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  • Writer's pictureJo Sutherst

Sustainable Prospects – A Socially Engaged Practice

“All artists are alike. They dream of doing something that’s more social, more collaborative, and more real than art.”

– Dan Graham (Bishop, 2012: 1)

My current practice is working in a different way to how I have worked previously. In the past, I have been in control of the story being told through the images. I have been the author and creator of my work. The Behind the Mask project is a collaborative project between myself and the participants who are active in the experience and the image creation.

The project provides an open stage for the participants to discuss what is generally not discussed in public. They have an open brief to express feelings and emotions that they are normally silent about. Their silence is expected by others around them who do not want to listen to the problems of others. This project aims to change that. The participants have the freedom to explore their feelings in a supportive environment.

“In socially engaged photography . . . listening and participation can become both the medium and the form, the journey, and the destination.”

– (, 2017)

A socially engaged practice is one in which the traditional roles of image creation do not apply. This method of working involves the blurring of lines of those who are represented in the images and those who represent them. This is certainly true of the project, which empowers the participants to have an active role in all aspects of the work.

“How do you take pictures of somebody in a way that brings them to the table instead of putting them on the menu?”

– Sharita Towne (, 2017)

The participants in this project get involved from the moment that our session begins. They are totally in control of how they present themselves and the message that they wish to share, through their choice of words written on the masks. The session consists of me firstly sharing personal things about myself.

Having been through the process myself, I am able to empathise totally with the volunteers. My sharing helps to make the participants feel more relaxed and comfortable talking to me, even if they did not know me previously. This is essential as the session involves them opening up about themselves. I know it works through the results that are produced. The images are emotional and very powerful. To encourage others to take part, on participant posted the following comment shared on Facebook recently:-


Providing a safe space for participants to open up is vital for the project to work. This has required me to build relationships with the participants and to offer them compassion and patience during the shoot. My listening skills are then fully put to use. But in order to listen effectively, I have had to allow myself to become vulnerable. This has been a challenge for meas I am normally very controlled when it comes to my emotions. I do not like to reveal anything to other people, even thoe closest to me. I have always been like that. In order to carryout this project, I have had to give up my usual way of working and dealing with everyday issues.

“Thinking about who represents whom, and for whom, is key to my practice.”

– Helen Cammock (, 2017)

The project aims to represent those who hide away from others through the wearing of masks. The images are constructed in order to create consistency in the aesthetics so that the message becomes the most important aspect. The work is intended to help those who are not feeling confident enough to stand up and be part of the project. For some, this is too hard. The project reaches out to them and lets them know that their feelings are ok and that although others around us seem to have it all, we too are haunted by things we find hard to talk about.

In ‘Artificial Hells’, Claire Bishop considers the conflict that can occur in participatory projects between the participants who have first-hand involvement in the project and the audience, whose experience is second hand. One area she considers is the perceived issue that “socially engaged art is . . . disavowed [in its] relationship to the aesthetic. By this I do not mean that the work does not fit established notions of the attractive or the beautiful, even though this is often the case; many social projects photograph very badly, and these images convey very little of the contextual information so crucial to understanding the work.” (Bishop, 2012: 26). This is an important aspect to consider. In order for the message of the project to reach those who need to hear it, the images need to express both the context and narrative, whilst maintaining a consistent and inviting aesthetic. I have worked hard with the participants to ensure that the aesthetics of the images are as strong as the message. This results in the images creating an experience in the viewer, much in the same way as Bishop notes that Rancière redefined the term aesthetic by “rather than reconsidering the work of art to be autonomous, he draws attention to the autonomy of our experience in relation to art” (Bishop, 2012: 27). In my current practice, this is applied in that the traditional aesthetic form and presentation of images has shifted towards the social understanding of deeper meanings in what is being represented.

Re-evaluating and re-positioning my practice as one that is socially engaged has caused me to consider what my role is in the process. I consider myself to be a facilitator in this process. I do not have ownership over the work, this is shared between myself and the participants. As Ariella Azoulay expressed “In photography – and this is evident in every single photo – there is something that extends beyond the photographer’s action, and no photographer, even the gifted, can claim ownership of what appears in the photograph. Every photograph of others bears the traces of the meeting between the photographed persons and the photographer . . . the photograph exceeds any presumption of ownership or monopoly” (Azoulay, 2014: 11). Shared ownership is part of the collaborative process. Although I am promoting this during the session, both the participants and I feel obligated to ask each other if it is ok to share the images and accompanying blogs. We have total respect and concern for the others involved in the process.

This has been an enlightening and freeing experience. Through this project, I have re-framed my practice and my working methods. I am no longer satisfied with being the author of all stories and of speaking on behalf of my subjects, portraying my interpretation of their stories. Their stories do not need me to interpret them. I do not need to control all aspects of the creative process for it to be a success. It is time to let that go and let the voices be heard.

REFERENCES (2017). Photography as a Social Practice – An archive of research and dialogue around socially engaged photography. [online] Available at: [Accessed 28 Oct. 2017]. (2017). Disruptive Participation and Radical Listening: Magnum Foundation Photography Expanded Symposium 2017 – Photography as a Social Practice. [online] Available at: [Accessed 29 Oct. 2017]. (2017). Our City in Stereo – Photography as a Social Practice. [online] Available at: [Accessed 29 Oct. 2017].

Azoulay, A. (2014). The civil contract of photography. New York: Zone Books.

Bishop, C. (2012). Artificial hells. London: Verso.

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