Liz Hingley is the recipient of the 2012 Activist Award, which recognizes the outstanding contributions of photographers who work with nonprofit organizations worldwide. The series for which she was awarded, The Jones Family, addresses cyclical, inter-generational poverty in Britain and the challenges it poses for those in living through it. Hingley’s work, and that of award winners in the Amateur and Student categories, confirms the success of photographers who collaborate with organizations committed to meaningful and timely social change. Here, Hingley answers questions about her photographic practice and its varied influences.
You’re trained as both a photographer and an anthropologist. How does your knowledge of the social sciences – theory, methodology, etc. – influence your photographic practice?
The heavy theoretical tuition of my BA photography course at Brighton University formed an important basis of my photographic practice from the start. After graduating, I spent two years investigating contemporary urban faith by documenting the co-existence of religions along one road in Birmingham UK. The rich diversity of religions and variety of different lifestyles I encountered was overwhelming and I sought a deeper theoretical understanding of my subject matter. I began an MSc in Social Anthropology at University College London with little knowledge of what it would entail but with the aim to ground my visual work within academic discourse.
I appreciate that the academic context has given me the confidence to slow down my photographic practice by exploring subject matter in more depth. I go to academic conferences to deepen my knowledge and receive alternative feedback on presentations of my own visual work to that of the photographic industry. The process of research and reflection required in writing academic articles raises interesting and important perspectives on experiences I have in the production of making work as well as the relationship between my subjects and myself.
How much contact do you maintain with your subjects/collaborators after a project is finished? Is this important to your practice, and if so, why?
I was initially drawn to photography by the opportunity it offers to have uniquely intimate experiences with strangers whom I would not otherwise have the opportunity to meet. Like all relationships they are built on exchanges, trust and are intuitive, and therefore hard to articulate in words. I see my practice as a process of social relations and aim to relocate daily exchanges in a shared space where boundaries between myself as photographer, and subject as stranger, become permeable.
I am honoured that people share their intimate daily lives with me and I hope I respect this by gaining as deep an understanding as possible of the lives of participants before capturing them on film. I always share the results of my image making and offer exchanges for the time they share with me, for example babysitting or offering car lifts to go shopping. My relationships with people I photograph are always made on the basis that our exchange is for a period of time like many friendships we enjoy throughout life.
There’s a long-standing debate about the efficacy of photography as a tool of and/or for social change. What are your thoughts on the photographer’s ability to activate meaningful social change, specifically through work with an NGO or other charitable organizations?
For me photography is not about photographing per se, nor about technical intricacies, but about engaging with the world and producing important historical documents for the knowledge of culture that recreate a distant world in quotidian detail. Photography’s strength lies in its potential as a medium to question, arouse curiosity, hear different voices or see through different eyes.
I do not have a clear answer about the efficacy of photography as a tool of and/or for social change as I see photography used in many ways in the charitable sector both productive and often, I feel, not. I see a lot of easy hard hitting visuals around but clever campaigns of visual quality can only be built on understanding and long term relationships, and there are understandably rarely resources for this. The project with the Jones family was the first time that the charity Save the Children had ever commissioned such a long-term documentation using real people to tell their own stories rather than actors.
You write about trying not to disrupt the flow of life/interactions in the Jones home with your presence and equipment. How effective were you? How did you overcome the “watched pot” phenomenon with your subjects, so as to record uncensored exchanges?
My photographs develop through collaboration between my subjects and myself as image-makers, to the extent that I seek opinions on how they wish to be represented and allow them to intervene in positioning themselves. I recognise that in order to gain the most expressive, revealing and truthful images, I should spend the majority of my time observing and conversing with my subjects in their environments.
I cannot separate myself from my own familiar world completely and at the same time keep an important evaluative distance, but I have to submit myself to the experiences of disorientation, vulnerability and ignorance and in a sense learn to see again through others’ eyes.
Over the duration of my projects I become aware of the questions that matter and develop a confident analytical narrative voice. I acquire a new toolkit for each situation and learn to avoid overtly intentional and descriptive imagery. In this sense I find parallels between my work and that of Edward Weston who stated that his photographs involve learning to see his subject matter in terms of the capacity of his tools and processes so that he can instantaneously translate the elements and values in a scene before him into the photograph he wants to make.
Your projects have taken up a broad spectrum of issues including inter-generational poverty, the growth of multi-faith communities, and homelessness and identity. How do you select your subjects, and how do you gain entry to communities and their members that may not want to be photographed?
My educational and social backgrounds have both had a profound influence on the development of my creative vision. I grew up as the daughter of two Anglican priests in an inner city deprived area of Birmingham, one of the UK’s most culturally diverse cities, where over 90 different nationalities now live. At Brighton University I gained a BA (Hons) in Documentary Photography and then moved to a wealthy and fascist town in Northern Italy to complete a scholarship at a research and communications department for young artists and journalists from around the world. During these experiences I became aware of the cultural and social specificity of my upbringing. I developed an interest in the huge economical and cultural divides in society as well as the growth of multi-faith communities in inner-city contexts and the complex issues of immigration, secularism and religious revival. I have an ongoing fascination and excitement for the diversity of people and I seek to celebrate human spirit often in difficult circumstances.