Exploring Issues of Cultural Identity and Change: The Brighton Photo Biennial 2018 Learning Programme

Photoworks is a national development organisation for photography based in Brighton. We curate Brighton Photo Biennial and publish Photoworks Annual, a journal on photography and visual culture. We support new talent through the Jerwood/Photoworks Awards and our wider programme includes commissions, exhibitions, and publishing.

Accountability, from the series Habitus: Potential Realities, Heather Agyepong, Commissioned by Photoworks for Brighton Photo Biennial 2018.

Learning and engagement is central to what we do. Opportunities for engagement take many forms, but activity is always artist-led and harnesses photography’s power as a creative learning tool to shape our understanding of the world. We don’t have a venue of our own, which allows us the freedom to work in many different contexts and settings. Partnerships are crucial to our work.

This article for Sharing Practice presents an outline of our approach to programming work with children and young people for Brighton Photo Biennial 2018 as an example of an education programme exploring issues of cultural identity and change.

For the 2018 edition of the Biennial, Photoworks invited artists to critically respond to the idea of A New Europe. Initial conversations between artists and Photoworks’ new Director, Shoair Mavlian, began just over a year after the 2016 EU referendum, at a point when many artists were urgently making work in response to the referendum result, and to the mounting refugee crisis.

Brighton Photo Biennial 2018 took place throughout October with free photography exhibitions and events for professionals, enthusiasts, students and families and featuring an international roster of artists. In her introduction to the festival, Shoair Mavlian wrote:

The United Kingdom’s status in the European Union may be changing, however, geographically Britain will remain part of Europe, with a shared history and intertwined future. At this transitional point, we will use photography to examine our current state of flux, reflecting on our relationship with Europe and the geographies of the United Kingdom. A New Europe will cast a wide net to examine the current instability looking at the ongoing refugee crisis as well as photography’s role in the construction of national identity.

The programme presented perspectives on the Brexit debate, migration, war in Syria, social division and Britain’s geography. Highlights included Émeric Lhuisset’s unfixed cyanotypes telling the stories of different generations who have migrated to Europe and those who have been lost trying to make the crossing. Over time the images faded to blocks of blue — reflecting the sea and the colour of the EU flag. Bill Brandt’s photobook The English at Home documented the inequality of social classes of 1930s England. In Lighthouse Donovan Wylie examined our national borders by photographing lighthouses from their neighbouring coastlines, particularly pertinent for an artist whose practice has largely been concerned with exploring the borders of Northern Ireland. Harley Weir’s photographs were taken immediately before and during the destruction of the migrant and refugee camp in Calais known as The Jungle. Presented on tarpaulin-like banners, they showed human presence through the objects and possessions of the Jungle’s inhabitants.

Brexit prompted a new dialogue around Europe and cultural identity. Twelve months on from the 2018 Brighton Photo Biennial, as I write this, Brexit has reached fever pitch, and who knows what will have happened by the time this article is published! What I do know is that we are now a deeply divided nation. There are growing political and personal views being shared across social media that are deeply unsettling. Reflecting back on last year’s festival, the themes and issues exhibiting artists explored feel even more urgent. The war in Syria has reached a new critical level, and the Irish border has become a defining feature of Brexit.

For Brighton Photo Biennial 2018 I was keen to build on what we had achieved in the seven previous editions. In 2016, a significant proportion of the programme included work made with, by and for children and young people. With views on Leave and Remain dividing young and old, I believed we had a responsibility to create meaningful opportunities to include the views of young people in this programme.

Visual artist and performer Heather Agyepong’s practice is concerned with mental health and wellbeing, activism and visibility. Her work often gives voice to others and she has previously engaged young people in her practice. We invited Heather to make new work to be displayed in the centre of Brighton’s Jubilee Library, one of the most visited libraries in the country.

Watch Heather Agyepong discuss her series ‘Habitus: Potential Realities’ shown as part of Brighton Photo Biennial 2018.

Habitus: Potential Realities, a series of twelve portraits, was informed by a group of young Brighton & Hove residents who worked with Heather and artist facilitator Becky Warnock to explore their hopes for British identity post-Brexit. Heather’s research for the commission revealed 70% of young people had voted remain and an increased feeling of anxiety within this group since the June 2016 result. Heather challenged the knowledgeable but frustrated group of young people aged 17–19 to imagine potential new realities and re-examine their perspectives. They considered ideas of ‘Britishness’ through the cultural icon Britannia — the female personification of Britain. As a result, Heather took Britannia and re-imagined her modern cultural identity, depicting her with an optimistic new set of virtues and values that the artist hoped would be relevant to us all.

The young participants continued to work with Becky Warnock in the following weeks, creating a pop-up exhibition of photo-collages exploring national identity, the elements of this we are proud of, and those we hope to change. This work was also shown at Jubilee Library.

Elizabeth Doak, Family Workshop for Brighton Photo Biennial 2018. Credit Juliette Buss

Alongside Heather’s commission, we developed our ongoing Photography Club programme in line with the festival theme. Photography Club, is a programme for 13–16 year olds, delivered outside of school by artist Lynn Weddle providing opportunities to develop new skills, and gain an Arts Award. Every club we run is aimed at hard to reach young people, or specific groups that might benefit from an intensive photography project. This particular group of participants were recruited through a carefully targeted open call. They were too young to vote in the referendum, and we quickly recognised the group had limited knowledge and understanding of Brexit and high levels of confusion. They felt the subject was totally out of their hands.  Our challenge was to work with the young people to create a safe space for engaging with and talking about Brexit. ‘Will we still have curry?’ was one of the questions asked, revealing how little they understood. ‘Will people lose family?’ was another.  Participants’ questions became the essence of the project. The exhibition was titled Why Are We Leaving? It posed a series of questions, with opportunities for audiences to respond, which they did in large numbers by writing comments on luggage tags attached to the wall. It was a chance for the young participants’ voices to be heard and listened to for the first time.

Listen to Lynn Weddle discuss the making of Brighton Photo Biennial exhibition ‘Why Are We Leaving?’ where young people from Brighton & Hove used photography to respond to the themes of this year’s festival. 

Photography enabled the young people to make some sense of a complex concept, and provided a vehicle through which they could articulate their hopes and anxieties about what a new Europe might look like for them. They presented a series of portraits alongside images that worked with metaphor; a photograph of a surveillance camera, a finger poised over a fruit machine implying the gamble we’re taking. When a journalist from The Guardian asked the group how they imagined the UK five years from now, they said “more police control, expensive travel, expensive food”, with one of them adding, “I think it will be much harder to see my grandma who lives in Germany.” 

Why Are We Leaving? was presented as part of the main Biennial programme, on a par with the other artists. Giving it this equal footing drew significant attention to the work. The Guardian led with the young people’s work in their review of the festival.

A public programme created a further opportunity to engage children and young people with the festival theme. Events provided alternative, tailored entry points to the artists’ work. We offered artist-led tours for schools and colleges that included practical opportunities to respond to the festival. Exhibiting artist Robin Maddock introduced his work to groups of post 16 students before taking them out to shoot a series of portraits on location across the city centre. Undergraduates from the University of Brighton led drop in workshops supported by artist Lindsey Smith.

Student-led workshops with Lindsey Smith

Kathryn Martin’s cyanotype workshop invited children and their families to consider the effect leaving the EU will have on British wildlife and it’s EU protected habitats, whilst Elizabeth Doak’s workshop at Fabrica responded to Harley Weir’s Photographs of The Jungle at Calais, carefully asking children to contemplate what home meant to them through image and text-based cyanotypes folded into small paper houses to create a group installation.

The festival shared lived experiences and personal stories and in doing so had the potential to provoke strong reactions. Some of our primary school teachers, with individuals in their group directly affected, chose to avoid particular exhibitions, whilst others decided to tackle it head on with their group. The learning team worked directly with teachers and group leaders to ensure they had the information and support that they needed. All of the exhibitions were invigilated.

Brighton Photo Biennial presents a wealth of photography in one place at one time. It’s important that wider audiences, who might not be able to visit during the festival, can still engage with the work. For 2018 we commissioned the brilliant team at photopedagogy.com to co-produce our teaching resources (they also ran a teachers’ workshop) and developed a series of simple virtual tours of each exhibition, accompanied by narration from the exhibiting artists, providing an accessible legacy beyond the end of the festival. The Brexit rollercoaster is likely to continue for some time. These resources might come in handy.

Juliette Buss
Learning & Engagement Consultant, Photoworks