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Photographers in the frame for success

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Published on 06 March 2023

From the series Pop Recs Ltd by Paul Alexander Knox
From the series Pop Recs Ltd by Paul Alexander Knox

More than 200 photographers from across the north-east – including two University of Sunderland graduates – have benefitted from a professional development and research programme designed especially for photographers in our region.

SHIFTS, funded by the University of Sunderland and Arts Council England, offered a series of talks and peer discussions, workshops and symposiums, exploring the changing landscape for the production of meaningful photographic work and the ways in which relationships with audience are evolving. 

In a period of recovery following the COVID-19 pandemic, the programme explored how photographers can adapt to changing contexts while looking forward, considering new opportunities and sharing strategies for developing resilience.

SHIFTS ran at the Northern Centre for Photography (NCP) at the University’s St Peter’s Campus, from January 2021 to February 2023, and included talks by photographic artists and Visiting Professors exploring themes such as sustainable development; the power of photography to communicate and tell stories about the climate crisis; human rights and social injustice; health and wellbeing; identity and belonging; photography and the museum; socially-engaged creative practice and photobook publishing. 

More than 30 workshops were delivered, including sessions on ethics, communication and pitching and a two-day bespoke ‘Lightroom’ software workshop for photographers from Sunderland’s Click Click Club, based at Sunderland Deaf Centre.

Online talks drew participants from across the globe, providing our region’s freelance photographers, as well as University of Sunderland students and graduates invaluable networking opportunities. 

Graduates Paul Alexander Knox and Simone Rudolphi were both awarded bursaries as part of the programme, allowing them to visit photography festivals, exhibitions and events, developing their learning and extending their professional networks.

Paul, who graduated with a Photography, Video and Digital Imaging degree, was mentored by internationally acclaimed photographer Syd Shelton and received critical feedback on his archive documenting Sunderland’s Pop Recs Ltd, charting their evolution from an empty shop into a record store, live music venue, café and community hub since 2013.

From the series Pop Recs Ltd by Paul Alexander Knox

Paul said: “Through this process I realised I have strong bodies of work which benefit no one by just sitting on hard drives. Lack of confidence, lack of objectivity and isolated working was inhibiting my progress. Getting the external help reflected back that there are a lot of things I do know but that I wasn’t putting them into practice. 

“The precarious nature of being freelance is difficult, always finding funding, keeping motivated and making new work. It’s hard to maintain the level of energy needed when working in isolation. Having regular contact with NEPN and peers has helped me refocus attention by having targets and deadlines. It has given me the ‘kick up the backside’ I needed.”

Simone Rudolphi and Paul Alexander Knox (right) taking part in a SHIFTS workshop

Paul now plans to use the tools he gained and the connections he made on the programme to create a book charting the story of Pop Recs Ltd. This will require further funding, but Paul has been able to develop a fundraising strategy looking both at public funding and a crowdfunded campaign. 

“The strength of my practice lies in my ability to connect with individual people and wider communities to create bodies of work that tell in-depth stories,” Paul said. 

“I needed support to translate this long-term project into various contexts that can connect with the wider public through publications, dialogues, and exhibitions. The mentoring, one-on-one peer sessions and wider network support was invaluable to me in achieving this.”

MA Photography graduate Simone received mentoring from photo journalist and documentary photographer Mary Turner and leading photography writer David Campbell and was supported to undertake a reading and research internship at DRIK in Bangladesh. 

Simone’s diverse practice includes fine art photography, photojournalism, community photography and workshops, events and weddings.

Simone said: “The SHIFTS process helped me to define my process and visualise 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.”

The Learners, from The Value of Everyone by Simone Rudolphi

Simone is now considering studying for a PhD while exploring and experimenting with the possibilities around presenting and exhibiting her own work, having signed a lease for a studio in The Atheneum in Sunderland with Breeze Creatives

Amanda Ritson, Programme Manager of NEPN, said: “The SHIFTS project continued the University of Sunderland’s commitment to supporting the development of the photography sector.

“It creates a culture of opportunity for graduates and an opportunity for critical discussion of photographic work and photographic careers. NEPN provides access to real world opportunities, live projects for students and brokers relationships with a wide range of cultural and community partners. 

“SHIFTS widened access to state of the art facilities for photographers at all stages of their career, developing the profile of the University as a leading centre but also the University’s practice-based and curatorial researchers and community of practice.”

Jane Tarr, Director Skills & Workforce and North at Arts Council England, added: “We are so pleased that we funded the North East Photography Network’s SHIFTS project through our National Lottery Project Grants programme. The Arts Council is keen to support programmes which help individual artists develop their practice and become more resilient and the bespoke training, mentoring and networking opportunities NEPN provides is making a real difference to so many photographers in our region.”