Anthony Luvera / not going shopping
October 2014 Interviewed by Sarah Allen
Anthony Luvera is an Australian artist, writer and educator based in London. His work engages with issues surrounding representation in documentary photography. He sat down to speak with Sarah Allen about his approach to photography with specific reference to his projects Residency and not going shopping.
Sarah Allen: In your opinion, how important is the process of getting to know your subjects for documentary photography?
Anthony Luvera: I’m very interested in getting to know the people I make work with. Often I’ll begin a new project by embedding myself in an organisation or place, sometimes for substantial periods of time, before using any photographic equipment. For example, while creating Residency, I helped to cook and serve breakfast, lunch and dinner in The Welcome Centre, a homeless support service just off the Falls Road in West Belfast. Through doing this I got to know many of the people I then invited to collaborate with me. In Brighton, when making not going shopping, much of the time spent with participants involved facilitating discussions and activities about themes related to queerness. The not going shopping blog and Facebook group served to extend and document our conversations, and it was through our discussions that I was able to learn about the points of view of the participants and for us all to get to know one another. More recently I’ve been working in Brighton on a new project with people who have experienced homelessness. For over a year or more I spent time building relationships with the staff and clients of a support service called First Base Drop Day Centre before beginning to use equipment with participants. I see the time spent getting to know participants as an important part of my practice as it enables me to form relationships with people, and these relationships are key to my work.
SA: When you came to make Residency, was there a specific mode of documentary that you were influenced by?
AL: I’ve always had a strong interest in documentary photography and its critiques, and the power relations that underpin all kinds of photographic practices. In particular, the work of artists and writers such as Allan Sekula, Martha Rosler, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Jo Spence and A D Coleman was formative in my early engagement with collaborative photography. In addition to this, my take on collaboration has been informed by an interest in the critical debates surrounding the ethics of the research methods of the social sciences, process-based art practices, and critical writing about pedagogy, participation and community. I am also very interested in the activities of individuals and grassroots organisations involved in community photography.
My interest in photography was piqued at about 15 when my best friend and I taught ourselves how to use 35mm cameras. We created a makeshift darkroom in his family bathroom and advertised photography courses in the local newspaper. It now seems a rather precocious thing to do — we had adults come to the house expecting to be taught by much older tutors than us! So many of my earliest experiences with photography have involved generating other peoples’ knowledge and enthusiasm while developing my own.
SA: Would I be right in saying then that your work deals quite critically with the politics of reception?
AL: I think issues to do with representation and reception are inextricably entwined, especially in relation to practices that involve overly spoken-for individuals. I think a big part of this involves giving careful consideration to the contexts the work is placed in and how these contexts are used, whether that be a gallery, a train platform or wall out on the street.
SA: Your working method reminded me of a comment that Martha Rosler made in her essay Post Documentary, Post Photography? She describes a mode of documentary which gives the means of representation back to the subject noting that such projects give a “powerful idea of the subjects desired self-image, but in routine applications, the skills of the facilitating photographer are not put to full use. This approach, if it displaces documentary methodology, smacks of positivism — one obtains testimony but provides only limited analysis.” She seems to be problematising the form of ‘subject-authored’ documentary that you engage with, do you agree with Rosler here or how would you counter this comment?
AL: I do agree with this. I think it can also depend on the intention with which the artist creates the work, the way the invitation is framed to subject / participants, and the ways in which the practice is framed by the artist or by institutions associated with the making of the work. It can be in this framing that the dialectical potential of the work may be stifled or repurposed by organisations to suit their particular agendas, which may not be aligned with the artist or the participant. I’m interested in exploring the potential of presenting the viewpoints of the people I work with alongside my own. In doing so, tensions between being a facilitator and an author might be seen, but I think practices which display photographs or material made by or with subjects/participants ought to be addressed as products of representation that are relayed in particular ways and not simply the display of an unmediated reality. One of the things that I feel is important to remember in relation to collaborative practices is that there is always a power imbalance in photography, even in work which are purportedly ‘subject-authored’ as you have described. There is never going to be a perfect documentary, there may only ever be a ‘good enough’ forms of telling stories about other people. Avoiding instrumentalisation or the positivism Rosler speaks of is an important challenge to take on when working in this way.
SA: Can you tell me a little about your latest project not going shopping? How have your interests developed since Residency?
AL: In response to an open call, eleven participants volunteered to collaborate with me over nine months to use photography to explore perspectives about being queer and to create a new series of collaborative portraits. Through this process I initiated a number of activities and discussions in which we discussed images, issues to do with representation, and a range of topics related to queerness. Collectively we kept a public blog to chart the process of working together and we also a used a private facebook group to extend our conversations in between our face-to-face meetings. Through not going shopping I wanted to explore how the use of digital platforms might represent more of my working process, and at the same time to extend a sense of community amongst the participants and myself.
In February 2014 not going shopping was exhibited as large-format posters in outdoor public spaces across Brighton & Hove. At the same time, 3,000 copies of the not going shopping newspaper were distributed free throughout the city to accompany the exhibition. The work is also featured in the Queer in Brighton anthology alongside extracts from oral history interviews, creative writing, photography and ephemera relating to the cultural heritage of queer people of Brighton & Hove, which I edited with Maria Jastrzebska. While exploring the viewpoints of the participants of not going shopping I also wanted to consider my own views about being queer as a gay man, and in this sense I felt able to speak alongside the participants in a different way than with Residency. Yet in many respects these different projects are connected by a continuation of my ongoing investigations into process and participation.
Anthony Luvera’s photographic work has been exhibited widely in galleries, public spaces and festivals including the British Museum, London Underground’s Art on the Underground, National Portrait Gallery London, Belfast Exposed Photography, Australian Centre for Photography, PhotoIreland and Les Rencontres D’Arles Photographie. His writing appears regularly in a wide range of periodicals and peer-reviewed journals including Photoworks, Photomonitor, Source and Photographies. Anthony lectures on under-graduate and post-graduate degree courses for a number of institutions, including Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, London College of Communication, University for the Creative Arts Farnham and University College Falmouth. He also facilitates workshops and gives lectures for the public education programmes of the National Portrait Gallery, The Photographers’ Gallery, Barbican Art Gallery and community photography projects across the UK.
For further viewing
Works from Luvera’s series not going shopping feature as Photomonitor’s portfolio for the month of October 2014, here.
Assembly, an exhibition of work created over a twelve-month period by Anthony Luvera with people who have experienced homelessness living in Brighton, will be shown at Phoenix Brighton from 4th – 26th October 2014, as part of Brighton Photo Fringe. More details can be found here.