to be more inclusive, through our peers, artists, colleagues and audiences. The network and community around me has not only grown by meeting people through my job, but also by attending talks and openings at galleries and seeing exhibitions.’
Like many other arts organisations and individuals, when lockdown hit, Vora and the curatorial team at Autograph leapt into action to see what they could do to support their immediate artistic community. ‘During the first month of the UK lockdown, Mark Sealy, Renée Mussai and myself were in close dialogue with a number of practitioners,’ says Vora. ‘A lot of the conversations focused on how we could support those individuals during this incredibly difficult time. Working with them, Autograph developed Care I Contagion I Community – Self & Other, a new series of artist commissions. For the project, we commissioned ten UK-based artists working with photography and lens-based media to create work that responded to the myriad emotional, physical, economic and psychosocial consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic and considered different ways of being.’
Mollica agrees that collective action and moving forward together is essential. ‘If you exist in a context where individual realities do not communicate, you don’t have that crucial passing of information, which creates a common voice.’ It is about opening up each separate reality, he adds. ‘The more we do that, the more we will be able to create a collective intelligence, a collective understanding of who we are and where we are going, and how we could improve things together. It’s what we all have to do. Community is essential for collective growth.’
Louise Fedotov-Clements, artistic director of QUAD, a centre for contemporary art, film and new technologies in Derby and co-founder and director of FORMAT International Photography Festival has worked for many years to engage audiences and support artists to make work. As such, she understands well the importance of communities. There are lots of communities that we engage with, she says. ‘We’re very much alive in figuring out which communities we’re working with and how we’re supporting people to enter into those communities. We try to democratise and facilitate access as much as we can.
‘[We want] to support all kinds of people to engage in and benefit from what we do, to feel as though they have an opportunity for their career, to sustain their practice,’ she continues. ‘These things shouldn’t be short-term, tokenistic programmes.’ Rather, it’s about having a really genuine, integrated, diverse programme.
Not unused to using the online space to grow communities, Fedotov-Clements and her team launched the initiative #MassIsolationFormat: Experiences of Covid-19 on Instagram early on in lockdown for which people were invited to share and tag their images. More than 30,000 images from more than 80 countries were shared. Stories of loneliness, mental health issues, grief and more came to light, says Fedotov-Clements – ‘all of the things that have been occurring during this extraordinary time.’ FORMAT is working with photography and design studio The People’s Picture to create an online archive of all of the images, and highlights will be shown in an exhibition at FORMAT International Photography Festival in March 2021.
‘Amazing things can happen anywhere,’ says Fedotov-Clements. Collaboration, as ever, is key. To date, FORMAT has worked with LagosPhoto Festival, the African Artists’ Foundation, New Art Exchange, the V&A as well as Miniclick, and both QUAD and FORMAT continue to join forces with creative ecosystems around the UK and throughout the world.
‘Cultural centres can be catalysts in supporting and helping creative communities to sustain,’ says Fedotov-Clements. These are difficult times, but ‘creativity doesn’t disappear. It can be hindered by a lack of finances, but people still have ideas and the will and energy to do something. As long as institutions keep trying to share and support opportunities, things will sustain.’
It’s vital, adds Martin, that we think UK-wide. Events and programmes should not always be London-centric. ‘We have to have things happening around the UK,’ he says, adding it’s more important than ever we think of ways to do that, given people aren’t travelling as much because of Covid-19. Lots of initiatives are happening around the country already such as Bound Art Book Fair in Manchester, Village bookshop and gallery in Leeds and Grain in Birmingham, but things can always go further.
Miniclick for one has been successful in helping to forge flourishing photo communities in Brighton, Leeds and Bristol, not just through the talks and exhibitions we’ve hosted but also in terms of the social aspect of events, adds Stephenson. ‘We’ve seen new collaborations born directly from people meeting in the bar after the talks,’ he says.
It is not just the Covid-19 pandemic that’s forced us to reconsider the role of community. The Black Lives Matter movement also reflects a strong desire for equality and change, says Vora. ‘We have a chance to shape and mould a new normal. It’s time to forge a deeper response, and each of us has a responsibility to be part of this change.
‘We’ve seen the impact of what our collective voices, people, and spirit can achieve when merged together,’ she continues. ‘To me, it feels like this moment could harbour an incredibly progressive space and be a catalyst for fairer opportunities and representation, which are needed for us to move forward as a society.’